Interview: OMAR

He Sang, We Wanted It.
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
With a Chinese-Jamaican father and Indian mother, raised in Canterbury and nestled in London, Omar’s music is as eclectic as his background: a fusion of latin, jazz, funk, soul, reggae, and classical influences. He hated his first single, ‘Mr Postman’, but still appreciates the ongoing reaction to his most famous single ‘There’s Nothing Like This’ (“as soon as they hear the bass-line, people go ape-shit for it”) despite it having over-shadowed all of his subsequent releases. He coolly insists “I’ve basically achieved everything I’ve wanted to”. SoulCulture talks to Omar about record labels, the music grind, the UK music scene and how it feels to have Stevie Wonder as his biggest fan whilst most people in his own country don’t know he’s on album number six.
It seems baffling that an established soul artist with the outspoken support of many respected artists (such as Erykah Badu, the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Common and Angie Stone) is relatively unknown by the average young R&B listener in the UK. Stevie Wonder even proclaimed “When I grow up I wanna be like Omar”. It’s definitely not a talent issue, so is the problem our industry? In the past Omar has found conflict of interests with labels who “want a quick buck”, having left RCA Records because “I didn’t see myself being treated in the way that I thought I should’ve been treated as a developing solo artist, with the recognition that I have and had at the time”. He took full control with his album Sing (If You Want It), released on Ether Records in 2006 under a licensing deal. This powerful and eclectic album has significantly contributed to raising Omar’s profile in England over the past 12 months, accompanied by his winning ‘Best Neo Soul Act’ and ‘Outstanding Achievement Award’ at the Urban Music Awards in 2006.
Omar remains modestly content about his career, happy with artistic respect and seemingly placid about his sales levels to date. He adamantly states “I don’t really feel bitter about the sales; it doesn’t affect me one way or the other. To me, if somebody’s getting to hear my music somehow, I’m ok with it. Enough times I’ve signed bootlegged CDs, photocopied! I don’t mind, ‘cause they’re listening to the music and it’s out there somehow.” His main concern genuinely is the quality of his music, and whatever issues chart-insignificance evokes are allayed by his sold-out live performances around the world. He has fans in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Tokyo, Japan, France and upon visiting Indonesia last year he “had 5000 Indonesians singing ‘There’s Nothing Like This’… I didn’t realise ‘til I got there how much they know me. The reaction I got, and seeing my posters everywhere…then I could see what I’ve been doing all along has been the right thing.”
As he evaluates his international success, Omar projects a strong sense of satisfaction in his career and a passion for the music above all else. “I’ve basically achieved everything I’ve wanted to. My first single was ‘Mr Postman’ and I fucking hated it! So I decided that any music that I write I had to make sure you can listen to it at any time; because this stuff stays with you forever. So you have to make sure it’ll pan out nice in the end. I’ve been able to make music how I wanted to make it and I’ve got a big fan base from that; I’ve been touring The States, Japan, Europe – and that’s just purely off the strength of the music that I write. And plus I want to work with icons like Lamont Dozier, Leon Ware, Stevie Wonder… people like that; that’s part of the other goal that I was trying to achieve.”
He reckons it’s “absolutely” necessary for UK acts to ‘do a Floetry’ by taking their music elsewhere to achieve real success: “You can’t stick here. If you do, you’re gonna starve. There’s so many other countries you can go to – Germany’s got a big soul scene over there, France, Italy.. I’ve done shows in places you’ve never heard of in some backwater country place, where ‘nuff people come to the shows! You need to get out there and tour and get people to hear your music, especially if you’re not getting played on the radio or TV, the only other exposure you can get is by playing live.”
‘Sing (If You Want It)’ features strong collaborations with Estelle, Rodney P, Common, Stevie Wonder and Angie Stone. Was this a deliberate move to expand his audience? “Not in that sense,” Omar insists, “it was a deliberate move to work with these artists ‘cause I just got a vibe on each track that I did, that I could hear certain people working on them. Angie Stone called me up out of the blue and…it just seemed meant to be that she was singing on it. When I started playing ‘Gimme Sum’ and I thought I’d like to hear rapping on it, the first thing I thought was Rodney P, cause I definitely wanted to get him down. He’s like the godfather of UK rap, then Common said he wanted to get on the track.” Omar’s new album is consistent with the powerful, confident vocals to be expected of the UK legend, with added bass – “I wanted stuff that you could put in a dance and people would get up and get down so I just turned up the kicks and made the bass-lines a bit harder”, he affirms.
How does one begin to open a new audience to the strengths of this paradoxically little-known yet well-established artist? In Omar’s words, “I’m quite unique. If you wanna hear something that’s different from anything you’ve ever heard before, then you should check this album out“. So there you have it – listen (if you want to).
Omar will be performing at London’s Jazz Café this month on May 25th, 26th and 27th. Visit for booking and information.