Islamabad. Adil Omar was a 16-year-old rapping in his bedroom in Pakistan when a member of the American group Cypress Hill discovered his music on the Internet and invited him out to Los Angeles to record together.
That was four years ago, and Omar has now recorded songs with several other American rappers, including Everlast from House of Pain, Xzibit and one of the members of Limp Bizkit. He plans to release his first album next year and has established himself as Pakistan’s biggest — and perhaps only — rap star.
His rise illustrates a side of Pakistan that is often obscured by the steady stream of news about the Taliban and al-Qaida that comes out of the country. Many Pakistani cities have thriving subcultures that get little attention in the West.
Pakistan has a rich musical tradition, including the performance of Urdu-language love poems called ghazals and mystical Sufi music called Qawwali. Pakistani rock bands have long been popular, as have songs from Bollywood movies.
But hard-core rap like Omar’s laced with profanity and sexual innuendo is almost unheard of, and could even be dangerous in a society plagued by Islamist militants.
“Violence seems to be totally acceptable in this culture, but sex and bad language in music and art seems to be totally unacceptable,” said Omar, a clean-cut looking 20-year-old with short black hair who favors black sunglasses and T-shirts with half-naked women.
Omar, who sings in English, insists he is not a political rapper, but his latest song, Paki Rambo, is about a vigilante who hunts the Taliban.
“Ambush your camp, my inglorious crew. Straight bastards, brawny and stronger than you,” sang Omar. “Take classes, learn how we got em on wax. Hit the base with a bag full of Taliban scalps.”
The song’s title is a reference to a scene in the movie Four Lions, a satirical look at a group of British Muslims of South Asian origin who travel to Pakistan to become suicide bombers. One of the wannabe terrorists records himself on his cell phone firing an AK-47 into the air and calling himself Paki Rambo.
Omar flipped the analogy on its head, making Paki Rambo a character who fights the militants rather than joins them.
“It’s the P to the A to the K to the I. Armed to the teeth till the day that I die,” sang Omar. “R to the A to the M B O. Paki Rambo in the place.”
The song is part of the soundtrack for an upcoming Pakistani movie, Gol Chakkar, and the directors helped Omar produce a slick music video that has been released on YouTube. The video was shot in Islamabad and pokes fun at the decadence and luxury normally seen in American rap videos. The characters drink Pakistani ice cream soda instead of alcohol and snort candy instead of cocaine. A young boy walks around with a mink stole around his neck.
The market for Omar’s music in Pakistan is small, limited mainly to elite Pakistani kids like himself who speak English and live lifestyles closer to their Western counterparts than the country’s conservative majority. Extremists who believe music is a violation of Islamic law have bombed CD shops in some parts of Pakistan.
The upmarket crowd was on display at a rare concert Omar held this past weekend at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Well-coiffed women in tight jeans and young hipsters in velour jackets held up iPhones and Blackberries to record the show.
“We really enjoy Adil’s music because it represents the young generation,” said Faizaan Bomassy, a 23-year engineer wearing a white Playboy hoody.
Even among Omar’s friends and fans, some were surprised by the swearing and sexual references that flow through his music.
“I think it’s a little explicit sometimes, but I think it’s good music,” said Waleed Ali Khan, a 20-year-old student. “I think he is breaking new ground and paving the way for new artists.”
Omar was born in London but moved to Islamabad when he was very young. He began writing lyrics at the age of 10 when his father died and his mother was bedridden for several years with a serious illness. He dropped out of high school in his final year so he could focus on rap full time.
“I have never done drugs or alcohol or anything, so I think writing and recording music was my main outlet,” said Omar.
Paki Rambo and Omar’s collaborations with American rap stars will appear on the album he plans to release next year, The Mushroom Cloud Effect. About a third of the songs were recorded in Los Angeles, and the rest in Omar’s bedroom in his mother’s house in Islamabad.
Despite the in-your-face nature of Omar’s music, he said he tries not to make his songs too provocative for fear that he or his family could be targeted by the Taliban or other Islamist militants who often kill people who disagree with their views.
“To keep out of harm’s way, I wouldn’t speak on certain things or push certain buttons,” said Omar. “It seems weak to me, and I don’t necessarily admire it because I should be going balls out, but it’s not easy in Pakistan.”