Omar Ahmad is a composer and producer based in Brooklyn. His latest record, Inheritance, is out July 7, 2023 on AKP Recordings.
Omar Ahmad is a composer and producer based in Brooklyn; ACE, aka Andrew Charles Edman, is a visual artist and DJ based in Detroit; and Singha Hon is a painter, illustrator, and mixed media artist based in Brooklyn. ACE and Singha co-produced a music video with Omar for his song “Lapses” — a single off his new record, Inheritance, which is out tomorrow on AKP. To celebrate the release, the three sat down to chat about it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Omar Ahmad: So, congrats to you both. The video has had a really strong reception. People have really loved it. It’s really the first video I’ve ever seen that combines so many different types of media successfully in so many ways. [It] really bridges the analog in terms of a lot of the visual textures, the painting, the less kind of abstract and conceptual and the more gritty, family home video type stuff. And then, you know the—
ACE: Modern generative art.
Omar: Yeah, exactly, the highly contemporary generative art. The blending of it all together so seamlessly — and in ways that the visual narrative never takes a pause, where you have to have a switch or a reframing of what you’re looking at. It’s combining so many different types of visuals in a way that I’ve never thought would work so beautifully well together. So I’m really grateful for how all of that came together.
ACE: It was an honor to do this video with the weight of it all, and how much I respect you as an artist yourself. We first met because I chose your a song out of a lineup — I could have chosen any song and I was like, “I want to do this one.” [Laughs.]
Omar: I’m very grateful that you chose me, in so many ways. It’s funny: the backstory there is our mutual friend Maro [Kariya] put together a compilation to benefit a lot of mutual aid going on in 2020, and I had contributed a single for that, which Andrew had selected amongst a batch of them to be like, “Hey, I really wanna contribute a visual for this.” And we hadn’t even met — I think Andrew and Maro had a separate conversation and my music was just kind of out there. It happened in such a unique way.
Singha Hon: Wow.
ACE: It was right when COVID started too.
Omar: Yeah, COVID started, there was a lot of unrest — productive unrest, I would say, here in terms of a lot of the civil rights activities going on. As well as some really intense, probably less productive unrest going on in the Palestinian territories at the same time. So there were a lot of parallels, which we’ll get into.
But yeah, so — inheritance is an interesting concept to a lot of people. It’s a heavy title in many ways. Just speaking to Singha — we’ll go to you first — what would you say “inheritance,” as a word, really means to you?
Singha: Language is so tough for me because, like you said, it’s heavy and there’s so much in it. You can look at it in one mood and feel so different. It can be both a gift and it can be such weight. I think one of the reasons why I love visuals and I love music is because you can look at all those different angles. With Inheritance, part of our process — I remember we just chatted for an hour over Zoom, just talking about what went into it and so much of it being legacy and the things that have been passed down. I think when you hear the word, people talk about it like literal objects, but the way that I think about it is also what’s in our memories, what’s in our bodies. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how the things that have affected your parents, your grandparents, get passed down into you — we talk about intergenerational trauma. And, you know, what is the inheritance of people who are immigrants, who have literally carried their bodies into new places? In that way, you’re also kind of swimming back towards them and swimming back towards these places you’ve come from. It’s really weighty, but it’s also beautiful. It’s also homecoming, it’s also a search for belonging in a physical place and in yourself.
Omar: I think that’s really beautiful. Andrew, go ahead. Same question.
ACE: I mean, the dichotomy of inheritance, at least in this context to me, is like Singha said: The generational trauma that we’re inheriting from the people that came before us. But it’s also something that is given in terms of wealth, where you inherit money or a trust fund or something. And that’s not our experience, but that is some people’s experience. For me, it means both of those things. It means some people have inheritance that is very helpful for them, and some people have one that is not, and some people have both. I feel like I’ve had both — not on a grand scale or anything. It’s just strange to think about both at the same time, and I think that that’s the heart of where I got a lot of my inspiration from, as far as this video. Holding two thoughts at the same time.
Omar: Yeah, it’s interesting. In the context of the album, as a Palestinian person I think the concept of inheritance is highly unusual. I mean, I think about — and this is kind of a morose idea — but if I was deported, where would I be sent? There’s literally not a place that I could go and freely visit and spend time without there being a pretty high inherent risk of my travel and my well-being. I’ve been accosted and treated very, very poorly in my ancestral homeland. And I think something also very interesting about the people who contributed to this project is that they all have a very unique vantage point as far as their relationship to culture and the bifurcation of cultures — whether that’s through identity, whether that’s through the physical location of where they live, or dispossession of families. So I think that’s something that’s very interesting to touch on.
Singha, I would love to delve in a little more on the painting itself and your process. From that first conversation that we had had, we took what was originally kind of a ghost sketch — which frankly at first, I was like, I trust her so much, but I have no idea where this is going to go. But I’ve never seen her produce anything less than an amazing piece of art. So I would love to hear [about how] when you were listening to the music and then translating that into a vision for what the painting would ultimately become, how did you approach that process and what were some of the takeaways that you had in that development?
Singha: Absolutely. I will say that I historically hate showing people my sketches, so it was also a lot of trust to do that. Even looking through them when I knew we were going to do this call, I was like, These look so terrible. I can’t believe you were like, “Yeah, let’s go with it.” [Laughs.]
Omar: [Laughs.] It was a true “trust the process” situation.
Singha: Yeah. I think a lot of it happened with the experience of talking through it with you and understanding what was in your heart when you were making this, and hearing so much about your life and your story and your family’s stories, as well as your experience going through the uprisings.Then just getting to listen to the album by myself, going through it in a session and feeling all these different moods bubbling up for me, just even in my own reaction and taking notes of the visuals that came through. I remember I felt this very reflective, almost mirror-like shining quality. I feel like that’s something that happens a lot when people tell stories about their own lives — it allows you to explore this also for yourself when you share something that’s so authentic. I also remember getting chills. I know you used some of the sounds from different protests that you went to, and hearing that rawness…
I think in terms of the visuals that came up, you off the bat had talked about wanting to do a portrait, and how that even feels really intense to have your face and how that felt like a vulnerable thing to do. I was really excited by that because I love painting faces, because there’s so much emotion. But then combining that visual that’s external to you with other objects or colors or textures but also represent what’s inside, what’s going on underneath that. We chatted through all of it, but then had this list that in addition to knowing that we wanted to have you featured as a portrait, is having objects, having plants, animals, textures, colors that were brought up from the album, but also sort of in the theme. You put together a whole folder of different images of different plants from all these different places that your family has lived. Going through it and finding ways to combine and move them together was really fun. I learned about plants I didn’t even know existed.
Omar: [Laughs.] Yeah. I think I have hidden behind the abstract conceptual nature of electronic music a lot of the time — and I think a large draw to get into music for me was a way to obfuscate myself. It’s like, Let me produce something that doesn’t have to have my identity involved. Even at shows that I did, I would ask people working at the venue to turn the lights off on the stage, just because I didn’t want to even be a part of it. I was like, I want to bring these people together basically to listen to music that either I made or that I really loved, but I really wanted to divorce myself from it. And I found that while there was some goodness in that, eventually I learned that the art that I connect with most, I have to connect with the artists in some way. I can’t really go very long without having a sense or an understanding of who that person might be in order for that connection to last.
I think it’s ultimately why I actually approached you, because I didn’t know anybody who had seen me through as many eras as you have — even from afar. I know that I’d be remiss to say that we were super close over any particular expanse of time that we’ve known each other, but you’ve at least seen me at different stages of my own growth and development. And everything that I’ve seen come from your direction was something that I admired so much and really appreciated. So it felt important to dovetail, You know what? If I was the listener to this, I would want to know who I was. I can do this. Especially given my family hasn’t always been supportive of my musical career, I think I’ve enjoyed hiding behind different names or things of that nature. So having my face on it was definitely a process. I remember you literally standing over me in Prospect Park and me trying to make a face, and you were like, “Don’t worry, I’ll get something!” You’re photographing my face and I’m like, I have no fucking idea what’s going on right now. [Laughs.] But it ultimately worked out.
Singha: [Laughs.] How was it for you to have your portrait created? I totally understand the desire to not always want your face shown — it’s very intense and it can feel really complicated. But shifting into having this album with your name and with your image on it, how is that for you?
Omar: It’s so funny. It felt very intense. I was battling between feelings of being like, Is this a narcissistic thing to do? Then being like, Why is that a belief that I have? Why is that a fear that I have? Why does the existence of my own face imply something? I’d like it to just be like a restful, knowing face.Because I feel like I came up during a period where so many artists — and even whether it was our parents era — were all about the personality, the performance and the brand. And I think I still wanted to leave room for the listener to interpret. So finding a space where it’s like, I can allow this to remain personal, but I want someone to still be able to make it mean whatever they want, you know? So I’m almost happy that the art has my face, because I feel like I’m looking at the listener and it’s about the listener, even though my face is on it. So finding a way to bridge that in that way is something I’ve learned in the process of seeing it since its creation that has taken on a new meaning for me.
The way you integrated the plants from Jerusalem as well as from Prospect Park in Brooklyn I thought was really masterfully done, because there’s no break in the continuity of the visual. You have this thing where all these plants could ostensibly exist in the same space and it wouldn’t even break anybody’s suspension of disbelief, and I think that was really beautiful.
But talk to me about how you convinced me to have a baby swan on the artwork, because that was not in the cards at first.
Singha: Oh, man. I mean, I really love plants and animals as ways to convey other emotional states. That’s something that I’ve been interested in for a while. And I think probably because you have supported my art for so long, I felt like this wasn’t going to be me enforcing my own vision so much as, like, something you knew I loved to do. When we were looking at some of the childhood images, or how footage and sounds from your childhood went into this, I really wanted to have this sense of looking forward and reflecting back. And we had talked about the sense of you in conversation with your younger self, and all of that complexity and struggle between the two and how in this moment, in this album, you’re talking to that younger person and sort of giving them guidance to get to where you are now, personally, artistically, in so many ways.
You had said that you felt like — I was kind of pushing you to be like, “What animal!” But you had mentioned this feeling of being awkward or ugly duckling. The cygnet, where it’s this creature that becomes obviously like a majestic swan — which is also very Prospect Park, because there are massive swans — but the cygnet is still sort of figuring it out, and it’s still growing and it’s still on this journey. I really wanted to have that sense that you were talking to your younger self by having the cygnet there in conversation, and sort of guiding the cygnet and your younger self to this future.
Omar: Yeah. This was other thing where I think my desire to exist in the abstract almost took over, where I’m like, “Oh, man, it’s already literally my face — we’re going to add another thing that a person could literally interpret?” And then I realized, why does the existence of a thing in its actual form need to take away from the way that it is positioned or the way that it shows up? I actually remember hearing you talk about a Monkey King story — it was an ancient Chinese character that really got me thinking, about how the form of a thing is so much less important than the way that thing conveys a feeling. Even the way that the cygnet is nestled into the left hand side, but it’s honestly quite prominent in the artwork, I thought was really, really beautiful. So I’m really grateful that you stuck to your guns and that it really was collaborative. Seeing it evolve over time was really amazing. I hardly even notice myself in it — the whole thing is just really beautiful as a piece.
Then ACE — we had an idea for two different music videos. At one point we were going to do one for the track “Warm Bodies,” that was intended to be a little bit more of the intense, fiery, “Hey, we’re going to tear down the systems of oppression” concept. And then “Lapses” was a little less developed, but it was going to be kind of this forward and backwards, falling through time, looking more into the past… And we ultimately decided to kind of combine those two ideas for the videos and it became a third, wholly new thing. So I’d love to hear how hearing the music led to the video, and then also walking through how we actually shot the video. Because I think you did it in a really masterful way that translated to some really beautiful visuals, and the ways in which you captured the video was as important as a lot of the manipulations you did later on to make it all blend together.
ACE: I guess we did kind of combine our major ideas. We had that first phone call, which ultimately became the video and sparked all of the ideas. I think that as far as this music video — for a lead single or the first thing that you’re showing someone, you really want to explain the concept of the album in total as well as you can. Whether that be abstractly or the way we did it, which was semi-subjective but objectively you, and pictures of people and things that are actually happening. So I think that we did a pretty good job of displaying what this album is about. Within the few minutes that we had, I think we were able to illustrate what inheritance is, and we got to combine some very disparate ideas of growing up, of Black Lives Matter, of Palestinian freedom and ending apartheid. None of those are easy subjects to handle on their own, and to combine them in a way that makes sense is pretty crazy to me.
I feel like the initial idea of the effect of painting memories was the cornerstone of how we got that done. Because we shot it with two different kinds of green paint — Singha painted it live and we filmed it in 6K so that I could zoom in at different parts so that I had a lot of room to work with. And by having different kinds of green paint, I was able to layer in different memories and different things so I could have two different abstract concepts happening, like your birthday and, you know, a young boy being arrested. I could display those at the same time in the same painting and show the emotional disparity between the two subjects while also looking at one picture, which is actually a painting. I think the fact that we shot that all in one day and it worked out is pretty amazing too. [Laughs.] Luckily, Singha’s just an awesome artist and didn’t even need color to conceive of the entire painting all over again.
Omar: [Laughs.] It’s completely true. I still cannot believe how much was accomplished.
ACE: I mean the shooting of the video itself is as much a masterful piece of Singha’s, because to have the vision, to see the painting that you had before — I don’t think she even looked at the painting. Did you look at the painting? You didn’t even look at the painting.
Singha: I hadn’t finished the painting yet. [Laughs.]
Omar: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that maybe led, itself, to more improvisational comfort in trying to create a lot of the strokes and the way you went about it. I think you had an outline at that point in time of where my head would go, where my shoulders would go — general kind of swirling around that figure. But otherwise — I mean, you can speak to that better than I can.
Singha: Yeah. Oh, my gosh, it was really fun. I’ve never painted in this way before, so it was a really cool experience. I loved the process of using the two green colors of paint. And then seeing how you actually used that as an overlay — I was kind of in disbelief that it would work. I was like, “What if I’m mixing it too much?” But that was really cool. I loved also [how], you know, we crammed into my little studio space, and there was a level of preparation but then also we were pulling in what felt right — like the scallions that I was regrowing on the windowsill made in. I think painting is often, for me, a very solitary thing, and to see it become this interactive video and also to have done it with both of you was really, really rad.
Omar: I can’t believe it worked out. When you were like, ”Yeah, we’re going to use green screen paint,” I was like, “Oh, that’s cool there’s a paint that can be used.” And you were like, “No, we’re going to paint it green — trust me.”
Omar: And I was like, “What? What do you mean?”
Singha: There was a lot of trust in this process.
Omar: It’s so funny because I was like, “OK, I can visualize and understand what you are saying, how it’s going to happen. I guess I just need to be there to really understand it.” And then I remember day of, I was running around looking for another lighter green paint somewhere, while I was holding two giant canvases in case something happened to the first one. It was a real process. But that was really incredible.
Andrew, could you walk me through a little bit more technologically what you did to kind of illuminate these memories that are opened through each of Singha’s brushstrokes, and what some of that process was like for you? I’m sure it was tedious at certain points.
ACE: Well, to begin with, when I was like, “Trust me” — I didn’t actually believe that I could do it myself. [Laughs.] I mean, in theory it’s never been done before. I’ve searched, I can’t find anything where someone’s painted with green paint and then put VHS tapes into it. It’s just not a thing. In my head, I was going to completely redo everything in a 3D space, but that was way beyond what was possible. So what ended up happening was just the simple key of each green. And the thought is, sometimes when you do green screen, there’s parts of the green that come out. So realistically, each green produced about two different layers, because there was a main green that was reflecting the light, and then there was a shadow green on top of that.
So, I mean, it’s beyond tedious. I basically made four different music videos at once, because I had a base layer that went for the initial green, and then I had the filling of that same green. And then I had the second green come in, and so that had its own base layer and then I had to fill in for that one on top of that. So there was actually generative art pieces that were just completely abstract that I filled in for those two, and then there’s also these little parts where there’s green paint bottles in the background, so I had to key those out also to keep the realism. So there’s a little glint when you when the video first starts where it’s in black and white and you can kind of see the paint glistening in the background. And then when Singha pours out the first green paint, that had to be the selling part that really made it feel like this was really happening.
Singha: That part’s so magical.
ACE: It really is. That shot was what I had in my head the whole time — pouring out VHS tapes.
Omar: It’s so funny, because as soon as I saw that, I was like, That is exactly what he said was going to happen. Not only is it incredible, but you effectively created a different texture to the paint itself — like, the paint doesn’t just open up the videos, it has a textural quality that it looks like it exists physically as this chimera material between a physical and a digital thing. I was so blown away by it. It’s more like scratching away at something and uncovering something beneath. Meanwhile, the paint itself was still a textural characteristic, which I thought was really, really amazing as well. You should write up a white paper on this whole approach or something, because I think it’s really fascinating.
ACE: A lot of it, I went in with kind of a corner pin curling idea where I bent the edges of the picture around the paint. And then I used the negative which was just the green paint itself, and then just took the saturation down and added that as a layer over the top of everything so that it retained that paint texture quality. And then I also had a thin layer of the original paint just desaturated so that it would give the right texture.
Omar: Very cool. And some of the footage you actually provided as well, yourself.
ACE: Yeah. Well, I was going to pretty much every Black Lives Matter protest in town every day, and was pretty heavily invested in helping out as much as I could. It was footage from my favorite protest, actually — which is weird to say, “favorite protest.” You know, there was no tear gas and it was really a beautiful day. It was with the Palestinian Youth Authority of Detroit along with Detroit Will Breathe. Just for this video, it was exactly what we’re talking about. It’s seeing the similar struggles. And I don’t want to equate them, because they’re completely different, but, you know, similar struggles in terms of injustice. That day, something told me to get footage of it, and I got tons. I just filmed the whole day. I’m not sure why I didn’t film any other ones like that, but that’s actually the only protest I have footage of, and it just happened to work out for this video.
Omar: Yeah. I think there’s something to be said about people’s inherent need to say, “Hey, well, my struggle is this and your struggle is that. They’re either totally the same or totally different.” It’s really fascinating, because they are totally different. I think pretty much everything about the history of the inherent struggles are different. But I do think that the underlying evils of systems of oppression are probably different flavors of the same. Obviously what Black Lives Matter is walking against and standing against is orders of magnitude more deeply entrenched in the entirety of civilization — and so absolutely just insane to consider that people would even be remotely against the idea or the phrasing.
I think in a lot of ways what was most humbling to me and most moving to me in protests that I went to was not so much Palestinians supporting the Black Lives Matter movement — it was seeing the folks from Black Lives Matter show up to the Palestinian protests and realizing, Oh my god, these people have their own entire monolithic effort going on that they need to dismantle, and it affects not only their everyday lives, but will probably affect the lives of their lineage for generations and generations to come. Yet they are carving out time for my ancestry and for the lineage of mine that has its own separate struggle. Where a lot of people, especially the people who, quote-unquote, love to “play devil’s advocate,” or love to debate for debate’s sake — which I really struggle with and don’t love — I think a lot of them will first jump on the fact of being like, “Yeah, well, what about the Irish and what about the Italians? And what about…” And it’s like, sure, yeah, a lot of people really have been mistreated by colonial oppressors. But seeing people show up for each other despite the differences, and the people who are making time are the ones who have the least time on their hands, yet somehow carve out that time to make each other feel seen and heard, I think is just so, so beautiful to me, and honestly challenges me every day to do better. If there are people who are fighting a bigger, harder, deeper fight than I am on a daily basis, who are showing up for me and making me feel supported, that is the best call to action that could possibly imagine to really do as much as I can.
ACE: For me, it’s not that distant because my grandmother is half-Lebanese and half-Black — which makes me, I don’t know, an eighth Lebanese, and African makes up the rest of that. But Lebanon is extremely close to Palestine, and Palestine is extremely close to Africa — we’re linked a lot closer than we think we are, and I think that’s something that’s felt on a spiritual level among black people to see basically our neighbors being put behind cages and treated very poorly. It’s not even a second thought. I’ve never heard a Black person say, “Oh, no, Israel totally has the right to settle.” I’ve never really seen a Zionist Black person before, because it just is incongruent towards the lived experience. Going back to the footage, we have one of the largest Lebanese populations in Detroit in the world — I think it’s second only to Lebanon — so we live the African-slash-Lebanese-slash-Palestinian struggle every day. As far as this whole concept goes, Detroit is that concept in a nutshell.
Omar: Yeah, it’s so funny — getting people even to agree that Black lives even matter is so hard that I’m trying to imagine dropping those same people into a North African, African, Middle Eastern Mecca and seeing how they would fare for 12 hours. [Laughs.] Just as a field trip, as an integration exercise.
ACE: That’d be a fun reality show: kidnap racists and and take them to Palestine.
Omar: [Laughs.] This has been such a wonderful conversation. I don’t believe that in order to combat suffering, we need to absorb the suffering of others. We need to acknowledge the suffering and use that as fuel to just not let it happen anymore. I know a lot of people who, even amongst Arabs or Palestinians that I know who might view something like this and from the comfort of their couch in Bay Ridge, or somewhere in the world where they are privileged in their own way, will be like, “Yeah, did something right by watching this media.” And that’s not what I think the video is meant to do. I think the video is really meant to be calling in the visuals that are Everything Everywhere All At Once-esque — ACE, you overlaid a lot of the young martyrs amongst Palestinians, whether it was Shireen Abu Akleh, or some of the younger martyrs who had died. Seeing the hopefulness of what could have happened and the belief that something can be built I think is so crucial. I’ve been told many times by people in my life that if Palestinians could do it, they would have by now. You know, there’s a lot of very negative phrasing around that.
ACE: They like to say that about Black people as well. Yeah.
Omar: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “Well, when you’ve taken all the resources away and you’ve put them in cages, and then ask, ‘Why can’t they build?’ It’s a no brainer.” But I think in this case, I’m so honored to work with the both of you and to feel like a Palestinian who is showing people that it can be done and change can be made. And I’ve felt so empowered by both of you and so loved and cared for and supported in this process. So, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you, thank you so much. Even if nothing else comes from this project — which I don’t think is going to happen — but even if nothing else came from it, this has been such a journey and such a fun opportunity to collaborate with two artists who I think have only just started scratching the surface of how much incredible impact you’re both going to make in the corners that you occupy. And as you expand, I just hope if there’s anything that I can do to be of help or support or to contribute anything of any kind, I will drop everything to make sure I can do that. So thank you again.
ACE: Well, of course. And, you know, same for you. Whatever comes of this, I’ll be happy to join along as well.