Omar Grows Up To Become 'The Man'

Jun 28, 2013
Originally published on June 28, 2013 10:42 am

British singer Omar was a child musician back in the '70s and '80s, but he's done a lot of growing up since then. Now married with two daughters, Omar has a new album, The Man, which marks a turning point in his life.

"It's about changing," he says. "Since I've had [my girls], there's a purpose to my life now. It's about growth, development and evolution."

The Man is the singer's first project in seven years. Stripped down to a natural level, the album is assembled in a way that hearkens back to the musician's early days.

"This album is the most organic of my seven albums. I've really tried to re-create that live sound," he says. "That's why I like listening to music from the '60s and '70s, 'cause that's basically — you got to do stuff in one take. And everyone's in one room and all playing together; there's nothing quite like that vibe.

Though he has a family now, Omar says he'll continue to make music a part of his life.

"Music is in my blood," he says. "It's just there."

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Stevie Wonder once said if he had his way he'd like, quote, "to be like Omar." A nod to the singer-songwriter we're about to meet. Omar began his musical education before he was six with a rusty cornet he found in a neighbor's shed. He eventually took up piano and percussion, played in a youth orchestra that traveled the world, and went on to become a soul singing powerhouse in Britain.


And in a way, all this is no surprise because music was in Omar's blood. His father played drums with the likes of Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones. Could you have rebelled if you wanted to and said, mom, dad, I want to be an architect, I'm sorry?


OMAR: Gone complete the other way. No. I think music's in my blood. You know, it's just there. Once you know that's what you're going to do, that's what you're going to do.


OMAR: (singing) There's nothing like this. There's nothing like this...

GREENE: And do he did. This is probably his biggest hit, "There's Nothing Like This." His new album is called "The Man." And when we started talking about it, I began to hear a man whose path to stardom wasn't as easy as it seems.

OMAR: This album is the most organic of my seven albums. I've really tried to recreate that live sound and, you know, playing with bands. Because me playing in orchestras and all these groups, the main thing that puts all of them together is vibing with other musicians. I mean, that's why I like listening to music from the '60s and '70s because that's basically - you had to do stuff in, like, one take.

And everybody's in one room and all playing together. There's nothing quite like that vibe.

GREENE: And I love this word organic, and I know it's one you like as well. Because you describe your music in a way where you say it's organic. What does that mean?

OMAR: Well, it's sort of like a more natural sound, sounds that you don't need to plug in. You don't need a computer to hear the sound. There's no having to, like, put up logarithms or anything like that.

GREENE: No major technology or science, it's just sound.

OMAR: There we go. Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much.


GREENE: Well, this is a song called "Bully," I think, right?

OMAR: Yep.

GREENE: Are we hearing that organic feel here?

OMAR: Yeah. I mean, it's like a double bass sound. That's me on the drums. It's my brother scratching with a deck. It's brass. You know, it's the reggae sound as well. So it's very, very organic.


OMAR: (singing) What can I do for you to ease up frustration that there's right inside of you? 'Cause everybody knows violence is not the way...

GREENE: There's a lyric there, Omar, violence is not the way.

OMAR: Yeah.

GREENE: Who are you delivering that message to?

OMAR: You know, there's so many things going on now where - black on black crime is epidemic, you know, and it's just fueled by kind of, I don't know, some kind of anger. So I'm just kind of appealing to people to just kind of calm down and try and resolve any issues they might with each other in a different way. So if you can do it by rapping, by dancing, by art, by music, whichever way you solve your issues, but do it without hurting each other.

GREENE: You mention black on black crime in particular. What makes that kind of crime different?

OMAR: Well, you know, because there's all these issues about racism and, you know, that kind of, like, shows up a picture of white against black or being oppressed by whites and stuff like this. Whereas we've got these internal struggles of our own where, you know, black kids are killing other black kids just for being from a different part of the town.

These are things that I just cannot understand what it is that fuels these people's anger so much that they're going to be killing each other like that.

GREENE: Have you had experience with this? Or your family, or people you know?

OMAR: Growing up in Canterbury - Canterbury is in the south part of England - there's not a lot of black people there. I went to a secondary school with 1,200 kids and there were only six of us that were black. I've obviously experienced my own little badness, but I've dealt with it by fueling it - by putting that into my music and fueling that energy in that direction.

GREENE: What was the badness that you're talking about and that you've put into the music?

OMAR: You know, certain kids at the school, they belong to that society where, you know, they're delivering leaflets and talking about immigrants go home or black people go home and things like that. I remember one guy actually sent the police to my door. I think he gave them my address as his address. Just stuff like that, which is, you know, annoying, to say the least. But don't worry, I beat him up.


GREENE: You did beat him up. OK.

OMAR: At school. Yeah.

GREENE: Maybe violence you felt like at that part in your life, might be the answer once in a while. OK.

OMAR: Well, I was like 15. You know what I mean?


OMAR: So I've grown up since then. And plus, it wasn't about knives, it wasn't about guns or anything like that. It was just, you know, mano a mano, you know.


OMAR: (singing) Ooh, I'm thinking about some things I've done when I was so wild. Some things that I should not have done, just trying to be the man. The man...

GREENE: "The Man." This is actually the title track of the new album. And the video for this song - I took a look at it - it's so sweet. I mean, it's your family, your lady, as I know you like to call her.

OMAR: Yeah.

GREENE: And your two twin girls.

OMAR: Yeah. So it's a simple concept as well. The video director, Robin Brunson, suggested that I film it in Brighton, which is where we live by the sea. And I was like, man, I've got to get the girls in it. I've got to get my missus and the girls involved. Because, you know, essentially what I was thinking about in the first place is my girls. You know, they changed my life.

You know, I'm singing about my missus in the second verse. And it wasn't till I shot the video that she thought, you know, I mean, I wrote this song about them. I hadn't actually thought about that when I was writing it.


OMAR: (singing) I found love. I can feel. It's like walking in sunshine. This is that something real. Let's get on. I want to waste time...

GREENE: Hearing that and seeing you holding, you know, the hands of your daughters so sweetly, I mean, is it a message about fatherhood and being a good father?

OMAR: I think so. I mean, I think with the whole album it's about evolution. It's about changing. Definitely since I've had them there's a purpose to my life now. So, yeah, it's kind of like, you know, it's about growth, about development, about evolution, all those things basically.

GREENE: I imagine that the kid who was a teenager who beat up a classmate because you were dealing with some really hard things, and now you're a dad walking along a boardwalk with your two girls and talking about being the man and being a good father, does that, in a way, kind of trace the evolution of Omar?

OMAR: Yeah, kind of. It's kind of like showing you where I am now. I'm trying to be a responsible father. I'm trying to be there for them, you know. It's them that looks up to me. So I've got to set an example in a way. So I don't want - I don't want them wanting for anything, really.

GREENE: Omar, the floor is yours. What song should we go out on?

OMAR: Well, I think you should go out with the title track, "The Man." That's the one that is just kicking off right now.


OMAR: (singing) Oh, I like it.

GREENE: A perfect way to go out.

OMAR: Yeah.

GREENE: Omar, thanks so much for joining us.

OMAR: Thank you, David. No problem. You take care.


OMAR: (singing) Oooh, I'm thinking about some things I've done when I was so...

GREENE: Omar's new album "The Man" is out this week and you can hear songs from it at It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.