How Omar Musa makes it matter
Watch Musa’s TED talk and you may observe something particular about the way he moves his body. He bends towards the audience as though reaching for them with his whole being. As he does this, he places his hands together over his chest in embodied, ancient gesture of prayer and unity.
And it’s as though in this single gesture, Musa performs the impetus for his words. Though articulated in contemporary ways, the themes featured in his work are as old as expression itself: family, story and redemption from divisive forces like race and gender.
Through his unorthodox refusal of categories, Musa collapses the boundaries of poetry and hip-hop, prose and music, high-culture and street-inspired rawness, constraint and obscenity, tenderness and aggression. The result is a fusion of past and present that seeks emancipation from both.
After a mammoth four-hour stint at the salon, I’m finally able to throw off the hairdresser’s cape. I call. His first concern is how my hair looks. This is no diva I’m talking to, but a human who understands the vulnerabilities and needs of the person on the other end of the conversation.
He only has a short time to chat, he explains, and so I make my questions snappy. As he responds, his speech develops what rappers call “flow”. Through this, he explains to me his passion for story and his recognition that as creators, our work is bigger than we are.
How do you give it mouth?
I give it mouth with fearlessness, ferocity and a whole lot of imagination.
They sound like three good factors for spreading social messages…
That gets to the heart of what I’m trying to do. We’re all pretty fallible creatures but through our art and our writing hopefully we can stand for something more than ourselves.
Speaking of fallible, one thing that struck me in reading your novel and watching some of your videos, was that you seem to present as a masculine, testosterone filled presence, but there’s a tenderness in your work, especially your slam poetry. Is that something you consciously sought?
Are you saying my personal presence or the characters?
An author is always a construction, aren’t they? Especially one who uses performance and multi-media platforms in the way you do.
As a persona, as a rapper, as a performer that might be the case…I come from a hyper-masculine world. People do who grew up, like I did, in Australia. It taught us that type of aggressive hyper-masculinity. And hip-hop, as redemptive and amazing as it can be, is still very hyper-masculine. Yeah, of course, those are the types of issues I’m pretty keen on exploring.
I’m keen to pick at the scabs and the things that make us uncomfortable. And I think a lot of men in Australia find it very uncomfortable to think about gender and inequality and how they might have grown up with a certain type of privilege or how men are to blame for so many problems in society, and I would include myself in that. But I think as an artist to battle against being polemic in some way you have to question yourself as much as you question the world around you.
I wouldn’t say I own that type of masculinity. Some people get me wrong and they think I’m sort of glorifying it by simply putting it on the page and presenting it. I would simply say I was putting it on the page and interrogating it.
On the contrary. If anything there’s a fluidity in your work. At least ostensibly the hypermasculinity is there, but there’s also a fluidity that moves the work into the “feminine…”, makes it tender; soft…can you talk to that a bit?
I would say that comradery is part of masculinity all around the world and that tenderness, that was something I was looking at in my novel Here Come The Dogs. You do see it in Australia though I think men are quite uncomfortable with showing kindness and tenderness to one another. One of the characters (in Here Come The Dogs) is Macedonian and another is Samoan and I noticed when I went to both of those countries – I went twice, to research the book – (in those) masculine societies or at least patriarchal societies, well no, they’re not patriarchal societies necessarily but they’re hyper-masculine societies that are often seen to be or perceived to be so physicalised in everything… men would show this tenderness.
Part of it is also: I think an important thing in writing is to be nuanced and show contradictions and complexities.
And these are humans you know, even if they do horrible things they’re not monsters you know? Part of the problem we see with this whole idea of rape culture that’s gaining traction in the media or at least in public consciousness is a lot of men trying to distance themselves from that and say, “Oh these men who commit acts of sexual violence or at least physical violence against women, they’re monsters and I don’t actually think that there’s much point in that and I think a lot of my feminist friends would agree, and I’ve seen them talking online, that’s actually sort of beside the point.
These people are fathers, they’re brothers, sons, they’re mates, they’re people you went to school with and I’m trying to depict that in my work. I’m saying a lot of the stuff they do is ugly, it’s raw and maybe it’s even monstrous but I don’t think they’re monsters.
Monstrous acts not monstrous people?
Yeah I would say so…
Talking about challenging ideas, can you tell me about the form of your work? You shift constantly. Can you talk a bit about this in terms of you as an artist because I think this comes from an essence of what you represent in terms of your creativity?
Yeah I’m trying to break down the barriers between genres. I do think they’re all different branches of the same river – expressing yourself through words and rhythm and poetry. And I think for so long there’s this idea of the literary canon at the centre and everything else like concentric circles going away from it and that some things are more some forms are more worthy than others. I don’t really see it that way.
I don’t really see the different forms being high or low art or anything like that. But it is I think reflecting something deeper which is that I am trying to own a hybrid identity – the hyphen, the people who live on the hyphen and people who have fluid identities whether they be sexual identities, racial, cultural – because I am a product of a very secular Australian world and a very religious family, of Asia, anglo-Celtic Australia, country and city – even the hometown I grew up in is [both] city and country.
Then I went to a private school after growing up in a working class neighborhood. So I was flicking between these worlds. So it seems only natural to me in a country that can be so reductive in its approach to identity and likes to stereotype people and label people. I want to break all of this down. Doing this artistically is reflecting all of my attitude… I think you’re right, I think you’re right about that.
That probably is how you give it mouth… rather than telling it, showing it through your work?
Showing it yes. But without apologies and excuses and explanations. Like to me it was risk but I was like why not drop into poetry and into script and in and out of prose. I respect the intelligence of my readers that even though it might be uncomfortable as you say at first, I think within a few pages the readers get used to it.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write and perform?
That’s always such a hard question. In one way I’m writing for everybody and nobody at all. Because if you’re suddenly trying to think how can I get to as wide an audience as possible and then you’re trying to please everybody and you’re making kind of pensive art and I don’t think there’s any point in that.
So ultimately of course, sometimes I think “Oh would this be appropriate to do in front of high school kids?” or something, but for the most part I try to write the type of book or poem that I would like to see. I hadn’t seen a book like Here Come the Dogs in Australia that dealt with hip-hop culture in these specific communities and I thought I’d love to read a book like that, why don’t I write it?
Were you influenced by anyone? I mean people have compared you with Irvine Welsh and Christos Tsokas?
Yeah, I think that’s mainly because they gave the quotes on the front of the book. I do really admire Christos and Irvine. Irvine especially. When I was thirteen I read Trainspotting and that changed the way I saw storytelling and literature. But I’m heavily influenced by Roberto Bolano, Cormac McCarthy as well, and Anne Sexton. I guess the two poets that influenced me the most in the style of the book were Anne Sexton and Dorothy Hewett, the great Australian poet.
I guess the novelists influence me most when it comes to structure. But when I get down to the sculpting a paring down of language, I turn to the poets. Anne Sexton is my favourite poet so I look towards her. And then of course there are people who are very playful writers who are unafraid of their imaginations like Borges and Calvino influence me a lot as well. So I guess for that book those people who I’ve listed have been the main influences.
I think your choice of poet is a fascinating one because I don’t immediately associate you with Anne Sexton whose work for me speaks to intimate experiences associated with womanhood…
But the depths of emotion has been what’s always attracted me to Anne Sexton’s work… the depths of feeling, the depth of emotion there and the rawness. And I think if you were to look again at my work you’d see the influence a lot more because she is the queen of the killer last line and I’ve always tried to have those last lines that slap people across the face… And then Dorothy Porter as well.
That was the main stylist influence on the verse sections of this book because I was trying to write and having no luck at the prose. Then I read The Monkey’s Mask where each scene is a different poem and I realised you can keep the pace cracking with short sharp vignettes. And so after reading The Monkey’s Mask, I went straight away and wrote the first chapter [of Here Come The Dogs] and it’s pretty much unchanged.
What about the influence of your mum. She’s an arts journalist and your dad’s a poet. How have they influenced your work?
They’re a huge influence on me and…talk about giving mouth to ideas and opinions, well my mum’s one of the most mouthy people you’ll ever meet. She’s got the gift of the gab. She’s third generation Irish Australian, a real talker – doesn’t back down – fearless independent takes no shit from anyone. Makes a lot of enemies but a lot of people admire her as well. I took that attitude from her.
But the biggest thing I learnt from my mum is the arts are necessary. There’s almost no point in having a society or existing if we don’t have music and poetry and dance. She’s a big believer in the arts…in the redemptive qualities of the arts as being the best means we have as humans to understand ourselves. And so I learnt that from my mum.
Then my father was a poet as well, so I think I inherited his voice, his eye, his keen sense of observation… but also from him I learnt that poetry is fun. I learnt that from a young age, that it wasn’t something dusty that existed in old books, it was something that lived and breathed.
That’s something about poetry a lot of people don’t understand isn’t it?
Yeah, and it’s so key learning that from a young age. And that’s why I’m so keen to provide more accessible points for high school students to get into poetry. Sometimes people read me the wrong way, like I’m saying we should throw the whole canon out to into sea and kick The Waste Land onto the street as soon as we get the chance. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Students learn a lot from poetry at an early age, but if they learn to hate it they may never come back to it.
So do you speak with students about the intersections of poetry and rap?
Of course…I show it and of course some of the kids are more into rap because they already listen to it. They listen to all their favourite singers and songwriters before they realise it’s poetry, but I think I try to show them, look I’ve written two books of poetry and made three hip-hop records and all of these are equally as important to me, just different ways of expressing myself.
And then in terms of my parents, my grandparents as well were an influence.
Do you want to tell me about them?
Well, my grandmother grew up in country New South Wales and she was a product of her generation. She was very frustrated that as a woman she never got the chance to go to university and to explore her artistic side. She loved music, she loved painting. She was a great painter and we used to draw together as a kid and I think she must have taught that love of the arts to my mum in some way. And then she tried to teach me to play the piano as a kid. But I was useless so I had to get into music another way.
My grandmother in Malaysia never learnt to read or write, but I just found out that she has over a hundred poems she’s created in her head when she was kicked out of home at the age of eight and was living a very tough life as a rubber tapper in small island off the island of Borneo. She made up poems to help herself to keep going.
So she’s transmitted them orally?
Yeah she’s told a lot of them to my dad and he’s transcribed them, which is pretty amazing.
So I see that in a weird way I’m not giving mouth to modern contemporary issues. We’ve inherited a spirit from our forefathers a spirit of storytelling something universal that we are articulating and hopefully bequeathing to another generation.
As Jimmy, one of the characters from Here Come The Dogs says, “Storytelling, mate, lyrics. That’s what it’s all about.” I’m interested in this idea of story as a means for social change. Do you have any examples of when someone’s read what you’ve written and they’ve shown you the impact?
I’ve had people tell me they were suicidal and they’ve read something I’ve written just at the right time and it helped them get through that. Something that brought me to tears one time was a bunch of ladies in jail who’d been reading my poetry and listening to the songs and written their own poems. One of them said, “See I’ve moved around a lot in this life and I’ve had a very hard life and a life of addiction and violence but now I’m writing my own poems so thanks for the encouragement.” ‘Cos I sent them a message you see… and you know that sort of thing makes it all worthwhile.
What people don’t realise as well they think, oh he must be so confident, cocky, braggadocio and he’s standing on the stage in front of all these people, but I hit a lot of low moments as well and that interaction…back and forth… sometimes those messages come at the just right time as well.
Because we’re never alone and I think that’s what storytelling teaches us. Stories can be used to demean and exploit people at times, but if done in the right way they can uplift and provoke empathy in someone else who didn’t feel it before. You know I don’t want to overblow it though. It is a noble thing but in many instances it can be pretty useless as well. I mean one single story is not going to change the world – one poem – it’s got to go hand in hand with a lot of hardwork and effort policy and all that kind of stuff.
As I’m always banging on about it though, about young people being confident enough and courageous enough and encouraged enough to tell their stories – whatever story. That is some kind of social change because I’ve seen it over the last ten years or so with slam poetry, especially amongst Lebanese Australian kids and Sudanese Australian kids. I haven’t run any tests on this… it’s just from what I’ve seen from my observations. A lot of people considered on the fringes or disenfranchised are claiming their voices through poetry.
Tell me about your collaboration with Spader.
My really good friend James Rush… I met James Rush in high school, I played basketball with him, then he was my DJ then he started the clothing label Spader Clothing. He’s always supported me…so when he started the clothing line I just thought you know why not help him out… I wanted to have a video, he wanted someone to promote what he was doing, so we just joined forces.
Have you done any other collaborations in the commercial realm?
I’d consider doing it. I’ve had a few offers and it’s just got to feel right to me. How do I say this, artists deserve to eat, we don’t have to just be impoverished all the time. Secondly I’d only take it on if it was going to be a stand alone piece of work that I would write anyway. People always bring out this George Carlin quote that says if you do something commercial you’re striking yourself off the artistic ledger. I don’t necessarily agree with that… you get commissions for money all the time, but there are no hard and fast rules.
You do a great job of self-promotion online. What’s your advice for other indie creators?
I thought about it [online] as free tools, well they’re not free tools anymore, but I originally thought of it as a free way to get my message across so I was onto that pretty early with that Spader Clothing video, no one in Australia had made a poetry video that was almost like a music video and it did really well for me. And now everybody does it.
One part of me wishes I didn’t have to keep up with the social media thing, but it is so necessary. And if people are interested there’s nothing wrong with guiding them a little bit. Sometimes people act as if, oh you’re being so shameless in self-promoting like if people are into your work they’ll find out about it. But no they won’t. People are working and they’re not going to check the Sydney Morning Herald website everyday.
I try to pick and choose. I used to post frivolous stuff constantly. And now I post new pieces of work and travel. And I think that’s important to show people you can have the life of a poet and still get to travel.
But you have to be prepared to be super broke. If it’s an impulse within you you’ll go through all that.
And suffer for your art…
That’s kind of the reality, but it might pay off in the end. But that’s not really the point. I would be doing this anyway. I just decided I didn’t want to pull beers anymore and serve coffees, I wanted to dedicate myself to my art. So I gave myself a couple of years and said I’m going to do this… see if I can do it…but part of me says that I wouldn’t be able [to do something else] anyway.
I love it too much.