HOPE AND RISK:
an interview with Omar Musa

Posted on June 25, 2011 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Every city has a folk hero or two, and Omar Musa is one of the ACT’s folk heroes, although to be accurate he’s one of Queanbeyan’s folk heroes, and yes there is a difference. Plus he now lives in Melbourne, so we shouldn’t forget that. Musa is a rapper, spoken-word performer, and poet. In 2008 he won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008 and in 2007 the British Council’s Realise Your Dream award. According to his bio, while living in London in 2008 he recorded with award-winning British rapper Akala. His first hip-hop record, The Massive EP, recorded in Seattle, was released in 2009 to critical acclaim. He has been a featured guest at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Singapore Writers Festival and the Sydney Writers Festival, as well as touring in Germany, Indonesia and around Australia. He also published his first book of poetry, The Clocks, in 2009, and has worked as an actor for the Bell Shakespeare Company. He released his full-length album World Goes to Pieces in 2010. So all this makes him a bit of a folk hero of…everywhere, really. What on earth makes Omar Musa tick?  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.

INTERVIEWER

You’re a young bloke straight outta Queanbeyan, New South Wales. How did you get into the worlds of rap and poetry? What was the original motivation?

MUSA

Poetry was always seen as a good thing in my family. My father was a poet in Malaysia and my mother came from a theatre background and would often quote playwrights and poets. I remember getting an assignment to write poetry from my English teacher in year 5 and finding that it came very naturally to me. I loved that it was very boiled down and you could use a single image or line to capture an entire situation or story. It was a private thing though – I would go out and play soccer and shoplift and do all the other stuff young scallywags get up to, but then come home and draw or write poetry. I had a lot of time to do so because I was an only child.

INTERVIEWER

The boiling down of language – surely that’s one of the tasks of poetry. Perhaps even THE task. Who were the writers/artists who inspired that younger version of you who’d go out and play soccer and shoplift? What was it about their work that got you going?

MUSA

As far as I can remember, poems I liked in my early teens came to me randomly – from teachers, from my parents. I liked poems that told stories and used strong, simple imagery to get the message across. I loved ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Byshe Shelley. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ by Robert Browning. I stumbled across ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot and dug that. Looking back on them now, these poems were deceptively simple and I didn’t fully understand them, but something affected me. I could be reading too much into it, but I seemed to like fairly tragic poems about flawed individuals, even at that age. I remember meeting famous Indonesian poet W.S. Rendra and my parents told me that he was so popular that in his home country that he would perform to packed stadiums and rallies. I never forgot that. I was frustrated that poetry wasn’t alive in that way in Australia. As much as I loved the poets I mentioned before, they seemed reserved for the page and not people I could completely relate to. Then I came across Wu Tang Clan and Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and I realised that hip hop was a modern form of poetry and storytelling that was for and by young people, that people actually listened to.

INTERVIEWER

I like your idea that the poems ‘of the canon’, as they say, are reserved for the pages and were not written by people who you could relate to. When I listen to rap or hip-hop I’m always struck by how much craft is in the words, that the key tools of the trade are rhythm and rhyme and meter – this is indeed poetry, and, sometimes, it’s as thoughtful as the poetry that we might read in literary journals. Why did you go down the rap/spoken-word path and not the ‘poetry for the page’ path? What is it exactly about performance that so interests you?

MUSA

I think at a basic level it’s as simple as the fact that I like writing and performing equally. Also, I am an extrovert, so I like getting my words out there directly to people and (hopefully) moving them with the combination of flow, tone and words. I think slam poetry and hip hop is so strong because it wrenches poetry off dusty, sometimes pretentious pages and onto stages, smack bang in front of people. I think this is necessary at a time in Australia when many people, particularly young people, see poetry as very boring. Having it back on stages and having young people doing it is important in that it will hopefully weave poetry and a love of poetry back into the cultural fabric of this country. Having said all that, I love writing poetry just for the page and reading it. It’s necessary to have all these different facets – it’s all about a love of language and expression.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of expression your album, World Goes to Pieces, came out last year. Can you tell us about the recording process, and what are some of the key themes of that record?

MUSA

I thought this album was going to be my first and last, so I wanted it to be brutally honest, my lasting testament. I wanted to capture the light and the shade of my life and of my personality and do it in a direct but poetic way. I have said before that the best description of the album is a depiction of a young man caught between activism and partying, love and depression. It’s about complexity and contradiction. There is a deep melancholy that runs through the album. I recorded the album entirely in Seattle, USA with Geoff Stanfield (Sun Kil Moon). It was intense. He is an epic producer and a madman and provided me with these outlandish sound-beds and beats to put my rhymes over. I tried to write every song there and then, as soon as I heard the music, doing a song or two a day. I had to be very focused, almost in a trance. My hope was that by being so spontaneous I would be more honest. This is a risky approach, and as a result, I sat on the record for a while after the initial recordings then came back to the USA and changed certain things and cut some new songs. All in all, it was probably only about two and a half weeks in the actual studio, but – this is totally clichéd – it was a lifetime in the making. I am so proud of this record and think it was/is ahead of its time.

To see Omar Musa in action, doing his classic ‘My Generation’, go here.

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