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Omar Musa - Storyteller

 There are plenty of ways you could describe Omar Musa, the Australian-born Malaysian firebrand who conceptualised and stars in Since Ali Died. You could call him an author, or a rapper, or a slam poet, or a musician; none would really be sufficient. Ultimately, to describe what Musa does, you could only really use one word: storyteller. From his early days competing in Australian slam poetry competitions all the way through to his work now as a multi-disciplinary artist and community leader, Musa has always placed the telling of stories at the centre of his work — unique and brightly-coloured vignettes of a life as the child of migrants growing up in a beautiful but often hostile land. As his musical output has broadened and deepened, it’s become clear that these stories are not simply individual portraits, but chapters in a creative legacy that tells the story of Australia’s troubled relationship with non-white communities. When he released 2009’s The Massive EP, many saw the arrival of a huge talent; few recognized the ascension of a figure who, in less than a decade, would become a key part of Australian cultural discourse.

Photo by Robert Catto

Musa was born in 1984 in the regional town of Queanbeyan, NSW, to art critic Helen Musa and Malaysian poet Musa bin Masran — both of them deeply in-tune with art and culture in their daily lives. His father introduced him to the intersection of politics and poetry at an early age, teaching him the power of art in political life — how Indonesian poets like WS Renda could change hearts and minds using emotion and articulation. At school, his interest in creative expression was stoked even more, the budding writer doing extra schoolwork whenever poetry was involved. In many ways, it was almost inevitable that this poet’s son would become an artist himself; a third-culture child growing up in a space that’s unkind to those who look or seem in any way ‘different’ was always going to need an outlet for his own expression.

Growing up, Musa struggled with racism and Islamophobia, as many children and young adults do. While he’s currently secular, Musa’s parents are both practising Muslims, and Musa’s visible brown-ness led to him sticking out like a sore thumb in the very white town of Queanbeyan, with his schoolmates frequently mocking and deriding him for the colour of his skin. These experiences as a youth were formative for Musa, who has oft been attracted to stories of troubled young men and put-upon minorities in his art and writing. “A young lad, age 12, caused pandemonium / Queanbeyan, running around with Macedonian / Pros, scuffling, breaking in an absence / Go, muscling, looking for some action,” Musa rapped on his debut full length World Goes To Pieces, in essence providing a four-line biography that drew through-lines from his past to his present as a voice for disaffected and disenfranchised from Queanbeyan to beyond.

You can hear those four lines reverberating throughout all of Musa’s work, regardless of medium. There are few Australian artists whose work feels so deeply connected to troubled non-white masculinity like Musa’s does. His debut novel, Here Come The Dogs, explored not only the sadness of Australia’s disenfranchised second-gen immigrants, but their rage and power too; following a set of Samoan brothers, Here Come The Dogs channeled the urgency and vitriol of Musa’s music into a novel that interrogated and exposed nuanced depictions of angry young men rendered systemically powerless by a fraught society. There is a deftness and grace Musa uses every time he analyses these themes; growing up and living in a society that, to this day, likes to caricature the experience of non-white migrants, he seems uniquely conscious of how important finely-drawn portrayals can be.

 While Musa now uses multiple mediums to express himself — the aforementioned prose, as well as poetry and hip-hop — it’s the latter two that, as an emerging artist, helped him channel his political, personal, and artistic fury. Hip-hop has allowed troubled and chaotic artists throughout history such as Jay-Z and Tupac to express themselves with power and majesty, and Musa’s early rap works like The Massive EP allowed him to explore not just the character of the angsty young brown man, but also himself, as someone living with trauma as well as a respect and passion for the world around him. As he rapped on World Goes To Pieces track “Hello Hello,” “You never have a place in hip-hop, you'll never have the right, boy / You'll never even know if you're Asian or white, boy.” The irony, of course, being the fact that hip-hop was a discipline that helped Musa explore his heritage and place in the world and come to peace with it.

As much as Musa likes to delve into the recklessness, alienation and, sometimes, violence of young men, he’s also pushed back on the all too common idea that first- and second-generation migrants are, in some inherent way, born outsiders. His music brings pop, poetry and hip-hop — disciplines that attract both outsiders and, more often than not, ultra-privileged born insiders — together in a way that dissolves often arbitrary boundaries. His 2016 record Dead Centre positioned his art at the nucleus of everything that was important and necessary in Australian culture: a mish-mash of free-spirited pop, liberating and thrilling hip-hop, and politically resonant poetry that drew from innumerable traditions du jour. Dead Centre features contributions from Kate Miller-Heidke, Lior, and L-FRESH The Lion, artists who come from all walks of life and speak across generations and demographics; their presence on the record speaks to Musa’s stature as a unifier of cultural threads and a disrupter of perceived ‘natural’ order. When, on Dead Centre’s title track, he raps “Not a trendsetting outsider / In the years to come you’ll know that I was dead centre,” it feels like a thesis statement, an acknowledgement from Musa that his art has not yet reached the gravity and importance that it surely one day will.

Arts Centre Melbourne and Australian Music Vault present a Griffin Theatre Company Production, Since Ali Died by Omar Musa as part of Big World, Up Close.13 – 17 August 2019, Fairfax Studio. Tickets on sale now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 Shaad D’Souza

 Shaad D'Souza is the Australian News Editor of The FADER, a New York-based music magazine. Before The FADER, Shaad was the Australian editor of Noisey, VICE's music vertical. Previously published in The Guardian, Vulture, Pitchfork, Billboard, i-D and The Saturday Paper, Shaad writes on emerging and established talent, with a focus on the intersection of music and contemporary politics.

In his spare time, Shaad serves on the board of directors for music industry non-profit The Push, and on the advisory board of Arts Centre Melbourne's Australian Music Vault.

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