What You Need To Know About…
The calligraphic tattoo on Omar Musa’s right arm says it all: Penglipur lara.
In Malay it has multiple meanings but in its simplest terms, it translates to ‘storyteller’.
It’s something Musa was born into to a great extent. His mother, Helen Musa, lectured in theatre at Malaysia’s Penang University and directed the first Malay language version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His father, Musa Bin Masran, a noted poet in Malaysia, acted the title role.
They moved to Australia and Musa was brought up in Queanbeyan on the outskirts of Canberra.
“I have always chosen to say I’m Malaysian hyphen Australian because I am interested in that hyphen,” he told the website The Pin. “That liminal in-between place. As long as I describe myself as Malaysian-Australian, I also think white people should acknowledge the concept of race, and accept that they are Anglo hyphen Australian.”
Growing up, Musa’s mixed race heritage made him the focus of playground bullies.
Looking for inspiration, he came across the story of boxer Muhammad Ali. The rebel champ quickly became his hero.
When Ali died, Musa penned a moving tribute on The Guardian Australia: “Ali taught me to be brave, to stand up for myself, to fight for the underdog and that, even if society was against you, your conviction for what was right would be vindicated by history. That there was something radical in being completely and utterly yourself. That my brown skin was not the colour of shit – it shone brighter than gold. He taught me to be proud.”
Inspired by rappers Chuck D, Nas and Ice Cube, Musa turned to rap as a vehicle of expression.
He developed a distinctive, laid-back yet flowing style.
“Sometimes people get very obsessed with technically complex rhyme schemes and speed,” he told journalist Mark Mordue in an interview in The Australian in 2014. “They say it’s lyrical, but really it’s just technical.
“My stuff is slower. It gives room for the poetry to shine. It’s not rapid fire. It’s just an aesthetic choice by me to do it that way.”
Musa is also an award-winning poet and novelist.
To date he has published three books of poetry – The Clocks, Parang and 2017’s Millefiori – which takes its name from the colourful Italian glassware often seen in paperweights.
Literary success came with the release of his novel Here Come the Dogs in 2014, the story of three young men – Solomon, Jimmy and Aleks – living on the fringes of Australian life, looking for a way in. The reviews were glowing: “This novel broke my heart a little but it also made me ecstatic at the possibilities of what the best writing can do,” wrote Christos Tsiolkas. “His voice is genuine, new and exciting; his voice roars.”
Omar Musa’s stage performance, Since Ali Died, is an attempt to create “something fresh” he says.
“I’m trying to create something vivid, ferocious, soulful and beautiful,” says Musa of his mash-up of performance poetry, live beat and stories addressing themes of heartbreak, human connection and the dark realities of Australian culture. “I hope that people leave the theatre with a different set of eyes to look at the world.”
First seen in Sydney in Griffin Theatre’s Batch Festival in April 2018, Since Ali Died rocked the critics.
“ … the show unfurls like the river imagery in Musa’s evocative script: borne on a central unstoppable current, fluid and fluent in a style of its own making,” wrote Cassie Tongue in her Time Out review.
Veteran director and teacher Kevin Jackson found himself moved to tears: “I found myself weeping for most of the hour of this performance. Deep weeping of recognised truths. Touched by the poetry. Touched by the man’s humanity. Touched by the egoless sharing. I was not the only one weeping.”
Omar Musa performs Since Ali Died at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, as part of Sydney Festival, January 22 – 25 2019.