ON THE COUCH ... Omar MUSA
THE HIP-HOP POET
Hip-hop artist and poet OMAR MUSA took home the grand prize at the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam, giving him a new stage as an acclaimed poet. TAN MAY LEE speaks to the trendy artist about poetry and travel
OMAR MUSA has made his mark as a performance poet and hip-hop artist in Australia. Despite being only 25, he has been crowned the champion of the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam. Before that, he has also won titles from poetry slams such as the ACT Poetry Slam in the past. Omar is based in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, when he is not busy travelling, another passion of his.
Omar, your father was a published Malay poet. Please tell us more about your father’s accomplishments in poetry and how he has inspired you.
My father was a published poet in Malay, regularly appearing in the pages of The Sabah Daily Express. His devotional poetry also appeared in an anthology of religious verse published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). In the 1980s, he performed his own poetry on ‘Malam Deklamasi’ nights at Hotel Abad in Kuala Lumpur, along with other members of the local theatre community. He was an actor and a presenter with Radio Malaysia Sabah and my mother was a theatre lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. This combination of poetry and performance, as well as my mother’s artistic vigilance, has been critical in my development as a poet and rapper. By teaching me to love words and see poetry as a vital part of everyday life, as opposed to uncool and pretentious, they have had a profound impact on me as a person.
Here and there in your poems, there will be one-liners about being Malaysian. How often do you relate your poems to your Malaysian background?
Quite a lot of the time, but not always. I like my poems to be snapshots of my life, so if my Malaysian background relates immediately to something I’m going through at the moment I’m writing a song or poem, then it becomes part of it. However, I am very wary of being labelled a “multicultural writer,” because it makes me feel as if I am exploiting my heritage to be politically correct or score brownie points. I deal a lot with the theme of guilt. I come from a very impoverished family in Sabah, but in the last few years I have become quite materialistic and threw away money on shoes and clothes while my family struggled. Very Kanye West of me, I suppose.
What was the first thing you did after winning the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam? Is this your biggest achievement to date?
It’s definitely equal to the release of my first hip-hop record, The Massive EP. Hip-hop and spoken word poetry go hand in hand for me, and the first thing I did when I won the Australian Poetry Slam was to fund the production of my album. It was a real godsend, because I was dead broke and wondering about my future in performance.
The Australian Poetry Slam finals were a sell-out at the Sydney Opera House. It must be nerve-wracking for some people to perform in front of such large audiences. How do you build up the confidence (or psyche yourself up!) to do poetry slams?
I either wander off by myself and sit really quietly for a while, or I go for a long walk, listening to hip-hop tracks with really hard beats. Dizzee Rascal or Lil Wayne does the trick!
How do you know you’ve performed well?
When people go bananas or cry. If I’ve done something heartfelt, it’s usually a pretty good sign!
Well, you’ve earned an invitation to the 2009 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. What do you look forward to experiencing there?
I never pass the opportunity to surround myself with creative people, especially when those people are word-nerds like me. I think it will be great to see a real variety of writers. Also, some luminaries I really admire will be there, like J.M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka and W.S. Rendra. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to think that this sort of guys will be around, while here I am, a 25-year-old rapper! I’m really excited though.
Looks like you obviously enjoy good literature. What books are currently on your bedside table?
Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is one of the most amazing pieces of writing I have read in a long time. I have lost it behind the couch somewhere though, so I’m three-quarters of the way through it and very frustrated! I just finished Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, which combines darkness and enchantment. Right up my alley.
The other interesting thing I’ve learnt about you is that you enjoy a good dose of globetrotting as well. Tell us more about your interesting travels. What would your freakiest encounter be?
I would say being bitten by a possibly rabid monkey in the middle of the Bolivian jungle would take the cake. I had been looking for rare pink river dolphins in the Amazon when the little guy attacked me. I had to catch a boat, a jeep and then a plane to get to medical facilities. The injections for rabies (12 in 12 days) were in the belly and extremely painful. I saw a man die in front of me from a gunshot wound in a hospital in Cuzco, Peru, while getting my injections. People think I’m lying when I tell that story, but every word of it is true. I don’t think it gets any freakier than that.
TAN MAY LEE graduated from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where she was awarded the Bonamy Dobree Scholarship for International Students to do her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She also trained as a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Linguistic Programming. She is the editor of Quill magazine.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine