Omar Musa wants to use his voice any way he can ― whether written, spoken, screamed, or sung. The second generation Malaysian-Australian has devoted his life to weaving stories in a variety of habitats, environments, tempos and beats. Some that slip off the tongue with an easy rhythm, others that are best silently mulled over on a written page.
Musa, who made a name for himself as a novelist, slam poet and TED-talk giver extraordinaire, recently released a hip hop album titled “Dead Centre,” officially adding rapper to his repertoire. For Musa, however, the divisions between media are subsidiary. All are simply vessels through which to express the same words, stories and ideas.
For this reason, rapping does not symbolize some sort of departure or new beginning. If anything, it’s a homecoming. “Hip-hop is considered to be very modern but we’ve inherited this energy – the storytelling, music-making and poetry – from our ancestors and forefathers,” Musa explained in an interview with The Guardian. “There’s this same ancient seam running through it, no matter where you’re from in the world.”
This same message flows freely through one of the standout songs on his album “Dead Centre,” titled “The Past Becomes You.” The song features Musa along with Tongan-Australian rapper Hau Latukefu, Sikh-Punjabi rapper L-Fresh the Lion, and Israeli-Australian singer Lior Attar. The four individuals recite poignant oral histories, touching on their family origins, the struggles they’ve faced, and the power of music and words to transcend hate.
The video, directed by Stackhat, features the musicians in both plainclothes and their respective traditional garments. Dressed in a Baju Melayu, Musa weaves together past and present, his own journey with that of his father, who was also a poet. “Did they know it when they planted the seed, that the poetry would grow into a family tree?” Musa raps. “Many fruits, many flavors, the canopy to shade us, the music and the leaves help the planet to breathe. We’re passing on our breath to our children.”
Visions of the musicians themselves are interspersed with clips of Malaysian, Tongan and Punjabi culture, faces that, Musa says, “often don’t get traction on television screens.” The artists craft an epic patchwork of eras, origins, families and traditions, using language and music to transcend the boundaries that so often seem impenetrable. Also, you may nod your head to it without noticing.
We reached out to Musa to learn more about the song and new album. Read on below.
You’ve spoken in previous interviews about feeling like an “in-betweener” ― at once Malaysian and Australian, among other identities. Do you have a memory of when or how you first began to identify with this idea of living in the space between?
Hard to say. I think when you grow up in an Australia where whiteness is often the measuring stick of legitimacy, as a brown, black or ethnic person you feel it almost as soon as you gain consciousness.
But I’d say it was a connection of two events when I was around 9. Someone in the playground in Australia saying “go back to where you come from” but then soon afterward going to Malaysia (where my dad is from) for the first time, and a kid teasing me for being the “white boy.” It’s easy to let these types of experiences make you feel lost and dislocated, but I try to think of being an “in-betweener” as an enriching, empowering thing. It’s an ongoing struggle, though, and probably ever will be.
At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to become a poet? Was there a specific person or work that especially influenced you?
I never had the outright realization that I wanted to become a poet, but I knew I liked poetry from a young age, maybe 10. My parents both love poetry and my dad was a poet in Malaysia. He used to tell me that he and his friends used to make up improvised poems called “pantuns” for fun in the shanty, and that poetry was best when it was performed. What I got from that was that poetry lived and breathed, that it was liberating, that it could be a part of daily life, and maybe most importantly, that it was fun.
What about hip-hop? Did hip-hop always play an important role in your life?
I remember hearing Snoop Dogg on the radio in the early ‘90s and thinking, “That sounds really cool.” But it wasn’t until I came across Ice Cube, Wu Tang Clan and Public Enemy in my early teens that the penny dropped. In my mind, this was the sort of poetry my father had been telling me about: living poetry, full of breath and blood. It was cool, it told stories, it was personal, it was political, and it was made by people of color, unlike a lot of the poetry we had to read at school. And a lot of rappers referenced Islam in their rhymes, so I felt like I could relate to it.
What, in your view, does hip-hop offer that other musical genres cannot?
I think the verse-heavy nature and lyrical density of rap lends itself well to delving really deeply into stories and ideas. I also think that because rapping is almost spoken, it aligns itself closely with oral traditions that feature so heavily in cultures all around the world, which I guess is what “The Past Becomes You” is about.
Was it difficult to transition between slam poetry and hip-hop lyrics? What do you think distinguishes the genres, or connects them?
It wasn’t difficult. It seemed very natural. But it took me a while to realize that spoken word afforded the space to play with timing and treat the text like a monologue, that I didn’t have to adhere so strictly to a beat. Then again, you can rap without music and do spoken word with music, so I try not to make too many distinctions. They are both about bringing words to life in an embodied, physical way.
What was your initial vision for “The Past Becomes You”? Did the song go through any major changes while you were working on it?
Me and Joelistics (producer from Melbourne) wanted to make “The Past Becomes You” really cinematic and textured. Because it had so many voices on it, we didn’t want it to seem like a stereotypical posse track. We conceived of it as being in the same vein as N.W.A.-era Dr. Dre or Bomb Squad production, where the beat completely changes three or four times during the course of the song.
I thought of it as epic, like a sea journey. But it was a bit overblown at first, so Joelistics had to chop it back a bit. Lior has sung ancient Hebrew hymns with symphonies, so he definitely brought that epic flavor.
Can you talk about the imagery you incorporated into the music video? What is the significance of these images and what do you hope to communicate to your viewers?
We wanted to show some faces of a modern Australia that often don’t get traction on television screens. We wanted to celebrate the beauty and vibrancy of our cultural heritages ― Malaysian, Tongan and Punjabi ― and how, as rappers, we have inherited the spirit of very ancient practices, and how we carry them with us at all times. By I think the director, Stackhat, from Sydney, did a stellar job. I suppose by flicking between our modern clothes and traditional dress, we were making a point about how its OK to have multiple or hybrid cultural identities in an Australian world that so often wants to make identity narrow or rigid.
Do you think you’ve faced additional hurdles in your career due to Islamophobia? How has dealing with prejudice shaped your work?
In terms of my career, I think it’s less a matter of outright prejudice, than well-meaning people wanting you to be an “Every Muslim,” or a spokesperson when you don’t want to be. It can be very reductive.
I’ve faced hurdles in the world due to Islamophobia, that’s for sure. I’ve had hate mail from psychopathic anti-Muslim keyboard warriors. The other month, I had an immigration officer in the U.S. really trying to intimidate me and at a certain point he said in this really withering way, “You’re a writer, are you? What do you write about? Drones?” What a weird thing to say, but I can only assume he had asked this particular question because of my Muslim name.
I’ve come to expect that people will sling vitriol at you, try to intimidate you. That your very existence sticks in their craw. But I’d like to think it made me fiercer and braver as a writer and a human. As famous Aboriginal writer Uncle Kevin Gilbert once said: “You sharpen your spear on the hardest stone!”