OMAR MUSA: Storyteller
Omar Musa is an amazing man. Tattooed on his right forearm are the words penglipur lara, Malay for ‘storyteller’, 'a dispeller of worries' and 'reliever of sorrows'. As a poet, Musa won the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam and the 2009 Indian Ocean Poetry Slam . As a musician, he has released three hip-hop albums. And as an author, Musa has published two books of poetry, The Clocks and Penang, and last year debuted his first novel Here Come The Dogs to critical acclaim. Omar Musa has made countless appearances on television and performed Capital Letters at TEDxSydney, 2013.
The Pin met the poet and wordsmith under the shade of a tree on an unusually warm Melbourne morning and, after a quick chat about families, bullies, siblings and getting older, we hit record.
THE PIN. How did your parents meet?
OMAR MUSA. They met in Penang at University. My mother was a theater lecturer, my dad was a visiting fellow. He came from Borneo. My mum was directing the first Malay language version of Hamlet and my dad was the first Malaysian Hamlet. He got a scholarship to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, and they moved here. I grew up in a Malaysian-Australian household.
Was Malaysian culture the dominant culture of your household?
O. It was pretty mixed. Though, when you’re a minority in Australia you’re drawn more to what makes you stand out. I am brown, obviously not Anglo-Australian or Irish-Australian, and I felt I couldn’t really relate to my white family. So I was drawn towards my Malaysian identity.
Do you think Australian culture influenced your views on how you see your Malaysian and Anglo heritages?
O. I think it definitely did. A lot of the time biracial or mixed heritage people feel kind of torn between worlds, or, dislocated. In Malaysia, I’m Australian and in Australia, I’m Malaysian. I’m in-between worlds, and I’ve always found that enriching. I’ve got this dual heritage I can draw from and be proud of. They have informed the way I am in.
Do you think the description of Asian-Australian, Malaysian-Australian, Anglo-Malaysian and other variations, truly describe you?
O. I have always chosen to say I’m Malaysian hyphen Australian because I am interested in that hyphen. 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.
In your work you explore the concept of people who are labelled 'Australians' but not treated as if they are.
O. Waleed Aly said that Australia can be a very tolerant place to its minorities until they step out of their box and act in a way that the majority of Australia doesn’t want them to. So, if I didn’t have an opinion I’d be okay. The problems that people seem to have with me is not just that I am outspoken. It’s that I am a Muslim guy, or a brown guy, with an opinion.
Rap and hip-hop are heavily featured in your book Here Come the Dogs. What was the music that you listened to growing up and to what extent did your parents influence that?
O. My dad went through a really religious phase, where he thought that a lot of music was sinful and a bad influence. When I was in my early teens, I was really latching on to this idea that I was Muslim. I think that coincides with my dad.
I was looking for Muslim role models, and was watching an SBS documentary on Muslims and there was a whole thing on the black Muslims - Malcolm X especially. I just fell in love with Malcolm X. My dad bought the autobiography of Malcolm X, I read it and it changed my life.
In this SBS documentary, there was a 30 second clip talking about the Five Percenters movement, (a small offshoot of the black Muslims in New York) and there was Flava Flav and Chuck D rapping to a crowd and talking about Louis Farrakhan. I thought it was cool and felt it was the type of music and poetry I'd like to make. It linked in with my Muslim identity. I felt there was the connection between us.
In Struggle Town Crier you say, 'you on stage is a statement'. Do you think this encapsulates what you’re about?
O. Yeah, I think it does. You know the statements I make have some kind of substance. In this country, if you’re of a certain background getting up and telling your story proudly, defiantly and without fear, becomes an act of rebellion. Almost a revolution within itself. The best example I can give in terms of cultural movements or artist movements is spoken word and slam poetry.
What I am trying to do with most of my work, especially with the book, is to provide different facets to what an Australian identity is. I think that’s so important.
My work is an attempt to make people care about things they normally wouldn’t give a shit about. Australian's don’t give two fucks about Malaysia and don’t know much about Indonesia - our closest neighbor- but I think they should care.
Are you comfortable with being asked where you’re from? How often does it happen and how do you respond?
O. It happens all the time and I’ll say 'I’m from Queanbeyan' but then I’ll talk about my cultural background. Sometimes people are just genuinely interested in your background and sometimes it is intrusive. The way that a lot of white people ask you has a whole different vibe. It’s that interrogation of legitimacy - are you legitimately Australian?
I remember Dawn Fraser, bigot that she is, talking about Nick Kyrgios, telling him to go back to the country of his father. If someone like her can say that, no matter how long you have lived here or how many generations, you’ve never been truly Australian in their eyes.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
OMAR MUSA. Be fearless. Question everything - even yourself.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.