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Hannah Hall Interviews Omar Musa

1 February 2017

HH: You take strong stances on the social and cultural state of our country. Your song ‘The Razor’s Edge’ contains this fantastic line: ‘I told Scotty Morrison to his face “You’re an un-compassionate national disgrace”’ and yet that same song finishes with ‘I, too, became afraid’. Have your experiences encouraged you to continue questioning the politics of our country, or is there a lingering temptation to back off into less controversial territory?

OM: Not for me. It affects us on a daily basis. I can’t help but be political, whether I deal with that every single time in a polemic way or directly address particular policy issues, that wouldn’t always be fun in a hip hop song. But no, I can’t back away from these issues because I’m drawn to talking about them and in a lot of ways I think it is my responsibility. Part of it is questioning others, questioning the system, questioning those who ‘lead’ us, questioning those in power, because that’s an essential part of art-making. That’s why I called the EP Dead Centre. It’s re-shifting what the centre is or, at the very least, waging a war upon the centre from the fringes. That’s what art is about. The great novelist Richard Flanagan said to me recently that ‘waging a war from the fringes upon the centre is the same as truth speaking to power’ and that’s how I feel, that we’re speaking to power. At the same time, I’m very conscious that I have to question myself, that I have to make myself uneasy, ask myself the uncomfortable questions – where do I stand in all of this and what part do I play. Otherwise it just becomes preachy and you pretend that you’ve got all of these solutions when sometimes all you can do is ask the right questions and problematise issues that haven’t been problematised before.

We all have prejudices, so I try to hold myself accountable as much as I hold others. I know that I’m culpable: I eat the fish that’s fished by the enslaved fisherman, I’m wearing the Nikes on my feet that are put together using exploitative labour practices, I have enacted verbal violence against women, I have been sexist, I have probably in private moments – definitely, in private moments – been racist, we all have. In this particular song I wanted to end on that uncertainty because a lot of the record is so fierce and defiant but again, as with the ‘Fisherman’s Song’, I wanted to leave it hanging because this is an unresolved story; this Australian story that we’re all living, this Australian nightmare, has not come to an end. It’s still in flux.

I also wanted to talk about contagious fear and how fear is like a virus. I think I originally wrote that spoken word around the time of the Lindt Café Seige after seeing how everybody was afraid. The politicians play on these fears, even though they might simultaneously also be afraid in some way, they consciously play upon those fears. But suddenly everyone was afraid: Muslim-Australians were afraid, Anglo-Australians were afraid, people of different classes, everyone. I was working with the producer Poncho and I’d just done those raw voice vocal takes when he suggested that I finish with a spoken word. I hadn’t written anything so I scrolled through my notes on my phone and saw that one and I said ‘I think this could work, put the mic on.’ I did it once and that was the take, it ended there. He didn’t sculpt it around it, he didn’t cut the beat, it ended there. I remember he looked at me with this funny look on his face like ‘bro, that’s it.’

HH: I’ve noticed that’s become quite a signature of yours, finishing suddenly on that final word. Is it intentional or does it occur naturally?

OM: You have an opportunity to hit them [the listener] really hard with the last line. My favourite poet is Anne Sexton. She was the queen of the killer last line; she used striking imaging throughout her poetry, but then she would manage to out-strike herself with that final line and do something really surprising. Sometimes I have these lines right there and I know that that’s what I’m going to use to knock the listener’s head right off. Other times I will just switch the first line and the last line, or even cut off the last line and use the second last line. You just play around with these things and intuitively feel your way. There’s no rules to poetry, sometimes you sculpt them over a long period of time and sometimes your intuitive sense of where the poem’s going, and where it must go, is right immediately and it’s just there.

HH: Hip hop is a long-standing platform for exploring different voices and experiences. Do you feel that the Australian scene is doing this tradition justice? Or there a bit too much of the laidback, larrikin, Aussie persona?

OM: I think it’s very difficult to be prescriptive about a culture as big and as storied as hip hop. Everybody’s got an opinion on what ‘real’ hip hop is and I don’t believe that art works like that. There are no rules, there are no ten commandments. There are certain things that we are more drawn to and I do think that the initial act of the creation of hip hop in the face of Reaganism means that it is inherently political in some way, even if its just party music. If you think about Kool Herc back then rocking block parties, yes it may have been a political act, but not directly – it was party music. I do think that some of the Aussie stream is definitely very safe, very complacent. I often hear Aussie hip hop where there’s no element of danger or self-interrogation, or a sense that this music is fierce or ferocious in any way.

When I was in high school, back before Aussie hip hop became popular – because we all remember when it was patently uncool, though I’m sure there are a lot of people that still think that – even just rapping in an Australian accent was laughable. I had to keep it to myself that I rapped in my own accent. Then, suddenly, after Triple J and the market picked up on it and we started seeing sold out shows and people going platinum, there was this phase where a particular type of very white, larrikin Aussie hip hop voice was really popular.

Some of these people who draw the bigs crowds are my friends and I think that they’re really great artists, but there was a reason that people were really drawn to their music in large droves. I don’t have a problem with those particular artists, I have to say – it’s more the fact that other people and other voices suddenly didn’t have a place or the access to tell their stories. You have to remember that fifteen years ago there wasn’t really Aussie hip hop artists packing out these venues, so its not as though the Hilltop Hoods or Draft had all of these nefarious plans when they were growing up in the nineties, because there was no market for it. A lot of these Aussie acts were appalled when they found out that some of their fans were racist dickheads. They didn’t like that, of course they didn’t. As a collective culture, we realised that ‘holy shit, there’s no brown people on stage at rap gigs’. In the world of hip hop, it was very strange because it was usually the minorities that were on stage. Once people realised that there was a certain segment of the Aussie population that was using homegrown hip hop as a soundtrack to their prejudice, then they were like ‘okay, something needs to be done about this’ and so we see things start to change, like Hilltop Hoods and Golden Era giving Briggs the opportunity to start start his own platform of all-Indigenous artists.

So, again, it’s a matter of people realising that there is a problem, vocalising it and then seeing how they can act upon it.

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