Hannah Hall Interviews Omar Musa

By and | 1 February 2017

HH: I remember reading in an article of yours that, growing up in your hometown of Queanbeyan, ‘tackles and tries were valued, but words and creativity were not’. Do you think the performance of poetry, slam poetry and hip hop is bridging this gap? Perhaps building a team or communal environment in the arts that we often associate with sport?

OM: Definitely. There are so many societies around the world where men are not encouraged to express their emotions, to talk about their problems, to express themselves creatively. Oftentimes that’s viewed as a woman’s pursuit and, more dangerously, they’re encouraged to express themselves only through physical acts of extreme violence, whether it be on the sporting field or on the streets after a big night out. I think it must be a positive thing if men, especially young men, find a different way of expressing themselves. I’m not really a violent guy but as a kid I used to fight a lot. Then I started to write all my thoughts down and process them and I found that, just by expressing those feelings of frustration and aggression, through some type of alchemy it turned into something very positive. That’s my message. I don’t always have a particular political message, it’s just to encourage young people to express themselves creatively and add a different facet to how they express themselves. In a really sneaky way, because it’s cool and it’s fun, hip hop has meant that a lot of people have been opened up to the idea of doing that without even realising it. Sometimes, kids I work with will be like ‘poetry, as if I’d do that!’ and then you find out that they actually write raps at home or they write songs, and I’m like ‘well this is poetry, you know, you’re already doing it!’ and so it just depends upon the label that’s attached to it.

HH: I understand you’re particularly passionate about engaging with young people in schools and youth centres, encouraging them to find and value their own voices – can you touch on those experiences, how it’s worked out for you and how it began?

OM: One of my best friends, Bruce, is from Aurukun in Far North Queensland in Cape York. It’s a close community and it’s a difficult place to grow up in – I think a large per cent of men are in jail or have been to jail. So Bruce went back to his community to work up there again and he wanted to get a bunch of different creatives to come up and join him; the idea was to get some to teach the kids to juggle, others to teach them to breakdance, and he wanted me to come help the kids write some rhymes and then they would do a show for the community. That was my first experience and it was difficult. We think we’re on the right side of politics, you know, left-leaning. We think we understand what’s going on in this country, but you don’t if you’re from the city. Then you go to one of these remote communities – and if a world is a relative thing, it is literally a different world out there – and to see that and to work with them, it threw me right into the fire. But to see the level of liberation and enjoyment that the young people got out of it, it really inspired me too.

Working with young people is one of the great joys of my career, it helps me keep in touch with what they’re thinking, what their problems are and sometimes they really have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the country. Kids and teenagers are sometimes undervalued and thought of as though they have nothing worthy to say. Now, of course a lot of wisdom and experience comes with age and ageing, but young people do have something to say and they are intelligent and they often see the world as it really is. That idealism that young people have, that we can be very cynical about, I find inspiring because it keeps you honest and it keeps you remembering what you’re doing this for. It’s easy to get cynical.

HH: You mentioned earlier that there’s an unrecognised relationship between hip hop and poetry. I remember in an interview, you once said ‘In the Australian poetry scene, I get the feeling that people think you are going to be less literate or intelligent because you are a rapper’ and that you were hoping to change that. This was back in 2009 so, in that time, do you feel you’ve made progress in that respect, or do these attitudes still persist?

OM: Oh no, there’s still a bit of that. Some of these writers festivals can be very elitist events. People will see you dressing in a sort of way and speaking in a certain way and think that, maybe, you don’t have anything to contribute to in the rarified air of intellectual circles. I never take that to heart, though, because there’s a lot that those people can’t do; they couldn’t go in front of 200 kids and try and get them into poetry or directly engage them with their words. So yes, people often really do read books by their covers, but as my career is developing I think people are starting to realise that I’m not to be taken lightly.

HH: At the Canberra Writers Festival, you touched briefly on the idea of creating safe spaces for dangerous ideas.

OM: I think that’s what hip hop has and spoken word poetry has done. It was Flaubert who said ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work’. I like that and it can be reflected in the spaces that we open up to people, because the thought has to be dangerous and it has to go everywhere, but people also have to feel like they can partake in it. For many years poetry did not feel like a safe space for people of colour. It just seemed like something that was the preserve of old, middle class, rich white men or, at least, academic white men; you couldn’t partake in poetry unless you had an Honours or PhD degree and of course that’s patently bullshit. Poetry has existed for time immemorial and you didn’t need a PhD back then in the caves when you were singing a poem about the buffalo. But yes, I think that, for whatever reason, spoken word has done that in Australia. We see so many people of colour, particularly kids of Middle Eastern and African origin, telling their stories in these amazing ways. I don’t think that they necessarily would have been comfortable doing that fifteen years ago without the rise of spoken word. I think it can only be a positive thing.

HH: How do you think that the internet plays into that; having a strong online presence yourself, do you feel that it’s helped these spaces have been opened up?

OM: I think it has in a really positive way. I’ve linked up with people from so many different countries just because of the internet and Youtube and Facebook. At the same time, some of these resources also have to be built up. When I first started spoken word, it was only Def Poetry Jam that was on YouTube and it was all American. I thought that this was a great pity and wondered why we didn’t have Australian videos, Australian voices, Australian stories, and so I started to make YouTube videos. Now there’s a wider range of people who are doing spoken word videos and if a kid gets into poetry and wonders what poetry slam is and types it into Youtube, there will still be all of those cool American and British videos, but there will also be the Australian as well. I think it’s become a really good way for people to build up networks and communities, because poetry and literature are kind of without a homeland. There’s this idea that there’s poetry from a particular nation and that it exists within those borders – but no, as writers and creatives, our homelands are the books and the literature and the music. Now we can create these interesting new worlds and these ever-shifting, fluid communities online. And I think that’s pretty damn cool.

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