Omar Musa, Ubud Writers Festival. October 2010
Omar Musa, Ubud Writers Festival. October 2010

Omar Musa is a rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, NSW, Australia and is of Malaysian-Australian heritage. He has lived in London and California and spends most of his time on the road, performing and writing.

He has won numerous awards for poetry and music, including the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008 and the British Council’s Realise Your Dream award in 2007. While living in London in 2008, he recorded with MOBO award winning British rapper Akala.

He has also run creative workshops in Aboriginal communities in remote Australian towns. His first hip-hop record, The Massive EP, recorded in Seattle, USA with veteran rock producer Geoff Stanfield, was released in 2009 to critical acclaim.

He also published his first book of poetry, The Clocks, in 2009, and worked as an actor for the Bell Shakespeare Company in Sydney. He released his debut full length album World Goes to Pieces in 2010.

I caught up with Omar just after he stepped off stage after a marathon session with a bunch of other lively performance artists at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival last weekend.

The Northern Myth: What do you sing in the shower?

Omar Musa: What do I sing in the shower? I just got off stage so I’ve got to figure this all out. I like to sing Sam Cooke. Yeah, like “Youuuu send me”.

TNM: Is it because of the resonance…the sound of the shower?

OM: Yeah, definitely and I think it is also because of it is so private and no-one is going to hear my awful voice…because it is like a strangled cat (laughs).

TNM: Do you drive a car?

OM: No. Public transport all the way for me. I think I’m just one of those guys… . The only people that don’t drive cars are artists and I think I just fall into that. I get to know the cities that I live in pretty well just through public transport. I kind of like it that way.

TNM: You’ve been to a lot of cities lately. Have you always been a traveler or is it just because you go to those places to perform?

OM: I’ve always been a traveller, I mean as soon as I got the opportunity when I left high school I went back-packing around South Korea and Japan. Doing that as an 18 year old, as a first travelling experience I think that set the tone. Thankfully now my poetry and hip-hop gives me the chance to do that. I can combine the two – no three – great loves of my life, but. I have a few travel tales…

TNM: Okay! have you got a favourite city?

OM: Yeah – two. Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires are two of the most amazing places on earth. Rio is an amazing city, I went on this favela tour in Rio. I was a bit wary because I thought “Oh, how voyeuristic is that?” Going through the ghetto and looking at poor people. But someone convinced me and it was totally the opposite of that.

It was more like a cultural tour. They told you about the history of the place, how it all worked. We went and visited an orphanage and met a few artists and saw their paintings. They told us about the gun culture and the gangs and all that – fascinating.

TNM: Your Sunday morning record – what do you listen to?

OM: I’m into two albums at the moment when I’m just chilling and they are two very, very different pieces of music. One is Claire Bowditch’s new one,”Modern Day Addiction”. She is a hell of a writer and a hell of a singer and performer. The other is by a hip-hop group from Detroit called Slum Village and it is an album called “Detroit, Delhi” and it is just pretty smooth and chill. Soulful beats and good flows.

TNM: Your Saturday night record?

OM: Oh man. I’m a huge Kanye West fan, I mean there is nothing that gets you more hyped or going out that “Power”, his new song or the old song “Stronger”. That really gets me going for sure…

TNM: And if you had one record to take to a Desert Island?

OM: Easy! The Best of Jimmy Hendrix.

TNM: When did you last break the law?

OM: Uh, hoh!! So, on New Year’s Eve last year my friends and I managed to go to a really ritzy party overlooking the Harbour in Sydney. We went on a yacht and all that. It was crazy.

We went back to the party and it was getting pretty rowdy and we went to check out the fireworks on the Harbour, but we couldn’t get a good view. So I thought “Oh, OK”, there was this big fence and I just thought “Oh, let’s climb this.” There was a sort of a platform and we could get a better view. So my mate and I climbed up there and got on this platform and were having a great time chatting and talking about love and life and everything between and watching the fireworks and all of a sudden we saw this Federal copper that just appeared and he goes “Hey, what the fuck are you guys doing up there? Do you know what you are doing?

And we go “No, were just trying to look at the fireworks.” The cop goes “Get down from there immediately, you are in deep shit.” So we go OK, and climb down. He goes “Do you know you’ve just broken Federal law?” and we go “Sorry, what are you talking about?” and he says “This is Kirribilli House.”

So Kevin Rudd [then Prime Minister] was on the plot. Immediately I go “Oh, shit, I’m Omar bin Musa, and I’m in deep shit.” The Feds took us into this paddy wagon and we were scared shitless. I was trying to be fairly calm and diplomatic to these policemen and my friend was being a bit belligerent – he was a few Gin & Tonics deep.

Eventually they handed us over to the State police and they were driving us back to the local police station and we were just sitting there going “God, how did this happen.” Because it was actually just an honest mistake, we were just two idiots trying to look at the fireworks. I felt sorry for my mate, because he was a banker. It doesn’t matter that much for me but he would have lost his job.

Anyway, the cops just stopped the paddy-wagon and they go “Get out you bloody idiots, we know you didn’t mean it but get out!”. They pulled up at Milson’s Point – there were just thousands of people and they were just staring at us as we crept out of the paddy wagon. We just went off, the crowd parted like the red sea and we just walked off. We ended up sleeping in the park that night. (laughs)

TNM: Do you follow any football?

OM: I used to and I’ll have to admit that i just jumped on the [Canberra] Raiders [rugby league team] bandwagon, because this year they were absolutely killing it. But I was always a bit of a [Rugby] Union fan. I grew up in Queanbeyan. The only thing that Queanbeyan is really known for is having good footy players and ACT Brumbies were always doing it back in the day…

TNM: Is there something that gets you excited or angry?

OM: Something that gets me really, really angry – and this is a bit of an obvious one for an Australian – is the Government’s treatment of refugees. I think it is absolutely ridiculous the way that they get treated.

You have these poor people who are desperate and come from these war-torn countries, looking for refuge in Australia and they get treated with absolutely no compassion and either side of the political spectrum. – It is always a race to the bottom. That makes me really angry.

No-one raises a peep when all these British and Irish people over-stay their visas but what does that tell you? It tells you that they are the “right type of people.” Those are the people we don’t mind being in Australia. Whereas these “others” from maybe Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, they aren’t the type of people that we want in Australia. And we are a nation of immigrants. Crazy.

TNM: So what makes you happy?

OM: Creativity. That is the one, the biggest joy of my life. Being able to express myself though writing and performing. There is nothing like it, I think I would go insane if i wasn’t able to do that. Another thing is food.

TNM: Finally, where do we go when we are dead?

OM: Where do we go when we are dead? I have no idea.

I cannot even begin to fathom it. I lean towards thinking that we just go back into the earth. I can’t really fathom anything beyond that. I understand this idea of heaven and hell because I was raised in a strict Muslim family but… .

I know where I want to be buried though. I want to be buried next to the Molongolo River in Queanbeyan. I have such a strong connection to where I grew up in Queanbeyan. I guess that is spiritual.

TNM: You’ve written a song or poem about that place?

OM: Yeah. there is a song and I’ve written poems about it. My one great aim is to perfectly describe my home town in a piece of music or a piece of writing. I haven’t got there yet but I’ll keep working on it.

TNM: Is that like a painter that keeps painting the same scene until they get it right…

OM: Exactly. I feel as if Queanbeyan is like a microcosm of Australia. Part rural, part urban, very multicultural and if I could paint that in words I think I’d go just a little bit of the way towards capturing Australia itself. And myself as well.

TNM: Where to next?

OM: I’m going on tour in to Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Jakarta with Mighty Joe, a hip-hop artist from California. I’m really excited about that. And then to Malaysia to my cousin’s wedding, so I’ll get to see a lot of family that I haven’t seen in years and years. Especially my Grandma and Grandpa from Borneo. I’m very excited about that.

TNM: So have you been back to Borneo – to Malaysia – to see your family there?

OM: The last time I went was in second year at University and I feel pretty guilty about that – since then I’ve travelled all around the world. I haven’t been to Malaysia in years and I’m really looking forward to going back.

TNM: When you think about the idea of “country”, do you think about Molongolo River or Malaysia?

OM: I think I used to have this sense of connection to Malaysia, and I do. I still have this connection to Borneo and the jungles and the ocean but more and more I realise now that I am far more Australian than I am Malay. Yeah, the biggest sense of connection I have is towards Queanbeyan, the river, the town, the asphalt and the people there. Even though it is a place that I’m not sure that I’ll live there again. It is a bit too small, too restrictive – but it will always be in my heart.

TNM: Last question from me – the really important one – washing-machine – top loader or front loader?

OM: Front-loader. It was the one that was in the place that I bought in Melbourne. It is pretty bloody annoying because there is something wrong with one of the feet on it and it feels like it is going to jump out of the window any moment. I’ve gotta get that fixed. It was the same with the washing-machine back in Queanbeyan – that was a top-loader – so maybe it reminds me of home (laughs)…