If your problem with rap is that you can’t hear the words – or you think you won’t want to – Omar Musa’s new poetry collection Millefiori might change your mind. Musa is a Malaysian-Australian rapper, with two solo records, but he is also an accomplished novelist – Here Come the Dogs was longlisted for the Miles Franklin – and the author of two earlier poetry books.
Musa’s poetry, presented on the page but mostly designed for performance, bears the hallmarks of rap. It is marked by repetition, strong rhythms, word play, rhyme-driven and associative techniques of composition, a social and political consciousness, and didacticism.
Take the rap-poem “The Ranthem”. The title itself, compressing “rant” and “anthem”, provides a comic example of word play and the context for the wide-ranging critique of Australia that follows. After beginning with a rhyme pairing “la poesia” with “Queen Boadicea” – showing how rap can generate surprising and entertaining pairings – “The Ranthem” moves through various topical issues: women’s reproductive rights, the government’s refusal to “commemorate the frontier wars that really made us”, Aboriginal land rights, domestic violence, climate change, Manus Island and Nauru. There are also plenty of amusing asides, such as a vision of John Howard’s eyebrows on fire, and clever rebuttals to those who might “disqualify everything that I say / cos I’m a big brown brother with an Arabic name”. As the poet argues, the poem is an act of patriotism because “loving your country means wanting change for the better”. When the poet declares, “Ahh man, what the fuck are my choices? / It feels the only thing we have right now is our voices”, it is impossible not to agree.
“The Ranthem II”, like most sequels, is inferior, but there are other successful poems. These include some of the conventional lyric poems, which are often concerned with love and tend to employ ocean imagery. Musa crafts exciting similes and metaphors. In “Do you remember?”, the poet is kissed “like I was fireproof / proof that we / could turn the seam between our bodies / into the equator of a world / conceived in a reverie”. Sometimes he explains away the potential power of his images, but this is poetry that wants to communicate.
There is a lot to feel energised by here, including the poet’s drawings and notebook scribblings, which challenge the conservative aesthetic of restraint that dominates Australian poetry publishing. KN
Penguin, 112pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "Omar Musa, Millefiori". Subscribe here.