Through his one-man show Since Ali Died, Omar Musa has connected with audiences who have experienced ostracism. The rapper, novelist and poet speaks about the power of storytelling and the need for greater nuance in depictions of the Muslim community. “People come up to me after the show. Firstly, there are people really interested in having direct access to a young Muslim man growing up post-9/11. And then, secondly, there are those who relate to the outsider experience. I talk about a very specific intersection of race and religion – but try to make it relatable to all people who might feel a bit different.” By Ellen van Neerven.

Rapper, poet and novelist Omar Musa

Omar Musa.
Omar Musa.
Credit: Cole Bennetts

“Did I tell you I’ve started woodcutting?” Omar Musa asks me as we get stuck in to our soy lattes. Dressed in a gold batik shirt, tatts laid out on the table, he’s got his characteristic “I’m going to tell you a story” smile.

He tells me he’s recently spent some time living in his father’s homeland, Malaysian Borneo, where he picked up the practice at a workshop run by Aerick LostControl, a former member of Pangrok Sulap, an art collective he has admired for years. Musa took to it immediately, its physical nature welcoming – carvings intricately done by gouge, printing done by the pressing down of feet. As he spent more time with the members of Pangrok Sulap in their studio, he noted that they often play guitar or sing when pressing down with their feet, to give the print “extra soul”.

I ask him what it was like to learn a new art form so distinct from his usual modes of practice – music and writing. “I like being shit at something,” he says. “Something new. No one expects anything. There’s the potential to get better. I’d like to have the experience of coming to something new at least once a year. Woodcutting was just what I needed; it linked me to my roots.”

Pangrok Sulap is named for pangrok, the local pronunciation of “punk rock”, and sulap, a traditional hut used by the indigenous people of Sabah in the north. Musa’s grandfather is from Sabah and belongs to the Suluk people, while his grandmother is Kedayan, from the heavily forested areas on the border with Brunei. Some of the last remaining primary forests of South-East Asia are found in Borneo. “It’s like nowhere else,” Musa swoons. Since the 1990s, logging has wiped out 80 per cent of the rainforest, causing environmental destruction, water insecurity and widespread pollution. Pangrok Sulap fuses punk ethics with traditional arts to protest the threats to the animals, forests and indigenous peoples, feeding its community with mass-scale collaborative art projects and distributing its work widely through mediums such as posters.

It is easy to see why this punk posturing would appeal to Musa. He is not one to play by the rules or shy away from radical truth. He has made a name for himself as a rapper, poet and Miles Franklin-longlisted novelist, this decade’s wild child of Aus lit. DIY culture suits Musa, who has independently released music and books successfully for years – hand-selling his work at his shows and creating a personal connection with his audiences.

Born Omar bin Musa in Queanbeyan to a mother of Irish extraction, arts journalist Helen Musa, and a Malaysian father, poet Musa bin Masran, the 35-year-old describes himself as a “QBN–Borneo blend” and a “brown man living on black land”.

He’s taken his own style of woodcutting practice back to Queanbeyan. He works out of the renowned print studio Megalo in Canberra and will exhibit his work later this year. He has access to a press that takes a lot less time than pressing by feet, but finds solace in knowing he can always go back to basics. He shows me samples of his work on his phone. His images are Pop Art-esque with text, often poetry, sometimes dialogue. He’s posted them on Instagram, Rupi Kaur-style, and he’s got comments such as:

Boy, you just keep getting better and better... I love this one. <3 <3

Gosh, you are a creative renaissance man!

Beautiful! Is there anything you can’t do?!

Musa’s latest prints are situated in Leopard Beach, a fantasy place he’s conjured where “the weather is sweet as a kiss. There’s no racism, homophobia or transphobia. It’s plastic free, hater free, 100 per cent body positive!” A place Musa, and others, can escape to from relentless racist vilification.

He tells me he is seen in Australia in simplistic terms – as a brown Muslim man – whereas in Borneo, a place of sermon and family, his community sees where he fits in: his grandfather’s people are sea people; his grandmother’s are land people.

“I love the way people can, in a very specific way, identify my cultural lineage in Borneo. I’m still definitely seen as very Australian over there. I’m sure I’ll always be seen as somewhat of an outsider there but there’s a welcoming vibe that I didn’t realise I needed. Maybe that I’ve never had in Australia.”

In Borneo, his cultural lineage is affirmed, but for now he’s back in his home country, where his one-man show Since Ali Died, about the complexities of his Muslim Asian–Australian identity, is playing at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide. Musa has toured Since Ali Died around Australia over the past 12 months, including shows at Sydney Festival, Brisbane Festival and Arts Centre Melbourne.

Although the one-hour show was developed in just one sweaty week in 2018 with director Anthea Williams, Since Ali Died is a culmination of Musa’s career thus far, moving between masculine energetic performance – with tracks from his 2017 album of the same name – and soft poetic introspection, where we’re imagining him on a boat sailing down a river with his childhood hero, Muhammad Ali. Musa explains that those who see the show understand it’s not about his hero; Ali is just a springboard.

“My writing hasn’t really changed since I was a kid,” Musa tells me, as we get into another soy latte and, this time, toast. “It’s about the same things, and in the same language, heightened by myth and rhythm, and it seems to operate at two different levels.

“People come up to me after the show. Firstly, there are people really interested in having direct access to a young Muslim man growing up post-9/11. And then, secondly, there are those who relate to the outsider experience. I talk about a very specific intersection of race and religion – but try to make it relatable to all people who might feel a bit different. I have people of all faiths come talk to me about growing up in a strict regimented religious household; I have queer people come up to me and say they relate even though my experience is of a straight man.”

Musa, a born performer, and an inheritor of strong oral traditions, knows the power of story. Relentlessly charming, he is fiercely open and passionate about life, and can laugh at himself with ease; he assumes his Malay grandmother’s wacky sense of humour. He’s a certified rascal. Beyond this surface, though, there’s fear, vulnerability, and deep care for others, himself, his community and his places.

There’s an element of survivor’s guilt in Since Ali Died. Musa is doing a lot better than some of those he knew from his youth spent beside the Queanbeyan River, where his mates succumbed to substance abuse and lost themselves. It could be described as a work with a lot of shadows: mental illness, depression, suicide, entrapment, addiction, grief.

“I’m not an actor. Carrying this story is taxing,” Musa says. “But that’s what seems to really connect with people.”

The show, Musa explains, is not directly about Islam but influenced by it, and the prayers his father introduced him to when Musa was a small child.

The Christchurch mosque shootings, he says, were a scary actualisation that Islamophobia could take away lives; these people spreading hate, vitriol and violence could kill.

“Is this the endgame for these people?” he asks, with worry in his voice. “It kinda made more sense when we found out he was Australian, didn’t it? Is this Australia?”

For Musa, there’s a direct causal link between government fearmongering and the rise of violence. “I think Islamophobia in Australia has worsened. It’s become deeply ingrained; it’s had time to ripen.”

He is used to shrugging off online abuse but admits its effect is heavy. During concentrated periods – such as when he was on the receiving end of a personal attack by Mark Latham – he describes having to weather a “death threat avalanche”, one that has wedged deep into his psyche. Musa is culturally Muslim, not a practising Muslim, and can only speak from his experience. “But to them we’re all the same,” he says. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t escape it.”

He speaks passionately about supporting his Muslim brothers and sisters, despite their differences: “I don’t want to play into lateral violence and bring other people down, especially publicly.”

He hopes his contribution through the deeply personal Since Ali Died will add nuance to the discussion, and create space in the mainstream media for different representations, since Muslim people in Australia are culturally diverse and come from more than 70 countries.

For the second year in a row, OzAsia Festival features JLF Adelaide, a mini-version of Jaipur Literature Festival, the biggest international literature festival in the world. At JLF Adelaide, Musa is speaking about representation alongside other writers, including Omar Sakr, his friend and a Sydney-based poet. Sakr, a son of Lebanese and Turkish migrants, writes about growing up Muslim and bisexual in Sydney’s west.

Musa and Sakr are among a growing number of Australian Muslim writers in the spotlight – Pakistani–Australian poet Maryam Azam; Sudanese–Australian writer and commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied; Tiwi, Larrakiah and Chinese woman Eugenia Flynn; and Lebanese–Australian Michael Mohammed Ahmad, to name but a few. In visual art, internationally acclaimed Sydney-based artist Khaled Sabsabi initiated the Muslim artist collective eleven in 2016, inspired by the dynamic and highly successful Queensland-based Indigenous arts collective proppaNOW. Today it includes artists such as Abdul Abdullah and Hoda Afshar.

Musa tells me this OzAsia run of Since Ali Died may be the last stop, or at least the last show he does for a while. His body is telling him to delve deep into woodcut prints; time in the studio and time in Borneo is the place to be, while slowly adding to his credentials of an acclaimed novel, poetry collections and music releases.

Musa recalls his joyous surprise at seeing a cohort of female students from East Preston Islamic College at one of his Melbourne shows. The show, with Musa’s candour about his experience with drugs, alcohol and sex, doesn’t seem an obvious choice for a high school viewing but was an inspired moment. He was pleased at the positive response. The students were compelled. He says they identified with the discussion of stereotypes around identity, and with his upbringing.

“I’ve had a really tortured and complicated relationship with Islam,” Musa admits. “But as I became an adult, I realised that despite all that, it has informed a lot of the good sides of my personality too.”

He smiles when thinking of the students from the Preston school. “I could just see their eyes widening, you know. I could tell they were thinking, ‘Despite all of this, he’s on our side. He backs us.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 2, 2019 as "Rapt attention".

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Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali Yugambeh writer and the author of Heat and Light and Comfort Food. Their new collection of poetry is Throat.

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