30 September 2022
Discomfort is the Only Constant
Seeking identity through poetry and hip-hop
Omar Musa has just landed in Munich. The 38-year-old Bornean-Australian poet and novelist is on a world tour, shuttling between Kuala Lumpur, London, Toronto and Lagos to promote Killernova (2021), his fourth book of poetry. Through poems interspersed with intricate woodcut prints, Killernova explores family and flags, bodies and borders, environmental destruction and self-recovery.
Illustrator: Green Chromide
“...hold steady the torch that blades across
the face of the deep, waves hip-toss beneath
woven sheets — purple & garnet, mulberry &
mangosteen peel — in this dyeing light,
the sarong is a sail — tie it to an upright
oar and speak life into the vessel,
these decks were divined for dancing,
run hands along the blood-spilt grain,
worn by soles, salt-worn, warn of plague,
dying kisses and childbirth…”
From ‘The Offering’
“I wanted to make poetry that had a user-friendly interface but a complicated operating system…make it accessible, approachable, and build a bridge,” says Musa. “But then it's a bridge to some pretty difficult and nuanced terrain. In the past, my work has been called deadly serious. With the woodcuts, it allowed a little bit of that humour to shine. So I call it a deadly playful style because the issues are still important, heavy ones.”
Musa began his career at the age of 18, and has since been writing and performing for nearly two decades; with four hip-hop records to his name. Irvine Welsh called his debut novel, Here Come the Dogs (2014), “stunning.” Inspired by Dorothy Porter’s 1994 mystery novel The Monkey’s Mask, the book combined verse, slang, and hip hop rhythms to examine issues of race, identity, and masculinity in Australia with a rage that was palpably raw. It was longlisted for both the International Dublin Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Award.
“An English teacher said that my way of writing poetry was like Muhammed Ali’s creed of ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’, and l attached to that. If there's too much float, there is no substance. If there is too much sting, there's no joy or playfulness. So I always choose my moments to sting, and the rest of the time I'll float.”
‘The men are re-skinning a drum, smoking,
wrapping it tightly into place with sinew,
testing it for resonance,
calling in a storm that beats its own
rhythm, on the streets and
river, falling syllables, like 99 names of
God, repeated, and all the spirit names of
animal and ancestor.
My skin, silver with rain — touch it with
the tuning fork.
I promise, it echoes too.’
From ‘Mahakam River’
A tattoo on Musa’s arm reads penglipur lara. Loosely translated as 'dispeller of sorrows;’ the term is a nod to a long-standing, but dying Malay tradition. This is how Musa sees himself: a maverick storyteller who alchemizes his pain into words of empathy. Leaning into his Malay-Muslim roots, his work is complex, eschewing single genres and registers.
As a child in Australia in the 1980s and ‘90s, Musa was constantly othered for his colour and ethnicity, frequently being asked the question, “But where are you really from?” Unsurprisingly, a lot of the poet’s work references identity and race, belonging, masculinity, and the comfort he finds in his Malay ancestry. “Growing up, I didn't see any Muslim people on the television in Australia,” he says. “So I had to go farther afield to find my role models.”
Musa turned to the Black Muslim movement and found heroes in Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and the Five Percenters. He found strength in hip-hop artists Ice Cube, Nas, and Public Enemy. Ironically, Musa’s mother is Irish-Australian. As a theatre director and arts journalist, she afforded him access to plays, galleries, and concerts - a privilege that most of his friends from working class Queanbeyan did not have. The New South Wales city bore the unkind nickname “struggle town” or the “Soweto of Canberra.” Musa’s father, a Malay-Muslim man, worked as a poet and actor who frequently freestyled poetry on the spot. Finding a sense of home in Australia is a never-ending quest for the artist. “I mean, listen to my name: Omar bin Musa,” he says, chuckling. “Look at how I look! As if I'm going to say to someone, ‘Oh, I'm actually half-Irish.’ Like that would make a difference!”
And then, one afternoon while watching TV and talking to his friends, the Twin Towers fell. Musa was 17.
“In Australia, Muslim people felt the shift from being the other, to being the enemy of the state,” he says, recalling the painful instances of vitriol and Islamophobia that followed 9/11. Musa was crushed. Even though he’d always felt like an outsider, this rapid, unprecedented onslaught of hate was a breaking point, shattering whatever hope he had of being accepted as a “legitimate, true blue, dinky di Australian.”
“I realised that I’d have to define my own narrative,” he says.
“I’ll let you in on the metaphor early,” he writes in a poem entitled Paleochannel. “Kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics by filling the cracks with precious metals, to make an object more beautiful than before.” The metaphor points to Musa himself. His work seems to pick up the broken pieces of his identity by filling in the cracks with poetry and art - Kintsugi, rendered human.
By 2018, Musa was riding a wave of success, busy with book tours, interviews and a stream of performances. His one-man play entitled Since Ali Died, won a Sydney Theatre Award. Based on one of his albums, the play was a mixture of song, spoken word, rap, and banter, using the death of Muhammed Ali as a springboard to explore suburban violence, white supremacy, and inequality in Australia. But performing his life truths on stage night after night, began to wear the artist down. And everything came to a halt.
Suffering from burnout and depression, Musa went on a trip to his homeland in Borneo, seeking inspiration from the land of his ancestors. He stumbled into a woodcarving workshop conducted by Aerick LostControl, a punk rocker and activist. “I'd been looking for a new language. And so I found this form of carving wood, which not only freed my imagination but also connected me to my heritage of a long lineage of woodcarvers. It also introduced me to a homeland community of punk rockers, environmental activists, and artists. They embraced me. They claimed me.” And so emerged Killernova, a rollercoaster of a book traversing fire-ravaged Australia, COVID cabin-fever dreams, and Bornean rainforests and coral reefs.
So what’s next for Musa? “It's been too long since my last novel and that was my most difficult artistic project,” he says. He also expresses interest in delving into his Irish ancestry, citing its centuries-long subjugation by the English. Even in confronting his own whiteness, there's room for a shared history of pain and persecution.
“Red flag dance, tamarind trees, smokehuts remain,
an alternate history to the white sails of British hawkishness.
Rock paintings on either end of the trade route. I took a boat, a motorbike,
then walked through jungle, got so close I could smell the sap that bound
the ancient pigment — revenant men fighting on horseback, boiling suns,
and again and again, humans upright in boats, peering towards
For this penglipur lara, discomfort is the only constant. Musa says it keeps him on his toes, always pushing him to seek new challenges and newer ways to fill the cracks of his identity with art, and make it more beautiful than before. Human Kintsugi.