The voice of a generation, rapper Omar Musa takes the stage
In the rising tide of art about the contemporary burden of Muslim identity, the poet, rapper, and novelist Omar Musa is emerging as one of his generation’s most original and urgent voices. As a child of an interracial relationship growing up in working class Australia, questions of race, identity and marginalization framed Musa’s coming of age story. Now at 32, the Malaysian-Australian writer has already released albums, published poetry collections and performed at literary festivals around the world. But it’s his love of West Coast hip-hop and political activism that lends his words a fiery, distinctive edge. Those influences collide and blend together in his critically acclaimed debut novel, Here Come the Dogs.
Written in a seamless mix of verse and narrative prose, the novel has been nominated for one of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes and has just been published in the United States by the New Press. It’s the story of three friends growing up in a downward spiral of drugs, violence, and struggle on the margins of society. As Musa explains, Australia has a far-reaching and deeply entrenched image as an affluent island of harmony, represented by the piercing jaw-lines of the Hemsworth brothers and pristine coastlines. It’s an image that is Anglophone, white and privileged and for Musa, his art is his way to interrogate and disrupt that myth.
Musa’s characters are the disenfranchised children of those communities that have been targeted with vicious xenophobic and Islamophobic politics since the September 11 attacks. Musa tells Newsweek Middle East that it made many of the people he grew up with become so disillusioned with politics that they’ve gone adrift—he began writing to bring their stories into the light. In person, Musa has a disarmingly warm sense of humor and gentle manner that readily diffuses the dark themes underlying his work. But as a performer, he transforms those words into something wildly arresting, hypnotic, and rousing. His poem ‘My Generation’ is as equally brilliant a piece of political commentary as it is an anthemic rallying cry and when Musa performs the piece on stage, the lyrics calling out the racism and classism that surround him, it feels urgent and unforgiving. From venues in India to the U.S., it also helps that Musa has one of those chameleon faces that could be equally at home in Amman, Mumbai and Los Angeles. It’s when he opens his mouth to reveal his accent, evoking dystopian images of Australian poverty and malaise with such beautiful rendered details that his cultural background comes to the fore.
Musa says that he is neither capable nor interested in being a poster child for Islam or Muslims. While he grew up with the traditions, in writing about drugs, sex and violence among his generation, he says he wants to counter the easy narratives of what it means to be observant or engaged. “All Muslims have been conflated into one thing and essentialized and I don’t want to buy into that at all. I think now more than ever these different experiences need to be represented. We’re complex, flawed humans like anyone else.” With Here Come the Dogs now making its international debut, Musa joins a rising generation of hyphenated artists whose influences and concerns shatter barriers. For a young rapper of color from a country with such a homogenous global image, it’s an even greater achievement to be recognized as one of this year’s most celebrated rising stars.