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Omar Musa’s Changing Homeland

“It’s dangerous to think of identity as being one thing.”

Omar Musa is well aware of the cognitive dissonance many Australians experience when it comes to their identity and homeland.

“The nature of identity is very complex – especially in Australia, where most people are migrants in some way or another. But even if you’re Indigenous, it’s complex as well.”

While he remains a Queanbeyan boy at heart, Omar’s sense of belonging is further complicated by regular travelling – whether it’s related to his poetry, his rapping, or his other artistic endeavours. So it’s understandable the 29-year-old’s idea of “home” is a little different than most.

“I love travelling, and I feel that sometimes, maybe, my true home really is on the road,” Omar said. “But I also think that when you travel around the world and you get to meet people and share stories and build connections between them, you realise that we’ve got a lot more commonalities than you initially think.”

That same travelling often provides Omar with another perspective. “It’s also easier for some reason – I’m not sure why – to get your head around the idea of a homeland when you’re distant from it.”

“Home” and “identity” are concepts Omar addresses with insight and tact, and they regularly pervade his art to varying degrees.

“I don’t really see the point of writing poetry or writing prose that doesn’t try to grapple with some of those bigger issues. The issues of belonging and the heart – matters of the heart.”

“It’s something that I’m constantly trying to grapple with in my writing, in my poetry. What is the idea of a homeland, and what does it mean to you? Can it mean a whole lot of different things? And I think that’s what I’ve come across after all these years, is knowing that it’s something always changing – it just depends what light it’s under.”

The ACT launch of Omar’s latest collection of poetry, Parang – held at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Braddon, on the 13th of March – was packed. People of all ages poured into the tiny bookshop to watch him perform – many sipped wine, all listened intently.

 Omar Musa performs at Electric Shadows Bookshop (Braddon, ACT) for the launch of Parang. (March 2013)

Omar Musa performing at Electric Shadows Bookshop (Braddon, ACT) for the launch of Parang. (March 2013)

The audience was treated to around 8 pieces from Parang – most of them read by heart – and his intense delivery was captivating. Newer material was embraced just as well as familiar pieces like “My Generation” and “Fireflies” (see below), and whenever there was an interjecting hip-hop metre to a verse, his flow became hypnotic.

“I thought it was great,” Omar later told me. “It was so gratifying, and it’s humbling, because there was a mixture. A whole bunch of people that I had never met in my life, and some really old friends and supporters, and it’s nice to have both there, because it’s kinda like – if it’s all just your mates, then obviously it’s not reaching too far. But if none of your friends are partaking in your passion, then there’s something sad about that too.”

Omar said Parang sold well that day – but for him, it’s not all about the number of copies he gets out. Omar places great value on his fans and the audience he holds.

“The way I see it – and this is by no means an original thought,” he admits, “but I would prefer to have 500 full-on fans than 5000 half-arsed ones.”

It’s an issue of the quality, not the quantity of fans – and it’s no surprise that many of Omar’s fans are on another level. Omar Musa is talented. He won the Australia Poetry Slam in 2008, has recorded a number of hip-hop releases, acted for the Bell Shakespeare Company, judged the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, toured with the late Gil Scott-Heron – and he’s now putting together a play for The Street Theatre called “Bonegatherer”, while working away at his debut novel.

But while he’s done – and is doing – quite a number of different things, he believes it’s not necessary for artists to focus on succeeding in multiple areas, or proving themselves to absolutely everyone. The most important part is being genuine.

“I think so long as people are expressing themselves, and they’re not being complacent, and not being lazy, and they’re experimenting, then that’s a good thing. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

For an artist like Omar, one of the keys to that expression has been the internet.

“I probably wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for being able to promote myself on the internet. I’ve tried to take the approach of a lot of rappers and use the internet as my tool, because it’s free, and if you use it the right way you can really get your message out there.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s all good. The internet is a double-edged sword for Omar. While he’s managed to use it to connect with artists the world over, everyone having a voice is not always as ideal as it seems.

“There are people you hear from who might not have felt like they could express themselves in such a public way. Somewhere like Iran – bloggers have been able to show what’s going on in a country where the mainstream media won’t. But then again, if you look at any set of YouTube comments… maybe it’s not always such a good thing that everyone gets to have their say.”

Ultimately though, he agrees that its use for good outweighs the bad – empowering artists everywhere.

“Oftentimes all people wanna do is express themselves and their stories with a little bit of dignity, and so if they’re given the avenue or the vehicle to do that, then audience members – they can really feel it, you know? And then you can build up a sense of connection. I think the value of the arts in that regard is priceless.”

As for the future, Omar has shows planned in New York in May, and is hoping to visit Malaysia in June. He’ll be performing in Canberra late April, performing in Sydney early May, and speaking at the Opera House for TEDxSydney on May 4.

If that’s not enough, his debut novel titled “Here Come the Dogs” will be out through Penguin in (hopefully) 2014 – although Omar said he’s taking things slowly.

“I put myself under a lot of pressure to create good work and to create good work regularly as well,” he said. “With something like a novel, especially since I haven’t written one before, my editors have been encouraging me to just take my time with it, and I think that’s working well. So I’m slowly building it up.”

Much of the novel is written in verse – so a lot of it is poetry, while other sections are prose – and according to Omar, “it’s about sex, drugs, bush fires, hip-hop, greyhounds, and angry young men.”

After putting Parang together himself – from the design, finding the artwork, and mailing the collection out to readers personally (“I’ve always enjoyed being independent”) – “Here Come the Dogs” is going to be a very different experience. But it’s not one that’s likely to lose him his quality fans along the way.

“People will always love poetry,” Omar told me. “It’s something that’s within us.”

For anyone who has seen Omar perform, it’s hard to disagree.

You can order a copy of Parang from Omar directly online.

Take a look at Omar’s latest video put together for his poem “In Amsterdam” (from Parang).

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