Omar Musa, poet, Since Ali Died

It is okay to feel lost. Sometimes, especially creatively, feeling lost is a good thing, because it means you’re in a place people haven’t been before. That’s where you want to be as an artist ...

The power of words can be used to inspire and warn, educate and uplift. Omar Musa wields words as a way to communicate uncomfortable truths and deeply personal tales, touching upon everything from migration, Australian racism and violence to masculinity and loneliness. The acclaimed poet, rapper and novelist is bringing his newest work – Since Ali Died – to Theatre Republic for Brisbane Festival, a show that see’s Omar reflect on his childhood hero Muhammad Ali as well as deliver a politically-charged examination of race, lost love and Omar’s own Malaysian heritage. We caught up with Omar to chat about his process ahead of Since Ali Died’s run from September 10–14.

We’d love to start with Since Ali Died, the show you’re bringing to Brisbane Festival from Tuesday September 10 to Saturday 14. The show was partly inspired by the impact Muhammad Ali’s death had on you. What can you remember about that time, and the after-effects of losing your personal hero?
I once said to a friend that everything in my life fell apart after Muhammad Ali died, in fact, everything in the world too, with the rise of Trump and Brexit. It was of course just a joke, but I think after a while I almost started to believe it. I went into a very dark place for a couple of years, an abyss of vices and depression, and the only thing I could do in response, the only thing I could do to survive, was make art about it.

What inspired you to use this particular moment in time as a launch pad for this show?
I had made an album called Since Ali Died that I was very proud of because of its lyricism and raw honesty, but not many people heard it. When Griffin Theatre in Sydney asked me to make a show for Batch Festival in 2018, something told me that I could turn the loose narrative strands of the novel into a powerful work for the theatre stage and give it a new lease on life. I wasn’t prepared for such a great response, though.

Without giving too much away, how would you describe the show compared to previous works, and what do you hope festival-goers will feel by the end of the experience?
I think its the best I’ve been able to combine the various forms I’ve been working on for so many years (rap, poetry, storytelling through fiction). It’s something fresh and that’s why I think that’s sometimes hard to describe exactly what what it is! I hope it makes people question themselves and the world, and it goes to some really dark places, but ultimately I hope people leave feeling uplifted.

It’s set to be a packed hour of emotionally charged spoken word, rap and theatre – do you have any pre-show rituals to get your body and mind in the zone?
Sometimes I carve woodblocks. Sometimes I listen to something bouncy like ‘Nasty Girl‘ by Notorious B.I.G. Mostly I just breathe, stretch, drink lemon and ginger tea and try to tell stupid jokes to Poppy Zanderigo, who sings with me.

You’ll also be hosting a post-show Q&A on Thursday September 12. In all your time presenting at writers’ festivals, performing live and hosting workshops, what’s the most interesting (or wackiest) question you’ve been asked by a fan or cynic?
Nothing springs to mind besides a heckler in New Zealand, who wasn’t really asking questions, just yelling random drunken things during my poems. I was performing on a small stage that had a fireplace on it, crackling away, and the heckler kept sporadically yelling at the top of his lungs “Put another log on the fire!”, and “F**ck you all!” Wasn’t exactly conducive to heartfelt poetry, but is kinda hilarious to look back on.

Is it a scary, vulnerable experience sharing such deeply personal stories with strangers night after night, or do you see it as a more positive, therapeutic practice?
Both. Writing and performing is a beautiful destroyer at times. I love the fact that I can (hopefully) turn my negative experiences into words that people enjoy, but there’s a reason I probably won’t perform the show any more after this year. Sometimes it feels like I’ve reliving painful times again and again, and that’s difficult.

If you could share a piece of life wisdom with your childhood self, what would it be?
It is okay to feel lost. Sometimes, especially creatively, feeling lost is a good thing, because it means you’re in a place people haven’t been before. That’s where you want to be as an artist.

You’ve performed all around the world, released records, books and videos, been long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award and Miles Franklin Award, named one of SMH’s Young Novelists of the Year, appeared on ABC’s Q&A and received a standing ovation at TEDx Sydney. What else is on the bucket list, in terms of career and life?
To write a second novel. To enter the Archibald Prize (I am literally taking my first painting lesson next week, so this one definitely feels like a pipe dream!). You know what? My greatest dream in life would be to buy a little piece of land down the coast with a derelict building on it and renovate it, Grand Designs-style, then tend to a little garden there and make art.

Catch Omar Musa and his show Since Ali Died at Brisbane Festival from September 10–14. Tickets are available here.

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