August 9, 2016 Omar Musa on activism, hip hop and storytelling

Omar Musa has released his new Dead Centre EP with much excitement surrounding the Queanbeyan artist’s return to music after touring Australia and overseas with his acclaimed debut novel, Here Come the Dogs.

A wordsmith with a razor sharp approach to the creation of his art, Musa’s new music has generated praise for its composition, lyrical content and musicality.

“I can’t wait for people to engage with it,” Musa tells us. “We tried to make Dead Centre a real journey, lyrically and sound-wise, so that it would be the type of record people can live with, vibe with, think on, over repeated listens.”

Set to introduce his work for many as well as satisfying fans who’ve been rocking with Musa for years now, Dead Centre saw Musa link up with Joelistics and Poncho (Thundamentals) on production.

“Those old diabolical scallywags!” he says. “Working with them was a dream. They are such forward-thinking dudes and we were all on the same page, in terms of keeping the record listenable, but pushing at the boundaries. There are influences from all over the shop on this record: soul, old-school hip hop, Thai and Malay folk songs, grime, trap.”

“I think “The Razor’s Edge” is probably my favourite track on the EP,” Musa adds. “I really let loose all my frustration and fear and anger, over the most filthy, grimy Poncho beat, then ended with a poem about contagious fear. It feels like a real statement.”

So why did it take him time to get back into music?

“I wrote a novel called Here Come the Dogs over three years,” he explains. “I kind of gave up on putting music out in the world, because I thought that the hip hop scene had moved on without me. Writing raps/songs is a more physical, lively, rhythmic and (probably) enjoyable process than sitting locked away in a room in silence piecing together a novel, so I kept writing raps throughout.”

“Actually, it was guys like L-FRESH and Remi who asked me, ‘When the hell are you gonna put some music out?’ That got me thinking about it again and then I did a show with Joelistics in late 2014 and he said, ‘Dude, you have to do a record. I’ll make some beats for you.’

He sent me the actual “Dead Centre” beat; I wrote and recorded it with a bit of a Giggs‘ (British rapper) influenced flow and it just hit really hard. It was coolly aggressive and political, but you could dance to it. We knew were were onto something, so I dedicated pretty much all of last year to writing and collaborating with people I admired, like Kate Miller-Heidke, Lior, Mataya, L-FRESH the LION and Hau.”

“Music and storytelling is such a potent, fun way of connecting with people,” says Musa. “I was on tour in India in January and I went and visited a group of B-Boys in one of the most impoverished slums in Mumbai, Govandi, which is built on a massive rubbish dump.

I saw how hip hop had given these kids such a sense of freedom and hope and joy and confidence, as it has to so many around the world, from Jakarta to Johannesburg. I remember sitting down with them and thinking, ‘God, I’m a bit out of my depth here. We are from such different backgrounds. What the hell can I talk to them about?’ I felt my privilege more acutely than ever before.”

“Slowly, I started telling them how I got into hip hop. I said that I had grown up feeling like an outsider as a Muslim in Australia, but when I came across hip hop, I saw rappers like Chuck D and Ice Cube who were proudly influenced by Islam, and how cool and liberating that seemed to me.

The kids then told me that the neighbourhood I was in was actually 90% Muslim and many of them also felt like unwanted outsiders in modern India, and so they could really relate to what I was talking about. This one story had connected us. Side note: from this trip I have footage of a B-Boy spinning on his head while the call to prayer is sung in the background, and it is absolutely mesmerising.”

One thing to be taken away from Dead Centre and Musa’s work in general, is that he is a writer unafraid to put the darker elements of our society on blast.

“We have no choice but to have these conversations.” Musa says of his (and other artists’) focus on advancing his political and social activism through music. “We see Pauline Hanson back in the spotlight with her vile, debased politics and ‘thinking’ after terrorising many of us in our childhoods. We see people with massive media platforms demonising people like our friends and family. Like us. At times it feels like all we have is our voices, as small as they may be. Our art is our shield, our weapon, our wings.”

Omar Musa’s Dead Centre EP is out now. Catch him on the road with L-FRESH the LION at the below tour dates.

August 26th | Amplifier, PERTH

August 27th | Odd Fellow, FREMANTLE

September 1st | Karova Lounge, BALLARAT

September 2nd | Northcote Social Club, MELBOURNE

September 3rd | Workers Club, GEELONG

September 8th | Small Bandroom, NEWCASTLE

September 9th | Transit Bar, CANBERRA

September 10th | Newtown Social Club, SYDNEY

September 16th | Great Northern, BYRON BAY

September 17th | The Foundry, BRISBANE

Sosefina Fuamoli
is managing editor of the AU review