(This interview was first published in the Mumbai edition of The Hindu on February 12, 2016.)
When Omar bin Musa, the Australian poet and spoken word artist, who is also a rapper and a novelist, was driving from the Mumbai airport to his hotel in Colaba, he was struck by the shanties lining up the streets. “In that moment, I told myself — this is India. This is Bangladesh. This is Malaysia. This is the devastating reality of all our post-colonial nations.”
Though Musa lives in New South Wales, Australia, he is deeply connected to his Malaysian heritage, especially the belief that “the storyteller is the dispeller of worries, and the reliever of sorrows.”
His mother is a drama teacher and arts journalist from Australia itself, while his father is a poet from Malaysia. This might explain why race, identity and migration are recurring themes in his books The Clocks, Parang, Here Come The Dogs, and the spoken word poetry on his YouTube channel.
As a person of Muslim heritage, how do you view your art in relation to the growing Islamophobia all over the world? Does your work consciously challenge people’s perceptions about Muslims?
I believe in telling my story fearlessly, and claiming the space I can. Strangely, to many, the content of my performance does not even matter. It doesn’t have to be a piece about Palestine. It could be an ode about a cat. Just because my name signifies a Muslim identity, my performance becomes a political act. Many people in Australia cannot imagine how one can be culturally Muslim, and yet secular in one’s beliefs.
A part of me feels that it should not be my responsibility to break stereotypes, to educate grown men and women that Muslims are not one homogenous group. In fact, I find it ridiculous when moderate Muslims apologise for the acts of extremists. It is not like someone who is going to Syria to become an ISIS fighter will stop if he listens to my poem.
Knowing the history of genocide in Australia, maybe it is the white people there who need to apologise for what other white people did.
And what has your experience been like in countries where Muslims make up the majority? You have visited Malaysia several times, and you have just flown in from Dhaka.
When I go to Malaysia, I see Islam being used as a tool of oppression. It becomes a narrow identity that fences out others. People are being imprisoned for making cartoons that question the government. In Bangladesh, bloggers are being hacked to death for speaking their mind.
The practice of Islam in these countries needs to be interrogated. Diversity is something to be celebrated, not something to be shameful or fearful of.
A topic that comes up frequently in your poetry and fiction is toxic masculinity. Why do you think men in Australia and elsewhere struggle so much with violence?
I think if you dig out ancient bones anywhere in the world, you’ll find stress fractures on female bones. And they are quite likely to have been caused by masculine violence. It is one thing to talk about patriarchal systems in the abstract, and quite another to grapple with the violence inside your own self. I grew up in a place where we used casually sexist and violent language. There is something sick in all of our societies. In the West, they talk about how women are treated in Saudi Arabia and South Asia. Sure, that needs to be talked about. But let us not pretend that Western societies have no problems. A recent report in Australia came out with the finding that, every week, at least three women in Australia are killed by their partners.
I am not one of those men who think that by calling themselves feminists, they can absolve themselves. At the same time, I do not think of men struggling with violence as monsters. I think of them as men who did monstrous things. There is a difference. These men are fathers, brothers, friends and colleagues too. Let’s remember that men too are victims of violence. A friend of mine who has a violent father found out that his father used to be flogged as a child. That’s how cycles of violence continue.
Though your poetry speaks out against violence, it also sings of “beauty in the back streets.” How did you develop this ability to find hope amidst the dirt?
I am a pessimist. But I have to sprinkle some redemption into my poetry to survive. I was interviewing some criminals for a book I was writing. And I saw that people were trying hard to make something better of themselves. That’s brave, isn’t it? I’m not saying that we have to excuse their bad actions. But let us also celebrate the efforts they are making.
In your spoken word piece titled ‘My Generation’ , you speak of “dancing mirages that brought brief joy to our desiccated hearts.” Does this express the way people in despair have found solace in your work?
‘My Generation’ is a poem that was born out of my own cynicism and frustration with Australian society. I wrote it in just 40 minutes. It is gratifying that people respond to it, especially in moments when, as an artist, I am filled with self-doubt. When I get an email from a high school kid, or an aboriginal woman in jail, telling me that they connected with it, I am so happy that they took out the time.
Another spoken word piece of yours, titled ‘The Fireflies’, is meant to encourage those who do not fit in with the norm. You dedicate it to “the survivors, the eccentrics, those who never let their coolness whitewash their madness.” How did you come to this understanding in your own life?
I have worked with a lot of aboriginal kids who have seen tremendous violence in their lives. They live in towns with very disadvantaged circumstances. I wanted to write a poem to uplift their spirit. They were talking a lot about shame, and that stood in the way of their expressing themselves.
I wanted to tell them that coolness wasn’t the only thing they should aspire to. They didn’t have to measure up to the standards set by the dominant culture.