Omar Musa: hip hop Queanbeyan

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Forget Mark Webber and that dude who played James Bond, Queanbeyan’s next successful export is shaping up to be poet and hip hop artist Omar Musa, who, fresh off a spectacular year, is set to hit six countries in the first three months of 2011 with his unique brand of spoken and written word.

Smiling through his stubble Musa is neither modest or shy about his accomplishments, refusing to set a limit before the sky.

“Keeping my mind open has allowed me to make a career of it,” Musa says, gulping down a latte in the ever-fashionable Front Cafe at Lyneham.

“If I was just doing one thing, just doing poetry, I don’t think I could.

“It’s pretty exciting because I get to do a whole bunch of things. I get to do poetry readings, hip hop events, go and talk to school students, do writer’s festivals and meet these elite writers.

“At the end of the day, I’m a writer. I see myself not just as a poet or as a rapper, but as someone who loves the English language and loves writing.

“I guess I’m lucky or blessed, or have just worked hard enough to put myself in that position.”

Winner of the 2008 Australian Poetry Slam, Musa has released an EP, an album and a book of poetry, worked with the Bell Shakespeare company and Seattle producer Geoff Stanfield, and toured with the legendary Gil Scott-Heron in Germany.

“I was the main support for him in Munich,” Musa says, “He’s a bit of a hero, a great spoken-word artist, a predecessor to hip hop itself, so that was really exciting.”

A regular face at international writers festivals, the 26-year-old ANU graduate says it’s important to network, to “work it”, to get to know the right people at the right time.

But he argues the most important thing in his life is expression.

“Basic human emotions are my main inspiration,” he says.

“I’m not going to change anything about what I do to fit into what the market demands.

“What I try to do is tell simple, but powerful stories about every day life.

“I try to write stories about ordinary people’s lives, including my own, and write about being a person from a small town, like Queanbeyan, and growing up in Canberra.

“I have a bit of a weird, meandering path to where I am now. I’ve always been into poetry, from day one, my parents have an arts background. My dad was poet and an actor, my mum was a theatre director and then arts journalist, so I’ve always been into the arts.

“The turning point was when I went to California to study for a year in Santa Cruz, close to the Bay area. Everybody was either a DJ or a rapper or a spoken word artist or a b-boy, so I really got into hip hop. It was something I was interested in in Australia, but it was still seen as a bit lame and the accent was seen as a bit laughable and I suppose I wasn’t confident enough as a young guy to just go against all of that and just rap.”

But “randomly” having the opportunity to get up on stage in the US and freestyle with hip hop royalty KRS-One gave Musa the kick he needed to embrace a life on stage.

“I was probably terrible, I’m glad there’s no footage!” Musa laughs.

“But it really gave me confidence that this was maybe something I could do for the rest of my life. I got back to Australia and I’ve just been working hard ever since.

“I’m trying to make hip hop my career, but then along the way I won the Australian Poetry Slam at the Opera House, saw that there was this blooming spoken-word poetry scene and so I’ve got involved in both.”

Musa had to read 50 books in December, he says, as a judge for a major Australian literary prize, then he’ll be in Sri Lanka, India, the US and China before March, attending writer’s festivals and recording a new, full-length album with Korean-American rapper Mighty Joe.

“2010 was an amazing year, and hopefully 2011’s going to be even better,” he says. “Taking Queanbeyan to the rest of the world.”

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