Queanbeyan born, but Sydney based poet Omar Musa brought Since Ali Died first onto the stage with Griffin Theatre Company in 2018. For a second staging, Omar returns the show to Griffin and takes it to Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres as part of Sydney Festival. We talked about traversing across genres, the drive of an artist and the fundamental purpose of art.
BYO: Hi Omar, how are you?
Omar: I’m at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown!
BYO: Enjoying the sun?
Omar: I’m working on my tan.
BYO: I wanted to ask about you work as poet, your work on stage and slam poetry, do you see these as distinct or do they connect?
Omar: I think a lot of these distinctions that we make between genres are kind of constructed and somewhat forced. A lot of novelists would be influenced by music and poetry, and I've always seen my art that way. Of course there is a difference, taking a hip hop album, and then turning it into a narrative, and putting it on stage at a theatre is a totally different process. It's like flexing new muscles.
BYO: How did you work with being on stage? In terms of your own persona and body being on stage, how did you seek to involve that with the process of telling the story?
Omar: One of the joys I'm learning with theatre is that it's collaborative and you're bouncing ideas back and forth. With something like a novel it's a very solitary kind of exercise, you hear from your editor every few months and you slowly go insane in your room trying to write this thing.
Look it's hard man, it's painful. I'm showing people my open wounds every night on stage, trying to do some of it in a light-hearted or playful way, but a lot of it is heavy, serious shit. It's to do with religion, and depression, and suicide, and the difficult of personal relationships. You have to split the difference between you know the character and yourself. People ask often about the characters, ‘Who's the friend?’ And I could answer in a few ways, I could say ‘He's not a real person, does it matter?’ Hopefully it's a person all of us know in some way, which is my way of saying that it's actually kind of a few different people.
BYO: You've talked about creating a new language to cut through public debate - through your poetry and spoken word and also your music, how do you see this being realised in the language you use in Since Ali Died? How do you create this new public language?
Omar: I was feeling very very confident about myself back then. Now the more that I go on, the less confident I feel, the less and less you know. It's weird, when you're younger you think that you have all the answers but now I don't feel like I have any of them, I just have a shitload of questions.
Look, man, the level of public language is so debased whether it be jingoism, ‘stop the boats’, ‘axe the tax’, or this fuzzy bureaucratic language – ‘Irregular maritime arrivals’ when they’re actually talking about human lives. Creatives, writers, poets, do we have as big as an impact as politicians? Of course we don't. We don't have the money, we don't have the political potency, we don't have the war chest, but we can ask some nuanced questions and tell our story in a complex way. I can contribute to the discussion in one way then it can only be a good thing. If it makes someone feel less lonely, that is the ultimate point of art. To make us realise that we're not utterly alone.
BYO: How have you seen the reception for your work develop over the past couple of years, and then how do you hand on the baton to the younger generation?
Omar: Of course it's like a wonderful thing if you work resonates and people tell you that they appreciate it, but to be too self-satisfied is not healthy. Self-doubt is for us one of the most important things you can have, because it keeps you on your toes. A lot of these things make me uneasy. I don't like prizes. I think fundamentally they're a bit of a sham, that might sound a bit unappreciative but I think you just can't take them too seriously. The best type of reward, is when you do a show and you can see it moves people and you've got everyone on the same page. I always use this word, but it feels like alchemy. It feels like something really magical where you take all the disparate base elements and then you turn that into gold.
And how do I pass the baton? Look, I'm just trying to support the voices that I come across that I really appreciate. I think there's more than enough room for all of us, I don't like it when people get really territorial and think that ‘I'm the gatekeeper of this.’ No, we should be widening the space and not keeping it narrow.
BYO: You obviously engaged with the figure and the persona of Muhammed Ali across a number of different genres - how do you learn more about this individual when you approach it from different angles?
Omar: He was my childhood hero and it really broke me when he passed away in a way that no other public figure has affected me. By chance I came across this guy and there are some rare people who come into your life and act at just the right time as a circuit breaker. I think those people should be celebrated and hopefully all of us can be circuit breakers to someone else. Plenty of people have done that for me just in my personal life. Someone who called me out if I was being a sexist pig, or being homophobic and then you consider that person is a circuit breaker.
BYO: Where do you see yourself taking this performance next?
Omar: I'm not sure how much longer I can keep this one up. I'm pouring my heart out night after night, it's not an easy thing to do. It feels as destructive as it is fulfilling. I would like to take it to a few more cities, to Melbourne and Perth and then maybe do something overseas if the opportunity presents itself. I think at the moment I'll focus on the novel that I have to write, and it deals with my heritage in Borneo and South East Asia.
Since Ali Died is on now at The Griffin Theatre. It will also be at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta from Tuesday, January 22, to Friday, January 25. Find out more here: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/since-ali-died-parramatta#info