‘Cruising through the crank of hip hop, Omar Musa shines like the beautiful beacon he aspires to be’: Monique Grbec on When Ali Died
What’s life like when you’re growing up as a brown-skinned Muslim boy with Malaysian heritage in Queanbeyan, Australia? Since Ali Died, by rapper and award-winning poet and author Oma Musa, tells us his story starting from the death of his hero: activist, philosopher, boxer and rapper Muhammad Ali. Following triumphant sold-out performances nationally, the Arts Centre Melbourne brings it to Fairfax Studio for the Big World, Up Close series.
“We are on a boat…” Musa, the Poetry Slam champion steadies us with the pulsating percussion of his voice. Like the tide lapping, a heart beating, a clock ticking, he anchors us at the turning point of adolescence. North, south, east or west, which direction will his journey take?
Musa’s anchor is a bottle of brown liquor that he skols intermittedly. His spoken word poems and songs speak of Australia as a civilisation without moral compass: a civilisation riven by inequality.
His vision is blurred by a mother working long hours while his father prays day and night. “The longer he prays, the shorter his temper is” – and the harder his fists hit. His vision is blurred by the best friend, Teen Dad, whose time in jail has shattered even the smallest fragment of hope that comes from surviving the realities of war crimes. His heart is drowned in the waste of greatness and the safety net of friendship.
Musa meets Muhammad Ali through his father, after being bullied at school because of the colour of his skin. He tell him, be proud of your colour and culture, take strength like Ali does. But it is Musa’s mother, during their short eight minute drive to school, who shows him how to navigate the path to owning power like Ali, a man with a plan: question everything and everyone.
On stage, Musa owns the power. He leads the audience to raucous applause for his mother. At another time, exploiting the speedy smokes and mirrors of rap, he likens a woman’s birthing noises to the screams of conception. When the bubble of the Borneo Romeo’s amphetamine-amped romance bursts in the cold splash of rejection, you feel relief when he acknowledges a penchant for hyperbole.
Cruising through the crank of hip hop, Musa shines like the beautiful beacon he aspires to be. Playing with the alchemy between words to reach healing, he spins the dark realities of his experience of urban and suburban life into gold. Whether it is the drama of violence or the vulnerability of loneliness, the commercial catch of his songs heats the cutting edge of shattered glass and melts it in your being.
Feel the power, feed the dream. Let this be the end of innocence, and the coming of a big world up close age of equality.
Since Ali Died, by Omar Musa, director Anthea Williams. Griffin Theatre Company. Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio. Until 17 August 2019. Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, as part of the OzAsia Festival, November1-2. Bookings
Wheelchair access, assistive hearing, companion card
Auslan interpreted performance: 7.30pm Thursday 15 August