Arts Review: Since Ali Died

Photo Credit: David Charles Collins

Photo Credit: David Charles Collins

The relationship between rap and poetry is often highlighted when the lyrical validity or soul of rap music is called into question. Rap has been a genre that has been disregarded by many as rich people bragging to poor people about all the stuff they have. It's the yachts, the girls, the sippin' Henny in the VIP section. And that is not even the worst of the regular criticisms rap music faces. Gucci Gang, anybody? Skrrrt! 

Rap music, by far too many, is dismissed as urban noise - devoid of thought or nuance. But this link between the cultured and revered status of poetry and rap is genuine and evident in the works of many skilled artists. Lupe Fiasco, Jay Z, Logic, Tupac, M.I.A., Hopsin, and Tyler the Creator are just some of the great lyricists who have made intelligent and unique lyrics a cornerstone of their music. They changed the image of what it means to be a rapper. Artists who have a point of view that is powerful, a history that is immutable, and who show great vulnerability in how they express their truth. They have poetic souls and fearless attitudes. No one has made this connection between poetic genius and a gift for rhythm more evident than Omar Musa.

“Float like a butterfly, sing til I'm free.”
- Omar Musa, Since Ali Died 

Brought to the stage as part of the Arts Centre’s ‘Big World, Up Close’ series, Musa expertly demonstrates the emotional and narrative power of rap, and roots it deep into spoken word poetry. Oscillating between different mediums, the audience is caught in the flow of his work with no option but to let the current sweep them away. 

Musa often will start telling a story that slowly and gradually becomes more staccato. Pausing in unusual places. Waiting mid-sentence... to leave a thought hanging in the air, before racing onward in what has become a structured and potent piece of spoken word. Forget any conceptions of the kind of spoken word or slam poetry you are used to. Devoid of smugness and melodrama that has characterised the genre, Musa is sudden and violent in his art. His words charge forward careening to his next impactful statement. His flow is rapid, like a torrent of feelings he can't bear to keep inside. 

Read: Interview with artist, Omar Musa on ‘Since Ali Died’

His subject matter is personal and painful. His childhood, his best friends passing, his relationships, his parents, his faith and doubt of Islam - nothing is off the table. In a bold move, he takes the opportunity to highlight the inequality and the jingoistic tendencies of Australian culture. Not comfortable to rely on just witty puns and wordplay he ties subject matter together to compare and contrast ideas. His ability to take his vulnerability and turn it into something so impressive and compelling is a testament to the courage inherent in all his rhymes.

Photo Credit: Robert Catto

Photo Credit: Robert Catto

Omar Musa brings complexity and nuance to all his work. The rough streets, stolen cars, meth pipes and condoms floating in the river are smokescreens for deeply profound statements about the human condition. Not just the effects of immigration on Australia, but Australia’s effects on the immigrants themselves. The nature of unrequited love and the pain of following someone who doesn't want to lead. Painful relationships, even abusive ones, are redeemed with a good meal and a chance to share. He has made allowances to let the stories and characters contradict themselves, reframing tired narratives. Exposing personal and insightful glimpses into life that will often seem foreign and relatable at once. 

The show is tied together through the use of a loose narrative. It's 2016, and Muhammad Ali has died - floating down the river next to him Omar Musa uses this to tell his childhood hero everything important to him. Everything. While this theme doesn't do much in the way of organising the thoughts and topics that arise in the course of the one hour show - it serves as a powerful tool to conjure real and potent ideas. If you had only one chance to tell your idol everything, what would you want them to know? How would you get them to see what is telling of your soul?

Musa is not just reframing stereotypes about rap, poetry, race, faith and love. He is telling you about himself at every moment. His openness is brutal and commendable. 

Since Ali Died - is a show with broad appeal. It speaks of lust, violence, love and death, the whole time viewed through the lens of a cynical street poet. Someone who never turns their gaze to the stars for too long, to miss the darkness all around them. Whether you go to learn something new about someone else's life, or your own, you are guaranteed an insightful evening. The show effectively switches between the high brow of lyrical genius, to raw and gritty storytelling. It is an eye-opening event that transpires status and the echelons of artistic merit.

4/5 Childhood Heroes

Learn More: An interview with Omar Musa about his show Since Ali Died can be read

Since Ali Died is showing as part of the ‘Big World, Up Close’ series at Arts Centre Melbourne, more information and tickets can be found