Rapper and writer digs deep in his highly personal new show

Since Ali Died. Written and performed by Omar Musa. Directed by Anthea Williams. Canberra Theatre Centre in association with Griffin Theatre Company. ETCETERA. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. January 30 to February 2 at 8pm. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

Omar Musa performing <i>Since Ali Died</i>. Photo: Charles Collins

Omar Musa performing Since Ali Died. Photo: Charles Collins

Award-winning rapper and writer Omar Musa, born in Bowral and raised in Queanbeyan, says Muhammad Ali was his childhood hero. He's used the African-American boxer as the starting point for his deeply personal one-man show, Since Ali Died. It's on at the Playhouse at the Canberra Theatre Centre as part of its ETCETERA series of contemporary works by independent artists.

Musa, 35, worked with director and dramaturge Anthea Williams to craft the piece, which had a successful debut run at the Griffin Theatre Company’s inaugural Batch Festival in April 2018.

He says it's a combination of styles and genres, a mixture of raw hip-hop, poetry and story with a mythic as well as an autobiographical element; a one-man stage show, rather than a concert.

"Hopefully it's something people haven't really seen before," he says.

Musa, who is Malaysian-Australian, says he could identify with many of the challenges Ali faced as a fellow Muslim and a man of colour in a frequently hostile society.

"My dad would show me VHS tapes recorded off SBS saying, 'this guy's a Muslim, he loves Malaysia, he fought in Malaysia'," he says.

Musa respected Ali as a man (he was an activist and philanthropist, among many other activities) and a wordsmith, as well as a boxer - though Musa adds he's never been in the ring himself.

"He was full of verve, full of braggadocio, proud of his religion, proud of his colour," he says.

The US president George W Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to boxer Muhammad Ali in 2009. Photo: AP

The US president George W Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to boxer Muhammad Ali in 2009. Photo: AP

This inspired Musa, who has frequently suffered the effects of bigotry himself.  He tried to develop a thick skin, but says "sometimes  it was just outrageous and destructive". For example, at his primary school, children told him his skin was "the colour of shit".

This led to some internalised racism, he says. But the example set by Ali helped.

"It enabled me, it gave me strength to be proud of myself," he says.

The result has a been a long list of accomplishments, including hip-hop albums, three books of poetry and a critically praised debut novel, Here Come the Dogs,  that was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award and led to him being named one of The Sydney Morning Herald's Young Novelists of the Year in 2015. He also won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008.

Musa says he really focused on Ali from the age of 11 until well into his teens. But he never forgot the man, and when Ali died in 2016 , it felt like "the end of an era".

Ali's death came during a period of great personal difficulty for Musa - including a lost love and the deaths of a couple of his friends.

"In the world I've lived in - the music world, the arts world - a lot of people have problems with mental health and drug addiction," he says.

With all the accumulated problems and tragedies,  he became self-destructive.

"I felt as if I went over the edge," he says.

"It's all in the play."

He also talks about growing up in a flat but attending the "privileged" Canberra Grammar School, completing an arts degree at the Australian National University and later receiving the university's Young Alumni Award in recognition of his achievements.

"It made me feel awkward, uncomfortable," he says.

"I didn't do it for that ... you can't take any of it too seriously, good or bad."

Not that he doesn't appreciate it.  But he also remembers some of his friends who were not as fortunate to take the same path he did.

Omar Musa in performance. Photo: Robert Catto

Omar Musa in performance. Photo: Robert Catto

Musa released a solo hip-hop album, also titled Since Ali Died,  in 2017 but says only about 40 per cent of the show's material is Musa derived from that.

He says although the subject matter sounds heavy going, there are "a lot of light moments and a lot of love" in the play.

Despite the problems he experienced there, Musa is still loyal to Queanbeyan, even though his busy schedule - including international performance tours and literary festivals - means he doesn't spend as much time there now.

He describes Queanbeyan as "home" and calls it "a beautiful place".

"Being from a small town sometimes gives you a chip on your shoulder when you go to a big city. You need to work hard and carve your place in the world," he says.

As for the future, Musa says art and performance will always be part of his life. "You can't lose your love of it even though it can sometimes be destructive," he says.

He's working on another novel, but he's also thinking of trying something completely different, even if this intention isn't yet fully formed.

"It's hard to say, hard to say. One of the things I was thinking of was conservation of the natural environment - Borneo would be a good place to do it," he says.

"I'll have to have a think about it."