KATHERINE, about three hours from Darwin up the National Highway, seems like a good spot for a chat between Australian rappers
Birdz and Omar Musa.
Birdz spent his formative years here – fishing, swimming and riding dirt bikes – while Omar had a small-town upbringing of his own in Queanbeyan, around 20 minutes from Canberra.
It’s midway through their joint “Voodoo Laksa tour”, and the pair have – yep, you guessed it – laksa on the brain. “We would always just go to this one spot in Canberra,” Omar, who has Malaysian heritage on his father’s side, recalls. “The Dikson Noodle House. I reckon they put liquid cocaine in there, or something. It was so good, man.”
Earlier today they were facilitating a workshop with kids when the subject of laksa was raised again. “When you started talking about laksa,” Birdz says to Omar, “it was really territorial, like a pride thing. ‘What’s your favourite laksa?’ ‘Yeah, you know, the seafood one!’”
The duo recently collaborated on a seething track called
Omar: So I guess we’ll start talk about where we come from. Both from small towns. Yours is smaller than mine.
Birdz: [Laughs] As we found out today.
Omar: What was it like growing up in Katherine?
Birdz: It was mad up until a point, I think. Heaps to do, and friends and shit were cool. It’s a small town in Northern Territory so it was a lot like outdoors … Going fishing, going in the river, going to the hot springs, growing up riding dirt bikes, and shit like that. That was mad. But to a point when I was 13 or 14, I just wanted to fucking see more of the world. I started getting heaps curious. At that point, I just started getting really bored…
Omar: I can’t say because I haven’t been here long enough, but I have been here once before, that oftentimes as an outsider, I’ll be like, “In the NT, people got it worked out a bit better.” There’s a mad blend of ethnicities, and stuff. But then I can also feel an unspoken, and probably even spoken, racism at times.
Birdz: Definitely, man … The racism here in the territories is very well known. I feel like it’s very in your face. Like this is what it is. There’s obviously racism everywhere, but some of the places that I’ve lived are a little bit more subliminal. You kinda know the devil here, so to speak. [Laughs] It’s always been like that. Especially in Katherine. Growing up in Katherine, it’s always been, “Here’s all the white fellas, here’s all the black fellas”, and there’s a very distinct line.
Omar: What about growing up with a black dad and a white mum? Does that change that line at all?
Birdz: Yeah, I think at home, it prepares you. I think it prepared me to be aware of myself. Even in the stages of becoming a young man, and trying to find yourself. That can be really hard in a small town like this where there’s so much racism. I think having that foundation at home, and having my mum being white, my dad being Aboriginal, but both very loving, and both very encouraging about who I am. I think that helped me. But it was still tough.
Omar: Yeah man, I found out a little bit because my mum is white and my dad’s Malaysian. He experienced a lot of racism when he came here, felt incredibly isolated, dislocated from his culture. I guess when he came in 1979, 1980, White Australia Policy had only just been properly dismantled like five years before. That’s something I’d never really thought about until the last few years: how close that history is to us. When you hear someone like John Howard go, “Oh yeah, Australia dealt with all that culture stuff, and that’s all in the past.”
Birdz: All that culture stuff. [Laughs]
Omar: Yeah, I think they even actually said it like that. You just think, “No, how could it be?” That history was present in our parent’s lifetime, and in ours too. It’s kind of interesting because my mum spoke Malay, and was very knowledgeable about the Muslim religion, and Malay culture, and everything like that. But then there also is this gap between us, even though she’s the closest person in my life. She’s a well-educated, privileged white woman, there’s just certain things she’ll never understand about my experience. I think that’s something we’ve often had to grapple with. Her realising that as well. Things I’d come home and tell her, and she’d be like, “Well, that’s not my experience”. I’d be like, “Well, yeah”, suddenly realising there’s a reason for that. That’s crazy.
Birdz: Definitely man. I could say I had the same, or a very similar experience. Of course your parents love you, and my mum always loved me man. There were certain things, I think, at a point where she just wouldn’t understand because she’s not me, or she’s not my father, [she] doesn’t have the same experience, I guess.
It is interesting, my parents left Queensland to escape racism, in a sense. For a lack of better words, to get away from all the racism, and I think the tension between the families. In a conflict of my mum’s families being white Australian, and my dad being Aboriginal, there was always an ongoing tension and racism that’s still very evident. If I go visit my family for Christmas, on my mum’s side, it’s like little sly, stupid jokes that are racist. Then moving to Katherine, it was like, “Fuck, it’s just as bad.”
"If there's to be any type of change, or come up with some forward momentum or political power, I think there has to be alliances across many different groups of people."
Omar: You can’t really escape, yeah.I felt, sort of, the same. My mum’s from country New South Wales, from Forbes. There’s a really horrendous history out there of treatment of Aboriginal people … It’s kinda funny because I think, politically, we don’t think about percentages, about bloodline and everything like that. In Australia, well I’ll just say as a person of colour, you’re often drawn more towards that side of things. Like I’m drawn towards defining myself as a person of colour, even though 50 percent of my bloodline is Irish, it’s white. it’s like you can’t help that in a way. Even if I wanted to identify as white, that would be impossible, you know what I mean? It’s like you’ve been cast into that outsider role.
Birdz: Yeah, you don’t have that privilege. [Laughs]
Omar: No. No.
Birdz: You don’t have that ‘right’ to do that, I guess, in this world … My experience is that I’ve always been embraced by my Aboriginal culture, by my Aboriginal family. My personal experience is that it hasn’t always been like that on my mother’s side. My grandparents literally denied us when we were born. Wouldn’t pick us up at all as babies. That really influenced it as well, and that took me a long time to come around, not until I was a young adult, to make peace with my mum’s family … It’s interesting for me. That’s who I am, that’s who I’ve always been.
Omar: Reckon privilege plays a part in it? I can sort of say the same thing. I’ve always been embraced a lot more by my Malaysian family, partly because I grew up far away. It was a special occurrence if I went back. At the same time, I do feel sometimes a little bit of resentment, because I grew up so privileged compared to them, to that side of the family. There are times where I suddenly realise that to them I’m a very privileged, well-educated, almost like a white man, really. [Laughter] It’s funny because you’re suddenly cast into a completely different light, depending on the situation.
Birdz: I think that’s something that’s always gonna be tough though. The internal versus the external perception of who you are. I just think as an Aboriginal man in this country you can never win. You know what I mean? It’s always like people that are gonna say, “You’re not black enough”, and there’s always people that are gonna say, “You’re not white enough”, as soon as you don’t fit their mould. I just feel like, “Fuck that!”
Omar: Yeah. You’ve gotta be you.
Birdz: It can be really fucking hard to block that out, to focus and be strong within yourself.
Omar: Yeah, because it’s messy stuff. That’s why sometimes I think it’s so cruel when people choose to attack someone based on something as fraught as your identity. All the stuff we’re talking about, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to come to terms with, it’s not easy to figure out. The insider, outsider, us, them, and then all that stuff is playing out within yourself.
Just returning to the original thing, about being from a small town, I’m from a way different town than Katherine. Queanbeyan – where I grew up – it’s next to the, per capita, most affluent city in Australia, which is Canberra, city of government. Queanbeyan was always like the working-class area, even though it’s changed a lot. So many waves of migration were going through there. There was this pretty interesting matrix, I guess, of all these different communities. It was a big hot spot for Tongans and Samoans back in the day, and Maori people as well … Big Aboriginal population.
And then In the ’80s and the early ’90s, there were so many people from the Balkans coming from war torn regions. That was what I grew up around … We would make the dividing line between the ethnics and the Aussies. I suddenly realise as I’m getting older there’s all sorts of prejudices going on on the ethnic side.
Not necessarily the model minorities, but a lot of minorities that feel like they came to Australia of their own volition to work hard and all of that. They would buy into that kind of assimilation, or this idea of Australia, and being a good migrant, and look down on Indigenous people, and stuff like that … There was shame in that dynamic for me. I was like, “I don’t want to be a part of that. Why would I want to buy into some type of system that pits everyone against each other?”
I guess as I get more politically aware, I realise it’s not to say we can’t all challenge each other, and question each other, and everything thing like that, and be problematic and all that shit. Truly, if there’s to be any type of change, or come up with some forward momentum or political power, I think there has to be alliances across many different groups of people.
Birdz: Most def.
Omar: I see that with the Yes vote they were able to do that.
Birdz: Yeah, I have my own thoughts about that too. I thought, to be completely honest, there were some questions around the marketing. From a government perspective as well, the whole survey thing. It was like a real white picture of, “Here’s these happy white, gay people.” When I saw that it was very exclusive in itself.
Omar: Yeah, a lot of people of colour felt that there was a class at play, a hierarchy.
Birdz: That’s interesting because, you talking about your experience in Queanbeyan … Up until I left Katherine, it just always felt like it was just black versus white, there was just that one life. It was until I moved to Darwin that I was more exposed to people from different backgrounds, [it has this] big Asian community. Then moving to Melbourne, which I think I can safely say is the best place I’ve ever lived.
"Just underneath every interaction in Australia is an underlying racism and an underlying history of violence that is inescapable."
Omar: Yeah. It’s funny, man. There’s differences between all those different regions, but then there are the common things as well. To me, as far as I see it, just underneath every interaction in Australia is an underlying racism and an underlying history of violence that is inescapable. No matter how hard people like me as a ‘migrant of colour’ or ‘second generation-er’, or a white person – no matter how much we try and run from that, it’s inescapable. It’s unavoidable. It’s just something that we have to confront, and it’s painful.
Birdz: I think that’s gonna be an ongoing thing, and that’s gonna continue to affect people that come from elsewhere to this country, because there’s unfinished business. There’s unresolved matters with the first peoples of this land. That’s gonna still influence any future.
Omar: I think theoretically and practically it does affect them. I would say that the asylum seeker policy, this knee-jerk prejudice and reaction against these people, like this fear that we’re being somehow invaded, this landmass is being invaded by these unwanted people. How ironic is that? Is it because deep down within the psyche of Australians they know there’s a historical precedent that there was a land with a bunch of people on it that was invaded? So there’s a deep fear that what we once did will happen again to us. I think that’s something a lot of migrants don’t even think about. And we should. Anyway, we’re getting mad deep here. Fucking hell.
Birdz: Any fun questions? [Laughter]
Omar: [Looks at questions] Ok, we got laksa … we’ve got Muhammad Ali, heroes and inspirations. Alright, Muhammad Ali, man. We’ll talk about Muhammad Ali.
Birdz: What did Muhammad Ali mean for you? And what was the direct inspiration, I guess, for your record?
Omar: Ah, man Muhammad Ali … I guess a lot of it does still connect to identity and race politics. But when I was growing up I was trying to find myself. My dad was really, really religious. I’d pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan, and be like reading the Quran all the time. My dad and mum would always tell me to be proud of my Asian heritage, but to be proud of my Muslim identity, which wasn’t as politicised as post-2001, or whatever. It still was in the ’90s. You felt different. You felt sometimes unwanted. I was looking for role models; not necessarily Muslim role models, but Muslim inspirations. People that I thought were cool, or were interesting. I would see stuff on the news, and it would always be dudes in the Middle-East. Some dictator, or some terrorist, or something like that.
Birdz: Like a bad ’90s action movie?
Omar: Yeah, like a bad ’90s movie, or an old religious man. Something like that, that I felt like I couldn’t relate to. I had this hectic experience where this kid was really racist to me in the school yard. I remember he said that my colour was the same colour as shit. I was like nine years, and he would be merciless with this. He was one of the cool kids, one of the footy kids, and so it kind of broke me one time. I went back home, and I was crying, and I was telling my parents that I wish I wasn’t brown anymore, I wish I was white like the other kids, which is a crazy thought now. They sat me down, told me not to think about things like that, that I should always be proud.
I don’t know if it completely sunk in, but my dad started showing me these VHS tapes of Muhammad Ali. He was so charismatic, so handsome, and he was Muslim and he was proud of it. He was standing up for people who felt voiceless. He was super brave. I swear to God, he is where my character has come from, just like studying all these tapes, and the way he acted within the world, and everything like that. He meant a lot to me.
Almost through that, I got interested in all the black Muslim movement. There was this TV show on SBS about the Nation Of Islam, and I was really drawn towards Malcolm X, and the way that he spoke. Through that, getting into hip-hop, because hip-hop was so influenced by the Nation Of Islam.
It was a whole lot of weird things connected. Now, looking back on it, I’m kind of like, man, that’s funny, because I’m not black. I’m not from America. I couldn’t relate to those things as much as I thought back then. It was almost as simple as seeing a person of colour, being proud of that, and especially, a Muslim of colour. That was exciting.
Birdz: That’s mad. It’s funny you say that, because the first time I saw
The same thing with Bruce Lee. I use to fucking love Bruce Lee. My old man introduced me to The Big Boss and Fists Of Fury, and all that. I use to love Bruce Lee just because, I think, for the same reason. He just wasn’t this hetero white male .. it was just something different that was closer to who we were.
Omar: I think a lot of it makes you realise how much you internalise the idea of masculinity, or sexuality, things like that. Certain standards of beauty are set in the West as – the template would be a white person.
Birdz: Blonde hair, blue eyes.
Omar: Yeah, or like a powerful, or a smart person, or something like that. When you start having the circuit broken, and you start thinking about it in a different way, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a pretty liberating thing. It’s almost like you got new eyes with which you see the world. I remember feeling that definitely in my teens. And then as you get older, you look back at your heroes and you see that they’re problematic in certain way, but at that point in your life, it was so crucial.
With me I could’ve internalised that hatred, and hated myself, and hated my skin colour, and thought I was ugly, and thought I was stupid, and thought I was worthless. I think that’s such a huge danger. That’s why I definitely see myself as a role model, or something like that, but I definitely do think it’s cool that certain kids can see you on stage at a moment when they might be feeling weak, and it emboldens them.
Birdz: The best thing, and it’s only just starting to happen really, since Bad Apples and the noise that
Omar: It’s crazy to think of what a revolutionary idea that is, in a country that’s supposed to be all about the fair go. You know? Even just the thought, “Well, it’s okay to be black.” [Laughter]
Birdz: That’s the thing. The fucked-up thing, as an Aboriginal person, you often inherit trauma, and all these different things. The whole identity thing can be a really tough thing to navigate through. You do have these thoughts where it’s like, “Am I allowed to be here?”
Omar: That’s crazy.
Birdz: We got pulled out by the cops coming into Katherine the other day and I legit thought, “Fuck, I’m going to jail.” [Laughter]
Omar: So when was the first time you tried a laksa?
Birdz: It would have to be when I first moved to Darwin. It would’ve been probably at the markets.
Omar: Fuck yeah, man. We gotta go there on the weekend.
Birdz: Yeah, I can’t wait.
Omar: Laksa, swim, make a song?
Birdz: Black Panther movie?
Omar: Yeah, Black Panther. [Laughs]