This review originally appeared in The Guardian Australia.
"Where are these cunts?"
So begins the mainstream literary debut of Omar Musa, poet, rapper, TEDx speaker, playwright, and now hip-hop verse novelist. Written in a combination of poetry and prose, Musa’s novel, Here Come the Dogs, is a muscular examination of dislocation and disempowerment among the lives of Australian youths on the edge of mainstream society.
During a throbbing Sydney summer, three young men attend a local greyhound race, and talk about dogs, hip-hop, "flow" and women. Solomon Amosa, a 27-year-old who went to a private school on a basketball scholarship, is the most charming, spending his days playing basketball and hanging out with his girlfriend, Georgie.
His "beige"-coloured half-brother, Jimmy, hangs out with him, mixing beats. And, finally, Solomon’s best friend, Aleks Janeski, looks to improve his situation for his wife and daughter while attending hip-hop gigs and doing a bit of "graff" (graffiti) with the boys.
All the men, despite genuine sympathy and care from friends and family, struggle with identity and violence.
For Aleks, his disaffection deepens when he winds up in prison after illegal activity around drug trafficking. Having migrated to Australia as a child from Macedonia, and disenchanted with his life in Sydney, he is the most obvious representation of the lost in-between culture that is neither Macedonian nor Australian, ignored by a world that defiles him.
For Jimmy, in the dark about his absent father’s nationality or race, it is his inability to call himself part of any tribe that leads him towards inflammatory rebellion.
Solomon, on the other hand, has his own, more articulate battles. "Privilege is power," he argues, the most self-aware of the group, during an argument about misandry in Georgie’s university class; and later, when breaking it off to take up with a half-Asian, New Zealander bisexual tattoo artist Scarlett, says to his white, middle-class girlfriend, "I’m not gonna fuck some colour into ya and I’m not gonna fuck that white guilt outta ya."
Harsh words, but this is very much the point of Here Come the Dogs: only by being true to their own experiences are these men able to give themselves the voices they burn for.
It is Musa’s obsession with hip-hop culture, however – including frequent references to real life hip-hop figures and MCs such as Brad Strut, Trem, Jean Grae, Pharoahe Monch, Tom Thum, Joe New, Plutonic Lab, M-Phazes and Mantra – that unites the characters and makes Here Come the Dogs distinct.
"Hip-hop was a ready-made culture for the fatherless, those born of fracture – family, culture," Jimmy notes during a gig, and throughout the novel it remains a common frame.
Similarly, Musa’s blending of poetry and prose is refreshing. Although at times the weaving in and out between verse and prose jars (from time to time the form even changes within the same paragraph), Musa’s descriptions, polished by his own ventures into hip-hop and songwriting, are at once tender, beautiful, gritty and raw.
A coming of age novel, Here Come the Dogs ultimately gives its characters the awakenings they deserve but, sadly, in real life rarely achieve. Despite their violence and anger, all the men are dreamers. At the end of the novel ash from a bushfire instigated by Jimmy rains over the city. It is not only a portent signal of Musa’s literary talents, but a symbol of fiery new beginnings.
Malaysian-Australian Musa is a rare creature within the Australian literary scene. Having first come to national attention when he won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008, he is already considered to be within the critical realm of Irvine Welsh and Christos Tsiolkas. It is his voice, lyrical and incendiary, that will rise and soar.