Art matters: Rappers to battle at Writers Festival

By Nick Atkinson

King Kapisi is looking forward to his a cappella bout with Omar Musa.
King Kapisi is looking forward to his a cappella bout with Omar Musa.

Sixteen years after the release of his debut album, Savage Thoughts, it continues to lead to new and intriguing opportunities for local hip-hop artist King Kapisi.

The album was an inspiration for Australian slam poet and hip-hopper Omar Musa, who is enjoying success as a writer with his acclaimed second book, Here Come The Dogs. The Sydney Morning Herald named him in their list of best young novelists for 2015.

The articulate author - with Irish, Indonesian and Malay roots - comes from a small-to-middling New South Wales town, though his inspiration is urban with talk of "scribbled hours, pilled and powdered" trying to shut out "the hiss of talkback serpents".

While Musa grew up in a country often characterised by its conservatism, hip-hop was beginning to flourish in neighbouring New Zealand. King Kapisi's Savage Thoughts was one record that became an inspiration for the aspiring rapper, prompting him to contact Kapisi.

The two have been in touch ever since, with Kapisi saying his album was a big influence on Musa because it talked of being a Pacific Islander. Kapisi returned surprised at our neighbour's regionalism - rappers in Perth railed against their compatriots from other centres as artists vied for a tiny slice of the national pie - after early tours of Australia during the late 90s.

Omar Musa.
Omar Musa.

"Triple J was the only station that played hip-hop over there", remembers Kapisi, who came to realise Australian fans were more inclined to listen to rap from Aotearoa. "They'd accept me or Savage or Scribe way more than someone from Australia."

Now Kapisi and Musa are to share the stage in an a cappella match-up, part of the Auckland Writers Festival where each artist has 25 minutes to impress with their rhymes and beats. While this sort of gig is bread and butter for Musa, it's new ground for Kapisi.

"Poetry is not my realm, but I think it's something I could be comfortable with," he says. "Poetry is exactly the same as rap; the only difference to me is the beat. I'm going to get prepared for anything. It's a little bit of a battle. I'm going to write some new stuff and kick some old stuff. What I'm looking forward to is showing others who are only into poetry, that 'damn, those rappers are saying something, they have a different view'."

Kapisi is relishing the challenge of the new medium.

"You basically have to spit some poems, spit some stuff, but it turns into something different. You're not confined to a bar of 4/4. You're trying to be nice, whereas with rap, you're trying to murder emcees. It's very different. They're not there to dance. I'm used to rocking crowds into a frenzy. These crowds will be sitting down; they'll be listening to every word."

Those who follow Kapisi's work will know how prolific he is.

"I write it on my phone, my laptop or on a piece of paper. I write really quickly. I write it and edit it, it's a normal thing," says the Silver Scroll-winner modestly. "I just know that within this industry you have to keep on creating regardless. Once you stop creating, you're not in the industry."

A Cappella with Omar Musa and King Kapisi, Auckland Writers Festival, Lower NZI Room, Aotea Centre; Friday, May 13, 7pm

A Line at a Time: Omar Musa, Saturday, May 14, 6pm, Lower NZI Room.

- Weekend magazine

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