Play On by Omar Musa

Experience, as the cliché goes, is the best teacher. And while the phrase itself is tired, most everyone agrees with its message — why take advice from someone who understands your problems in theoretical terms, or through guesswork? The heart of the phrase is the thing that makes Omar Musa’s Play On as strong a piece as it is. Play On finds its strength in a candid, almost dark voice that creates just the right kind of picture to speak to the experience of the author.

Play On is written in a very free style, but uses conventions such as sentence length and spacing to its advantage to set an evocative tone. The first two lines of the poem, for instance, are their own stanzas. And the length of each one is used to send a strong message that is best sent bluntly. The tone of this poem is distinctly dark, but that’s not all there is to it either; the style of the poem opens it up to a very distinct voice that is best described by itself. You can read and listen to the poem, Play On, in full here.


Play On Analysis

There are two lines that stand out strongly in this poem: “This is a warming,” and “Play on.” For the tone of the poem, these send off opposing images: it’s easy to imagine “this is a warning” as being spoken in a grim, dark kind of tone, and “play on” as being spoken in an encouraging way. And this strange mix of the two is the voice of the poem: a warning, yes, but warning the listener of the price of a worthwhile ambition. All ambition is worthwhile, this poem says, as long as it’s true enough to never be dropped. Perhaps the strongest indication of voice in this poem is demonstrated in the eighth stanza:

Even when the rejection letters stack up like a pyramid and they tell you that you have no talent and that no-one wants to hear an Aussie rapper from a small town and no fucking radio station will play you and you scream and scream and nobody hears you- play on.

Knowing that Omar Musa is an Australian rapper from a small town who seeks to be played on radio stations, this line is powerful. The sole use of obscene language throughout the poem shows up here, a memory of anger. This is the voice of the poem, the strongest warning, and also the most powerful encouragement — because the listener is, in fact, hearing him, because he played on.

Musa’s imagery and metaphor often interact with each other to form unique descriptions of the events being discussed. For instance, he personifies tomorrow as being someone who will show up at the door each day, either with flowers or a hand gun; a metaphor for each day’s capacity to be a pleasant day, represented by flowers, or a distinctly bad one. The first instance of “play on” in the poem uses a similar idea:

Never let the fire in the lamp burn low. Never stop making your music, even if the record is scratched, the needle is snapped and the mic is unplugged- play on.

There are two distinct metaphors here. One uses the imagery of a lit lamp, comparing it to the drive and passion held by the human to do art. If the fire in the lamp runs low, the person’s creativity and drive has run down — and a lamp burns low when it isn’t tended, suggesting that a person should always engage their passions, lest they lose them. The second metaphor is the making of music, and particularly everything that can go wrong while making music — broken needle and scratched record (vinyl-based imagery) and an unplugged mic, meaning no one can hear you. But even if your passion is the equivalent of singing into a mic that is reaching no one, you shouldn’t stop. It’s a strong metaphor, and music recording was an excellent comparison to use. It reappears in the penultimate verse, as an obstacle that was overcome, rather than a hindrance to passion.

The next verse uses the imagery of coral reefs to create a metaphor for the industry that surrounds the creative process, and it too is a good one — coral reefs are beautiful to look at, but hide dangers as well as cast beauties. The sea surrounding them is vast, and is used as a pool of information, constantly pushing the artist as the tide pushes a swimmer, and the particularly bad ones — bad advice, bad criticisms, or the “insane” bits of information — can push the artist straight into a dangerous reef that can cause real damage. The reef represents the extinguished flame from the aforementioned lantern, the bottom of the sea where no fire can survive or cast light.

Even when it feels as if friendship is a battleground, where the breeze is rich with ego and mistrust, where the burnished sun is blackened by a billion arrows that sing with the clarity of birds.

In the above lines, one final significant metaphor is used — that the very air the artist breathes is a carrier of ego and mistrust, and that relationships themselves are like a battleground. Everyone is in the business to further their own careers and their own passions. So the very environment of that business is one where the air itself reeks of mistrust and ego, and where arrows fly constantly, blacking out the sun, and the only thing that really makes sense is the ego and the fact that there is no trust. When these are the only things that make sense in the world, it can be hard to play on — but it is crucial to do so.

There is no specific image or setting that carries Play On — rather it is the title and the voice of that title, speaking from experience and, in a way, speaking to experience, reminding those who’s flames have burned low as a result of seas of information and polluted air to never give up. When Musa says, in this poem, that an artist must carry on after being told their voice will never be heard, he is being heard, loud and clear, and it has made a world of difference.

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