Energetic, real, contemplative and funky are all very disparate words, but all describe Genesis Owusu (born Kofi Owusu-Ansah) to a tee. Born in Ghana, but brought to the mainly white suburbs of Canberra at the age of 3, Genesis is a man out of place. Instead of capitulating or allowing himself to be absorbed by his surroundings, Genesis decided to etch out an identity and space of his own. This is a space he brings you into with his music. Covering his mental state, his life, and everything in between; Genesis’ sound is his and his alone. There’s no confusing a Genesis Owusu tune for anything else. On tracks, like I Am, his voice playfully weaves in and out playfully amongst the MoTown-Esque instrumentals, both rapping on top of and singing along with them. In a blend that sounds wholly unique and unforced, it all captures that feeling of watching him mix before you hear it live on stage.
This manic energy can be found in all of the twenty-two year old’s catalogue, giving you a visceral perception into what we can only assume, it feels like to be inside his head. It’s imperfect, but it’s human and personal and it makes an impact.
The young creative took the time to answer a few questions from POCC so we could delve even further.
Was it difficult for you to get to a place in your life where you were confident enough, not only to speak about, but create music related to your battles with mental illness?
Making music was the first thing I did to confront mental health issues. Before I spoke to anyone about it or underwent any kind of clinical anything, my first instinct was to just make music about it; that was my natural mode of emotional expression. I only really started talking about it because I had to explain the music.
On the same note, while your music touches on darker subjects, it is also sonically upbeat and funky. How do you feel about the idea of people dancing to a song where you’re talking about your demons?
I think it’s interesting. I think it adds layers to the music where people can dissect it if they want to, or they can just enjoy it on the surface. I generally don’t like to be super on-the-nose with things. I prefer things with a bit of ambiguity and room for interpretation, but I’ve learnt a lot of people don’t want to interpret shit at all, they just wanna dance. I’ve always been really interested in songs like ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast or ‘1999’ by Prince, where everyone will be dancing and occasionally you’ll see someone have a “wait, what the fuck” moment when they realise the subject matter is actually pretty dark. It’s a mode of conversation that can also make trickier subjects more accessible to people who might be uncomfortable confronting it otherwise.
Actually, my whole upcoming album, Smiling With No Teeth, takes this mode as a concept. The phrase “smiling with no teeth” essentially means “pretending things are okay when they’re not” – performative comfort. So throughout the album, the songs are sonically upbeat, fun, sexy and aggressive, but there is always something creeping a little under the surface.
In the music videos for ‘Don’t Need You’ and ‘The Other Black Dog’, in some of the shots, your face is covered in bandages. What was the symbolism behind this? What were you trying to communicate?
I’ve kind of been teasing Smiling With No Teeth in different ways since WUTD. The art for WUTD, Good Times, and everything since then have all featured an image that is very obviously fractured but has been doused in gold as if this superficial showering of gold grillz and rings is enough to take away from the glaring problem at hand. It’s the visual representation of the “pretending things are okay” theme. Throughout the album and it’s singles, this theme is personified into characters known as The Black Dogs, and the combination of the bandages and the gold become the uniform for these lurking creatures that can’t just be shooed away by superficial solutions.
Was there a moment in your creative journey that made you realise what you needed to do and what you wanted to sound like? Something that solidified where you were going as an artist?
It definitely happened way before I started making art. The decision to make art was probably a by-product of whatever that moment was. Growing up how I grew up instilled a sense of protest in me, where everything I did had to be in opposition to whatever everyone expected of me. I refuse to be boxed in, in any sense, to the point where I don’t believe I need to do or sound like anything, apart from what I feel like at any given moment.
What was your childhood like growing up in a predominantly white city in a predominantly white country? Have there been any long-standing effects of this experience?
Being part of the diaspora is a culture in itself. Being born in Ghana but raised in Canberra, makes it hard to fit into either place. I knew no black people outside my family and the people at church. Growing up, I felt like my options were to assimilate or to fully embrace the label of the outcast. Tuna and cheese sandwiches weren’t for me, so I chose the latter. The long-standing effect is everything you see before you today.
People are often asked what they would say to their past self, but what do you think you would want to say to your future self?
“I hope people can spell your name properly by now.”
Are you ever afraid of running out of topics or ideas? Do you have enough concepts to last a lifetime?
Sometimes I feel like I could run out of topics. A lot of my music is autobiographical, so sometimes I worry that my life experiences as a twenty-two year old won’t be able to keep up with the volume of music that I am expected to make. Then I realise I’m trippin’. I got concepts and ideas forever, way beyond music too. The further I go, the more abstract and wackier I want to get. So I hope y’all are ready for some freaky shit in 2022.
Where is the optimal environment to listen to a Genesis Owusu track? Do you think your music works better as a purely audio experience, or does it come into its own when listened to live?
It depends on what you’re listening to. When I made the CARDRIVE EP, I pictured the optimal environment for listening was on a cold night, on a drive somewhere by yourself. I think listening to The Other Black Dog and watching the video are two different experiences in themselves. As for the live show, I hold that in a different category altogether, closer to theatre than just a live performance of music. Basically, the best way to experience a Genesis Owusu piece is in any context where you can appreciate all the layers of that given piece.
If you had to make up a name for the incredibly specific genre-less genre you’ve carved for yourself, what would it be?
I don’t know, dawg. Probably something like Avant-garde hip-hop or something. Or like how there’s Artpop, maybe like Art hip-pop. Then I think that sounds kinda wanky, so I’d just tell people to listen to the music and call it whatever they want. Genre is more of a hindrance for me than a help.
As a Nigerian man, I have to finish this by asking an incredibly controversial question, what makes Ghanaian jollof rice better (in your opinion) than Nigerian?
You can feel the stern, but loving hand of a Ghanaian aunty in every bite of Ghanaian jollof. Nigerian is more just the stern part.
The Other Black Dog out now