The Eclectic Australian Artist Who Sings About Identity, Racism And Depression

Genesis Owusu is making the most important music in Australia right now, just don’t ask him to define it.

Article by Victoria Pearson

Photography by Bec Parsons.

The Covid-19-induced lockdown of 2020 resulted in a period of varied self-expression. Many turned to flour and yeast, others upended puzzle tiles on dining room tables or took up painting, renovations or Pilates.

For Canberra-based singer-songwriter Kofi Owusu-Ansah (who performs under the moniker Genesis Owusu), the pandemic’s closure of live music venues was a tedious phase to navigate. “Performing is my favourite thing ever,” he says. And understandably so — a Genesis Owusu show is one of the most vocally and physically energetic experiences you can get. When the pandemic first hit, he wondered how he could possibly fill the void that the absence of live touring had left in his schedule.

Easily, it turned out. He used the opportunity to write his first album, “Smiling With No Teeth”, a 15-track exploration of mental health, race and the performative nature of social responsibility set to an evocative soundscape of funk, hip-hop, jazz, industrial, folk and punk.

Featuring accompaniment from his “black dog band”, comprising local notables Kirin J Callinan, Touch Sensitive, Jonti, Julian Sudek and Owusu-Ansah’s manager, Andrew Klippell, the album is a deliberate sonic departure from the pure funk sound synonymous with the Genesis persona. “There’s been this disconnect between how I feel I am as an artist and how it’s actually portrayed, or how it’s digested, in the public,” he says. “I see myself as a very eclectic artist that creates a bunch of different things from all different spaces. But there was a two-year period where I became the ‘funk guy’ — I was just doing funk tracks.”

Photography by Bec Parsons.

To offset that, he says, he collaborated with creatives from a range of places. “I wanted to get myself in the space I wanted to be in from the start, which is a place of complete uncertainty and discomfort and chaos. A place where you can’t predict what’s going to happen next. I feel like that’s where I really thrive.”

Owusu-Ansah was born in Ghana; his family immigrated to Canberra when he was two. He says both Australia and Ghana feel like home. “I was raised in Australia and a lot of things I know are from Australia, but I still get asked, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Canberra’. And they’re like, ‘No, where are you really from?’. In the same way, when I go back to Ghana they can tell I’ve been out of Ghana for a long time, even though it still feels like home.” That outsider status informs much of the album’s lyrical narratives and is most explicit on the lead single, “Don’t Need You”, which was nominated for Best Soul/R&B Release in the 2020 ARIA Awards.

While this first album has just been released, Owusu-Ansah has been exploring themes of identity, racism and depression for years. “When I did speak about it prior, people didn’t understand it or didn’t want to listen to it,” he says, “or to get people to listen I had to sugar-coat it or water it down. On a global scale, now is the time when more people are willing to listen.”

Photography by Bailey Howard

Twenty-twenty proved to be a formative year for Owusu-Ansah. Alongside the ARIA nomination, “Don’t Need You” was awarded #73 in Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 countdown and resulted in him being named as a 2021 ‘artist to watch’ by The Guardian, NME and NPR. In the leadup to his debut album release, how heavily do accolades like these weigh on an artist? “I can see the value of a Grammy, for example, in a business sense. But as a fan I’ve never respected the Grammys,” he says. “What they chose was not what aligned with me. So, going into it as an artist, it’s like, ‘If I get a Grammy, that’s awesome, cool.’ But when someone I’ve been watching for years is like, ‘Holy shit, this song is amazing,’ that’s when I freak out,” he says. “I appreciate the respect from people and places that I respect rather than random accolades. And to the same effect I felt like, growing up, I was just a little weirdo black kid in Canberra trying to do weirdo shit. So when I’ve grown up a bit and other little weirdo black kids from other white spaces are like, ‘This really resonates with me,’ that means much more.”

After years of Owusu-Ansah feeling pigeonholed into a particular style or genre, “Smiling” has afforded him the opportunity to release his purest sound – one that defies categorisation. “It doesn’t interest me to define any of the things I do in static terms. Everything is very visceral and energetic rather than formulaic or scientific,” he says. “I feel like this album [is] my first true statement of what Genesis Owusu is.”

“Smiling With No Teeth” is out now on Ourness/House Anxiety.