Genesis Owusu: “I’d rather be a legend on my own little island than compete for a throne”

Kofi Owusu-Ansah has made it his life goal to be an outsider artist – even as his forthcoming debut album as Genesis Owusu, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, poises him for stardom

Kofi Owusu-Ansah can’t find his favourite piece of art. We’re in his hometown of Canberra, ambling through a recently rearranged National Gallery Of Australia – an institution he often visits for creative recharge. Owusu-Ansah is searching for Fiona Foley’s HHH (or “Hedonistic Honky Haters”), a portrait series that subverts the Ku Klux Klan’s hooded costumes by fashioning them out of brightly patterned fabrics sourced from African import shops in New York City.

Owusu-Ansah often wears traditional dress when he raps, sings and contorts on stage as Genesis Owusu, backed by his “goons” – a group of hype men that begin the show dressed in ski masks and military vests, before tearing them off to reveal dashikis, throwing rose petals. We settle for a photo of HHH on his phone after a furious scroll through an Instagram archive.

“It’s more about the concept than the medium for me. I like stuff that shocks – a visceral reaction,” Owusu-Ansah tells NME, unwittingly standing in front of an extreme close-up of a gold, spray-painted penis, entitled Golden Shower (“I don’t like that so much”).

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Owusu-Ansah recalls something more formative than the institutionalised art around us: a 2002 Xbox game called Jet Set Radio Future, a primitive cel-shaded game set in a future Tokyo where freedom of expression is outlawed by a totalitarian government. A five-year-old Owusu-Ansah played as an outcast: an artist-activist-gang member that rollerbladed, danced and graffitied while battling rival gangs, the police and the government – all soundtracked by a pirate radio station bumping noise rock, future funk and rave.

“It changed my brain. I really gotta talk about this more in my origin stories,” Owusu-Ansah laughs. “It was so foreign that it melted me down and remoulded me… to the point where I really think I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t play that game.”

Today, at age 22, he’s dressed in a pearly white kimono top – bought from Vinnies for $4 – while his coiled hair is peppered with gold clamps that are never removed. There’s a slightly dorky demeanour lurking under the knotty lyrics and costuming he cloaks himself in as Genesis Owusu.

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Genesis Owusu on the cover of NME

The moniker, first adopted at age 14, has carried him to his debut album ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, set for a COVID-delayed March release (“It would definitely already be out if it was up to me”). As an entry-point to an artist’s career, it’s staggeringly broad – 15 tracks spanning hip-hop, funk, folk, industrial beats, jazz and punk with heady conceptual intent.

‘On The Move!’ begins the record with a percussive hiccup mutating into a glitch beat; lead single ‘Don’t Need You’ is a barked fuck-you to depression. ‘Black Dogs!’ chews through Beastie Boys punk, and, just three songs later, Owusu-Ansah coos over the bucolic folk of ‘A Song About Fishing’. Australia hasn’t seen musical ambition like this in years.

‘Smiling’ documents an entire year of Owusu-Ansah’s art-making – from first concepts to final masters – which began when his manager and co-founder of his label OURNESS, Andrew Klippel, decided to ditch the producer-and-artist approach. Owusu-Ansah wanted to unshackle himself from being “the funk guy”, a generalisation he had resented since the release of his 2017 Afrofuturist single ‘Sideways’, produced by half of Hiatus Kaiyote.

“Canberra was a blank canvas I was able to paint my own colour at will”

“It’s really a product of how slow the process of releasing music is. All of those funk tracks [‘WUTD’, ‘I Am’, ‘Good Times’] you’ve heard have been released over a two year period, but they were made within two weeks of each other,” Owusu-Ansah explains.

“Genre as a whole is more of a hindrance than a help for me. I see its importance for the consumer, but as an artist I just don’t even bother with it anymore.”

So Klippel customised a band around Owusu-Ansah, telling NME he wanted to avoid the “cocktail vibes” brand of soul that producers had led Genesis Owusu into. Owusu-Ansah describes the band as a “rag-tag group of people from different genres”, and for once rag-tag is an understatement: Touch Sensitive (dance), Kirin J Callinan (synth pop), Julian Sudek (rock) and Klippel himself (jazz) on keys. They had never played as a full group, nor did they rehearse prior to ‘Smiling’. The quintet bunkered down in a bedroom-sized Bondi studio for six sweltering days in April and November 2019 to jam for 10 hours at a time.

“[Owusu-Ansah] was a really strong presence in the room,” Klippel remembers. “The playing was all about implementing our interpretation of him as a person. It’s a pretty crazy situation, getting in a room with these totally new people and instantly disarming yourself. The room was so hot that everyone was just so uncomfortable. You couldn’t be bothered with being self-conscious anymore because it was so uncomfortable.”

Was there a brief from their bandleader? Not exactly.

“I wasn’t even saying ‘let’s do this’ and ‘let’s do that’. Every once in a while, I’d just play a track,” Owusu-Ansah explains.

“I’d play a Prince, Tom Tom Club or a Death Grips song, and they’d just listen to it and no one would say anything. We’d just figure out how that song impacted them subconsciously, and start playing.”

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Owusu-Ansah then trawled through each of the 10-hour jam recordings, picked out the timestamps for what he liked and edited them together. When NME makes the comparison to the three-day sessions for Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ – also improvised and stitched together – Owusu-Ansah is pleased.

“It was jazz and punk in ethos,” he says.

Callinan is the most recognisable of the ‘Smiling’ band, for better or worse. He rose to blogtastic fame off the back of his camp provocation, before coming to a halt in 2017: he pled guilty to wilful and obscene exposure in a public place after he lifted his kilt and exposed himself to media at the ARIA Awards. When NME asks Owusu-Ansah if Callinan’s controversy gave him pause, he appears to expect the question.

“I’m a person that takes my principles, ethics and morals seriously. I wouldn’t just throw them away for the sake of music. From my perspective, those situations weren’t enough to ostracise someone,” he says. “He’s an amazing artist and a great person and a really interesting person. I value his input and personality a lot. He’s a rock star, he’s a whole rock star.”

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Owusu-Ansah is a visual auteur as much as he is a musician. In the video for ‘The Other Black Dog’, he sprints down a road late at night, chased by a black car driven by his shadow self. The driver’s face is wrapped in bandages à la The Weeknd circa ‘After Hours’, with golden grills forcing gritted teeth into a grin – covering up suffering with “a little gold, or extravagance”, as he puts it.

The two weighty concepts that haunt ‘Smiling’ are depression and racism. They split the record into thematic halves, and are personified as two living, breathing black dogs. One is the external figure of Owusu-Ansah himself, who experiences the dehumanising brunt of racism, and the other an internal, depressive figure that he describes as “almost seductive, wanting to lure you in… almost like a toxic relationship, wanting to be your only one”. The title track articulates the relationship between the two black dogs as analogues of racism and mental health: “Society’s stray and the stray’s hound / Caressing and stabbing each other with a technician’s touch”.

“Obviously, I knew of the black dog as a metaphor for depression. But then it struck me – I’ve literally been called a black dog in my life with the racial slur connotation,” Owusu-Ansah explains. “I thought it was interesting how that phrase encapsulated both things I was talking about. I didn’t really want to tackle it as ‘statistics and blah blah blah’.

“The reason I chose these two concepts is they’re ideas that have been weighing on me for such a big portion of my life,” he adds. “It’s a seesaw, they’re both codependent on each other a lot of the time. A lot of the reasons I think the way I think and act the way I act was because of experiences of racial abuse from when I was younger. The anxiety that came from that would exacerbate the paranoia I felt going into white spaces.”

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Canberra, his home for the last 19 years, is host to many of those white spaces. Kofi Owusu-Ansah was born in Koforidua, Ghana in 1998 to a gospel singer and a probation officer. The country is “the type of place where you’ll have a mansion on one side of the street and a dirt hut on the other”, he says. The family immigrated to Australia three years later to give their children greater opportunity – Canberra, a sleepy city stuck in perpetual limbo between regional centre and urban hub, was their unlikely destination.

Kofi and his elder brother Kojo, now better known as rapper Citizen Kay, took divergent approaches to navigating the white world of Canberra Catholic education. “The school we were at had over 2,000 kids and I was the only Black guy [before Kofi arrived] – one in 2,000. My natural inclination at that point was to try and fit in, or assimilate,” Kojo remembers.

Kofi saw his older brother’s experience and went the opposite direction. “I didn’t want to fight to be with people I didn’t even like, or dress like people whose fashion looked like shit, music sounded like shit. It wasn’t worth it for me,” he says. “It moulded me into a person where a lot of my actions were a protest. I became a person who would do things because people expected me to do something else.”

“The making of ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ was jazz and punk in ethos”

Those acts of protest were often fashion choices radical for a Canberra kid – skater clothes fused with his Ghanian heritage (“You know, not all of it worked, but I’m glad I did it”). Even if he didn’t love school, Kofi’s gift for the written word was also apparent. It first blossomed in an interest in poetry – “I liked Maya Angelou, Gil Scott-Heron, Langston Hughes. Those were my three” – before he realised “a lot of these rappers were just world-class poets,” Kofi says.

“Lupe Fiasco should definitely be studied in English more than 17th-century shit. Way more potent, way more relevant, way better just technically,” he adds, meaning every word.

One of Kojo’s favourite memories of Kofi is almost too predictive of ‘Smiling With No Teeth’. When Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was released, he walked into his younger brother’s room ready to gush over the record with him – only to find Kofi sitting with the lights off and headphones on, breaking down the lyrics and concepts in a notebook as he listened.

“I walked out thinking, ‘This dude is on top of it, it’s more than just listening to music’,” Kojo remembers. “Everything that’s playing out now is just no surprise to anyone that really knows him well.”

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Initially, Kofi’s contrarian attitude made him reject the idea of making music like his brother. But Kojo knew better. He “hijacked” the family study, turning it into a studio and according to Kofi, “forcefully” pushed him to rap at age 14.

“He was always badgering me, he’d be making beats and be like ‘Come rap on this’,” Kofi recalls. “Then one day, I was like ‘Yeah, whatever’ and that was ‘Ansah Brothers’.”

Kojo laughs at that interpretation: “I remember it as ‘loving older brother letting him into the world I’d also just discovered’.” Nonetheless, as a debut verse – written in a moment of inspiration in a public bathroom, Kofi says – it’s extraordinary. From there, there was no going back. The Ansah Brothers performed on school nights and, together, began to transform the way gigs looked in Canberra over the next five years, almost without precedent.

“I feel like the lack of scene influenced me more than the scene itself,” Kofi says.

“My whole life growing up was trying to diverge from everything and Canberra was weirdly the perfect place for that because I wasn’t bombarded by movements and trends. It was a blank canvas I was able to paint my own colour at will.”

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Genesis Owusu’s inevitable fame has been prophesied every year since he emerged from Canberra – but 2021 and ‘Smiling’ is bound to make it a reality, scoring him a spot on the NME 100 and other international hype lists.

The corrosive impact of greater exposure eats away at him throughout the record. On ‘Gold Chains’, he outlines its devilish compromise: “I sacrifice a gentle life for goals that leave me terrified / But pray that this doesn’t lead to my demise”.

“I’m trying to live comfortably but I’m pursuing a life [in the music industry] that is known to just be fucked up. To be full of vultures, creeps and people that drain. That line is just acknowledging the contradiction and the walking paradox I can be,” Owusu-Ansah says.

Australia is currently seeing a rising wave of artists from the African diaspora making varied music under the aesthetic umbrella of hip-hop: Sampa The Great (Owusu-Ansah’s favourite rapper out of Australia), Manu Crooks, BLESSED, and more. Genesis Owusu’s story could be read in this context, but does he feel part of this scene? The answer is yes and no.

NME Cover 2021 Genesis Owusu
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

“Whenever I see any of those people, it’s always love and you always feel that sense of community from an identity perspective. [But] from the outside looking in, in a lot of publications I don’t feel like I really get recognised in those circles or in hip-hop in Australia at all,” he explains.

“I think it’s the pros and cons of what I’m doing. I’m trying to be the outcast. I’m trying to be in my own lane, to a point where nobody can compare me to anyone else… I’d rather be a legend on my own little island than compete for a throne in a certain scene.”

That said, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ looks to render scene debates somewhat irrelevant: its release poises Kofi Owusu-Ansah for a spot on the international vanguard. But while his weirdo star rises globally, he’ll be staying put in Canberra – the place the outcast made his own.

“Until I move to Paris,” he winks.

Genesis Owusu’s ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ is out via OURNESS/House Anxiety on March 5