Kofi Owusu Ansah, better known as Genesis Owusu, is an artist that grew up in the blank-slate suburbs of Australia's quaint capital, Canberra. Having moved from Ghana at the age of 3, and in its lack of diversity, the city provided an empty easel, one that the disillusioned though inspired Owusu began to paint in creative fervour.
From his conception as an artist as one half of the Ansah Brothers alongside his sibling Kojo (Citizen Kay) to realising his solo career as Genesis, there has consistently been a genuine chaos to Owusu’s method, a hellion attitude that supersedes the commercial bad-boy facade, and instead steps into the territory of ‘the outsider’.
It’s a label that stems from ‘not quite fitting the mould’ on Canberrian streets, to be carried over into Owusu’s genreless mentality. But this works in his favour. His music stands as some of the most eclectic contemporary sounds coming out of Australia to date, both boundaryless yet listenable, funky yet folk, innovative and also challenging.
His debut album, ‘Smiling with no Teeth’ follows the same stroke. Filled with quick-witted conceptualism that stems from Genesis’s use of potent iconography - the bandages, the black dogs, the gold teeth - Owusu cleverly depicts the message of ‘pretending everything’s okay when it’s not’, or more eloquently, ‘covering deeply ingrained issues by superficial means’. Traversing ideas of racism and mental health, while disguised by upbeat anthems, Owusu has created an album that’s as strong in sound as it is in message.
To gain more insight into the inner workings of Owusu’s crazed innovation, we chat to the chameleonic artist about creativity out of chaos, being an outsider, and his new album Smiling with No Teeth.
Congratulations on the album! How are you feeling about it all?
I’m so keen to put it out in the world, it feels like I’ve been sitting on it for years, cause I’ve been sitting on it since June or something, so it’s been a long time coming.
It’s literally been years though hasn’t it, since you started recording the first bits of the album, wasn’t it 2019?
Yeah, April 2019 when we first started the album. So I’m more than excited to finally have it out into the world.
I read that there was a really interesting process behind how the album came together, you had a pretty diverse group of people collaborating on the raw material. What was that process like?
Yeah, so we had a pretty eclectic cast. We had Kirin J Callinan on guitar, Touch Sensitive on bass, Julian Sudek on drums, and my manager Andrew Klippel. And we got into Julian’s personal home studio, which is like a bedroom-sized studio, with five of us and an engineer, in super hot weather and we just jammed, in total, for about six days, really long days, like 10 hour days. Super intense, cramped, hot, uncomfortable situation but it kind of disarmed everyone, and made it so it was too hot to look cool in front of everyone else. So it was too cramped, you know, to be super proud. All we could do was make music. It was a rollercoaster. We made like 60 hours worth of material which I then sat down and listened to every minute of, and then picked out the timestamps and the parts that I liked, and the parts that I really like became the album.
Did you enjoy working in that really collaborative way rather than just working with another producer?
Yeah, definitely. I love chaos. I love chaos and disorder. I love being thrown into chaos and disorder and having to swim my way out. I was with a group of people I’d never met before apart from my manager obviously, so I went in essentially blindfolded. And when you’re doing that, especially with people of that calibre and with people of that motive, eccentricity, it’s definitely a chaotic situation. But I feel like I really thrive in situations like that, it was super exciting to me, making it.
Whose idea was it?
It was my manager, Andrews.
Was he just like, “I’m gonna throw him in the deep end and see what happens”?
Yeah essentially, cause he knows I like that. Prior I was kind of working in the situation where it was me and a producer and I’d made really cool stuff. Like I like my previous output, but I think my manager caught on to the fact that I like shit to get a bit more wild. I hate staying in a comfort zone, so I just left it in his hands, I didn’t have any insight. I was thrown completely off guard cause that’s how I wanted it.
Listening to your album and watching the corroborating film clips, you begin to notice the iconography - the black dogs, the gold chains, the bandages - can you give a bit of insight into what those visuals mean?
So the title of the album Smiling with no Teeth to me means pretending things are okay when they’re not, and I've kind of been alluding to this theme visually for awhile now, since my WUTD single, like the artwork of it. The artwork for that and everything post that. The WUTD artwork, the smile with really gritty fractured teeth, but doused in gold, and the borders are all bright yellow and the smile has these gold grills, the Good Times artwork after that had this shattered skull which, again, had the gold grills, and then post that, the theme kind of continued and it was a visual metaphor for having these super obvious deeply ingrained, huge problems but trying to mix them with superficial solutions. When it came down to the album, the album follows these characters known as the two black dogs and I wanted to put that theme onto a character, so I kind of uniformed the character in the bandages, the obviously fucked up element of it, but then doused in gold rings and gold grills.
Especially sonically speaking, a lot of the album is fun, energetic and sexy but when you actually dig down into the lyrics you see that fake smile, it’s a facade, it’s like glazing honey over the demons.
Why did you decide to conceptualize it that way?
When I started making music I used music and just creativity in general as a means of expression and catharsis, and then I guess as I became a musician by career, I started having to think about radio singles and marketability. I guess the pure intention of my music kind of got compromised a little bit in the pursuit of eating and making a livelihood. But this album I really feel like I’ve come full circle in it. This album is really just my own personal venting session. It was me essentially going back to my roots and laying everything down and getting everything off my chest, but I guess I didn’t wanna talk about depression and racism as these super static topics where I was rapping statistics at you or whatever. So I guess I wanted to personify them into characters and give them their own personalities and goals, and motives.
With your music I noticed genre-wise and lyrically you’re very unpredictable, but when it comes to visuals and your performance they seem very conceptual and thought out, even narrative-like. What’s the process of connecting the music to the visuals?
Going back to when I started making music I didn’t just start making music and say that music was the end all be all. I kind of started a bunch of creative mediums at the same time, so when I started making music I also started dabbling in photoshop, and I also started designing clothes and taking photos. I didn’t see the creative mediums as separate entities, I just saw them as tools for the same goal, which is trying to express myself creatively to the fullest extent. So if I had a message or an emotion that I was trying to convey, it was like I had that and then I was like, “Okay does this work better in a song or on a t-shirt”. So I see the music and the aesthetic, and the music and the identity, as one whole package rather than separate entities. I’m tryna make a movie and the music is just the soundtrack, you know the costumes and the visuals, it all just accumulates to one big package to me.
So I think when most people think about the city of Canberra, they don’t think of it being the most culture-filled place around. What do you think growing up in a blank-canvas like Canberra gave you?
Growing up in Canberra was a gift and a curse to me, like I’ve said, it was a place where I became the outcast, I was very much one of a kind, negatively and positively. But I guess in doing that I got to be myself to the fullest extent, and wearing the badge of the outcast as a badge of honour, I immediately wanted to diverge from anything that was expected of me and anything that was considered normal because I was already outside of those boundaries. It would be a chore for me to try and dig my way into it, and that kind of mentality stuck with me throughout my whole life and in every facet of my life, including music. It’s kind of shaped who I am today as a musician, and you know that’s the same reason I do want to dabble in all these different genres and make this very eclectic sound palette. It gave me a basis to completely be myself with no distractions or guidelines.
Yeah, definitely, I see you refer to yourself a lot as an outsider in other interviews. What specifically does that mean to you in regards to music?
I guess to me it’s just having no parameters. I call myself an outcast, now, just because of where I view popular music to be in contrast to where I sit, but I don’t necessarily have the goal to be the outsider artist. I’m just doing what I love and how I feel at any given moment. If what I do becomes popular then I’m not gonna just be the contrarian for the sake of being the contrarian, I’m just gonna do what I love as I’ve always done. I guess the only reason I’m still on the outside is because what I love isn’t extremely widely accepted or acknowledged at this point.
I think that’s definitely the reason you’re starting to stand out though.
Definitely. It’s all in the goal of being 100% totally myself and not bowing to any kind of guidelines or restrictions or limitations.
Was there an artist or influence growing up that inspired that mindset?
I think I was already going down that path but when I discovered like Kanye and Pharrell, they really established to me that it could be done. They were like the first black weirdos that I found that really helped guide my path and see that I wasn’t alone in this. When I did start making music all the things that they were making were already ingrained in my DNA, I loved everything about it cause that’s where I started musically, that was my foundation I guess. I started from there and then diverged and branched out to find out how I could be like them in my own way.
Who are some artists now that are really influential to you, or that inspires your music?
I listen to a lot of Prince. For this album specifically Prince and Talking Heads were the two main influences. I love Outkast and Andre 3000. In regards to contemporary artists, I’ve been listening to a lot of Yves Tumor and Jean Dawson, two pretty new artists. Solange, Erykah Badu, I try to draw influences from everywhere as you might be able to hear (laughs). I have a long list, I can’t name them all off the top of my head.
Where do you see Genesis Owusu in the future? Is there a career trajectory that you’re looking to follow, or are you just going to see what happens?
My main goal is just to be able to live comfortably off of the art that I truly want to make, no compromise and everything else that happens, happens. That’s my main goal and my definition of success, like I said at the start, I love the rollercoaster ride, I love the chaos and I love the disorder so it’s not something that I want to really predict outside of that. I just want to do what I do and be down for the ride like everyone else.
Yeah, it doesn’t seem like you’d be the kind of person that has a five-year plan.