With debut album ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, Genesis Owusu became a star in his native Australia. Following it up with the conceptual, broad-reaching ambition of hard-won second album ‘STRUGGLER’, it’s high time the rest of the world followed suit.
Genesis Owusu exists between worlds. A Ghanaian who moved to Canberra, Australia at the age of two, his music is defiant in its eclecticism and bounces freely from one genre to another - often within the space of one verse. On home turf, he’s won numerous ARIA awards (Australia’s most prestigious music accolade) and sold out an orchestra-backed performance at the Sydney Opera House; elsewhere around the globe, he still enjoys the status of ‘widely-tipped riser’.
As his Zoom connection cracks into focus, Genesis is on the final week of a US arena tour opening for Bloc Party and power-pop juggernauts Paramore in preparation for the August release of his second album, ‘STRUGGLER’. “It’s definitely given me a taste for the luxury of playing in stadiums,” he jokes, following last night’s performance in Pittsburgh. “Big basketball team locker rooms, free catering for every show, all that kinda stuff.”
As mismatched as the touring lineup might seem on paper, it’s difficult to imagine any spectator leaving a Genesis Owusu show as anything but a convert. Much like everything that the artist exudes, his live sets - backed by his dancers/ hype-men The Goon Club - revel in a juxtaposition of personality. At certain moments, the stage cuts a confrontational scene, complete with abrasive snarls and combative body language; elsewhere in the set, Genesis plays the role of warm, congregational leader. It makes for a performance in which both the Jekyll and the Hyde within him deliver the goods with an equally arresting and convincing level of commitment.
The Goon Club, meanwhile, serve as a visual representation of the themes that Genesis - real name Kosi Owusu-Ansah - conveys within his music. During the extensive tour of his debut album ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, The Goons would begin each show in military vests and ski masks, emanating a threateningly cold demeanour. As the performance unfolds, the bodies on stage remove their uniforms and dramatically lighten their personas to the sound of soulful ballads and bouncing summertime melodies, placing the stereotype of the ‘violent black man’ under the microscope.
Genesis remains coy when discussing the evolving role that The Goons will play as he matures from his debut album cycle into his second. “They’re a very elusive group of people. They kind of influence me in a lot of different ways; pitching here and there,” he says fondly of the troupe. “So they’re definitely helping me to craft this world of ‘STRUGGLER’ for the next batch of live shows.” There is a composed pause before Genesis submits to his own excitement: “…And it’s coming out crazy!”
It's a well-worn cliché that artists have a lifetime to create their first album, with only a year or two to construct its follow-up. And this truism hits hardest when the creator in question injects as much of themself into a debut as Owusu. 2021’s ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ centred on two metaphorical black dogs; one representing depression that prowls internally, and another inhabiting the role of real world racism. Genesis interacts with each of these antagonists throughout the album to create a piece of work that tessellates humour and a carefree groove between the most unlikely of topics, without diluting or undermining any of the subject matter.
‘Smiling With No Teeth’ went on to win four ARIAs in total, including Album of the Year and Best Hip-Hop Release, from a haul that featured a tally of twelve nominations, laying a drastically different cultural foundation for its follow-up to build from. “The first album felt like the accumulation of a lifetime of things that I wanted to say, and then I said it,” he explains. “I'm not the type of person that likes to say things when I feel like I have nothing to say, so I was lost for a little bit as to how I was going to make this new one, and I was listening to the least amount of music that I’d ever listened to in my life up until this point, for some reason.”
Where his debut was created over six straight days of 10-hour jam sessions that Owusu subsequently revisited with a fine-tooth comb in order to finalise the instrumentation, ‘STRUGGLER’ was created between Australia and the USA, without the mixed blessing of lockdown to focus his tunnel vision. “I was touring and doing things off the back of the success of Album One. It was a gift and a curse, not having the luxury of people not knowing who you are anymore,” he admits. “I was playing shows in LA, then going to Lithuania before moving on again and trying to find the time in between to figure out how we were going to do this second album.”
Genesis, who radiates an air of down-to-earth self-awareness throughout the conversation, catches himself momentarily. “Obviously I’d never say, ‘Oh, woe is me. I have to play in your beautiful countries’ and stuff like that,” he laughs, “but it was definitely a much different change of pace from Album One.”
When the well of sonic inspiration ran dry, however, Owusu began to find stimulation in literature, with Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett and Kafka’s Metamorphosis in particular arming him with the tools to re-evaluate and even weaponise the state of his creative slump. “I got really interested in these absurdist books and plays,” he explains. “I just got drawn to those stories narratively and they ended up providing the inspiration for this next album, alongside my personal experiences.” In a roundabout way, the early seeds of this second album were to be loosely about the difficulties of making said album. Or, to put it more poetically, “I guess being lost provided the inspiration of what this album became.”
Perhaps the solace that Owusu found in the absurdist works of Beckett and Kafka is reflective of the metamorphosis that he was himself experiencing at that time, touring the world off the back of a critically-acclaimed release and acknowledging the personal displacement of that reality. Just don’t start looking for threads between the two albums quite yet. “I think it's a clean slate,” he says with a tone of certainty. “I've always had this affinity with world building: characters, concepts… that kind of thing. The characters within ‘STRUGGLER’ are very different to the ones in ‘Smiling With No Teeth’.
“But at the same time, I feel like there'll eventually be an unintentional lineage, or at least some linear themes throughout a grand Genesis Owusu universe, like a Marvel type of thing,” he laughs. “At the same time, we [himself and The Goon Club] are still the same people with the same interests and tastes. So I'm sure a lot of who we are and what we like will present some sort of link between the first and the second albums.”
Where LP1 saw Owusu confronting the push and pull of two adversaries with sinister intent, ‘STRUGGLER’ follows the journey of one protagonist, The Roach, who makes no less than 47 appearances throughout the album’s eleven tracks. Seemingly fresh from the Kafka school of humanistic insects, The Roach is a character who is defiant, single-minded and seemingly unkillable, armed with a headstrong refusal to be a victim in a world which is out to get him.
Occasionally referenced from afar but primarily referred to in the first person, The Roach is as rich in character depth as it is in mystique. “I think, from a zoomed out perspective, it's a character separate from myself,” Owusu explains in an indecisive tone that only serves to thicken the mystery. “When zoomed in, there are definitely lyrics where I'm relaying what I'm personally going through at that very moment.”
Boiled down to its core components, The Roach reads as an allegory for struggle, and perseverance through said struggle. Yet, with regard to its deeper symbolism, Genesis is open-minded about the subjective nature of the beast in question. “You can make it applicable to a bunch of different scenarios,” he deduces. “If it were to relate to me personally - if I were the roach in this situation - then the struggle would be to create the album. You know, I had no idea what to write about, I was kind of lost in this big world. But shit's gotta keep moving, right? And you gotta keep running until you can figure that shit out.”
There’s a long-standing belief within Australian artists from Nick Cave to The Temper Trap that success in their homeland is hard to come by until you’ve proven yourself overseas, generally in the UK or USA. When asked how he came to buck this trend with the national cultural impact of ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, Genesis is at a loss for suggestions. “I'm a lot bigger in Australia right now than I am anywhere else. But I definitely wasn't getting the kind of looks that I was in Australia before I started getting some recognition over in America and the UK,” he says, earnestly. “And I don't really have an answer as to why that's the case. It seems like a lot of Australia, either industry-wise or community-wise, don’t seem to appreciate what's in front of them until someone else appreciates it first.”
Genesis doesn’t leave any discourse on a negative point throughout the call; an endearing trait which is reflective of his songwriting, where he approaches all subject matter with an air of humour and reason. He extends his diagnosis on Australian culture’s reliance on external approval: “But yeah, I think it's changing, which I'm very glad about. It feels like the people who went through [winning acceptance from their Australian compatriots] at some point are selflessly putting the spotlight on other artists that are coming out with really cool shit.”
This may be in reference to the invitation that Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker extended for Genesis to open for the band on their 2022 nationwide arena tour. After whispers of mutual respect had circulated, Parker - who is fast-approaching national treasure status among Aussies - invited Genesis to get together for some studio sessions before proposing that the artist join the dates in support of their Grammy-nominated album ‘The Slow Rush’. “Which is very gracious of them,” Owusu resolves. “I remember one day Kevin Parker invited me backstage and introduced me to Dua Lipa, which is absurd. And they got me a cake with ‘Thanks for being on tour with us, Genesis Owusu’ written in icing.”
No explosive Kevin Parker cancellation on the horizon then? “I’m afraid not,” he laughs. “We’ll see what happens after the next couple of Grammy nominations, but the Tame Impala guys are a bunch of sweeties.”
Despite these evermore frequent dalliances with the world of stadium bands, Genesis has always been more outspoken on his hip-hop influences, citing the likes of Andre 3000, Frank Ocean and Madlib side project Quasimoto as inspirations, whilst rarely drawing a clear heritage to the guitar-led bursts of indie joy that consistently occur throughout his music. “I listen to a lot of different music in general. I like IDLES,” he says, before referencing Yves Tumor as a favourite: an artist who, like Genesis, is a non-white performer reliably earmarked for their unpredictable approach to genre.
“It is something that I’ve noticed,” he says. “I think it’s because there’s an initial jump to label Black artists as hip hop or R&B. A lot of the time, these releases have been labelled as one of those genres when it wasn’t, they were already pulling from indie or electronic.” Measured and composed when speaking on the topic, Genesis is acutely aware of the discourse and prejudices that circle the topic of race, particularly when discussing the changing positioning of non-white artists in the alternative music sphere. “It feels like we’re in a transitional period where people are realising that it’s not necessarily hip hop or R&B, even if – in their minds – it still should be,” he notes.
Hesitant to acknowledge the substantial role that he himself is playing in dispelling these preconceptions, Genesis’ MO is to pay attention to the discussion around him without allowing himself to be buried by the weight of classification, in either direction. “Putting a label on what I do has never been something that I care about. The music is the music and I try to stay away, as much as possible, from defining it,” he says before summarising his cerebral approach to the trivialities of genre tribalism: “…I find other people’s definitions of what I do more interesting, anyway.”
‘STRUGGLER’ is out 18th August via Ourness/ AWAL.