“I don’t know what music does, but it pulls out something really different in me,” chuckles Kofi Owusu-Ansah, or Genesis to his increasing number of listeners. “I don’t know how to describe it but it imbues me with a lot of confidence. It’s like Clark Kent and Superman, you know? Genesis Owusu is the Superman, and day to day, I’m just in Clark Kent mode.”
Confidence is an idea that crops up a lot in conversation with the Canberra musician. Moving from Ghana to the Australian capital aged three, he speaks of acknowledging his difference among his new peers and leaning into it from a young age. “It was definitely a place where I was immediately the outlier and it had come to a point where it’s like, do you assimilate and try and fit in or do you go full-frontal with the outcast label? And I chose the latter,” he recalls. “I chose to try and embrace who I was completely.”
The ease with which he re-tells the story belies that fact that, actually, it takes some strong gumption to stick to your guns and choose yourself so completely. “I listened to a lot of Kanye West, which gave me a lot of confidence - probably too much…” he grins by way of explanation.
Then there’s the notable difference between the measured, articulate and softly-spoken man on the other end of today’s Zoom, and the vibrant star, gold grill in place, staring through a face full of bandages in his promo shots or owning the stage backed by his omnipresent gang of “goons”. Genesis describes himself as an introvert (“I don’t talk that much; a lot of the time I’m just in my room”), but his output is anything but reserved - a collection of technicolour tracks that hop from Death Grips intensity to Prince-level seduction. “I say things I would never say in conversation in songs, which is super ironic because they’ve ended up reaching way more ears than they would if I was to talk to someone…” he notes.
“It’s exciting and it’s very cool to know I’m not just doing this for myself."
It’s a duality that’s at the centre of this month’s full-length debut ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ - a record named, he explains, to encapsulate the idea of “pretending things are OK when they’re not”. “Some songs are sexy, some songs you wanna dance, but when you really dig in you realise that there’s something amiss; I’ve always been really interested in that idea of catching more flies with honey than vinegar,” he elaborates. “You listen to ‘1999’ and you think he’s talking about partying, but he’s saying ‘we’re gonna party like it’s 1999’ because the world’s gonna end and there’s gonna be armageddon and hellfire.”
Genesis’ own personal hellfire, however, is one less indebted to the millenium bug. Across the record, against a backdrop of deceptively upbeat cuts, come repeated motifs of black dogs - one a familiar metaphor for depression, the other a more troubling reference to the fact that he'd “literally been called a black dog in my life as a racial slur”. “Throughout the album, I wanted to create these two black dogs as characters with their own personalities. The internal black dog of depression is very possessive and wants you to be its only one, kind of like a toxic relationship,” he continues. “Creating them as characters really helped identify all of the characteristics [and work through] how I was interacting with them.”
The goons, too, may have begun life as an impromptu way to liven up an early gig, but now they’ve developed as a further tool to break down stereotypes. “When you’re Black in a very white space, a lot of the time it seems like you’re either a novelty or a threat,” he explains. “So when we’re on stage they start with balaclavas and military vests, playing into the boogie men that people want to see. Then, as the set goes on, they take off the ski masks, take off the tactical vests and start throwing rose petals, and we start dancing and singing love songs. It’s an analogy to breaking the boxes that other people put on you and embracing the trueness of your identity.”
With his debut, Genesis is resisting the restriction and conformity of any boxes - be it social, stylistic or other. Already selling thousands of tickets in his home country (yep, they can go to gigs already - sob), it seems like a foregone conclusion that, by the time the rest of the world is able to open up its venues once more, Owusu should be stepping through them into crowds of hungrily-waiting fans.
“It’s exciting and it’s very cool to know I’m not just doing this for myself, even though that was the original intention,” he smiles (with teeth). “That means the most to me, these little weirdo Black kids like me growing up in spaces that they don’t necessarily belong. If instead of, like I did, not having many people to look up to, they feel like they have me, then that’s super meaningful and it warms my heart.”
As featured in the March 2021 issue of DIY, out now.