The depth of Kendrick Lamar, the musicality of Prince, the fluency of Miles Davis… (yes indeed !) The essence of Genesis Owusu : an eclectic artist who composes with his feelings and who is driven to innovate. His mother is the leader of a gospel choir, his father listens to everything, and his older brother, the hip-hop artist Citizen Kay, was into rock music before turning to rap in his teen years. “I was born in Ghana and I came to Australia very young”, says Genesis Owusu. “And I went back with my family in 2014 and really you know re-experienced the culture ‘cause most of my family is still back in Ghana, and I wanted to go back like in 2020 before Covid happened, but yeah, my relationship with Ghana is very innate, like it’s very much subconscious in my soul I guess, where it influences things that I don’t necessarily think about.”
Young, Gifted and Black in Canberra
Growing up in a country where most of the population is white, it is through the writings of authors committed to civil rights such as Gil Scott-Heron, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, that Genesis Owusu developed his personality in the face of endemic racism. He also started writing at an early age, creating fantasy stories which were a therapeutic tool to express his frustrations, as reflected on his album Smiling with No Teeth. “The album’s title comes from a poem I wrote a year ago”, explains Genesis Owusu, « and the last lines of the poem were :
“First kiss was a fist,“Smilling with No Teeth”
first love was a leech,
crying with no tears and smiling with no teeth”
From punk to funk and hip hop, the album is proof of the artist’s musical diversity. A child of the internet, he has a wide-ranging musical culture while influenced by figures such Kayne West, Pharrell Williams, André 3000… Artists who opened up new horizons for him after the unavoidable presence of gangstas like 50 Cent or comedian Eddie Murphy, the only two black stars who were truly famous in Canberra in the early 2000’s.
“When you see the arab man, it’s the bombs and flares“I Don’t See Colour”
When you see the asian man, its the yellow scare
When you see the black man, its riots and terror
But when I talk about slavery, you weren’t there, how convenient”
Fascinated with visual arts, Genesis Owusu is a fanatic of mangas and video games,, particularly Jet Set Radio Future, which he considers his biggest musical influence! The music tracklist for the game – which is a fusion of skates, graffiti tags, and confrontations with police and rival gangs police – is unusually eclectic. “Yeah, I definitely want to do that, 100 %. I want to make my own games, first I want to get like a Fifa soundtrack or something first… there’s actually a new Jet Set Radio Future video game coming out, which is crazy, I’d like to get my music on that !“
Genesis Owusu has already experimented with music and video, in “Good Time” (2019). A funky song that comes with a shortlived video game inspired by Temple Run, where a gamer could play with a member of the Goons : “The Goons, everyone does something different so, like while we all design clothes, so like me, I just draw up the design and stuff like that with an actual designer who draws with a pen and another producer who like produced stuff I do, one of them is a photographer who takes all my photos, so it’s like a creative hub and we all help each other in certain ways that we ourselves can’t do alone.” In particular for the clothing label “Pur” launched by the collective, and which is an extension of Genesis Owusu’s philosophy : “When I say ‘pure’ it just means what I want to do without influences like outside, voices telling me I need to make it more marketable for radio or like turn down what I’m talking about, like when I talk about making it pure for me it’s just like straight from my heart and my brain, without a radio station or a label or something like that to tell me what to do.“
Perhaps because it sometimes approaches this notion of purity, Japanese animation and its capacity to deeply question human nature captivates Genesis Owusu : “My favourite movie is an animé movie called The Perfect Blue, and it’s all about this actress who changes professions, this pop singer who changes profession to be an actress, and instead of changing careers, she becomes crazy and sees the difference between the dreams, the reality and the scenes that she’s acting in her movies and since she is the narrator, we can’t tell the difference either and it’s just like this perception VS reality, like figuring out what’s real and what’s not“
Smiling with No Teeth
In a different register, Smiling with No Teeth, the young artist’s first album, uses fiction to depict reality, and vice versa. Through the symbol of “Black Dog” the Ghanian-Australian musician addresses subjects such as mental health and racism, depicting them through two Black Dog characters. “It depends which black dog you’re talking about. Definitely for the concept of racism, it’s the violence. And the other is depression and it has to deal with the outside world, evil all the time, it’s about the outside and the reacts on the inside.“
If “black dog” is a term signifying depression since Greco-Roman Antiquity and philosophers such as Horace, it is also used on the album because one day Genesis Owusu was insulted and called “Black Dog”. He decided to create a character based on it to challenge racism, and also to assert his identity, as Césaire and other writers had in the past through the concept of Negritude. “Definitely, it was a way to reappropriate it, take the control back, yeah like the N-word and yeah take it back from those people and retwist it in my own way.“
“She gave her lies“Easy”
He gave his life
He gave his life
Paid the price
In flashing lights
To gain his rights”
Musically rich, the album is also so through the depth of its subject matter, such as “Easy”, one of the two songs (the other is “Black Dogs”) that weren’t recorded with the live band. A personification of Australia as a woman both fearsome and destructive. “The History of indigenous people of Australia versus the colonizers has been a brutal violent history that, you know, in school, they don’t really teach us about, it started like very very recently. They have like completely swept so many things under the rug, things that have been happening like in the 90s, you know so it’s quite recent. But at the same time, they do all these stuff and then say to the public like : you know we love the indigenous people, you guys are equal. So yeah the song was definitely pointing out that, like the hypocrisy of that and like how these two points are navigating each other.“
Despite the gloomy subject matter, the album is flamboyant and ends with a message of hope : society and its codes create “black dogs” that slow people down. But moving forward is always possible. If you can’t forget your demons, you can learn to live with them, and to smile from ear to ear. Even without teeth.
Nevertheless, to smile with a bandaged face (as on the cover of Genesis Owusu’s new album) and sport gold teeth, since one is toothless otherwise, to show off fancy rings while feeling broken inside, is fate as well. That of a life sentence for those who are afraid of becoming outcasts if they don’t present their best face. The album extends this concept musically as well, hiding dark stories under an explosive and exhilarating musicality.
Chaos As Genesis
Festive, voluptuous and sometimes rough-edged, Genesis Owusu’s album features a fusion of funk, punk and rap on the track “The Other Black Dog”, raw, driving and slightly psyché-rock on “Drown” (the only song with a featuring : the Australian rock guitar star Kirin J. Callinan), or flirting between rock, soul and gospel on the irresistible “Smiling with No Teeth”… The artist easily switches between styles, his voice going smoothing from high to low notes with an accuracy and a flair worthy of the greats, resulting in an album that is both unpredictable and lavish.
Genesis Owosu has had the help of exceptional musicians he had never met before (other than the founder of the Ourness label, his manager Andrew Kippel), locking themselves inside a recording studio for six days. This short-lived and eclectic band included guitarist Kirin J. Callinan, the House producer Touch Sensitive on bass, the World Champion duo’s Julian Sudek on drums, and his manager on keyboards. “So, it was me and the band and we got this very trendy studio for 6 days and just played music for about 10 hours a day. They all had their own instruments and I was in the middle, with vocal melodies.
I feel like the chaos is exciting, is fun, it becomes boring when you know what’s gonna happen next so I was just trying to keep it exciting as possible, for everyone, including myself. It’s just why I like driving into the chaos and everything. The whole time, just because of how chaotic it was, I had no idea what anything was going to sound like, what anything was going to turn out to be like. I never predict that the album would end up sounding what it sounded, which is why I wanted, but yeah like, everyone in the band was like crazy, they were crazy musicians, just like very eccentric wild people.“
When most artists dream today of playing before audiences, the young man who performed his first festival date at the age of 15 with his older brother Citizen Kay, played a sold-out 23-date Australian tour in April and May this year. Still only 22 years old, Genesis Owusu cultivates his curiosity and his creative freedom, wasting no time on boredom. Has he found the means to shine without chains ?
Whatever the case, it’s better to follow his lead rather than to be caught by his “Black Dogs” and no longer be able to differentiate between the dog and its master.
“A tale of black dogs with golden leashes“The Other Black Dog “
Broken stories told facetious
Who’s the pet and who’s the teacher?
Smiling with No Teeth, on all platforms.