At only 25, hip-hop artist Genesis Owusu is already an international phenomenon – but with his second album he’s transforming himself into something new. By Brodie Lancaster.
Musician Genesis Owusu
The pest is always on the move.
Genesis Owusu is itching, agitating and thinking about shrinking. His second album, Struggler – out this month – sees the Ghanaian-Australian artist applying his funk-infused rap to the story of a cockroach determined to hustle through a world full of boots.
It almost goes without saying that Owusu recently discovered Franz Kafka. “The roach character came to me as a metaphor for humanity as a whole,” 25-year-old Kofi Owusu-Ansah tells me from a room in his Canberra family home, where he’s landed after months spent everywhere but. “[It’s] this thing that’s really small and out of control, kind of unloved – a pest, even.
“It’s battling these forces that are way, way bigger than it is, but for some reason it just manages to keep going another day, just manages to struggle through and keep on living. When you think it’s crushed, another one runs out of the woodwork. It’s the insect that’s supposed to survive, like, a nuclear war. That’s kind of how I felt about … the stubbornness of the human will to survive throughout all the bullshit.”
As we speak, sunlight beams in from somewhere on his left and his black Poppy Lissiman sunglasses – worn inside for practical reasons and pop star effect – both shield and refract the glare. Today is just the 36th day Owusu has spent back in Canberra all year. “When I’m home I kind of just nestle into bed,” he says. “Finally shut my eyes. It’s definitely a necessary respawn point.”
With his shaved head and cosy hoodie, Owusu is a world away from the dreadlocked performer who wore a massive white quilted Jacquard cape when he arrived on the red carpet of the 2021 ARIAs. He stood staunch as a pair of his goons – the name for his balaclava-clad crew who perform alongside him at his famously frenetic live shows – held up a banner bearing his name.
He wore gold in his hair and on his teeth, and left that night with armfuls of silver. Smiling with No Teeth – his debut record, which characterised depression and racism as spitting, growling black dogs – picked up album of the year, best hip-hop release, best independent release and best cover art.
Owusu is struck by Kafka’s salesman, Gregor, who wakes up as a giant beetle in The Metamorphosis. “One of the first things he thinks is like, ‘Oh shit, how am I going to get to work? What’s my boss going to think?’ ” Owusu laughs, drawing a line to “the time we are in”. “We had gone through so much, like bushfires, crazy hail, pandemics, economic downfall, mass depression. And everyone just keeps on trucking along like everything’s normal. Like, they put on their suits and ties and they just keep pushing. It’s just another day.”
English teachers at his Canberra high school introduced him to Kafka, as well as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, but Owusu didn’t pay attention until he was in his 20s. By then, he newly understood the extreme contradictions that survival requires. “I guess they came back to my life at the perfect point,” he says. “The point where I needed a new source of inspiration, and they came to fill that void.”
Owusu turned his hand to fiction for the first time since university, when he studied journalism and spent his free time writing sci-fi and fantasy, and reading anime and manga. He wrote a short story about “a roach that runs and runs and runs, trying not to get stepped on by God”. “Kind of in the same field as the absurdist literature that I was reading,” he says. To make Struggler, he asked himself: what would this story sound like?
Following the success of Smiling with No Teeth, Owusu had the luxury of choosing the people to help him answer that question. After doing weeks of “producer speed dating” in Los Angeles, he found his collaborators in Sol Was, fresh off working on Renaissance with Beyoncé, and Grammy winner Mikey Freedom Hart, along with Dave Hammer and Andrew Klippel, who also produced his debut. As well as being a producer and keys player in the Genesis Owusu live band, Klippel runs his record label, Ourness, and has been his manager since first encountering Owusu performing at Groovin the Moo festival in 2015.
Owusu was in year 12 at the time, and had been named a finalist in triple j’s Unearthed High competition. Years earlier, his older brother Kojo, who performs as Citizen Kay, had turned the study in the Owusu family home into a studio. “His friends would be coming in and out, recording their shitty raps while they were in high school,” says Owusu.
They grew up in a “musically diverse household”: the sound of Kojo’s Rage Against the Machine CDs trickled out of one room, as their father played Ray Charles, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley (“he was into anything with an interesting album cover”) in another. “We had just immigrated from Ghana as well,” he says. “So there was a lot of Ghanaian highlife music.”
Owusu was writing short stories and poetry, and his brother encouraged him to branch into rap. “I would’ve been 14 when I wrote my first verse,” he says. “That was also around the time I was hitting puberty so I had this massive beard, and my voice was already this deep.” Both helped when, eventually, Genesis Owusu and Citizen Kay began performing together in Canberra nightclubs. “I was 16 and living this double life, like a high school student by day and doing all these gigs by night.”
Owusu’s mother was the leader of her church’s gospel choir, and he dutifully attended every Sunday until he was 18. “I knew pretty early on that it wasn’t really for me,” he says. “But as someone who was writing short stories already, I really did love the parables and the lore of Christianity and Abrahamic religions. The characters and the imagery and the symbolism – that’s something that has always stuck with me. I’ve put a lot of that in all of my music.”
The world opened up just in time for the newly minted Owusu to share his debut record with it. He and his band performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2022, and this year he and the goons ambled onto the stages of both the Sydney Opera House – where he performed with a 40-piece symphony orchestra – and Madison Square Garden.
In 2022, his headline show at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney went so hard so fast, the floor collapsed just a couple of songs into the set. A year later and on the other side of the world, Genesis Owusu joined Bloc Party as the supports for the pop-punk band Paramore at New York City’s legendary (and structurally sound) 20,000-seat venue.
“One thing that’s a constant is when you’re the support act, you gotta fight a bit harder,” he says. Owusu’s live show is famously “kind of left-field”. At the Garden, it began with him balanced precariously on the shoulders of his goons, who were covered with a cloak. “I’m like, eight feet tall, wobbling onto the stage,” he says. “I always love [seeing] the looks of pure confusion and terror and disgust.”
But that was the old show: Struggler sees a new era of Genesis Owusu. “Transformation is always kind of the aim of the game,” he says. He talks of ripping his hair out and dyeing a red stripe down the centre of his shaven head. “I love creating new things and I love being a part of that to be created. I love making myself like a character to be created and altered as well.”
Owusu knows people are watching, listening and taking notes. He’s found it simpler – safer, even – to keep his personal identity as Kofi distinct from the character of Genesis Owusu. “Especially in this album, Genesis Owusu kind of feels like it’s becoming more and more of a separate persona,” he says. “That’s a cool and creative thing. But it’s almost a coping mechanism as well.”
He describes “existential jarrings with the profession [he’s] in”, the contradictory expectations of being a social media personality as well as a musical artist, and the experience of parasocial relationships, the intense connections fans forge with an artist without their reciprocation or knowledge.
“I naively became a musician because I thought I’d get to make music and for that to be the product and not, you know, for me to become the product,” he says. “I feel really weird about that. I feel weird about, like, me and my life being consumed the way that it is.
“At any point I could, like, blow up and people can decide ‘Today, Genesis Owusu is the one that we’re going to love and adore and idolise’ – or any day it can be the exact opposite: ‘Genesis Owusu is the one we’re gonna pile on today and Twitter’s gonna have a field day with.’ And I think it’s easier to process that when ‘Genesis Owusu’ is a character and not, like, an identity that I was born with and raised with and have to actually live as every single day.”
Owusu knows that reaching the heights – particularly in Australia, where there is finite space at the top and aspiring to international success can inspire detractors to knock you down a few pegs – often precedes a fall. “I paradoxically have to keep on doing it,” he says – the social media promotion, the diaphanous space between being a known entity and a product to be bought, sold and consumed – “until it becomes bigger and bigger so that I can, you know, continue to survive off this music and continue to keep eating off this music. It’s kind of like I see my biggest fears and I just keep running towards them.”
Your master is a system / Your master is a suit / Your master is a dollar … Your master is a planet … Your master is absurdity / God bless the truth
On “The Old Man”, the third track on Struggler, Owusu makes one final introduction. After meeting his insect-like hero, we hear from “the Old Man waiting in the sky just to fuck [his] life up”. “The God character essentially [is] an accumulation of all of these huge, invisible forces,” Owusu tells me. “Whether they’re actually natural and uncontrollable or man-made forces that have somehow become greater than we can handle, like, you know, capitalism and bureaucracy and whatnot.”
Across the narrative of Struggler, Owusu – or the thinly veiled character he can channel his thoughts through, from a safe distance – vacillates between running from and ignoring threats, falling victim to nihilism and rejecting its lure, favouring blissful ignorance and seeing the world for what it is. “It would be really easy to just close my eyes to everything and just pretend that everything’s all good,” he says, “but I got to keep stepping, I got to keep pushing.”
By the record’s end, he’s settled on something close to optimism. “It’s not a happy ending, it’s not a sad ending,” says Owusu. “It’s really not even an ending. I feel like that’s the point of acceptance.”
He could have written “a very Hollywood-style” ending to the roach’s journey, he says. One that would tell the story of his hero climbing a mountain and encountering a field of flowers on the top. “When in reality, after you climb a huge mountain, there’s going to be another huge mountain waiting for you to climb. But the beauty of that is that, after every mountain, you become a slightly better climber.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Troubled dreams".
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