Canberra’s Kofi Owusu-Ansah represents an utterly unique voice in the Australian landscape. Born in Ghana and living in Australia since the age of two, he’s a potent and primed voice that’s the perfect expression and celebration of his time and place, evidenced by his debut album as Genesis Owusu, Smiling With No Teeth. Ambushed into making music when his brother turned the family study into a home studio and he happened to be passing through, Genesis has steadily plotted his course over the last few years, delivering a steady flow of tight singles and rapturous live shows. Smiling With No Teeth is an avalanche of ideas, energy and determination, its celebratory sound a trojan horse for real talk.
Adventures in agile Prince-style electro-funk, Talking Heads postpunk grooves and mutant Devo pop make for a sweaty, hedonistic brew. As a vocalist, Genesis is irreverent, fearless, earnest and direct, as he raps, recites, croons, coos and chants incantations across the record’s vast landscape. Sonically it’s a welcome counterpoint to 2020s crippling ambience, and Genesis is clearly thankful for the positives and the resultant album. “It’s been a tumultuous year, unexpected turns at every corner,” Genesis says. “We had a bunch of international stuff planned, which all got cancelled obviously. At the end of the day though it really cleared up a lot of time, for a lot of things. For a lot of self-reflection, for this album, which is my favourite thing that I’ve ever created, so it’s been a year of challenge and it’s been a year of change but still progress.” While the curveballs have affected him personally, it didn’t derail where he was coming from musically.
“I came in essentially knowing this could either be a train wreck or we can make something magical here, and luckily it was the latter.”
“The outside world rarely seeps into my music, apart from a social issues perspective,” he says. “Musically speaking I deliberately try and make sure the outside world doesn’t seep in too much, I try and make my own world from scratch. This was no different – there’s definitely no COVID bars on the record.”
For Genesis, the step up to his debut album was the realisation of a dream, the most complete representation of his world and an appeal to his own inner music fan. “Since the start of my career it’s always been singles, but as a fan I was always an album person. I love to delve in and really get into all the nooks and crannies of what an artist is talking about and what they’re trying to convey, and singles just don’t do that for me.” A character of complexities and nuance, for Genesis it was difficult to communicate a multifaceted personality in one sole song – he needed the enlarged scope to zoom in. “It’s such a task to get everything you want into one song, and then you have to talk about marketability and if this one song’s going to be played on the radio etc… It’s not my favourite.
There’s songs on the album that will absolutely not be played on the radio, and that’s amazing. My favourite songs as a fan are never the ones that end up on the radio. Being able to just knuckle down and hone in on an experience, an expansive project has been very liberating.” Smiling With No Teeth vibrates with the energy of a handful of musicians in a room, on top of their game and going for it. Flying blind but relishing in it, the record was conceived from scratch, out of extended, improvised explorations. “My manager put together this rag-tag band of musicians from different genres and himself on keys, and we jammed for probably two weeks in what was essentially a bedroom turned into a studio – it definitely wasn’t meant to fit six people,” Genesis says. “For about two weeks in the middle of summer the six of us would meet in this bedroom-sized studio, and jam for ten hours a day, sweating, thirsty – it stank in there. It was a very disarming environment, but it created magic.” With comfort zones shattered, a debut album emerged. “I came in with nothing. I didn’t know these people. I came in essentially knowing this could either be a train wreck or we can make something magical here, and luckily it was the latter.”
Thematically it’s a record of two halves, one for each of Genesis’ menacing pets. “The album tells the story of the black dogs. The first half of the album is the concept of depression, the second half is the concept of racism, but they’re personified into literal characters called the black dogs.” While the lyrical content traverses difficult terrain, the production is disarmingly buoyant – largely inviting, uplifting and fun. The juxtaposition was no mistake. “I titled the album Smiling With No Teeth – pretending things are ok when they’re not. So a lot of the musicality of it is very celebratory, upbeat, sometimes sensual,” Genesis says. “I wanted the album to have these layers where the listener can just appreciate it from whatever layer they want to appreciate it from. So if they just want to have this musical experience they can have that. If they want to delve in deeper and figure out what I’m actually talking about, they can do that too.”
Now that he’s had the opportunity to craft the engaging musical experience he always coveted, Genesis is at peace with whatever comes next. “It’s definitely not how I pictured releasing an album,” he says. “But with that being said, just creating the album has been beyond my favourite musical experience ever.” Rather than questioning his conviction, the state of affairs has reinforced his commitment to his craft. “I’ve always known a career in the arts and creativity is a fickle one, and it can go up and down at any moment. The situation has definitely emphasised that to a new degree. But I’m still here and still doing it, and I’ll be doing it until it takes me down completely.”
“I think right now that shift is happening, those kids are growing up and becoming that forefront, leading the charge.”
Genesis’ feelings for the future remain passionate and positive. For one thing, he sees a galvanising diversity around him, elevating the scene. “It’s definitely become more diverse in the last decade. For a long time the faces of Australian hip hop were just white – Hilltop Hoods, Bliss n Eso,” he says, “but now you have Sampa The Great, Remi, Tkay Maidza, Kid Laroi – they’re the people who are putting Australian hip hop on the map globally, which I think is very fitting. A lot of people have come from a lot of different places and it’s added new sounds and new stories to the cauldron of Australian music, and I think it’s really helped the scene a lot.” Perhaps more significantly, the diversity could be self-perpetuating. “Speaking personally, growing up, I wasn’t seeing people like me on the forefront in Australian music, so it sparks a shift, and then you want to become that person so kids younger than you don’t have to experience that. I think right now that shift is happening, those kids are growing up and becoming that forefront, leading the charge.” Looking at the trail Genesis is in the midst of blazing in the here and now, it bodes extremely well for the next generations.
PHOTOGRAPHY Adrian Price
FASHION Natalie Petrevski
TALENT Genesis Owusu
GROOMING Joel Forman @ Lion Artist Management using Davines Australia and Alan White Anthology
PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT Leif Prenzlau