Genesis Owusu paves the way for musical outsiders on ‘Struggler’

Genesis Owusu shuffles on stage, and he must be almost nine feet tall. He’s wearing sunglasses that look like the compound eyes of a fly. A red stripe slashes down the centre of his bald head – something he calls the Mark of the Roach (more on that later). Red gloved hands, reaching for his neck, are affixed to his shoulders. The looped, ascending beat of ‘The Other Black Dog’ begins as he disrobes to become human height and two of his “goons” – hype men in balaclavas – emerge.

This is how many of Genesis Owusu’s live shows have begun over the last year – an arresting introduction that signals a new era for the outsider artist. “When people see me [live] for the first time it’s like, ‘What the fuck? What the fuck? OK, that’s kind of cool. Oh shit! I like this one’,” he tells NME. “I enjoy that rollercoaster of emotion.”

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Genesis Owusu on The Cover of NME. Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

The 25-year-old artist, born Kofi Owusu-Ansah, took his home country of Australia by storm in 2021 with the release of his debut album ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, a record that hinges on the weighty metaphor of two black dogs, one embodying depression and the other racism. Soundtracked by The Black Dog Band, a ramshackle group that could swerve from punk to funk to jazz to industrial rock, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ was a striking statement on being an outcast, creatively and otherwise.

In the two years since its release, Owusu-Ansah has been anything but: dancing on stage at Madison Square Garden with Hayley Williams and Lil Uzi Vert, sweeping Australia’s national music awards, stealing the show at Bose and NME’s C23 live showcase at Austin’s SXSW, and headlining a sold-out Sydney Opera House backed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It’s the last of those that has got him shaking his head. “I remember performing that night and being like, ‘Damn, this is so crazy. Where does it even go from here? What do I do next?’”

Owusu-Ansah is adjusting to life as the main character, and it hasn’t all been easy. He barely had time to process his newfound status before the calls started coming in for album number two. Whereas ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ was a “neat story” told at one go – “I could tell you which day we started and how long we jammed for” – the creation of ‘Struggler’ was a scramble for time between press and tour commitments.

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Owusu-Ansah and The Black Dog Band made ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ in sweaty, hours-long jam sessions, but for ‘Struggler’ he underwent what he calls “producer speed dating”: going into different sessions with different producers in Los Angeles every day for two months.

Some of his dates were “fucking wacky”, Owusu-Ansah says. “They were like, ‘Alright, tell me your life story. OK, this, this, this? Let’s try this. Boom’… That was very much not the way I was used to working.”

Jason Evigan, whose credits include Britney Spears, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson, was one of the “worthy bachelors” Owusu-Ansah connected with the most. “He heard a little sample, and imagined what it would sound like if he’d gone through the entire discography,” Owusu-Ansah says. “He was like, ‘Damn, this could sound really cool if it were going in some Nine Inch Nails direction’… He fused the two things: what he thought was going on versus what is actually going on.”

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

The resulting stylistic mix on ‘Struggler’, featuring multiple producers including Evigan, is as expansive as Owusu-Ansah has ever been – with diversions through pop punk (‘Stay Blessed’), jungle (‘What Comes Will Come’), and new wave (‘The Roach’). His voice has developed melodically, the back-of-the-throat vocal volleys evoking Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, veering from a one-man-gang-shout to a falsetto croon. It’s remarkable then, that the record wasn’t inspired by music at all.

“I think I’d actually listened to the least amount of music that I’d listened to in my life, based off my Spotify Wrapped,” Owusu-Ansah laughs. “I’d been surrounded with music the most I had ever been in my life… I felt the least need to listen to it in my free time.”

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Owusu-Ansah didn’t find purpose in music, but in pointlessness.

“We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste.”

So says the character of Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, an opaque, meandering play about two men who wait on a country road for a third that never arrives. The turmoil experienced by the characters – who stay put, their feverish dialogue rumbling along as their lack of purpose becomes ever clearer – inspired Owusu-Ansah to write his own short story about a character he called ‘The Roach’.

“The [Roach] is running pretty much the whole story. But as they’re running, they’re going through this whole mental crisis – ‘OK, I need to run to survive’. And then as they’re running: ‘Why do I really need to run? What’s the point of running? Is there a point? Oh, shit, maybe there’s not a point. Maybe I can figure out my own point’,” he explains. “The actual story is going on in the character’s head. And essentially, all they’re really doing is just trying to survive.”

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

That short story formed the bedrock of ‘Struggler’. The innumerable pressures we’ve all faced in the last few years – be it disease, disaster, poverty – amalgamate into a god figure who’s trying to smite the Roach as it runs: “There’s an old man in the sky, just waiting to fuck my life up,” Owusu-Ansah bellows on ‘Old Man’.

“This world just seems more and more confusing and chaotic as things go by,” he muses. “It feels like life closes in around you sometimes, especially when you’re at your lowest. That’s a big part of the character as well – the struggle of being at your lowest but still having to fight to the next day.”

The crises in the Roach’s mind are a journey through forsaken philosophies, beginning with survival, rolling through nihilism and existentialism, and then landing on the absurdist conclusion that there is no point – and that’s beautiful. Owusu-Ansah’s mantra for finding equilibrium in our reality coalesces around a biblical reference on the single ‘Tied Up’: “It’s Sodom and Gomorrah / Vogue, strike a pose”.

“One day, you might fucking burn down to ashes. But today, the sun has risen, and you get to spend time with your friends and, like, fuckin’ see a cute bird walk across the street. Like, that’s so awesome,” he says, giggling.

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

While running his own roach race, Owusu-Ansah spent less than 40 days over the last year in his hometown of Canberra. His family immigrated to Australia’s capital from Ghana when he was three years old and has lived there ever since. The seat of the country’s government, Canberra (and particularly the Catholic school Owusu-Ansah attended) is far less diverse and cosmopolitan than Sydney or Melbourne. But over time, Owusu-Ansah grew to embrace his individuality, expressing it in the way he dressed and the music he listened to.

Despite the scale of his recent success, he has refused to move to a bigger city, claiming Canberra allows him to “relax his shoulders” – vital, after a world tour that saw him tour the US with Paramore, rearrange his oddball beats with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and put his stamp on boutique European venues.

Genesis Owusu shows are bursts of costumed and choreographed spontaneity. He made national headlines when the dancefloor of the 115-year-old Enmore Theatre in Sydney collapsed during one of his gigs. Playing at Berghain, the Berlin nightclub infamous for its debauchery and ultra-selective entrance policy, Owusu-Ansah’s goons turned masochistic.

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

“One of my goons did three consecutive stage dives,” he recalls. “[He] cracked his head open on one of the foldback speakers. We’re playing ‘Black Dogs!’ at the time, and I just fucking amped him up. He just kept going, blood dripping all over his face. It was insane.”

But the energy Owusu-Ansah cultivates for his Goon Club is more than mere catharsis: he seeks to create a complete outsider artist program. In Sydney, Mongolian throat singer Bukhu opened his show, playing the horsehead fiddle and lulling the audience into harmonic stupor with his resonant voice. “I love being with people that are on a completely different wavelength to me, because it’s almost like through the differences we’re on the same wavelength,” Owusu-Ansah says.

Genesis Owusu (2023) Bailey Howard
Credit: Bailey Howard for NME

Owusu-Ansah conceived much of ‘Smiling With No Teeth’s visual identity himself, but entrusted the aesthetic of ‘Struggler’ to New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, whose influential multimedia work examines early encounters between Polynesians and European explorers.

Reihana’s music videos for ‘Leaving The Light’ and ‘Tied Up’ are oblique, science fiction conceptions of Owusu-Ansah as the Roach, his eyes hidden from sight by blindfolds or dark tumours that oscillate across his body. In the former, he’s running across a craggy interplanetary landscape, and in the latter he’s engaged in a boxing match with God.

“I was really inspired by those early Gorillaz music videos,” Owusu-Ansah explains. “Seeing those things as a kid and always wanting to know what the story was, but it being out of my grasp – having to play with it in my head until I could find a throughline.”

Both of Genesis Owusu’s albums have been high-concept, multimedia epic poems with meaning etched into every decision. If ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ was a raw and quasi-improvised beginning, on ‘Struggler’ he refines his narrative beyond memoir and into boundless semi-fiction. He’s a bonafide writer – and it leaves his music with no limits.

“I’ve realised that I am just a storyteller,” Owusu-Ansah says. “Through the years, the medium has just changed into how I tell that story. Right now, I’m telling the story through albums. Before that, I was telling the story through poetry. Before that, I was writing literal short stories. Before that, as a kid, I was just a fucking liar.”

Genesis Owusu’s new album ‘Struggler’ is out on August 18 via OURNESS. He tours the US, EU/UK and Australia from October – find more info here.

Listen to Genesis Owusu’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Writer: Josh Martin
Photographer: Bailey Howard
Styling: Genesis Owusu
Label: Ourness
Mgmt: Andrew Klippel

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