Link to our Facebook
Link to our Instagram
Link to our TikTok

Genesis Owusu On Racking Up The Most Nominations At 2023 ARIAs: ‘The Australian Music Landscape Is In A Pretty Cool Place’

9 November 2023 | 1:04 pm | Ellie Robinson

“If I can make an album about a roach running away from God and it can be nominated for seven ARIAs... That's a good sign.”

Genesis Owusu

Genesis Owusu (Credit: Bec Parsons)

More Genesis Owusu More Genesis Owusu

When genre-bending Canberra stalwart Genesis Owusu released his debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, it felt like one of those ultra-rare moments where an artist doesn’t just capture the zeitgeist but sends a visceral shockwave rippling through it.

Arriving in March of 2021, it proved Australian listeners were still hungry for new sounds and keen to have their expectations subverted – melding a melting pot of sonic flavours (spanning hip-hop, funk, indie, punk, R&B and soul) with an ambitious lyrical concept (telling a story of self-exploration, the evolution of perspective and reckoning with mental health by way of dense metaphors and recurring motifs), the 53-minute effort was not one many A&R executives would happily cosign.

But “smash hit” doesn’t even begin to describe it: Smiling With No Teeth was a slow-burn on the ARIA Charts (peaking at #27 on the flagship ranking) but it earned acclaim from virtually every critic that tackled it – dubbed it “an essential listen from one of the most promising acts on the scene right now” – and racked up a truly mind-blowing cabinet of trophies, including three AIR Awards, two J Awards, one APRA Award, the 2021 Australian Music Prize, and the 1st place spot in the Vanda & Young Global Songwriting Competition.

Most impressive was Owusu’s seven nominations at the 2021 ARIA Awards, where Smiling With No Teeth earned him nods for Album Of The Year, Best Hip-Hop Release, Best Independent Release, Best Cover Art (alongside Bailey Howard), Best Producer (alongside Andrew Klippel and Dave Hammer), Best Artist and Best Australian Live Act. He won the formermost four awards, ostensibly reigning as the night’s biggest champion. Reflecting on it today, Owusu says the whole experience was “really beautiful”.

“I'd never seen an album like Smiling With No Teeth get the kind of recognition that it did until that point,” he tells us. “It felt like a real moment of the culture shifting. And on top of that, you know, I was [at the ARIAs ceremony] with my team and all my friends, so it was just a really beautiful and wholesome time.”

Owusu looks set to repeat history at the 2023 ARIAs, with another seven nods – the most earned by any artist in this year’s shortlist – at the hand of his second album, STRUGGLER (which arrived back in August). It’s up once again for the coveted Album Of The Year award, as well as Best Hip-Hop / Rap Release, Best Independent Release and Best Engineered Release (where Owusu is co-nominated with Hammer and Simon Cohen), while the single Stay Blessed is up for Best Video and Owusu himself vies for Best Solo Artist.

Plug into the latest music with our FREE weekly newsletter

Catching up with him just a few days after nominees were announced, Owusu admits he’s too busy to consider the gravity of the situation – “There’s so much going on that it hasn’t really sunk in yet” – but notes that he was taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the acknowledgements: “I got the call and I was just like, ‘Damn, really? That many!?’ But no, it’s really cool. I feel like the Australian music landscape is in a pretty cool place if I can make an album about a roach running away from God and it can be nominated for seven ARIAs – I think that's a good sign.”

A New Genesis

Though perhaps not as tonally chaotic as its predecessor, STRUGGLER certainly builds on the conceptual ambition Owusu established on Smiling With No Teeth. Where on that record he took on the role of the Black Dog, here he embodies a nameless roach, coming into his own as he navigates a dystopian world of dread and (un)holy governance. The metaphor is apt, as Owusu explained to NPR in August, given the album is largely inspired by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

He told the American outlet: “when we look at ourselves through that scope, I think for me and a lot of people around me, it was really, like, pulling the rug from under our feet about, like, how out of control we really are for a lot of the circumstances around us, like these little pests, these little bugs. But somehow, just like the roach, we just manage to keep struggling through and keep walking through. Once you think you killed the roach, you haven't. Once you do, a second one will come out of the woodworks, you know? I just thought it was a kind of perfect metaphor for us as human.”

Owusu’s creative ethos is not shaped by his own trajectory; the whirlwind success of Smiling With No Teeth had no impact on the direction he took for STRUGGLER, nor did he endeavour to make his second record an extension (or in this context, “sequel”) to his first. “I think when I’m making music,” he explains today, “it’s a pretty selfish process. I’m just completely stuck in my own world. It’s all just a process of expressing myself – getting all that weird shit off my chest, you know? The world is living in a crazier time – I’m a crazier person – so the concept has to be crazier.”

STRUGGLER came together pretty quickly – especially factoring in the fact that after minting Smiling With No Teeth, Owusu took a short hiatus from songwriting – but it wasn’t a case of opening the floodgates and having the ideas surge out freely. “It took me a while to figure it out,” he says. “I had to go through this whole period of self-rediscovery, because, you know, there’s this very cliched quote where it's like, ‘You have your whole life to make your first album and only a few years to make your second’ – but no one told me that until it was time to make my second album!

“I had to figure out a way to make this album mean something to me, you know? I didn’t want to be there going, ‘I have to make this album for the sake of making another album.’ I don't think I made music for, like, a year after Smiling With No Teeth. I was just figuring myself out – what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, how I was feeling... And you know, that led me to finding new forms of inspiration, like reading a lot more books, watching plays, movies... Anything I could get something out of.”

In developing the narrative concept for STRUGGLER, Owusu looked to three unique texts for inspiration: ‘50s Irish tragicomedy Waiting For Godot, medieval dark fantasy manga classic Berserk, and Franz Kafka’s psychodramatic 1915 novella Metamorphosis (in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, suddenly awakens to find himself taking on the form of a a “monstrous vermin”). By virtue of the wide net Owusu cast for himself, STRUGGLER is deeply colourful and intricate in how it utilises influence.

As for how he mined that influence, Owusu admits he was motivated mostly by necessity: “It was kind of like, ‘I know I have to make this next [album] – the clock is ticking here’. I usually have just the one form of inspiration when it comes to make music, which is life experience, but I felt like I'd poured my whole life into [Smiling With No Teeth], and now I’d kind of run out of that. So I was racing against the clock to find something new – a new well to draw from – and I guess these texts just came to me at the right moment and spoke to me in the right kind of way. They’re all very different texts, but they speak to very similar themes, and they were all very similar themes to the things I felt like I was going through during that time.”

Widescreen Ambition

There was a short while, in the creative limbo that separated STRUGGLER from Smiling With No Teeth, where Owusu was uncertain of his future aspirations. But with LP2 in the bag, he’s feeling notably energised; his artistic vision has never been clearer, he asserts, noting that recording STRUGGLER “really solidified” for him that he “just want[s] to be a storyteller” – regardless of the medium.

In terms of his creative headspace, Owusu has truly come full circle. He explains: “My first creative outlet, when I was really young, was writing short stories. And then it moved on to poetry, and then music. And that grew into making these concept albums like Smiling With No Teeth and STRUGGLER – and I think yeah, in finding those inspirations like Waiting For Godot and Berserk, and Kafka and stuff like that, I realised that I’ve always just wanted to tell stories, it’s just the medium that’s changed. So I think I’m just going to be doing that for the rest of my life. And you know, maybe music isn’t the last medium I settle on.”

Before enveloping himself in the world of the Black Dog for Smiling With No Teeth, Owusu viewed creativity more fluidly – not every idea needed to lend itself to a song, he says, emphasising that “one idea might work best as a lyric in a song, and one might work best as a t-shirt design”. His only goal in exploring those ideas was to service them in the most authentic way possible, with “different mediums” existing as “different tools” through which he could express himself. “I’d love to reclaim that viewpoint in my life,” he says with an excited lilt, revealing in the process that he’s “super into the idea of publishing [his] own novel or directing [his] own film – or you know, making furniture, or learning how to sculpt, or something like that” – whatever it takes to get his stories told.

For now, though, all of Owusu’s creative energy is being funnelled into the STRUGGLER live show, which he’s currently touring through North America (with a few shows in Europe and the UK booked in for later this month, before he takes it home at the start of December). Performance, he agrees, is the purest and most vital form of artistic expression. “I really do hold the medium of live performance to a really high standard,” he says proudly.

Owusu’s live show is nothing short of a marvel, regardless of which form it takes. When he performed on his national theatre tour last March with The Black Dog Band (a five-piece cohort including Klippel and Jonti on keys, Kirin J. Callinan on guitar, Julian Sudek on drums and Michael Di Francesco, aka Touch Sensitive, on bass), he delivered sets broken up into “acts” with visual stimuli and poetic interludes that enriched the Smiling With No Teeth narrative; when he returned to a more intimate solo setup for his subsequent run of festival gigs, he shared the stage with costumed dancers that weaved seamlessly into the fray as extensions of himself.

The ethos, Owusu says, is to view the live show as “something more akin to theatre than just a way to regurgitate all the songs I've already made.” He adds: “I want to put those songs in new contexts. And this STRUGGLER show... It’s a completely new story, with a completely new setup. It leans further into that idea of creating a cohesive narrative onstage. I’m getting closer and closer to just creating a full-blown Broadway theatre musical, I guess... The musical from hell.”

To develop the live show, Owusu takes on a sort of “creative director” role, breaking down the songs to their basic elements to give them new colour and character in the context of a wider narrative. The process, he says, is “so much fun”, giving him an opportunity to have songs feel completely new – with completely different thematic leanings by virtue of that context – and “take on a new life”. It is, in a sense, his way of “keeping the art alive and making it timeless”.

“Obviously these songs have their own meanings when I write them,” he says, “but with the live show I get to put them in a place where they can become something totally brand new. It all just starts with a story, and then I figure out how to make the music work as a soundtrack for that story – and then visuals to make that story come to life in a real, tangible sense: visuals, spoken word interludes, props, stage designs... I collaborate with an audio-visual team, Babekühl, and we’re always throwing ideas around and trying figure out how to make these thoughts and this story more tangible. It’s a lot of fun.”

So what’s the endgame? Well, every iteration of Owusu’s live show starts off in its most ambitiously grandiose form, blueprinted on the grounds of “the biggest possible idea”, and then, because he doesn’t exactly have Metallica money, “scaled down to what it’s actually going to be onstage”. But as Owusu’s stature soars both locally and overseas, his theatrical visions are becoming more and more feasible. “With each new iteration,” he says, “we’re able to keep more of those original ideas. We’re scaling it down a little bit less every time... It was kind of surreal to notice that I've gotten to this point. I’ve been able to mark its progress through the tours that I've built over the years.”

An eternal daydreamer, Owusu beams at the chance to lay out his grand plan for the ultimate Genesis Owusu live experience – the “true theatre experience” he’d conjure up if there were no constraints on time, money or manpower. “It’s a proper, legitimate play,” he says. “It would have to be a residency, and people would fly in from all around the world to come see it in this one place... Maybe I'll put it in Canberra! And we have a companion film to go with it – it’s all high-budget, high-concept, and it’s weird, creative, unhinged, unbound... But it all makes sense. And it's appreciated. It’s allowed to exist in the world.”




Friday December 1 – Boorloo/Perth, Ice Cream Factory*
Friday December 8 – Naarm/Melbourne, Festival Hall
Saturday December 9 – Ngambri/Canberra, UC Refectory
Thursday December 14 – Meanjin/Brisbane, Fortitude Music Hall
Friday December 15 – Eora/Sydney, Hordern Pavilion
Saturday December 16 – Kaurna/Adelaide, Hindley Street Music Hall