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Genesis Owusu Has Once Again Elevated The Expectations Of Contemporary Art In Australia

24 March 2023 | 3:28 pm | Parry Tritsiniotis

When has there ever been a 'goon' even closely associated with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, let alone being allowed on stage with them. Owusu did that.

Image: Provided

Image: Provided

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The last time I reviewed a Genesis Owusu show I stated that he was revolutionising what it means to be an Australian artist. 

That was following his groundbreaking, sold out Enmore Theatre show, where he presented his amazing 2021 record Smiling With No Teeth with the full Black Dog Band. 

I argued the show was a landmark moment in the trajectory of Australian music. It showcased a potential changing of the guard in the future of what local music is like, demonstrated by Owusu’s dominance of the stage in one of the most prestigious venues across the country.

In the eagerness, excitement and emotion that comes after seeing one of your favourite artists of all time live in full for the first time, I wrote freeingly and emotively about how important that show was. At that Enmore theatre show, an ignorant onlooker would not have been surprised to hear the show and assume a punk or rock show was occurring. It had all the hallmarks of the genre, rattling bass lines, distorted guitars, a raging mosh pit and a charismatic vocal performance. 

What was missing though was the beer and cigarette infused lyrics, the masculine bravado and the cringe, default lyrics of some Australian rock and roll about surfing, the beach and the pub that the poor Enmore Theatre has seen so many times. The medium is the message. 

Owusu presented a coming of age tale that explores mental demons, healing, systematic oppression and racism, justice, individual presentation, his love life and his astonishing power as a Ghanian-Australian man in a format that the Australian audience understands, rock ‘n’ roll.

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All that is still true but I retract my initial statement entirely that he is revolutionising what it means to be an Australian artist. 

Genesis Owusu isn’t revolutionising what it means to be an Australian artist. He isn’t proving onlookers wrong anymore. 

Genesis Owusu has revolutionised what it means to be an Australian contemporary artist. This time with a show 10 times more iconic than the Enmore Theatre. Last night he sold out one of the world’s most prestigious venues, The Sydney Opera House, alongside a new form of powerful symbolism, alongside the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and of course, his Black Dog Band thanks to Red Bull’s Symphonic series. 

The show combines the trademark energetic, raw and gritty nature of Owusu’s recorded catalogue with an added level of drama put together by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The distance between his music, one inspired by punk rock, soul, R&B and contemporary, ragged rap cuts and the traditions of an orchestra built a perfect atmosphere the symbolic and iconic evening.

Orchestras are often perceived as a symbol of social snobbery. It is suggested that to enjoy classical music you must have a great ear, given its history of nobility. Throughout the 20th century the genre was centred and hosted for the upper class, it was a brand of artistic expression that showcased the elite of culture. It is the ultimate class signifier, as many in suits and expensive gowns would frolic to an Opera House with theatre binoculars and expensive vino. 

It’s important to note now that this piece is not a criticism of classical music, or the notions that surround it. The Sydney Symphony orchestra is one of the greatest musical ensembles this country has ever seen and seeing them break their traditional mould and take a risk in renegotiating and platforming Genesis Owusu’s music is a deeply inspiring and amazing step into the right direction. Both musical pieces, The Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Genesis Owusu were equally complicit in what was an epic night of revolutionary music performance.  

If traditionally, classical symphonic music is seen as high art, a traditionalist, historical lens would consider Genesis Owusu’s music the opposite of that. Take the clear and obvious influences of punk in his music. It is a genre defined by non-conformity, anti-authoritarianism, a do it yourself ethic. The genre started as a reaction to the excesses of mainstream 1970s rock music and forced listeners to engage in an deliberately untraditional style of music that clashed directly with the ideas of classism and elitism, words that defined the 20th century of classical music.

Again, no longer is Genesis Owusu just revolutionising what it means to be an Australian artist, the show tangibly deconstructed decades of cultural norms surrounding the two genres. He entered the stage with his undisputed anthem The Other Black Dog as the orchestra strung with a huge string section and gorgeous brass. He appeared perched above his trademark Goons as if his entrance was like that of a king. The first words he screamed, A tale of black dogs in golden leashes / who is the pet and who is the teacher? 

Owusu spitting ferociously about his trials and tribulations of depression and the institutions that enforce that surrounded by his energetic goons behind an orchestra creates an extremely powerful piece of symbolism. When has there ever been a goon even closely associated with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, let alone being allowed on stage with them. Owusu did that. 

On the punk note, the most intense and visceral song of the night was, Black Dogs! A short, sharp viscerous punk cut with quickly sprung lyrics that sees Owusu reflect on an average day in the life as a Black person living in Australia. It taps into the paranoia and angst of Owusu moving through white rooms and a white society. According to a study by Ferris State University, in the US less than 2% of musicians in orchestras are Black.

His latest, jagged edged single Get Inspired also was a highlight moment of the evening and while the track’s ferocious intensity is lost slightly amidst the absolutely pristine string arrangement from the Orchestra, its encouraging elements were reinforced by its angelic new backdrop. 

Alongside punk as one of his biggest musical influences is hip hop, rap and soul music. The genre’s roots began in the early 1970s before experiencing first commercial success later that decade as rappers began to use isolated drums from funk and disco records to rhyme. Its earliest forms reflected on poverty, addiction and the Black experience in the Bronx of New York and was birthed in illegal nightclubs whose culture was surrounded by DJing, graffiti, breakdancing and MCing. The story of hip hop from its birth to now is one defined by artistic acceptance and rebellion. 

Could there be a greater juxtaposition than orchestral classical music and what was occurring in those nightclubs?

Owusu isn’t the first rapper to perform with an orchestra. Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Jay Z, Nas, Kanye West and others have performed with classical instruments. Genesis Owusu joins that alumni gracefully.

The orchestra elevated Gold Chains chorus to even higher heights alongside its laidback verse vocal delivery. It was during these subtle rap moments that the two combined best, as brass and strings combined with beautifully performed lyrics from Owusu. I Don’t Need You held a similar fate, with the crowd chanting every word from its hook back to the orchestra who mimicked the tracks swaying synths and guitar lines. The set’s closer, Good Times was also beautifully reimagined, as its dance funk beats were elevated extensively by pads and a really well balanced composition. 

The highlight of the set was the two-punch combo which all Genesis Owusu fans would have been prepared for, the crooning pair of tracks A Song About Fishing and No Looking Back. the two tracks were built to be explored with an orchestra, with the added layers of instrumentation adding significant depth, emotion and drama into Owusu’s already deeply vulnerable lyrics of moving on in the face of trauma. 

As we left and walked away from the iconic sails of the Opera House, all the conversation that followed existed in the realm of He’s gone and done it again.

Yes, Genesis Owusu has gone and done it again, proving that with every sold out show he is by far one of the best performers this country has ever seen. As I take a final turn back and look at the sails of the Opera House I realise that Genesis Owusu deserves stages as important as that. 

Genesis Owusu has once again, elevated the heights and expectations of all contemporary art in this country.