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How Genesis Owusu Created His Masterpiece

Ahead of an Australian tour with his Black Dog Band, Genesis Owusu speaks to Rolling Stone Australia about his zeitgeist-making debut album, Smiling With No Teeth.

Three works of art are visible through Genesis Owusu’s Zoom window. There’s a poster-sized print of the ballerina from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on the back of a closed door; on the wardrobe doors behind the 23-year-old hip hop artist are two figurative paintings he picked up the last time he was in Ghana.

“The artist was selling their artworks on the beach,” Owusu says. “There’s a lot of people just grindin’ on the streets and they just sell their stuff.”

Owusu was born in Ghana in 1998 and christened Kofi Owusu-Ansah. By the time he was two years old, his family had relocated to Canberra where Owusu stayed for his entire upbringing. The Ansah family hasn’t cut ties with their West African homeland, but Owusu’s overdue for a visit.

“Last time I went back was 2014,” he says. “I wanted to go back in 2020 before everything happened, but everyone’s really keen to get back to Ghana. My parents want to build their house there and retire there.”

Owusu’s older brother, Kojo, is a hip hop artist who performs under the name Citizen Kay. Kojo is five years older than Owusu and Owusu credits his brother with dragging him into music.

“We’ve been making songs together since I was 13 or 14,” he says. “He had stolen our family study and made it into his personal studio, so it was inescapable. He got me, but it was the best gotcha ever.”

Owusu added a guest verse to ‘Family Ties’ from Citizen Kay’s 2015 album, With the People; a track that also featured Sydney hip hop artist Miracle (now known as BLESSED). On reflection, Owusu’s aptitude behind the mic is especially striking when you consider he was just 17 years old at the time.

Though, Owusu didn’t come into music as a total novice. In addition to being a big hip hop fan, he started writing poetry in his tweens “and hip hop felt like the closest jump from poetry to music,” he says.

People who’ve become enamoured with Owusu’s debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, won’t be surprised to hear he started out as a poet. The late-album ballad, ‘A Song About Fishing’, is one of many songs that demonstrates Owusu’s poetic acuity.

 In a literal sense, ‘A Song About Fishing’ does what it says on the tin—it even includes references to bream, tuna and salmon roe—but at its core, it’s a heart-rending meditation on the Sisyphean task of overcoming systemic adversity and psychological disquiet. 

Adding to the song’s general sense of melancholy is the fact Owusu sings, not raps, the entire thing. “Rise and shine, to dawn I wake,” he sings in the chorus, “to cast my net in a fishless lake.” He adds, in the post-chorus refrain, “Each day like a retake.”

Smiling With No Teeth came out in March 2021 and scooped up four ARIA Awards in November, including Album of the Year. It won Best Hip Hop Release too, but the 15-song track listing underlines Owusu’s general disregard for genre-boundaries.

Owusu’s genre-defiance is so comprehensive that The Guardian’s Shaad d’Souza called Smiling With No Teeth one of 2021’s “most inventive” hip hop records, “smartest rock albums,” “punchiest pop releases” and “lithe R&B records” all within the same review.

Glimmers of such artistic dynamism were evident as far back as 2017 when Owusu released his debut EP, Cardrive. Although more clearly indebted to the jazz-rap and G-funk revivalism of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Cardrive introduced Owusu as an ambitious and articulate songwriter with a penchant for psychedelic world-building.

“I knew [Cardrive] wasn’t the pinnacle of what Genesis Owusu was going to be, but I knew that it was the first grounding step of that process,” Owusu says. “I feel like back then I would’ve wanted to make a Smiling With No Teeth and that was my way of doing that at that point in my life.”

To create Smiling With No Teeth, Owusu teamed up with a band of Sydney indie rock pros, including guitarist Kirin J Callinan, bassist Michael Di Francesco (aka Touch Sensitive), drummer Julian Sudek (Mercy Arms, World Champion) and singer Ruel (who contributes vocals to two tracks on the album, namely its title track).

The crew was headed up by Owusu’s manager and OURNESS label head, keys player Andrew Klippel, who shared production duties with Dave Hammer (Lime Cordiale, Baker Boy). Harvey Sutherland and Matt Corby produced one track a piece and neo-soul artist KYE added backing vocals to half a dozen tracks.

But for a project steeped in collaboration, Smiling With No Teeth is a deeply personal record. Throughout, Owusu grapples with two distinct but entwined “black dogs”—racism and depression—to resonant effect.

“I’m very blessed to have people DM me a lot about how certain songs, or the album in its entirety, have helped them,” Owusu says. “I think I’ve seen about five Genesis Owusu tattoos now, which is insane to me.”

This combination of stylistic-fluidity and lyrical incision is not only rarely found on a debut album; it’s rarely found at all. But Owusu’s creative methods aren’t as exacting as one might suspect.

“It’s almost like writing and creating is channelling,” he says. “What’s on my mind or what’s on my heart is very crudely blurted out and then, even for me, it’s only after that happens and I sit with it for a while that I find the deeper levels of meaning.” 

As a shy kid, Owusu was attracted to poetry as a means of self-expression and self-exploration. Now, at 23 and on the cusp of his Australian tour with the Black Dog Band, Owusu gets a similar kind of illumination from making music.

“Sitting down and listening to the album and digesting it, I feel like I learnt stuff about myself,” he says. “It was a very gratifying form of therapy.”

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