Live from Anne’s Living Room: Genesis Owusu
Intimate performances, fresh sounds, and candid conversations with a view.
What do you do when the neighbors call the cops on your backyard show? Don’t get mad; get creative. Or in our case, as when experimental polymath vocalist Genesis Owusu was slated to play Anne’s Backyard this spring, turn the kitchen into a sound booth, send someone to Home Depot to grab a couple spotlights, shove the dining table out of the way, and start rolling.
After all, Owusu and his balaclava-clad posse of backup dancers had traveled all the way from Australia. And it wasn’t his first run-in with a little improvised chaos. A few weeks before, Owusu and co. literally broke the floor of Sydney’s Enmore Theatre two songs into their raucous set, only to triumphantly return four days later to finish the job for a sold-out crowd. So when we suggested winging it in the living room, everyone was game — Owusu helped move the furniture himself.
Consider it a victory lap. The night before, Ghanian-Australian singer played to a sold-out crowd at the Roxy, bringing the breakneck catharsis of his acclaimed 2021 debut LP “Smiling With No Teeth” to an LA crowd as part of his first US tour. In addition to his presence across KCRW’s Best Of 2021 lists, the 24-year-old artist born Kofi Owusu-Ansah has been racking up the accolades, taking home four trophies at the 2021 ARIA Music Awards — the Aussie equivalent of the Grammys — including Album of the Year, making him the first Black artist to do so, and landing on President Obama’s annual year-end Spotify playlist for his song “Gold Chains.”
But don’t let the glitz fool you. Owusu is an artist’s artist, whose music confronts depression, racism, and the self, cast across a dizzying-yet-cohesive array of genres — gritty techno, punk, retro soul, and modern R&B among them — that has taken artists like Prince, Grace Jones, and Bowie entire careers to achieve.
Before descending upon the den of delightful havoc formerly known as Anne’s living room, Owusu sat down with Morning Becomes Eclectic hosts Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez to reflect on his whirlwind past year, creative identity, and finding lyrical inspiration in the bathroom.
Check it all out, including bonus interview content and photos, Live from Anne’s Living Room, below (no floors were broken in the making of this session).
KCRW: If I understand correctly, did you write your first rap in the bathroom? Why in the bathroom? Do you remember how that rap went?
Genesis Owusu: The short answer is, you know when you get into the shower, sometimes your best thoughts come out? My favorite singing wasn't in the shower. [Laughs] But the long answer to that is my older brother was a producer. And I was very young, just trying to find my own path. So for a long time, I was like, ‘No, I'm not going to do music.’
But he had hijacked our family’s study and turned it into his own personal studio. So it was unavoidable. And he was giving me his beats on this really little ratty mp3 player. And he's like, ‘Trust me, you have to write on this.’ And I was going to a public bathroom and the beat came on the mp3 player, and it just struck. I probably remember the first two lines. It’s terrible. I don't actually remember. It's still alive on the internet. It’s called “Ansah Brothers.” I was like 13 or 14.
Why were you resistant to getting into music?
From a young age, coming from Ghana to Australia, for a lot of different reasons, I had adopted the outsider mentality. And I was still trying to figure out what that was from a young age. So earlier on, that adapted into being a contrarian and just doing everything because everyone else expected me to do the opposite. So as my older brother was already making music, everyone's like, ‘Oh, you're gonna do music?’ I'm like, ‘Nah, I'm gonna go be a racecar driver or something.’ They got me eventually.
Your album has a through line juxtaposing upbeat or high-energy sounds with lyrics that can get really heavy or come from a place of pain. Why is it important to you to create that contrast?
The main reason was that it was intentional, conceptually. Throughout the album, the main two themes are depression and racism. And thankfully, at this time, they’re both much less stigmatized, and you can talk about them more openly. But when I was growing up, no one wanted to hear that. So to make people hear it, you'd have to sugarcoat it, make it more palatable. The album is called “Smiling With No Teeth,” which is meaning a fake smile, pretending things are okay when they're not. So, conceptually, the song sounds sexy. They sound funky. They sound groovy, but then you dig down and lyrically, there's something a bit weightier going on underneath the surface.
That juxtaposition is also visual. The album cover alone features gold and bandages. I understand you serve as your own artistic director? Talk about that intention.
I've always been a very big music and art nerd. And I just love when things are like a puzzle. I feel like that's when things are timeless. You can hear things once and it might be cool that one time, but then you'll end up getting sick of it eventually. But if it's really timeless, it's like an endless conversation and you can peel back new meanings on the thousandth listen. I just want to create like that.
Who are some artists that you see as having music that's timeless?
Definitely Kanye, in regards to that kind of puzzle work. For lyricism, Lupe Fiasco was one of my first favorite artists. MF DOOM, Kendrick Lamar. I could go on forever, honestly. Solange, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix.
Where does Prince fit into the equation of the album?
Prince I actually delved into, tragically, late into my life. Prince came into my life shortly before we started creating the album. Prince and Talking Heads were the two biggest inspirations for the album. And I tried to make it so they weren't necessarily too much of an overbearing influence sonically, but an influence attitude wise. So when we were creating the album, and I got stuck in a place, I would be like, “What would Prince do in this situation?” That was where he came into the fold.
What is your favorite environment to make music in? Are you a Perrier, mood lighting, studio guy, or do you like a grimy warehouse basement?
The album was essentially made in the basement, that’s for sure. I feel like great art doesn't come from comfort or comfortable places. You need that grime, that edge to it. Musically speaking, the foundations of the album were created in six days. Me and the band had two sessions, three days each, jamming for like ten hours a day in this really small, cramped studio, sweltering heat. It was insane. And that was the first time I'd even met the band, as well. So it was uncomfortable on a lot of different levels. It made for some great art. And we became great friends afterwards.
There's a misconception that you wrote the album as a reaction to events like the killing of George Floyd and protests. They called you a “prophet.” But in reality, it was before all of that, right?
Yeah. We were in the last stages of creating the album when all the George Floyd stuff was happening. I remember being in the studio rapping about, pretty much word for word, the exact things that were happening. On a lot of different tracks. Tracks that didn't make it on and tracks that did. And yeah, a lot of people around me were like, “What? How did you know these things were gonna happen?” These things have been happening. This isn't anything new. This has been stuff that, if I haven't personally experienced it, family members have personally experienced it. People who I've never met that just look like me have personally experienced it. And this has just been my life up until this point. And that's all the music is. It's just an expression of my life up until this point. So it's nothing new.
You’re the first Black artist ever to win an ARIA for Album of the Year. How do you feel about that?
I feel like that win hits me much more on a cultural level than it does on a personal level. When I was a kid, I wasn't watching the ARIAs, because they weren't putting the stuff that I liked on the pedestal. They weren't validating that which came from where I came. So for me, to win all those ARIAs, rather than it being this bucket list thing for me, it really signified the changing of the guard in Australia and the changing of the culture, and signified the fact that people were much more willing to learn and listen to new stories and new perspectives.
You once said that you had to learn to be Black without Black role models to guide you through Australia. Now that you're a role model, how does that feel?
Yeah, that's a big question. I'm just doing me. And that's all I can do. And I feel like that's the greatest example you can set for little Black kids around Australia. When I was growing up in Australia, there was that real outsider mentality. I had never experienced being in such a white place. The people that were already there hadn't experienced Black people before.
So we were both learning to understand and communicate with each other. But their perceptions of Black people at the time were either, like, 50 Cent or Eddie Murphy. And you were fitting into one of those two boxes. So for me to just be able to just be who I am, boundaryless, that's what I would have wanted to see when I was a little Black child. So that's what I'm trying to do for the future.
KCRW Music Director: Anne Litt
Interview: Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez
Sound Engineer: Paul Smith
Video Director/Editor: Angie Scarpa
Director of Photography: Vice Cooler
Camera Op: Dalton Blanco
Producer: Krissy Barker
Digital Producer: Andrea Domanick
Artwork: Gabrielle Yakobson