Genesis Owusu
Photo by Daniela Federici
Emerging Masters

Genesis Owusu: “I’ve always known who I am”

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Short Profile

Name: Kofi Owusu-Ansah
DOB: 17 April 1998
Place of birth: Koforidua, Ghana
Occupation: Singer, rapper, songwriter

Kofi, how much do you think about the future in terms of your creative process?

You know, I was very much about the whole futurism thing when my track Sideways came out in like 2017. And it was very literal back then, I was inspired by sci-fi and video games set in the future. And of course, everything I do is a culmination of what's come before me, characters like Prince and Andre 3000 who I take cues from… But now, I feel like for the most part, I’m in the present — but it's my present. I'm at a place where with everything that I'm doing, I'm trying to make it so unique to me that the time period doesn't matter. This could have happened a thousand years in the past or a thousand years in the future. It's totally in its own space, devoid of time.

Apparently it both terrifies and bores you to make music you already know you’re good at.

Yeah, I just like to keep moving. I like to keep everyone on their toes, including me. I feel like as soon as people get comfortable with me, or with a certain thing that I'm doing, then it becomes an expectation. And since childhood, I’ve always hated when people place any kind of expectation on me because I feel like with those expectations comes boundaries. If a boundary is set, and I do something outside of that, then people will be disappointed, regardless of how cool that thing might be. So I wanted to make sure that people could never safely put a boundary around me by just keeping it moving at all times.

“Nervousness is just the other side of the coin of excitement. I think it’s good to be nervous.”

It must be pretty fun as well, no?

It’s exciting! I don't really have interest in being the best at something. I just want to provide a new experience all the time, for myself mostly. And it all leads into the next new thing. For example, with my album Smiling with No Teeth, I recorded it with musicians I’d never met. It was also the first time I had recorded with a band before! And we made a bunch of music in new genres that I’ve never made music in. From that music, I started directing my first music videos. And then I designed the clothes I was wearing in the videos… Most of the things I’m doing are new experiences!

What about in terms of the actual songwriting? Are you trying out new melodies or new structures or new themes as well?

Yeah, for sure! I think it's interesting to change the process every time. I mean, for the past few years, I've been known as a rapper — but there’s punk songs on the album, electronic songs, fusions of genres within the same song. There’s even a folk song about fishing! The substance of the content changes by the minute.

Do you get nervous trying out all these different things?

In the moment, I guess so, but I feel like nervousness is just the other side of the coin of excitement. So I think it's good to be nervous. Going into a room with people that I'd never met before for six days, 10 hours a day, and getting to know them through the music that we're making in real time… It was very nerve wracking! But if it’s not nerve wracking, then it might not be worth it, right?

I think a lot of artists are hesitant to take risks like that, especially early on in their career because they felt like one wrong move could make or break them.

First and foremost, I make music for me, I want it to be exciting for me! Other people liking it or enjoying it is kind of just like a bonus. If no one likes my music, if no one liked the album I put out and I had the chance to go back and change it… I don't think I would. It’s my form of self-expression and it's my form of therapy. So if I needed to go get three office jobs and just make music as a hobby, I would do it if it meant I still got to make the music that I love.

Genesis Owusu's I Don't Need You (2021).

Is there anything you won’t try, any lines you won’t cross on this journey?

I mean, I still know what I like and I know what I don't like. So as long as I can see that this is going to be some cool shit, this is gonna be really fire… I won’t regret it. I think all of this really stems from being the weirdo black kid when I was five years old, moving to Australia — from being an outsider, and wanting to avoid stereotypes. People really tried to put me in boundaries from a young age, and I just always wanted to reject that because it didn't fit. I was so young and I was still building my identity, so I was open to trying a bunch of new things for the sake of actually finding out what I like and who I am. I wasn't bound by anything, not even my own perceptions or expectations. That definitely had massive effects on who I am to this day, and why I believe in myself the way I do.

Has performance also been important to your self-discovery? You’re well-known for your theatrical concerts and your eccentric costumes.

Performing is my favorite part of the whole musical experience. I feel almost like a different person, when I'm performing, but not like a different person, but like a different side of the same person that doesn't come out in any other context, except for the performance which is really interesting and really fun to think about. Even as the person doing it, I don't even know where it really comes from. My shows are so bombastic and loud and theatrical, and it's such a contrast to who I am in real life; I'm pretty quiet, introverted, very low key. It’s interesting, and I haven't fully finished dissecting it myself!

In a similar way, is it a strange feeling to talk about your personal experiences and even confess secrets through your lyrics in such a public way?

It's easy for me to talk in music, actually. For a long time, it felt more natural than saying things in regular conversation. I think it's more romantic. There's a lot more layers that allow people to gravitate to it more easily than they would other ways of communicating. Like, on the most surface level, I could be saying some very confessional things in a song, but the first time you hear it, you might just like the beat or the rhythm. That's enough to keep you engaged for the first few listens until you're ready to actually delve into what I'm saying. There's many more avenues for people to be engaged, and I guess that’s why it’s easier for people to receive messages from music as well. But for me, I’m just focusing on telling my truth.

Have you always known exactly what you want to do and be as an artist?

I think I've always known who I am. But that affirmation has been strengthened as time has gone on, and I think it helps now that other people can see it as well. Because even if I knew it for a long time and other people's perceptions didn't sway me, it kind of shifts the focus every once in a while. So finally being able to put out the music that I feel is true to me, that has strengthened the perception and the focus of what I’ve already known forever.