Genesis Owusu appears in our Fall 2023 Issue with cover stars Scowl, Yves Tumor, Poppy, and Good Charlotte. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy.
It was a few years ago that I first heard Genesis Owusu. A friend of mine, Kayla, a musician and poet, had turned me onto the Ghanaian-Australian’s debut album, Smiling With No Teeth. It had come up in one of those casual, thirsty conversations where my friend and I desperately grasped for new inspiration, hoping to find a creative oasis in each other’s Spotify playlists or tote bags through literature and music grails we hadn’t yet come across ourselves. And in Owusu’s funky, disorienting, rap-inspired revelation, there was more than enough satiation. It sounded, felt, and tasted like nothing else I’d heard.
Read more: Every Paramore album ranked
And I wasn’t alone in this — pursuing the comments on the visually expressive landscape Owusu has released thus far, there’s certainly a reaction as atypical as the artist’s unique sound: Most people react to the “energy” of it all before anything else. And this year, Owusu was able to give a larger audience a taste of that tactile experience. Over the summer, he toured North America in support of Paramore. Fresh off that trip, where he not only built a larger audience but also created dynamic, intense worlds for them night after night, Owusu released a new album, titled Struggler. It offers a new iteration of Genesis Owusu, who is growing into the spotlight with tact and grace, understanding both himself and his audience better with each new chapter — while remaining as complex and cerebral in sound and form as ever.
You spent a good part of this summer on a major North American tour with Paramore. How was that?
It went well. It was cool doing arenas, in all the basketball players’ locker rooms, just green rooms and stuff like that, and nice little catering. Catering every show, which is nice. But we still were driving around the country in a van, which was a bit hectic. So, it had its ups and downs.
I feel like that’s the nature of tour life. I saw you guys at Madison Square Garden, and your show is really beautiful. The production is super striking.
We don’t have a lot of budget for a lot of stuff, so everything in the show we have to conceptualize into what can fit in a suitcase. So, that’s kind of been how we’ve created the show so far. So, thanks for complimenting the production. We try our best.
I wouldn’t be able to tell that it all fit in a suitcase, but I do feel like sometimes the best creative ideas come when you have constrictions.
Definitely. Me and my friends talk about that a lot. We made it this far, so it’s been good.
Speaking of constrictions, this is a question that I ask a lot of artists: Do you feel like the best art comes from pain?
I feel like art can come from anything, but I feel like the reason a lot of people reach to art is because of pain. So, I feel like a lot of art that comes from pain feels realer, but just because it seems to stick its head out more — the option of expressing yourself through art, it seems to stick its head out more when pain is prevalent. But I think great art can still come from joy, and love, and other stuff like that.
Where do you feel like this new album came from for you? How do you feel like it’s a departure from where you were at with the last one?
I think this new album came mostly from confusion. I feel like it came from navigating myself internally and externally in real time through situations that I was very much not used to in my every capacity. The first album was made during COVID times, so I was locked in in Australia, in a place that I know well, making music that I’ve wanted to make for ages. Then the second album was made all over the place. Because the first album went well, now I’m touring everywhere, and I have to find time to do things rather than having all the time in the world like I was given the first time, and trying to navigate what I want to say this time around because the first album felt like an accumulation of my whole life up until that point.
Then COVID happened, so there wasn’t much life that I felt that I lived after that. So, this album felt like it came from trying to find a light in real time and trying to find a pathway in real time, but then it morphed into a narrative where that was the under term. So, when I think of the album in its completed form, I don’t really think of it as a personal story like that, but the story that I made came from that, if that makes sense.
That does make sense. Am I correct that you went to school for writing?
Yeah, I went to university for journalism.
So, I feel like that makes sense, too, with the idea that this album is a culmination of narratives while you were going through something, not necessarily a personal narrative.
I think going back to your first question of whether the best art comes from pain, and me saying I feel like art is just one of the first things that comes to mind, is a form of expression. I’m definitely speaking from personal experience, but I feel like I’ve gotten to take it to a place where art isn’t just my first instinct to express myself when it comes to pain. It’s just my first instinct to express myself when it comes to anything, especially when it comes to just figuring out how I actually think and feel. I feel like when I am able to express it through music and art, then I understand it better myself.
Does your process start with writing?
Not necessarily writing music, but usually writing something, like writing a story or writing a concept or writing down my ideas. But yeah, usually definitely starts with writing.
I also overheard that you were reading some Kafka in the process. Light reading, for sure.
It was a big inspiration. I wanted to read something a bit weird and freaky, and Kafka fit the bill. I don’t know why I started reading Kafka. I feel like there were a lot of books that my old English teachers told me to read, and I just ignored [them] for a bunch of years, and then came to find [them] again this year and last year.
What are you reading right now?
The last thing I read to completion was The Stranger by Albert Camus. Definitely leaves a weird taste in the mouth, which is what I like.
Do you hope your music leaves that same feeling with people?
Yeah, definitely. I love that. I feel like I’ve never really known what I wanted my music to do to other people because it’s always been a very self-serving practice. It’s just been a way of expressing myself. But then when I see people interact with it, and then there’s immediate confusion and then almost discomfort, but then a kind of light bulb, it’s really interesting, especially during the live performance where I can watch… Sometimes I just watch one person from the start of the live show to the end. There’s this roller coaster of emotions that I can see going through their mind, [the] first being, “What the fuck is this?” And then kind of grooving to it, and the sense of intrigue that comes after. That’s my favorite reaction. I think there was a YouTube comment that I saw, and I was like, “Wow, this is everything I want.” It was like, “I don’t know what the fuck this is. I’m going to watch it a million times.” I was like, “That’s the perfect reaction.”
You don’t want to create something that’s been created or that’s easily explained. It’s interesting because I feel like from the things you’re reading to the way you talk, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. It’s a heady process, but it’s not overly intellectual or alienating. If you read the reviews, even on YouTube, everyone seems to be talking about the tactile experience of your work — the speed, and this feeling of urgency, and it’s very emotional and kinetic. There’s a physical feeling that’s unique to your music, and however much thought goes into it, it doesn’t need to be intellectualized to be understood.
That’s really interesting. I love being able to provide something that can be appreciated on different levels, like a surface level where you don’t have to try and think about it because it’s primal and innate and emotive. Then you get little rewards if you stick with it, and you get to peel back more layers if you want to. I really enjoy art that does that, so I try to do that as well.
Your recent music is described as the “new era” of Genesis Owusu. Do you identify with that, or do you feel like it’s an evolution?
I guess because the inspiration came from reading more so than listening, I feel like an author who’s written a new book. It doesn’t feel like a sequel. It feels like a new story.
With a different cast of characters. I know you said it wasn’t necessarily a personal narrative to a T — but do you feel like when you’re onstage, that’s an authentic version of you as a person, or is that an alter ego?
A bit of both. I think a lot of the reason people are feeling the emotiveness, urgency, and the physicality of the performance is because that’s what I feel when I perform, and that’s the energy that I put out. I definitely do that without trying to. It feels like when I get onstage, that’s the time to express those feelings and energies. But, at the same time, I feel as I’ve started doing this, more and more, Genesis Owusu is starting to develop into more and more of a persona than just an alias. And that’s the case for a lot of different reasons. One reason is just because I enjoy the world-building of things and the mythology of things, and I enjoy things not having to be so real and grounded all the time. Things can be fantastical. Another reason is just because it’s not an easy job to put yourself out in front of thousands of people at a time every day, whether it’s onstage or online.
So, I feel like as I started doing this, more and more, and more eyes have come on me, it’s almost like a coping mechanism. With these thousands of eyes that grow every day, it’s every day people could either turn the switch to test everything you do and everything you’ve made, or, even scarier, they decide you are the one they’re going to worship for the next few years. It’s easier to deal with the prospect of that when it’s a persona that you can switch on and off, and not the person that you are and that you are born with, and that you’re always going to be.
That’s heavy. But that makes a lot of sense. That must be a decision lots of performers make, conscious or otherwise. Are you spiritual?
I think I am just a person that’s open to new information and new feelings and new energy as it comes. I feel like I am an accepting person, but it doesn’t necessarily change the way I’ve walked through life as of late. I feel like things come and realizations come, and I’m like, “Oh, OK, interesting. That’s new.” It’s kind of like I slot it into the folder of the absurdity of life and the universe, and it’s almost like a spectacle. I’m like, “Wow, that’s really interesting. That’s cool.” Then I keep on walking. And then the next one will happen, and the next one will happen.
So, you believe in the absurdity of the universe?
I believe heavily in the absurdity and the chaos of the universe, and I’ve been leaning more and more into it every day.