Leaning into otherness comes easily for Kofi Owusu-Ansah (aka Genesis Owusu). As a musician his songs have become an emblem of both his cultural background in Ghana and the story of what happened after, when he moved halfway across the world to small-town Canberra. Ensuing ‘a complete culture shock’ for Owusu, and the ‘little white kids’ in his new home town. It was there he faced the choice between trying ‘to assimilate and fit in’ or going ‘full throttle outsider’.
‘I was already seen as different so I thought I may as well just go 100% with that. That became the seed of my whole personality.’ he shared. ‘I always wanted to do things differently, right from the start, which makes up my creativity to this day’.
Owusu funneled his self-expression into creative expression, taking him from writing short stories and poetry, and ‘creating things with his friends’ (The Goons) to eventually making music as the breakout success he is today. His songs explore themes of his life: stories about racism, identity and mental health told through a fantastical lens and brought full circle with powerful visuals and performance.
Meeting his manager and collaborator Andrew Klippel; Ourness founder, and Music and Publishing icon, at his very first live performance (Groovin the Moo 2016), Owusu had no idea who he was. The pair spent months getting to know each other before anything became official, meanwhile Andrew was envisioning all that he wanted to cultivate in creative partnership with Kofi.
Below they chat together about the project that is ‘Genesis Owusu’; what it means to be ‘successful’ in the music industry today, through laughter and mutual insights about their unique working relationship and impressive journey so far.
Sabina Mckenna: Let's start by discussing who you are to each other and how you define each other's roles when you're creating.
Kofi Owusu-Ansah: Andrew, is my manager, business partner, creative collaborator and a good friend.
Andrew Klippel: I see myself as Kofi’s creative collaborator too of course. I get a huge amount from him, but he’s definitely set the tone for that collaboration – I've got a wealth of experience, but it's never felt so much like home in the context of Kofi’s vision. So, that's great for me.
I'd love to hear how you both came to each other's lives and Kofi where you were at with creating at the time?
Andrew Klippel: I went to Canberra with my family to see Kofi and it was like an explosive performance in front of no one at Groovin the Moo. There was no doubt that I thought he was a superstar within seconds of watching. It's not like it's not like some artists who we think—oh wow, five years ago they were different and they’ve grown so much. Kofi was already incredibly evolved as a performer. Now it’s incrementally and stylistically different, but the essence of it is pretty much the same.
Kofi: At the time I was making music and creating little things with my friends. Beck, Andrew's wife, tagged Andrew in one of my photos asking for my email address. Then he started emailing me… To this day, I'm terrible with emails, but I was even worse back then. So he was sending me emails, and I wasn't really responding. At the time and had no real knowledge of the music industry. I’d heard horror stories about record labels and stuff like that. So I was very hesitant. I replied to like two or three of the emails in like, six months time span or something like that haha. Then at Groovin the Moo, maybe like 10-15 minutes before I went on stage I turned around and Andrew’s there with his family, and they’ve got VIP like backstage passes. He's like, Yeah, I'm the guy that's been emailing you… I thought oh shit, this guy is serious.
Andrew, what were you doing at that time when you were emailing Kofi and not hearing back?
Andrew: I had thoughts about Kofi. I just really liked the song he did called Drive.
Kofi: Haha exactly.
Andrew: Every time I listened, I’d think—I've gotta call this guy again. But I didn't mind it taking a while; I wasn't looking at it
commercially, to be honest. I just really loved imagining the things we could do with it.
On the way back from Canberra, I was listening to Hiatus Coyote and thought that would be just a great first step after Kofi’s EP, given the parameters of being in Australia. That took a while to make happen, because they didn't know who I was or who Kofi was. I just had to spend the time getting in there and making it happen.
Kofi: Yeah, and then they produced the first two singles and my first EP.
That’s cool - Kofi, I wanted to talk about your childhood in Canberra, what was it like growing up in probably a super white small town? And how did that inform your practice?
Kofi: It was definitely a huge culture shock. The little white kids had no experience dealing with black people and I feel like that experience really solidified the kind of outsider mentality that I hold to this day. I very clearly saw the two avenues; the two choices I had: either to assimilate and try and fit in or go full throttle outsider. I chose the latter. I always wanted to do things differently right from the start. And I still want to make music that no one else is making and try to stand outside of the lines. My older brother had been making music for a while, but being the little contrarian that I was, it took me longer to start – I want to do something different. But he got me in 2011 haha. And the rest is history.
I know you bring a piece of that upbringing on stage with you by performing with your friends - The Goons. What is a Goon to you and what do you think they bring to your performance?
Kofi: So the goons as literal people are a group of my friends. I met them in year 10, or 11 and it was like finally meeting like my tribe - I really connected with them. They were a mix of photographers, producers, and designers, so we all helped each other in our own creative mediums and became a collective.
Conceptually The Goons are representative of the misunderstood - outcasts. We all had a similar upbringing meaning we always stood outside the lines. And people wanted to put us in certain boxes, because of how we looked. Those boxes were so far from who we really are. It felt like being black was seen as a novelty or a threat. And we as The Goons, in that first incarnation of the live show, wanted to play out that whole scenario. We came out wearing balaclavas, tactical vests and combat boots and wanted to show them the ‘boogeyman’ they wanted to see initially. Then throughout the set, the masks come off, they start throwing rose petals, we start dancing and singing love songs. And from the start of the set to the end, you see the box that you wanted to put us in and then you see our true identities and who we really are. Reclaiming that title of being a goon like thug.
I really love that. Where does the creative inspiration come from? For both of you.
Andrew: I go through phases where there's just nothing and then there's something. As long as I play piano every day, I might have two months of really boring stuff but then one day, some new chords will come; new melodies and something viable will happen and I’ll go through a month or two months of endless content coming through. Then we’ll record all that and compile it until we’re ready to do something with it.
Kofi: For me, that's pretty similar. But I've had to battle it because, when it becomes a career you learn very early that you can't just wait for the inspiration to come. The whole question is very interesting, because it's so relevant to me right now. I'm still kind of figuring it out. Me and Andrew are working on new music right now. I have to tap into a completely different mode. We released Smiling with no Teeth, which was my debut album. And I think the themes, and the sonics were what I've been wanting to do my whole creative life up until that point. And now that that's done, it's like, well, shit, now I have to find something new haha.
A lot of my lyrics just come from life experience too and it’s just been like, COVID - I haven't really had a lot of new life to live since then. So I have to figure out a new place to write from, which has been an interesting journey. I've been tapping into literature, plays and stuff like that. To get into a new mindset.
Andrew: When the real thing happens, you can't really plan for it so I totally see Kofi’s dilemma. He's critically acclaimed, and now it’s like how do I follow it up.
Kofi: Yeah, but it’s fun. I'm enjoying having to dust off different methods of writing and becoming inspired in ways that I didn't know existed.
It would be so valuable to learn how to flex that muscle. So when you're creating, where do you spend most of your time?
Kofi: I go to three places: my bedroom, the hotel when I’m in Sydney and the studio. I write in my bedroom, jam in the studio, I sleep in the hotel, and it's pretty much that three pronged cycle. My bedroom has been my haven for a long time. I made it my safe space with albums and inspiration on the walls. So I can literally look up and see a source of inspiration. I do need to get outside more though haha.
Andrew, you've always been a leader in discovering fresh talent and authentic talent. What is it about your personal perspective on the industry that you think led you to where you are today? And of course to discover someone like Kofi.
Andrew: I guess just wanting to hear something that I can't see is existing at the moment, you know, and wanting to I just feel like that's exciting.
Do you think that’s becoming harder to find? Like can you still become super big and maintain your individualism in the industry?
Andrew: I think so. As long as you have the right team around you and the right set of circumstances. As things get bigger and there's more money involved. There’s always more pressure from the people with that money — It just depends on your risk profile. Basically if you surround yourself with people with an understanding of the nuance of what you're doing. I think you can have teams around who encourage that individuality to grow. But if you're with majors and there's committees involved in the release of your record, and everyone has to agree, it's just never going to happen. You want to build something bulletproof as an artist, both creatively and identity wise that’s established enough to create the right type of metric for your project, whereby people don't feel like they're putting their jobs on the line to support you. If everyone feels good they will support it. That's how those big organisations work. Does that make sense?
It does, yeah. It's interesting that you say that you have to be a fully formed thing before you go into anything like that, because that's subjective. In your opinion what do you think the secret to that success is?
Kofi: Is there?
Andrew: I think there's avenues and strategies that can bolster your chances. But I don't think there's like a snap your fingers route to being successful. There's so many variables and factors. But I think the point I’m trying to make is that you have to know.
Totally. I guess maybe in more of a sense that someone's key to success in business might be that they have a really solid work ethic, and they're willing to fail a lot to learn. Is there any kind of musical equivalent to that? Do you think?
Andrew: I mean, I think that having a vision is the most important thing. Having a very clear idea of yourself. That's hugely important, because there's so many forces that can make you lose. So first you need a very strong vision, but then you've also got to know what you’re doing. A lot of the people that I've seen fail haven't understood what their greatest talents are and what they're really good at. As a result they've kind of dispersed the energy into other areas and haven't just focused on the main thing.
Kofi: I would also say that because so many people's ideas of success are so subjective. It helps if you go into the music industry knowing what your perception of success is and to make sure that’s not skewed by other people's perceptions of success.
If you make music because you want to express yourself and have fun, but then you win a Grammy and don't feel fulfilled after I wouldn't think you're that successful in your own personal motivations. Just because the Grammy is someone’s perception of success, that doesn't mean it will be yours necessarily. I think it's super important. It goes back to the vision that Andrew was talking about, knowing yourself knowing what you want to do. And not being swayed by other people's perceptions. To be true to yourself.
Andrew, how would you define Australian music to an international audience?
Andrew: Well, I don't think I'd need to. I feel like for our population there's actually quite a lot of success that comes out of Australia in terms of the mainstream like The Kid LeRoy, Tame Impala soon to be Genesis Owusu. Genesis Owusu is already doing well in the UK and in the US, but not yet on those huge levels. It used to be that you defined Australian music by rock bands. There was a certain type of rock that came out of Australia - pub rock - and now it seems to cease to be that.
Kofi: I don’t know if there is an overarching definition for Australian Music in 2022. I think you just have to take each artist as you take the artist. A lot of artists that have become successful out of Australia on like a main stage, there's really no through line between them. I think each artist is just being each artist and it kind of goes back to your question as to if authenticity is getting rarer these days, I would say it's like the opposite. Everyone's being more and more themselves and time goes on.
Yeah I guess that's the key to setting yourself apart with everything. So in terms of creativity and the Internet (or being online), what do you think it does for you positively or negatively in producing music, or new ideas in general?
Kofi: The Internet's big. So it's a big question. I think the internet in both a positive sense, and a negative sense, has like leveled the playing field and a lot of ways in which there's so many different boundaries, and like, gatekeepers, like obviously there are still boundaries and gatekeepers, but there are so many that you can bypass now, because you can do things yourself. But on the flip side of that, now, there's so many more people than in a sense, you have to compete with for airtime and just people's attention. In regards to just inspiration and collaboration, seeing and meeting people. I think every positive comes with the negative in that it's done its job: it connected different communities and different people. And you see so many ways you can do things and people doing different things, but on the flip side, you're just bombarded. You're bombarded with so many great things, but also complete shit. So yeah the internet is a wild, wild place, a lawless land.
Looking back to why you began this journey individually. What have you kept firm in terms of your own perspective, when creating with other people especially?
Kofi: When you have a vision, you’ve got to fight for it. You need to know what you want. And you know, at the same time you don't always have to 100% know exactly what you're doing. And in those moments it's awesome to lean on someone else's vision, input or advice especially when you trust them because it only ends up strengthening your vision and overarching product in the end.
What are you both thinking about a lot or looking forward to in 2022?
Andrew: I'm just loving making this record with Kofi at the moment. I'm finding that very exciting and interesting and I'm looking forward to continuing work on that. I'm also loving watching Kofi develop as a performer and artist and seeing where that's all going. I'm looking forward to spending time with my family and hopefully becoming a truer and truer version of myself as I get older.
Kofi: I'm looking forward to new experiences. Going off to America for the first time, announcing the European tour tonight. It will be the first time going to a lot of places over there, with my friends of all people, and my girlfriend, and I’m super excited to just live new life. But at the same time I’m trying not to look forward too much and just be present. And deal with each day as it comes. And appreciate each day as it comes. Not to be stuck in the future too much.
That's very wise. Especially in these times. Thank you both. It was incredible.