It starts like this: bright lights, quiet murmurs and the footsteps of an orchestra as they patter into the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall. The room quietens and the stage, like a tongue, stretches out into the mouth of the crowd. The curtains, washed in red, hit the wood and brass of the violins, saxophones, flutes and trumpets, as their players, dressed in black, sit in wait. A Welcome to Country, played on the Yidaki, is tailgated by the sudden raucous outburst of the 40-piece Sydney symphony. The first song commences.
Genesis Owusu enters, a black frock hanging over the bodies of his three back-up dancers – the “goons”, as he calls them — who carry him cooly on their shoulders to centrestage.
He belts: A tale of black dogs with golden leashes/ Broken stories told facetious/ Who’s the pet and who’s the teacher?
Noise reverberates around the hall and the crowd, swathed in the echo of stage lights, cheers. The show has begun.
Last year, at Splendour in the Grass, Owusu told me that he was entering “The Roach Era”.
“To put it very succinctly [it means] ‘can never be stopped,” he said. “Just always have to keep going. No matter what’s thrown. Hell, highwater, acts of God himself.’”
But it didn’t seem that simple. He is, after all, a master of symbolism, famously tying messages of mental health and racial injustice to images of snarling black dogs and bared-gold teeth. And, in the case of The Roach, he could mean any number of things. The most relatable, I found (and if you’re a non-white kid living in Australia you might have interpreted this way as well), was the heavy symbolism of being an outsider, taking up space in places you’re not necessarily accepted, maybe even being black in a white-dominated industry.
As I sit and watch Owusu crawling on stage, the six legs of the three goons appearing out from under his cloak, his bug-eyed sunglasses hiding eyes that wax over the crowd, the cockroach manifests through costume. It crawls between the orchestra, through the Opera House and to the forefront: even in the most historically significant setting tied to white frivolity and tradition, the pest, the vermin, the outsider can dig their way in.
At the age of 3, Owusu, born Kofi Owusu–Ansah, moved from Ghana to the blank-slate city of Canberra – a place that, he says, didn’t stir much in the creative imagination when it came to cultural happenings. It’s there, in its lack of diversity, that Owusu found himself to be an outsider – someone that didn’t quite fit the mould.
As he got older, his frustrations funnelled into his creativity: he dabbled in film, Photoshop, t-shirt design and, finally, music. His first endeavours came as one half of the rap group, Ansah Brothers, aside sibling and musician Citizien Kay (Kojo). In 2017, he released his first solo EP: Cardrive.
From the start, Owusu’s quick-witted, brash lyrics were soaked in symbolism. There was always an air of theatrics and bravado and, like the big stars, honed themes (black dogs; the roach) that would interweave his art throughout his career. His stage persona came next, delivering performances instilled with bravado while his everyday self was defined by modesty and quiet, assured friendliness.
And that is exactly the Owusu we get when we enter the backstage of the Sydney Opera House – a Greek labyrinth of a backroom without clocks or signs. If you lost yourself between the wood-clad walls, you’d lose hours before an exit appeared.
He’s at the stage door.
Like always, Owusu is warm, composed and self-assured. He wears a Lu Lee Chin graphic tee, dark sunglasses, black sandals with red socks and has a signature red stripe painted along the centre of his head. We’re shuffled to his changing room (I couldn’t tell you which floor), where the Harbour Bridge stares back through a line of rectangular windows on the west-facing wall.
While the rest of us gasp, taking in the harbour, Owusu drops his bag and smiles. He’s been here before.
“I remember actually being in this room. And there were a bunch of Ruel fans waiting out there hoping to catch a glimpse of him through the window. They were pretty hectic,” he says.
“I don’t think I’m at the Ruel level yet.”
In the early years of his career, while supporting the pop-star in 2019, Owusu played his first show at the Opera House. Now, he’s here for the first time as a headliner. In collaboration with the Red Bull Symphonic, Owusu is taking the stage with the 40-piece Sydney Symphony Orchestra, performing a refigured version of his 2021 album Smiling With No Teeth.
It’s not surprising at all that a collaboration like this would come to fruition. Owusu is an artist known for pushing the boundaries of genre with an expansive, collaborative portfolio. From 2018 to 2020, he released a number of singles that dipped between funk, punk, rap, R&B and everything in between. “Awoman Amen”, from 2018, was one of the first singles that had tastemakers listening – a song that rejected the popularised objectification of women in rap music. It stood as a song that would posit him as an artist that didn’t necessarily reject tradition but would turn it on its head.
In 2021, in an article I wrote for Acclaim, he told me that he had “immediately wanted to diverge from anything that was expected of [him] and anything that was considered normal, because [he] was already outside of those boundaries”.
“It would be a chore,” he told me, to dig his way into it. “That kind of mentality stuck with me throughout my whole life and in every facet of my life, including music.”
But it’s obvious that Owusu’s experimentation is not performative – it’s a symptom of an anarchically creative mind – one tainted by the shackles of early 2010s Australian music that washed the shores with indie surf rock and backyard rap.
So, again, it’s not surprising that a collaboration with the symphony orchestra came to fruition. What is surprising, though, is how an orchestra built on meticulousness, timing and sheet reading could work alongside an artist who famously thrives in chaos. It’s how his debut album came to be: thrown into a room alongside a bunch of artists for 6, ten-hour days of improvisation.
“I'm so used to just diving into the deep end and pulling the pieces together. At this point, it feels kind of natural to me,” Owusu says as we settle into his dressing room couch.
“So to go onto this stage and there are 40 classically trained, legacy musicians who have every note to a tee… It's pretty intimidating. But it's really cool to share worlds like this. By the end of the show, everyone has come together and coalesced into this one thing that feels greater than the sum of its parts.”
It’s the relationship between Owusu and composer Alex Turley that led to this amalgamation of hip-hop and classical. Initially, Turley asked Owusu what he’d like things to sound like, before going off and doing a lot of the heavy lifting transposing Owusu’s music.
“He’d write out all the charts, and whatever’s on the charts they’re going to learn,” Owusu says.
“You don’t fuck around with them, don’t change it up, don’t mess it up, that’s what they’re going to play.”
Aside from being meticulous in their work, coming from an orchestral background usually means upholding the traditions that come with being a classical performer: the black tie uniform, the in-unison lifting of instruments, the single file of musicians onto the stage as they take their seats, the often haughty crowd.
On one hand you have a form of music that for centuries has upheld the values of the upper elite, on the other is an artist looking to tear those formalities down through famously-anarchic, middle-finger-up-to-society genres like punk and rap.
In fact, the first time that Owusu rehearsed with the orchestra, in Brisbane, the conductor announced to the musicians that the title of his standout track – “GTFO” a.k.a Get The Fuck Out – was “God The Father Omegle.”
By the Brisbane leg of the Red Bull Symphonic live shows, though, with hundreds in the audience stage-facing and screaming “Get The Fuck Out” in unison, Owusu says they’d grown to like it.
“By the end of it they were jammin’,” he says.
“They were into it.”
Whether Genesis Owusu thought about the significance of taking a show at the Opera House, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and how that intersected with his own music and identity, is anyone’s guess. And while he might not be the first artist to combine rap and classical, he is one of the first to be presented the opportunity in Australia.
As our time in Owusu’s change room comes to an end, I try to squeeze him for details about his upcoming album.
“You want the full, exclusive drop, huh?” he laughs.
“I’ve been working on it and it’s coming this year.”
In 2021, Owusu released his career-defining Smiling With No Teeth – a 15-track showcase of his dazzling discography up to that point. Among the set-list were songs like, “I Don’t Need You”, “The Other Black Dog”, and “Gold Chains”, mirrored with evocative imagery on the cover and in promotional material: more black dogs, more gold teeth, and bandages wrapped tightly around his face, grinning villainously.
Traversing ideas of race, mental health and alienation, the message depicted was clear: “to pretend everything was okay when it wasn’t” or, more eloquently, “covering deeply ingrained issues by superficial means”. Working alongside his lyrics, this serious subject matter was cloaked in upbeat anthems: funk beats caressing themes of depression, a barrage of drums propping up tales of racial injustice.
The album was welcomed to critical acclaim.
That same year, Owusu took out 4 ARIA awards, including Best Hip Hop Release, Best Independent Release, Best Cover Art and Album of the Year. He was the first “hip hop” artist (as they called him) to ever win the latter.
A day after our initial interview, I’m invited to his rehearsal. I wander in, interested to see how his magnum opus (up to this point) translates to the stage. Pink light washes the corners of the venue. The concert hall is almost empty, with four or five other people staring at the stage in awe, bursting into raucous applause as each song ends.
The orchestra, in a U shape, with drums behind a glass panel and Owusu’s back-up singers standing to the back-left, are clad in casual attire. For a moment it removes the illusion of formality. Just a moment, though. Kye, an artist also finding success in Australian music, begins to sing “No Looking Back” (a song she’s featured in): “I cleared the water,” she croons.
Soon, the strings join and Genesis moves front-of-stage. They stop and start and I can hear Owusu and Turley discussing where the artist should stand or move.
“Bar one, let’s just delete,” Turley tells the musicians. They each bend forward, a pencil in hand, making scribbles or X’s on their sheet music and Genesis kicks his feet, waiting. They start again.
Soon, they’re onto the last song. The goons burst onto the stage, unhooded. Usually dressed in black balaclavas and all-consuming bodysuits, it’s the first time I’ve actually seen any of their faces in real life. Without their usual get-up, and dancing with smiles on their faces, they look quite palatable with the backdrop of the symphony. Owusu is in the same outfit as yesterday, except this time in a Bathing Ape Nigo shirt.
Watching the barebones performance, it’s hard to tell how, exactly, the theatrics will play out later on, when Owusu will stand in front of hundreds of people, blasting out “GTFO” and “I Don’t Need You”.
The show has begun.
Owusu has crawled onto the stage, attired in everything needed to pull of The Roach’s full aesthetic, and “The Other Black Dog” thumps around the Concert hall.
Soon, Owusu is lowered off the shoulders of his goons. He erupts into a choreographed routine and his hype men push and pull him around the stage – he’s fighting against their grasp. The red fabric hands sewed to his black jacket pile-up on shoulders, weighing him down, trying to take a hold.
Then the stage goes dark. The next track is introduced, and the orchestra’s strings become the champion of “WUTD”. Flutes trill a Disney-like introduction before giving way to thumping bass. At this point, Owusu tells the audience to stand. And they do.
The overlapping of musical genres ebbs and flows, all in unison. At times, like in “GTFO”, Owusu’s Matrix-like bend into the front of the crowd, caressed by the euphoria-inducing strings, creates a movie-like moment that almost makes you want to cry. Almost.
The structure of the performance; the interaction between him and his goons; the juxtaposition of historical class between the orchestra and Owusu; it all builds to tell the story of his career from start to finish. By the time he is singing and moving onstage to “No Looking Back” and “Good Times”, songs of triumph that see him coming to terms with the world around, Owusu no longer that alienated kid in the white-canvased city of Canberra.
It’s all conducive to a changing perception in Australian music. Ten – even five – years ago it would be hard to find artists that looked like Genesis Owusu, or me, playing main stages or headlining festival line-ups. If they were there, it was often hard to think of it as anything other than tokenistic. Performing at the Opera House? Yeah, right.
You could argue that it’s the case of genres like Hip hop and R&B (though he doesn’t subscribe solely to the two) that have found new fan bases and social acceptance in Australian music circles, opening the doors for young artists like Genesis Owusu to thrive. A more accurate take, though, would be that through Owusu’s own persistence, lyricism and sheer talent the organic growth of his fanbase just…happened. People really said, “Yeah, his music is just that fucking good”.
Playing at the Opera house, posed against an orchestra, Owusu continues to renegotiate what it means to be an Australian artist. The professionalism, stage presence, and concept throughout his entire discography points to an era where artists can aim to be “global superstars” with thought-out conceptual personas more than “big Australian artists who thrive then disappear.”
At the end of the night, as I turn to my friend, nodding. “That was fucking amazing”, I see a future for the Australian music scene in Genesis Owusu’s willingness to push, full-throttle, through glass ceilings. A barrier that in the past, Australian artists have found hard to break, both nationally and overseas.
It gives hope for a future generation of musicians, growing up in Australia, detached from the mainstream, never feeling quite at home, to add something great to our always developing music culture.
It’s one thing that Genesis has proven tonight: sometimes the outsider wins.