Neon Genesis Owusu: The Rebirth of Cool

Jaeden Pinder
4 min readApr 14, 2022
Genesis Owusu talking to audience in between songs, wearing a red suit illuminated by purple lighting.
Credit: Jaeden Pinder

If Prince, Kendrick Lamar and Damon Albarn sat down in a studio and put all their best qualities together: eccentricity, conscious lyricism and confident ambition, their efforts would yield the music of Genesis Owusu, an up and coming musician hailing from Canberra, Australia.

Born Kofi Owusu-Ansah, the Ghanaian-Australian artist put out his debut record “Smiling with No Teeth” in 2021 to critical acclaim, later becoming the first hip-hop artist to win Album of the Year at the 2021 ARIA Awards. A concept album, the LP follows a motif of “the black dog,” which Owusu has said is equivalent to both depression and racism he has faced throughout his life. Much like Rina Sawayama’s debut “SAWAYAMA,” what results is a boundary-breaking work that redefines what a first album can sound like and defies being pigeonholed. Experimenting in every niche of modern music possible without faltering, “Smiling with No Teeth” swings big and never misses.

The Canberran played his first show in New York City, selling out the Bowery Ballroom on April 3. The show, which only maximized his impressive verve, contained just as much creative passion as the supporting album and cemented a spot for the young artist among this decade’s rising stars.

Given that he is only 23 years old, Genesis Owusu displays that he is a clear product of the artists of today. The playlist before his set contained songs by Kendrick Lamar, JPEGMAFIA and Moses Sumney, and the show opened with “Feel The Love” by KIDS SEE GHOSTS. Owusu knows how to utilize his Gen-Z humor to his benefit; an extended chorus of “Don’t Need You” segues directly and startlingly into “Crank That” (yes, the Soulja Boy song) and with any other artist, the joke would’ve fallen completely flat if not for Owusu laughing at the absurdity of the moment.

Like the album, the show displayed Owusu’s natural ability to bend the rules in uniformity. Owusu quickly shifts between “Black Dogs!” an industrial rock-based headbanger, to “Drown,” a new wave synth-pop track and later “A Song About Fishing,” a soulful ballad, all in the matter of his 90-minute set. It might sound like a whiplash-inducing show, but considering the mercurial nature of the work, the crowd was ready for anything and everything that Owusu performed.

Mirroring the album art, a bandaged Owusu opens the show with “What Do I Fear?” and upon the earth-shattering bass filling the venue and strobe lights blazing, he strikes an Adonis-like pose, flexing his arms close to his ears, lazily beveling his leg inward. He returns to this pose throughout the first act, almost suggesting a mask of vivaciousness during darker songs like “Void”; an illusion of strength and resilience in the dark face of depression.

This masking is utilized in every possible sense throughout the show as well. In another moment, Owusu’s backup squad holds up a flag during “Gold Chains” that reads, “Don’t forget to smile!” Ostensibly, it is a playful message to produce a laugh from the crowd. But in reality, it is an unfortunate reminder to oneself in the mirror each morning.

Genesis Owusu performing “Gold Chains” with his arms raised over his head, with his eyes closed. A banner behind him reads in red lettering “don’t forget to smile!”
Genesis Owusu performs “Gold Chains.” Credit: Jaeden Pinder

Often too, in “Smiling with No Teeth” and in his performance, Owusu displays depression in harsher ways beyond just the assumed sadness. The presumption of depression often only depicts black and blue emotions, but depression is boiling red and sickly green too, and Owusu conveys these more excitable qualities in abrasive performances of songs like “Whip Cracker” and “I Don’t See Colour,” even getting the crowd to mosh and chant during the songs. The full range of the human condition is illustrated in his raw set, and it is refreshing to experience someone so young perform so transparently and eagerly, the hunger in his body language tangible. Owusu has something that other artists his age don’t have: an absolute commitment to his craft.

Though much of his music appears to be focused on succumbing to depression, the second act of the show shifts to the overthrow of it. Owusu incorporates his more upbeat and empowering songs, like the hit “Don’t Need You,” in which he uses physical theatricality to display the conquering of his black dogs, removing his face bandages showing a healed artist. As much as Owusu is the star, the drive and excitement extends to the Goons, his hype squad. Their energy is uncontained and wild in the first act, staring down the audience through red balaclavas and chain-link fences, brooding and at times disturbing. But these moments are equalized by brotherly love in the second act, where they remove their masks, revealing the men behind the fabric glowing with happiness.

After winning the ARIA Award for Album of the Year, Owusu said, “For all those people, Goon Club worldwide, eccentrics, black people, know that it’s not up to us to change for people, but it’s up to people to catch up and see what they’ve been missing out on.” With his laser-focused vision and execution and undeniable talent and confidence, Genesis Owusu sets the bar incredibly high for emerging artists, and his live show is no exception.

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