Genesis Owusu. Image courtesy of the artist.

Meet Genesis Owusu, the Ghanaian Artist Shaking Up Australia's Hip-Hop Scene

We talk music as a means of protest and exploring his identity, 'shifting sounds' and being an unapologetic advocate for blackness in all areas.

Ghanaian-Australian Genesis Owusu is a hot name on the Canberra hip-hop scene.

With the release of his Cardrive EP in mid 2017, followed by the single "Sideways," and a growing list of festival appearances, he's rapidly becoming a national phenomenon. Aside from his music, Owusu dabbles in modeling and fashion design. In collaboration with a few of his nearest and dearest, he launched the Canberra fashion label Pur.

I caught up with Owusu in the Australian capital, his hometown, after seeing him dazzle the audience at a local concert last month. Off-stage, Owusu is soft-spoken and discerning with a tinge of cheekiness—a stark contrast to his high-energy stage performance.

Over pizza, we talked music, being an outcast and about our different experiences growing up partly on the African continent and in the diaspora as people of colour in predominantly white spaces.

What's the significance behind the name Genesis Owusu?

My last name is Owusu-Ansah, but that name turned out to be daunting to the Brandons and the Jakes, and it always turned into gibberish when attempted by substitute teachers marking the roll, so I dropped Owusu and just went by Ansah to accommodate. But when I'm making art, I don't accommodate to anything except my own standards. So Owusu's back.

Genesis was a nickname my brother gave me in primary school when his friends didn't believe my name was Kofi (they pronounced it like "coffee"). In some sense, bringing "Genesis" back to the forefront is accommodating to other people's comforts, so the name Genesis Owusu stands as a mix-match of ideals; some yin and yang shit; a contradiction. And a lot of the time that's how the music I make feels to me, sonically speaking. I don't want this to be a level plane where you can easily see what's coming next.

I'm not going to lie and say I thought of all of that when I chose the name though. I was like 14 and just thought it sounded tight.

You were born in Ghana but grew up in Canberra, polar opposites in every sense. What was that experience like?

White. Very white; Canberra's definitely not the most diverse place, especially in the southside where I was raised, so I immediately felt like an outcast. However, I learned quickly that I wasn't really down with the whole assimilation thing, and decided to wear the outcast label loudly. If I'm going to look different, why don't I start dressing differently? Or speaking differently? Or doing different kinds of activities? My upbringing gave me a wide space to experiment and find my identity, which led to where I am now. I don't think that if my family stayed in Ghana I would be anything like I am now.

Image courtesy of the artist.

How did your experiences shape your music? Do you come from a musical family?

Like I was saying, I became rife with the idea of being myself, and that grew throughout the years. At first (and still a bit now) my music was some kind of self indulgent protest. 'I'm me because you told me I couldn't be me!' type shit.Then the music became a possible tool for more urgent kinds of protest, such as racial inequalities, stemming from global events, to my own personal experiences of growing up as a black person in a predominately white society.

In my search for identity, I chose music as an outlet of expression due to the influence of a music loving family. My mum is the leader of her church's choir and my dad is a huge music appreciator. On weekends he would blast Ray Charles, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Missy Elliott, Missy Higgins, whatever; a lot of Ghanaian music from Ambole, Kwame Ampadu and the likes. I experienced a wide array growing up.

My brother was easily my most direct influence when it came to music. Growing up in Australia too, he handled himself very differently to me, choosing to assimilate more. Because of this, he was introduced into rock music, and began playing guitar in bands. Then he discovered Kanye West, and that flipped everything for the both of us. He began rapping and getting recording equipment, setting up camp in the family study and turning it into his own little studio. When I started rapping too, I was very happily able to jack his equipment and recording knowledge for my own devices.

You recently released your first video for your track "Sideways." You entwined an Afro funk beat with an Afrofuturist visual presentation. What inspired these artistic choices?

Black people. I'm an unapologetic advocate for blackness in all areas. "Sideways" was me sonically paying homage to African foundations while also trying to beam the sound to the future like a black Marty McFly. I treated the visual like a different project, but still rooted in the same realm, like I was making a short film and the song was the soundtrack. Both the song and the video are purposely ambiguous for the sake of letting people find their own meanings. I don't really like to speak too much on the details, but I'll say that when I was making the video, I wanted it to be a showcase as well as a challenge of the perceptions of black identity and black masculinity that seem to be heavily safeguarded by stereotypes and tokenism.

Your Cardrive EP is heavily jazz-influenced (I hear undertones of Robert Glasper), a rarity on the hip-hop scene in Australia, much less Canberra. How have both the audience and the Australian hip hop establishment received this off-centre addition?

The establishment has been pretty supportive of me and my work so far. I think the fact that my work stems from a range of different styles of music makes it more palatable for organisations such as Triple J, and in turn they (as well as a number of blogs) have been showing a lot of love, which I appreciate a lot. I think there are a lot of audiences that are still kind of challenged by some of my music, whether it's due to the lyrics or the often off kilter sound. Most people don't like change, but I'm not trying to give people what they already like, I'm trying to shift sounds and get them to like what I give. All in due time.

Image courtesy of the artist.

What's your thoughts on Australian hip-hop culture and what does Genesis Owusu add to the scene?

Australian hip-hop is going through a renaissance right now, which isn't being recognised by a lot of people yet. People of all creeds, colours and genders are coming together right now and they're building a very noteworthy establishment. The diversity of people is bringing a new diversity of sound, and a lot of people aren't really playing anymore—they're here to make themselves known. Genesis Owusu adds Genesis Owusu. The music will speak for itself.

What's in store for 2018 and beyond?

World domination.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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