A red rose and a black flak jacket. A symbol of devotion that can make you bleed, and the uniform of the aggressor that doubles as a shield. These were the two divergent visual motifs brandished by Canberra rapper Genesis Owusu (born Kofi Owusu-Ansah) during a subversive set at Victoria’s Meredith Music Festival last year.
The 30-minute performance veered wildly from jazz-inflected neo soul to distorted live drum dirges – sometimes on the same track. On set opener Goondocks / Cbr Zoo (Sabertooth) his crew exploded upwards in gravity-defying leaps. But later that confrontational energy was tempered by a wistful game of “love me, love me not” with the aforementioned rose. “I’ve always thought roses were a really good symbol for life, prettiness and the perfect way to show duality,” Owusu-Ansah says. “Especially when you’re running around in balaclavas and military vests and shit.”
Dressed head to toe in black – flak jackets, heads shrouded by balaclavas – Owusu-Ansah’s crew purposely made themselves anonymous, androgynous and ageless. “[The outfits go] back into people’s preconceived notions. How they see a bunch of rappers and they see a bunch of black kids, or they see a bunch of teenagers. No matter what you do or say, they already have these notions so you may as well just be no one,” he says.
Flak jackets help soldiers carry extra ammo, but also make their wearers bulletproof. As a 20-year-old black man growing up in Australia Owusu-Ansah regularly dodges symbolic projectiles. His stage name reclaims Owusu – which he dropped after becoming tired of teachers getting it wrong – and “Genesis”, a name given to him by his brother when a white friend refused to accept anyone could be named “Coffee”, a misconstruction of Kofi.
“Canberra is like, a very white place. Very white. So we were immediately in the position of the outcast,” says Owusu-Ansah, whose parents emigrated from Ghana when he was two. “I love it in Australia but there won’t be a week or maybe two weeks where I’m not met with some sort of antagonism. It’s not [always] directly [but] I’ll see it or I’ll hear it, [happen to] someone that looks like me.”
When we speak, Owusu-Ansah has been searching online for Ghanaian recipes. He’s proud of that heritage – his song Sideways includes lyrics in Twi, a language spoken in southern and central Ghana – but nonetheless felt pressure to soften his message for a predominantly white-Australian audience on recent single Wit’ da Team. Not that you’d know that from the lyrics. Beat ‘em down and discredit the culture as “that black shit”/ Pick it back up for yourself, see credits and detach it / Now you so intrigued and you wear it as the fashion, oh my God! he raps, lambasting the one-way transaction, pick-and-choose nature of cultural appropriation.
“I had to soak it in honey, you know? Otherwise no one’s going to buy the music,” he says. “No one’s going to want to listen to someone accuse them of shit … you’ve got to find a way to make it therapeutic for you and really say what you want to say, but make it palatable.”
And in Awomen, Amen, Owusu-Ansah turns away from stereotypically misogynistic raps and instead pays tribute to the women who have taught, nurtured and given him strength. If you want a doctorate then get to it / If you wanna shake ya ass then you do it / ’Cause a booty and weave and a uni degree / They do not have to be mutually exclusive goes one passage, encouraging women to live their lives as they see fit.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to show people that I might not be who they think I am … I’ve realised that a lot of the time, they don’t care. If you want me to be this, then sure, I’ll scare you so you can get the fuck away from me. Or you can listen to the rest of the set, see these other sides and these other angles of who I am, and possibly learn something.”
Thursday March 7 – Brunswick Mechanics' Institute, Brunswick Music Festival
Friday April 12 – Northcote Social Club
Friday March 22 – University of Wollongong UniBar