OPINION

What makes Canberran Genesis Owusu's ARIA award-winning debut album Smiling With No Teeth so special

Canberra's Genesis Owusu made history by becoming the first hip hop artist to take out Album of the Year at the ARIA Awards. Picture: Supplied
Canberra's Genesis Owusu made history by becoming the first hip hop artist to take out Album of the Year at the ARIA Awards. Picture: Supplied

Canberra's Genesis Owusu made history on Wednesday night, becoming the first hip hop artist to take out Album of the Year at the 2021 ARIA Awards.

And if that wasn't enough, the Canberra artist - real name, Kofi Owusu-Ansah - also walked away with Best Cover Art, Best Independent Release and Best Hip Hop Release for his debut full-length album Smiling With No Teeth. The album also saw him nominated for Best Artist (which went to fellow hip-hop artist The Kid Laroi,for his song Stay, featuring Justin Bieber), and Best Australian Live Act (which went to Lime Cordiale).

It's a feat that is impressive for any Australian musician, let alone a 23-year-old who has effectively broken the glass ceiling when it comes to hip hop's representation in the country's most notable musical accolade. And it's something that wasn't lost on Owusu when he accepted his Album of the Year award.

For him the award was not just a personal win, but one for everyone who has ever felt like they had to change in order to fit in.

"I used to get side-eyed a lot for the way I dressed and the things I did, but all the people I loved and respected always stood firm, unmoveable and unshakeable 'cause we knew the power in who we were and what we created. This just means so much to me," he 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."

Genesis Owusu won four ARIAs from six nominations at the 2021 music awards. Picture: Supplied

Genesis Owusu won four ARIAs from six nominations at the 2021 music awards. Picture: Supplied

Smiling With No Teeth feels very of the moment, dealing with themes such as racism and mental health that - as he says - have been "lathered in honey" to make it a little bit sweeter to listen to.

At the time of its release, in March this year, the world was discussing Prince Harry and Meghan's Oprah interview that brought up the Royal Family's attitude towards race and their son Archie. There were protests in the United States over Breonna Taylor's death - the 19-year-old medical worker who was shot and killed by police in early 2020. And the Black Lives Matter movement was still going strong.

So, yes, the album did feel very of the moment. And it still does.

But that's not because it is an album inspired by those events, or even the countless other events in the 12 months before its release. In fact, this album had been put on hold due to the pandemic and was all but finalised before these events even happened.

Smiling With No Teeth is not a product of the time it is released, but rather the 23-year-old's lived experience, growing up in Canberra.

Owusu was born in Ghana and moved to Canberra with his family - including his brother and fellow rapper Citizen Kay - in 2000.

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"It's obviously a very white place, so I was immediately placed into the role of the outcast," Owusu said at the time of the album's release.

"I don't think Canberra is necessarily less progressive than other parts of Australia, especially now. I think Canberra is generally very accepting of a lot of people - right now anyway. It definitely didn't feel like that growing up.

"But racism comes in so many forms. And ... one of the forms is very covert and subtle, to the point where it's not people calling you the N-word and being overtly racist.

"It's people just not understanding how to interact with you as a black person. It's things that are so deeply ingrained in society that they're normalised to the point where people don't understand their actions. That's how it is mostly in Canberra."

It's something that Owusu has had to learn how to navigate over the years and in many ways, Smiling With No Teeth is not only part of the journey but a way of him processing everything that has happened.

Genesis Owusu's Smiling With No Teeth was released earlier this year. Picture: Supplied

Genesis Owusu's Smiling With No Teeth was released earlier this year. Picture: Supplied

Even the album's title, Smiling With No Teeth, refers to pretending things are OK when they're not. When you perform what the world wants to see, even if you're not able to do so honestly.

And this is not to take away from how good the album is sonically. The award wasn't given solely based on its themes.

Owusu went into this album intending to make it sound hot, sexy, upbeat and funky and he succeeded at that. The album is a beautiful chaos of sound, moving through genres including punk, industrial and folk. These genres shouldn't work together, and yet they do.

It's this brilliant partnership between in-depth themes - that have purpose - and sonically good songs, that make this an award-winning album.

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This story How Genesis Owusu made history at the ARIAs first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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