Arias 2021: Genesis Owusu, the Kid Laroi and Budjerah dominate Australia’s biggest music awards

<span>Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Australia’s most popular music awards night was a celebration of diverse artists – but relegated to a mostly pre-recorded stream for the second year in a row

After just four years on the Australian music scene, 23-year-old independent artist Genesis Owusu has dominated the country’s top music awards, collecting four Arias on Wednesday night.

The Ghanian-Australian (real name Kofi Owusu-Ansah), who also performed a medley of his hip-hop/funk hits, collected album of the year, best hip-hop release and best independent release for Smiling With No Teeth – which was also the recipient of ABC’s J award last week. The album also won the Aria award for best cover art, co-designed by the performer and Bailey Howard.

“This is insane,” Owusu-Ansah said, accepting album of the year. “I used to get side-eyed a lot when I was younger for the way I dressed and the things I did … But all the people I loved and respected always stood firm, immovable, unshakeable because we knew the power in who we were and what we created. I’m lost for words honestly. this means so much for me ... It’s not for us to change for people; it’s up to them to catch up, and see what they’ve been missing out on.”

For the second year in a row, most speeches and performances were pre-recorded due to Covid-19 restrictions. The rest of the event was hosted and broadcast live on YouTube from Taronga Zoo in Sydney, in one of the most low-key ceremonies of the Aria’s 34-year history.

Song of the year went to indie rock band Spacey Jane, for the single Booster Seat, which was voted number 2 on the Triple J Hottest 100 countdown last year.

The Kid Laroi – real name Charlton Howard – also continued his extraordinary career trajectory on Wednesday night, taking out the Arias’ best artist and best pop release categories. “Wow I guess this is a great start to the night,” he said, winning best pop release, which was presented by Charlie XCX via video link. “A big shout out to my brother Justin Bieber for being a part of this record and helping make it so special.”

In his second speech, accepting best artist, Howard said it had been an “incredible night”: “I feel so blessed and overwhelmed ... It’s incredible I’m getting so much love, especially from home, that means the world to me.”

The Sydney-born Kamilaroi performer – described by Billboard as music’s next global superstar – also sent in a pre-recorded performance of his Bieber-featuring hit Stay (sans Bieber): the last performance his fans will see in a while. Last week, the 18-year-old announced he was stepping out of the spotlight for an unspecified period to work on his first album. “I’ll be back next year,” he said at the Arias.

Earlier this month the Kid Laroi was named artist of the year at the 2021 National Indigenous Music Awards.

Another First Nations artist, Bundjalung rapper Budjerah, won his first Aria on Wednesday, awarded the Michael Gudinski breakthrough artist gong for his self-titled debut EP, named for the music promoter who died in March this year.

The award was presented via video link by Ed Sheeran, who paid tribute to the promoter: “Every time I would see him he’d have a new a band or artist that he would play for me,” Sheeran said. “In ten, 20 years when new artists are still coming through, his name is still going to be part of what he loved.”

Budjerah accepted the awards through tears. “I only spoke to him twice, but he opened a lot of doors for me. I still can’t believe it, this is insane.”

Budjerah was one of the few artists to make it to the 2021 Aria awards at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Favourite Kiwi-bred band Crowded House, now 36 years old, won best adult contemporary album for Dreamers Are Waiting.

And more than a quarter of a century after winning the Aria for best country album with Beyond the Dancing, Troy Cassar-Daley won the category once more for The World Today.

Archie Roach won for blues and roots.

Rüfüs Du Sol was named best group, and performed their single Alive, which also won best dance release, via video from Los Angeles. Sydney trio Middle Kids won best rock album for Today We Are the Greatest, and Zimbabwe-born artist Tkay Maidza won best soul/R&B release for her single Last Year Was Weird, Vol 3.

Related: Tkay Maidza: Last Year Was Weird Vol 2 review – fresh as a poolside mojito

Best live act went to Sydney sibling duo Lime Cordiale, who won best breakthrough artist at last year’s Aria awards.

By public vote, Taylor Swift was named most popular international artist for the second time. She accepted via a video message, thanking her fans: “I can’t wait until I can come back and see you”.

Despite being nominated across six categories, multi-Aria award winner of previous years, Amy Shark, walked away empty handed. The singer-songwriter performed Love Songs Ain’t For Us at Wednesday night’s ceremony.

One notable absence

This year’s awards had one notable absence: former Sony Music Australia boss Denis Handlin, who was also chairman of the Arias until his removal from Sony in June.

Since the music awards’ inception in 1987, almost all Sony artists have paid special tribute to Sony’s longstanding chief executive, crediting Handlin in all their acceptance speeches.

“Denis insisted marketing and promotions people instruct artists to thank him in speeches at special events, award presentations … especially the Aria awards,” a former senior Sony executive told the Guardian, during its investigation into allegations by former Sony employees of a toxic workplace culture at Sony Australia, published in June.

“Charity, staff and artist awards were an opportunity to focus the spotlight on himself and there was rigour around the proceedings and wording.”

Acceptance speeches by artists were vetted by Handlin or senior staff, and often the words “family man” were inserted to describe him, another former senior staffer told the Guardian.

“At company events staff were told to clap and cheer loudly for his speeches and presentations, especially in front of visiting overseas Sony executives and staff. There were consequences if the room was, in his view, ‘flat’.”

The consequences of Shark forgetting to thank Handlin for one Aria award in 2018 are well-known in the industry (she was summoned to Sony’s offices the next day to publicly apologise).

“This was not an isolated incident, it was mandatory for decades,” the former executive said.

The Guardian sought comment from Handlin for this story.

On 15 October, Handlin was stripped of his 2014 Aria icon award– an award he actively lobbied to create a year earlier, with the inaugural gong going to Michael Gudinski.

No icon award was allocated on Wednesday night.