I don’t tend to do any blog posts about the interviews I do for my fieldwork but last night I had the fabulous chance to break it down with someone who welcomed the opportunity to be on this site. He even brought some pics for me to upload.
I’d like to introduce to you the great ”Unqle Kaya” of Freek Productions. He played a major role in shaping hip hop on the island. My dear friend Akiko (Awich) introduced us to each other and to the lovely cafe. He produced her music, along with several other Okinawa rappers back in the day. He was on this panel Akiko and I organized together in May but I didn’t have a chance to talk with him much at that time.
We met at a hip bar/cafe in Naha called Owl Cafe 385 (the owners are from Miyako, hence the 3(MI) 8 (YA) 5(G/KO). The abstract artwork on the wall is done by Okinawan artist Eiten Oshiro. Talking to Kaya and Akiko in that space was like listening to a mixed tape of Pharoah Sanders, Manu Chao, Mos Def, and Kina Shokichi in one sitting–abstract, politically astute, smooth flows, playful yet soulful.
I won’t transcribe the entire yuntaku-kai here (chatting session–Okinawa City hosts a weekly group by this name and I love it) but I’ll just say that he gave me a really good sense for how hip hop, blackness, and global circulation of dislocated “call and response” forms can be transformative to one’s sense of “the local.”
Getting into “Black”
Kaya started feeling a strong affinity towards “black music” at an early age. While playing on the floor at his parents clothing boutique in Shikoku in the 70′s, he could discern what was black disco from what he said sounded like white disco as it pumped through the speakers. He loved the black disco sound and always felt it somehow spoke to something deep inside. It moved him. Literally–he began traveling around to the world’s great clubs to hear black music transformed, he started to make interesting connections about how hip hop crosses borders and how it becomes adopted into certain places (and to a certain extent, why the representations attached that adoption become whitewashed and/or commercialized.
He saw how the rap music that was emerging from the underground scenes in many US urban areas were being picked up by London DJ’s like Giles Peterson who were a bit like music archaeologists–interested in uncovering the sedimented sounds of black music (digging out the dusty blues in Texas roots music, the funk in the New Orleans sounds, and layering them onto more contemporary grooves) — and moving those sounds out of the US, where it became popularized and well respected, especially in Tokyo which he says was still focused on emulating the London club scene. I found it really interesting when he said that folks in Tokyo couldn’t go straight to the source of black music–that they needed an intermediary (London) to appreciate it at that time.
As a salaryman in Tokyo during the crazy economic bubble, he was using nearly half his income each month to buy vinyls and began to build a ridiculously massive collection of club music from around the world. He was deep in the scene. When he came to Okinawa, he brought with him this fabulous collection of music and made it a mission to share his finds with folks here, wanting to see what kinds of collaborations of sounds — Ryukyuan and black urban hip hop forms could be pulled together.
Kaya says that in the 90′s the “black” soundscape in Japan was transforming. Acid jazz was on the rise and groups like Gang Starr, the Roots, Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premium, etc were being imported back to the US after already being recognized and loved here in Japan and Europe. He said Japanese were deep into hip hop and rap, funk, and soul and this new circulating black hip hop sound that was traveling worldwide. They got it. They didn’t need a third party any longer. They were micro-brewing it at home now.
Africa Bambaataa for example, was hot diggety here in Japan. He said they were even surprised by how well known they were here. Check Kaya out in these pics from back in the day.
Back in the US, he says West coast rap and Miami booty music (ie. Two Live Crew) was on the up and up. Guess the two places in Japan where folks were really paying attention to that style: Yokohama and Okinawa. Could there be a correlation to the high concentration of military? Absolutely he says. Besides that connection however, he also believes that the climate in Okinawa has a lot to do with the kind of shared music affinities people have in other warm climates–like Miami and Jamaica (hence the abundant love of reggae here). I differ on this view but who knows, he could be totally on point.
Okinawa Hip Hop Scene and Young Black Military Folk in Okinawa
When he started rapping and recording music in Okinawa, he inevitably started working with rappers who happened to be in the military. They were doing club gigs together, promoting events together, recruiting the same audiences. Many of these guys would come by his record store frequently, buying up the vinyl. They shared his love and excitement for hip hop and rap. They tended to like their own local music while he (being a more global connoisseur of black music) was also attracted to a black London sound or African mixed dub, house, or acid jazz sounds. Some of the guys from the military were really young and had not been exposed to all of these other sounds outside what they were hearing at home. And he’s not judgemental of that–acknowledging that that’s what makes good music strong–the local, the groundedness of a sound but it’s when that local sound gets hijacked by greed when it becomes uninteresting. And some of these guys were listening to that monotonous stuff that had already become too mainstream. He’s not just one of those guys who likes “exotic” sounds or is a record store diving hipster looking for “the authentic.” He really appreciates the traffic of sounds through history and understands their complexities and the representations in flux with their time traveling.
As I was listening to this, I was thinking about an interview I had done with a former black Marine who talked about how he would bring his own vinyls to the Japanese clubs asking them to play rap and hip hop and how difficult that was. Local clubs were just starting to get into the R&B scene. He said that his music was his outlet-away from the country, rock-n-roll dominant Marine base club scene at that time–away from the restrictive base that he felt was harsh towards black Americans at that time. For him, going off-base was liberating. He felt he could be black again. It was in the club scene where he felt his blackness and individuality could flourish.
It was during this period of intense contact when Kaya observed some very interesting dynamics and made some terrific observations and revelations–about where people came from, what expectations they had of each other, what he thought about different militarized spaces/branches. He had hilarious stories about the tensions in the room when the very intense east coast/west coast battling would start (Remember those days? Eyes rolling…) in these clubs and the fights that ensued when he got the mic and busted a rhyme in Japanese. (“So man, are you east coast or west coast? Say what? I’m Japanese?”) Can’t do all those details here, just getting your taste buds ready. I gotta leave something fresh for my dissertation right? Wait for it, wait for it.
By the mid-90′s he laments that hip hop in the clubs, like vinyl, started to die a slow death. Not that they are still not his favorite things in the world, it’s just that it was too costly to continue with vinyl in a digital world and because hip hop had become so overly commercialized. The DJ’s were no longer creative artists in the clubs that they had become after they had been liberated from the stiffly hierarchical organized disco era club scene. Now he said they were reverting back to just taking request after request and had little liberty to create their own unique sound, to really mix and merge. It was disconcerting. He was still in the scene though–producing, DJing, rapping, hustling but the scene had shifted, as do all music scenes he said and it’s not to make a judgement on weather that’s good or bad, it was just different now.
We chatted about some of the various groups that made it big here, especially those black Americans who came over and made a small mark on the scene but took off or whose groups fractured or fizzled away (like Okizoo, Infinity Pomotion, etc). There are others who are trying to make a more lasting presence here. See around2:45 in this interview Akiko did with Syndicate Family.
Hip hop in Okinawa is like that to some extent. It’s transitory. Some folks PCS (military talk for moving to a new base), or they became expats and decided to go home, or their groups just get stale. It’s got an interesting sound b/c of the large number of black people here with the military and to some extent, the club sound is affected by their dominant tastes that some of these folks are bringing with them. With it comes an imagined lifestyle too. A group of South Asian vendors and Okinawans have built up businesses selling baseball caps, low hanging pants, even grillz to promote a singular type of hip hop style to not just Americans but Okinawans living here. Just walk down Gate 2 street or around Chatan and you will know what I’m talking about.
For example, around the late 90′s and early 2000′s, Southern bouncy drawly rap began drawing more airtime and breaking through the East Coast/West Coast dominant scene in the US. (I know this personally because my lil’ brother was part of this scene back home in TX. He and his group would go around touring the Houston/Dallas/Atlanta club circuit and spent lots of money in the studio with their southern style sending my mother into fits of nonstop screaming in Uchinaguchi at him and his boyz if they dared call the house.) Anyway, because there are so many southerners in the Marines in Okinawa, their musical taste came over to the island with this movement of people.
In a separate discussion I had with another rapper I spoke with a few months ago, I was told that the hip hop/rap in places like Gate 2 Street in Koza (Okinawa City), was so stale and uniform that it was really difficult to break into “the scene” anymore with a non-commercialized sound. This person said that a certain type of sound, a certain expectation of ‘blackness’ was being required for performance/to be performed.
Hip Hop and basking in the Black Glow?
It was so interesting to have this talk because my friend’s dance crew just won the World Hip Hop Dance Competition in Las Vegas. They recently came back to Okinawa overjoyed with this enormous title of best varsity hip hop dance crew “in the world.” They are a dedicated group of students and my friend R is a dedicated instructor and leader (as well as owner of the dance studio with his own brilliant story of coming from an Okinawan blended family). There is no denying, his students LOVE hip hop, the feel of it, the blackness of it so I cannot say that its commercialization is fully lamentable. Do his students know what all the lyrics mean? Probably not. Does every kid in Atlanta really think about them either these days? Pssh, not even. But has it allowed for some ways for black folks in places like Japan to be seen differently, less sambo-like, possibly less militarized, than they had been before? Yes and no. In Okinawa, being black and being military is so closely linked it’s hard to break from that categorization whereas in places like Tokyo or Osaka, black and military are not so immediately connected. It takes a different kind of navigating away to distance oneself from that immediate linkage to the bases. In some cases here, it may have given some black folks in Okinawa a way to be visible in a less institutionalized way. This is one thing we’ll be discussing at my next focus group I’m conducting and I’ll try to come back and report on this here later.
I asked Akiko (Awich) why she wrote the lyrics to her music the way she did (in English, with a tough spitting style) and she said her idea was not simply to copy a hard rap style back in the US, but to raise an emotional connection across the Pacific. She was drawn to the ways in which urban rappers in the US could create these intense stories about the world around them. She was attracted to how their music allowed them to express details about their surroundings to a greater audience and that their difficult situations were what partially shaped them and what gives them a hard sound. She liked that they were demanding visibility. She wanted that for Okinawa. To pay homage to where rap came from, she rapped in English but connected her words and ideas to Okinawa. She said she ultimately wanted to create a sound and accompanying story that would tell the world about how hard it was to be in Okinawa too and that the situation here is difficult, that Okinawans are circumscribed in a geopolitical windstorm that keeps folks pissed off by the more of the same attitude. Kaya must have seen this fire in her when he produced her and she took off. She’s onto some really amazing projects and I encourage you to visit her site. We’re collaborating on another big project and I’ll post more info on that here later.
These talks with Akiko and the latest with Kaya make me realize that hip hop in Okinawa was not necessarily about a direct dialogue with the originating caller (of the call and response) form as Paul Gilroy has already written so beautifully. Shoot, that’s long been dislocated. It’s about how one responds with all the interruptions and haziness of the routes on which it travels. There’s some really good rap and hip hop that is still coming out of Okinawa today. The imported form and how it is received here was our main topic of discussion.
Perhaps another post another time on the other forms in development on the island? Check out Kaya’s blog. He now does a lot of storytelling and has written a book on ghost tales in Okinawa and a history of hip hop production and clubs in Okinawa. He recently appeared on an Okinawan comedy show that I like.
In the meantime, I leave you with this video of Sol-T Shine of Okinawa’s Ti-da dance studio doing their thang in Las Vegas: