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This video by Kanye West is for Stronger, a song which charted at #1 in the US (among other countries) in 2007. Over the course of my project, I have looked at the various ways that Japanese hip hop has borrowed from American and American hip hop culture, but here is a very prominent example of an American artist borrowing imagery and tropes from Japan and Japanese artists.
One way to look at this phenomena is that it is cultural appropriation. Many of the katakana West uses in the video are nonsensical, and the dress of the sexy dancer is uncomfortably ‘schoolgirl’-ish (a facet of Japanese pop culture that has nothing to do with “Akira,” the film that this video bases itself off of). Indeed, West’s video, at times, comes off as an amalgam of cultural references to Japan that aren’t thoroughly researched.
That being said, I also thought the video’s imagery was very persuasive. Its recreations of the Akira scenes as well as the protest scenes carried an immediacy that an inept caricature of Japanese culture would not have. West utilizes these images to suggest his struggle with social constructs like the press as a black artist, Although not always fully sensible with his use of Japanese imagery, I still felt that the power of it validated that imagery rather than disrespected it.
This article brings up a very interesting aspect of the Japanese hip-hop construct that weighs particular importance in light of recent race-relations tensions: is Japanese hip-hop a cultural appropriation or misappropriation. The argument that the writer puts forth in the article is that many Japanese people treat hip hop culture as a “look,” and try to emulate the “look” of hip hop by dressing up in ways that, inevitably, are versions of blackness. Dressing up as black is particularly problematic in the United States with its history of Blackface and Minstrel shows — and so I can understand why the writer is wary of any type of black or African-American ‘dress up.’
That being said, Japanese hip hop has expanded to be so much greater than a racially insensitive fashion trend. Japanese rappers, b-boys and graffiti artists have taken the form and evolved it into their own style. I think that while there are racial histories that any fan of hip-hop must understand, the form is too powerful and too dynamic to be held to one country or culture.
This Vice documentary really opened my eyes to the types of hip hop movements going on Japan outside of Tokyo. What struck me was how the Bad Hop gang used hip hop and hip hop culture, two non-Japanese constructs, to come to terms with being marginalized in Japanese society. We see the social stratifications in the industrial town of Kawasaki not only along class lines, but also along racial lines, as the Korean area of the town appears isolated. I love how these young artists were able to come together and create really quality rap material, despite the precedent for hip hop being so young in Japan. It revealed to me hip hop’s power to provide confidence and artistic outlet to marginalized youths, even ones outside of the United States.
In the above blog post, one can see a brief sketch of the history of Japanese poetry. The main classic forms such as Haiku and Tanka struck me as interesting because they have a strong emphasis on syllabic form. Although quite distantly related, it brought to mind for me artists like Kohh and Shing02, both of whose strong points include mastery of syllabic control.
Shinkokinshū, IV: 361 by Jakuren (d. 1202), from Japanese Court Poetry
Sono iro to shi mo
The essential color of a beauty
Not to be defined:
Maki tatsu yama no
Over the dark evergreens, the dusk
Aki no yūgure.
That gathers on far autumn hills.
Others, such as the above, demonstrate the ‘pastorality’ so to speak of the Japanese poetry of the time. Nature, the landscape and the calm beauty of colors and seasons purveys classical Japanese poetry so much as to even be considered necessary staples of any Haiku (classically, at least). One can see this sort of gracefulness and natural-tonality in the beats of Nujabes, for example.
Seba Jun, aka Nujabes, died February 26, 2010, but his work remains powerful to new and familiar listeners. Below, Aruarian Dance, incorporates hip-hop drums, but through use of other instruments, some orchestral and others computerized, establishes a new genre of its own. I like to call it ethereal hip hop — the style utilizes melodies and hypnotic drum beats. Abovehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYRDgd3Tb44 is an example.
The next song, Luv Sic pt 2, features a Japanese-American rapping in English, but again Nujabes creates a background beat that is distinctly Japanese. While American artists also utilize melodies, very rarely do they use them to the lush, peaceful ends that Nujabes does.
Samurai Champloo is quite simply one of my favorite works of fiction. Moreover, its impact on connecting hip hop, J-Hip Hop and anime cultures cannot be understated. As evidenced in the above intro song, the show incorporates elements of breakdance and hip-hop music, resulting in thrilling animated sequences of fighters doing table-top spins and flips. The background, with rapper Shing02 and Force of Nature utilizes English rapping and the ethereal style of beatmaking made famous by J-Hip Hop legend Nujabes (Seba Jun)
In this scene, we not only hear the virtuoso rapping of Force of Nature, but we see graffiti and traditional, Edo-period Japanese culture as well. What is striking about this scene is the mix of cultures, and how the director incorporates both
Included in the blog above is a very detailed and fascinating timeline of the history of hip hop in Japan. What struck me was the prominence and centrality of breaking culture to Japanese Hip Hop. As the writer points out, the seminal US Hip Hop film Wildstyle contributed greatly, and even acted as a ‘patient zero’ for the strains of hip hop that entered Japan.
Above is a clip from the Rock Steady Crew’s tour in Japan. What’s interesting to me when considering the clip is that Japan has a very specific style of breakdance, one that incorporates classic 80’s B-Boy moves. Even to this day, one can see the makings of this style in clips like this, wherein posing between break-beats establishes the various characters in the crew.
Kohh is one of the most important rappers on the scene currently in Japan. His work has a fast-paced delivery and demonstrates a clear voice. I find it particularly impressive that he raps so fast, and yet I can understand him pretty clearly, even in Japanese.