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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rapper's album tells Japan-New York story

Kojoe brings new narrative to Japanese hip-hop

Special to The Japan Times

Last month a crowd of hip-hop fans gathered at swanky Tokyo club Le Baron de Paris to catch a preview of Niigata-born rapper Kojoe's new album, "Mixed Identities 2.0."

News photo
News photo
Voice of the streets: Niigata-born rapper Kojoe spent 10 years living in New York and his experience of living there is captured on new album, "Mixed Identities 2.0."

Dressed in baggy jeans, bomber jacket and with a carefully positioned baseball cap on his head, Kojoe explained each track's back story to the crowd in both English and Japanese. It was the bilingualism that really made an impression. Kojoe, 31, spoke the kind of English you might hear in a boardroom rather than in a schoolroom, tinged with a New York accent. He then effortlessly slips over to a similarly polite Japanese — and even took a break to serenade his mother and sister, who were there celebrating their birthdays, complete with cake.

Don't confuse Kojoe's lack of rap-star bravado with a lack of confidence, though. He's brimming with it and doesn't mince words in either language.

"Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki had a big impact on Major League Baseball and now a lot of Japanese players are able to get over to the U.S.," he tells The Japan Times at a cafe in Shibuya. "I'm convinced we can do the same with hip-hop. My goal is to connect the Japanese scene to the United States, since I'm already a part of the community in New York."

Acceptance among the American hip-hop community is a Holy Grail of sorts for Japanese rappers, who don't lack for passion about their art. However, the scene here has yet to make any real inroads abroad. Bilingual rapper Verbal and his group Teriyaki Boyz got some support from hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams, but they've mostly just appealed to fashionistas due to group member Nigo's A Bathing Ape clothing line. Shing02 has captured some of the underground market with his political messages, but hasn't managed to break through to a wider audience. So how can Kojoe fare better? For one thing, he's done his time overseas, living in New York for 10 years.

Born Koichiro Sakata in the snowy town of Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture, Kojoe says he was introduced to hip-hop at 10 years old. He later dropped out of a Japanese high school and moved to Vermont at 17, where he finished up his education and later joined his sister in New York. It was there that he built up his connections to the hip-hop community (living in the Bronx and Queens) and his experience as a freestyler.

"I started doing small shows at clubs and just spittin' in the circle in the hood," he says. "Of course, I was the only Japanese rapping around my way, but I didn't want to be underestimated. I always tried to compete with the locals even if it was in Japanese at first."

His experiences from living in New York are all over "Mixed Identities 2.0." The first single from the album, "Get Famous," is a rags-to-riches anthem brimming with positivity via horn blasts and a chorus of background cheers. "T.G.I.F" goes a similar route musically with the subject matter focusing squarely on partying. Elsewhere the album jumps around from modern electro sounds on "Futurra" and "Samurai Yaro," to slow ballads "Get Involved" and "Life."

The album isn't just Kojoe's first official full-length physical release, it marks the first time he has tried singing, too. His vocal skills especially stand out on "Life," which ends up sounding like a chilled-out 1990s slow jam.

"There are many skillful singers in Japan such as Misia, Crystal Kay and Shota Shimizu, but I don't feel any soul from them," he says. "I don't feel like they should use the word 'soulful' to describe their songs. I think the songs of (folk rocker) Tsuyoshi Nagabushi have more soul. And of course, I am confident that my songs are more soulful than those of these other singers."

The variety in music makes it hard to tell where Kojoe's style is now, but that could be explained by the fact that he wrote some of the songs while in New York and a few of them over the past two years. One thing that's certain is that Kojoe has consistently paid attention to the American hip-hop scene even after returning to Japan in 2009.

"Basically, they're just me," he says of the tracks on the album. "It's me now, it's me in the countryside of Japan, it's me living in New York."

While the songs flip between partying, politics and romance, the acted interludes on "Mixed Identities 2.0" are singularly focused. They revolve around the hardships of everyday life on the streets and are all in English — though the conversations could be taking place in either New York or Tokyo. Kojoe's voice is emphatically blue-collar.

"I get upset by some rappers who try to claim 'ghetto credentials' after they live in New York or Los Angeles and come back to Japan and rap about the ghetto like it's a brand. I think hip-hop is seen as a fashion choice here," he says. "In the U.S., the essence of hip-hop comes from blues, jazz and soul. It's like a kata (the basic movement in karate), it's something that's essential. I don't want to make hip-hop tracks that are 'good enough' for Japan, where people can say, 'Well it's Japanese hip-hop so it doesn't have to be soulful or dope.' I want to make songs that can appeal to an American audience. I want to be able to battle with American rappers on an equal playing field."

An interesting moment comes up on the album during a spoken exchange at the beginning of a track titled "My Naga." Kojoe runs into two black men, one of them his friend Saiku. He greets him with a friendly "What up my n-gga," and after he leaves Saiku and the man he's with get into a small argument as to whether or not it's acceptable for a Japanese (although the other man pegs Kojoe as Chinese) to use the greeting. Saiku then goes into a rap about the common history between Asians and Africans. The entire conversation is in English, suggesting Kojoe intends for it to resonate outside of Japan. He adds that the context in which he and Saiku use the greeting is a familial one, and that the bond of family is strong in the ghetto — it's a bond Kojoe feels is disappearing in Japan. He adds that he wouldn't say the word in front of a public audience, and that he knows there are many black people who do not agree with its casual usage, but in this case he's using it with someone he's so close to that they're like family.

Credibility is one of Kojoe's top priorities and he may have picked up his more philosophical ideas about hip-hop from the company he keeps. "Mixed Identities 2.0" features guest spots by major hip-hop artists such as Raekwon, Talib Kweli and Styles-P. Some of his ideas may have come from ex-wife Apani B, an American emcee who is also influential in Japan's underground scene. Kojoe appeared as a guest on her 2004 album "Story 2 Tell."

"I wasn't good at making rhymes in English before, but Apani was clever enough to help me realize that I can rap by just making my daily conversation into rhyme," he says.

Thanks to the skills he displayed in New York, Kojoe became the first Japanese rapper to sign to independent label Rawkus Records, which was pivotal in launching the careers of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Kojoe was named one of the Rawkus 50, a list of up-and-coming important artists, and released a digital album titled "Rawnin."

Kojoe and Apani B divorced in 2009 and he returned to Japan. However, he says he was armed with a wealth of knowledge about the culture of hip-hop and the music industry. In March 2011, he started an online project dubbed "Kojoe Tuesdays," in which the rapper released a new track online every Tuesday until July.

Kojoe still releases new tracks online, including remixes of U.S. hip-hop tunes. It's a strategy that's rare in Japan, where the music industry has often been reluctant to embrace the Web. But it could add to his "foreignness" as an artist in Japan, being refreshing instead of strange.

"I want Japanese listeners to get interested in English," he says. "I'd be glad if the younger generation gets that English is necessary to survive in a globalized world. You might think it's not cool to imitate U.S. culture, but this country is already immersed in English — many pop songs already have English in them.

"But I'm looking further. The Jamaican-English accent doesn't have negative connotations, (native speakers) think it's cool. I want the Japanese accent to sound cool someday. It'll take a while, but I want Japanese to be proud of themselves and I want to be the spark that makes it happen."

"Mixed Identities 2.0" is on sale now. Kojoe plays Goa in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, on April 21 (10 p.m.; ¥2,500 plus drink; [090] 1107-1092). For more information, visit www.iamkojoe.com.

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