After being almost entirely dismissed by mainstream media and record labels in Japan until the mid-nineties, the world of Japanese hip-hop emerged out of the underground clubs and gatherings at parks and train stations and has generationally evolved to be embedded in the cultural consciousness of every day Japanese people. Alongside of a positive shift toward true gender equality as well as a rising awareness and celebration of idiosyncratic hip-hop music, dance, fashion, and art, a new generation of avant-garde female rappers has emerged, who were not only inspired by strong American female hip-hop artists like MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill, but also by trailblazing Japanese hip-hop groups like Rhymestar and Nitro Microphone Underground, who learned the four elements of hip-hop from New York and adapted it to a Japanese palate.
Before female MCs began crafting their own raps in Japan, female R&B singers were instrumental in bringing hip-hop into the mainstream in Japan. The beginnings of commercial success for hip-hop artists started in the summer of 1995, when a group called East End teamed up with a former J-pop star named Yuri to put out a track called “Da.Yo.Ne.”. This song went on to sell millions of copies and started a long history of female J-pop and R&B artists, like Cibo Matto and Koda Kumi, to experiment with rapping as well as featuring (predominantly male) underground hip-hop artists in their songs. In his foundational book on the beginnings of how Japanese hip-hop came to be, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, MIT professor and Japanese scholar, Ian Condry, mentions that, in the late nineties, “a Japanese R&B boom led by women singers helped to bring (male) Japanese hip-hop into the mainstream consciousness.”
When hip-hop initially went mainstream in Japan, women were merely fans, but times have changed and now there is a multitude of new female MCs who are not only going beyond their rigid “Office Lady” gender expectations, but are experimenting into totally new realms of music and self-expression.
In particular, female MCs in Japan face lots of problems, not only with sexual harassment and dismissive record executives, but also with the Japanese language alone. In English, women and men use the same grammar and verb endings to express an idea, but in Japanese, women and men use different expressions. For example, women often refer to themselves as “atashi”, whereas men will use the word “ore”, so it creates a challenging dilemma for female MCs who want to sound strong but still maintain a feminine touch.
The 20 women that I have featured in this article are courageously shifting the paradigm of a male-dominated hip-hip world to a more balanced state and are brewing up fresh compositions drawing from elements of J-Pop, hip-hop, jazz, EDM, and traditional Japanese folk music. Using the spirit of hip-hop that celebrates individual pride and uniqueness, these women are boldly rejecting the image of passive Japanese women, fighting misogyny in their lyrics and performances, and are pushing the global world of hip-hop to new heights.
Click on the images of your favorite female Japanese MCs on the slider below to read more about them, see videos of their music, and hear interviews with several of them.
“The music can transmit the power of the word and dance can express the music that is invisible and, also, our emotions. For example, some people cannot hear, but we can show the music with dance. It’s a fusion of the good parts of the music and dance and I can express myself and my emotions.”
Misuzu Takashima is a different kind of MC, in that she doesn’t rap or write lyrics, but she is an event host and a pioneer in the Japanese B-girl scene, having paved the way for hundreds of female breakdancers all across Japan. Her title of MC still stands for Master of Ceremonies, but in Japanese, MC typically is a reference for event hosts and MC MSZ does this very thing for hip hop events all across Japan, mostly events that are centered on promoting hip-hop culture to the youth.
Originally from Kyoto, where she told me there are a lot of old-school hip-hop heads, MC MSZ is now based out of Tokyo. When we met in Shinjuku, she told me that, in Kyoto, she started dancing at 15 when there were a lot of hip-hop dancers practicing outside of the train stations. She learned about hip-hop through her mother, who would play the music at home, and became skilled at breakdancing by hanging out outside of Kyoto Station with friends. In 2006, MSZ and her crew won second place in the international Battle of the Year breakdancing competition.
She added that she is hopeful for the current teenage generation’s love of hip-hop and that the number of female breakdancers has been increasing since 2010. “I am from the third generation of breakdancing and, from there, the number has certainly increased. Also, there are people from the first and second generation, who are older than me, who are still active and still doing it.”
Even though she isn’t breaking anymore, MSZ, with the help of her apprentices, is still staying busy organizing annual events in Tokyo called “Girls Night”, to showcase female singers and artists. Their movement is growing more and more every time they do it and she said it is a different dynamic because it doesn’t feel like the artists are there because the music industry is trying to sell them, but they are there for the love of music.
MSZ also is the main MC for the first annual 2018 Youth Olympic Games, an international breakdancing competition that is designed to get youth interested in competition and to elevate their skills and their love of hip-hop culture.
Listen to my interview with MC MSZ here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.
MaryJane is a hip-hop duo from Tokyo consisting of two MCs, Luna and Tsugumi. Luna is 38 years-old and is from Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward and Tsugumi is 37 years-old and hails from Sapporo in Hokkaido. The crew met in the Tokyo hip-hop scene and their sounds are deep in the soulful 90’s style R&B vibes. The name MaryJane is, without a doubt, a reference to their love of weed and Dr. Dre-style California G-Funk hip-pop. MC Luna started out singing when she was young and appeared on the Showtime at the Apollo amateur night stage in New York. She started performing hip-hop around Tokyo in 2003 and performed many shows in clubs around Australia and abroad as well. She quickly gained the alias “Club Queen.”
In 2008, Luna started her own label called LILBOOTY RECORDINGS and in 2013, she teamed up with producer and rapper, Tsugumi, who had gained notoriety through a group that she is in with her sister called SOULHEAD. In 2014, after collaborating for years on production as solo artists, together as MaryJane, they put out their first album called “Street Names”. Since then, the two have enjoyed lots of success, released a handful of solo releases, and, in 2016, they released an EP called “Two”. LILBOOTY also produces other artist’s music, such as Aoyama Thelma and MINMI, and Luna is currently working with hip-hop dancer, NAZUKI, to promote her original hip-hop-inspired fashion brand, ViiDA.
You can find their music on their website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
Wednesday Campanella is a fresh, complex, and ever-changing project that combines a unique multi-genre blend of EDM, J-Pop, and hip-hop to make vibrant, catchy songs that have made a giant splash in Japan and abroad. Though they have shifted to the slower side of the spectrum these days, 26 year-old lead singer, KOM_I (pronounced Komu Ai), often raps on their tracks and producer Kenmochi Hidefumi’s music, especially on their earlier albums, has a strong hip-hop feel, which makes sense because he also made music under Nujabes’s Hydeout Productions.
The name of the group is a reference to the day of the week that they met for practice and the themes of their songs often discuss larger-than-life historical characters and concepts, for example, Napoleon, Aladdin, or The Wright Brothers. KOM_I performed lyrics are often kind of Dadaist, pun-heavy, and seemingly stream of consciousness observations about events or peoples and the group decided that, despite being a trio, that only KOM_I would perform and be present during live performances.
Wednesday Campanella began taking shape in 2011 when Dir.F, a label manager at Tsubasa Records, met Hidefumi at the yearly Design Festa Tokyo event and the two started working together. In 2012, at a house party, Dir.F met KOM_I, a native of Kanagawa Prefecture, and invited her to join the group, which she did, while still being a high school student. In 2012, the group sold their first demo CD at Design Festa Tokyo and, in May 2013, the group released their first mini-album, “Crawl To Sakaagari”. Later that year, in October, the group released their second mini-album, “Rashomon”, which was only sold at Tower Records in Tokyo.
Their third mini-album, “Cinema Jack”, came out in March 2014 and, eight months later, they released their fourth mini-album “Take Me To Onigashima Island”. Finally, in 2015, they released their first full-length album called “Zipangu” and gained the attention of Warner Brothers Records, who signed the group.
After playing their first American show at SXSW in 2016, Wednesday Campanella released their first mini-album, “UMA”, on Warner Brothers Records in June 2016 and then released their first major label full length, “SUPERMAN”, in 2017, which rapidly expanded their fan base in Japan and abroad.
In 2018, the group released the “Galapagos” EP and is heading off on a world tour to promote it, taking them to Hong Kong, France, Taiwan, and many other magical places. KOMI_I’s energetic, surreal, and powerful live performances are a sight to be seen, including her Wayne-Coyne-esque giant clear ball that she rolls around in, Lately, she has been modeling in Tokyo, appearing on Japanese television a lot, and is viewed as a fashion icon in Japan (and by GQ). You can get a taste of KOM_I’s erratic dance moves, funky vocals, and truly unique performances via their myriad vibrant and vivid music videos.
You can find their music at wed-camp.com and follow KOM_I on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Izumi Makura is a rapper from Fukuoka Prefecture and the concept around her music is about being a normal girl who raps, is slightly sexual, but mostly lonely with a propensity for gushing tears. Her flow isn’t strong or weak, but is slightly monotone and purposefully normal and basic. Her videos are typically illustrated by artist Tomoko Oshima and she hasn’t started appearing in person in her videos until recently.
Starting in 2011, Izumi Makura put a song on Subenoana’s SNEEEZE mixtape and, in November 2012, released her first album with Subenoana, called “Sotsugyou To, Soremade No Utoutou (Graduation and, Dozing Off Until Then)”. In 2013, she released “My Room, My Stage” and, in 2014, she collaborated on a track with Yoko Kanno for the TV anime, Space Dandy. Shortly after, she gained a lot of attention after releasing an official remix of Lorde’s hit, “Royals” via Universal Japan.
In April 2014, she released her third album, “Ai Nareba Shiteiru (If it is love, I will know)” and, in September 2016, she released her fourth album, “Identity”, with all tracks being produced by fellow Subenoana label-mate, Nagaco. 2017 was a busy year for Izumi Makura with the January release of her album “Yuki to Suna (Snow and Sand)” as well as the release of a cover album called “TOKYO GIRLS LIFE”, featuring covers of songs from Fishmans and MONGOL800. Later that year, Izumi Makura released “5 Years”, a double-disc best of compilation, including a few new tracks as well as songs that she did guest spots on.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding Hidekichi because not a lot of people know her true identity. She never shows her face and celebrates this by using the hashtag, “顔出しNG (It’s not good to show your face)”.
Even though her persona is a mystery, she is making quite an impact on the next generation of Japanese female MCs. Her lyrics often discuss pain and regret, but also the joys of being a woman, and her first album, “The Female Shou”, has been getting a lot of attention since it was released in July 2014 on the Village Again label. Since this album, she has done multiple features with other artists and put out a 4-track EP on Victor Entertainment in December 2017 called “Sugao”, which means “True Face”.
DAOKO is a 21 year-old rapper and singer from Tokyo, known for her proto-Shibuya-kei tones and ASMR-level whispery vocals that shift between singing and rapping. She got her start in 2011 when she gained fame for her cover songs that she would upload to the Japanese video sharing site, Niconico. She was inspired by the Japanese hip-hop group Nitro Microphone Underground to start writing raps. When she was only 15, these videos caught the attention of Japanese band Jinmenusagi, who helped get her signed to the label LOW HIGH WHO?.
In 2012, DAOKO released her first album, “Hypergirl”, and would go on to release two more full albums and a few EPs with LOW HIGH WHO? before getting signed to Japan’s fourth biggest record label, Toy’s Factory. Because she was so young, very little information was known publicly about her life or her real name and fans didn’t see the face behind the voice until after she graduated high school. Her face was first seen on the video for the song “ShibuyaK”.
Her first major debut album, “DAOKO”, dropped in March 2015, and she was nominated for the 2015 “Next Break Artist Award” at the MTV Video Music Awards Japan. In 2017, she released her second album on Toy’s Factory, “Thank You Blue”. DAOKO often collaborates with the members of M-Flo, Kenshi Yonezu, and TeddyLoid. She recently had her song “Owaranai Sekai de” chosen as the theme music for an upcoming Nintendo game called “Dragalia Lost” and often contributes music to multiple anime programs. She also hosts a radio show on J-Wave every Monday from 9PM to midnight called “Sonar Music”.
You can find her music on her website at Daoko.jp and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
In England, particularly in London, there is a large Japanese ex-pat community and out of that world emerged the bilingual J-Pop-meets-Chiptune crew of Kero Kero Bonito (KKB). It’s important to know that “Kero Kero” is the onomatopoeia for a frog’s call and “Bonito” is the name of the tuna used to make katsuobushi. The group consists of producers Gus Lobban, Jamie Bulled, as well as bilingual half-Japanese, half-British lead vocalist, Sarah Midori Perry, who grew up in Hokkaido and lived near Nagoya until she was 13.
KKB started out in 2013 by connecting through MixB, which is an online message board for Japanese ex-pats in London. After connecting and discussing their mutual love for J-pop, the trio released their debut mixtape on Double Denim, “Intro Bonito”, with a fun mix of fat synthesizers, funky dance beats, and Midori Perry’s clear-as-day Japanese and English lyrics mixed over the top of it all. With Japanese lyrics about everything from flamingos, to parties, to doing your homework, to the importance of taking a break, KKB have gained significant popularity in Japan, which is their second-biggest market.
In 2014, their song “Flamingo” appeared on producer Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs compilation and allowed them to gain a large fan base around the world before they released their debut album, “Bonito Generation”, in October 2016. In February 2018, they released the “TOTEP” EP and announced in May that they will have a new album called “Time n Place” coming out soon. KKB was strongly influenced by Plastics, Tokyo Jihen’s Sheena Ringo, and, most obviously, the J-pop group, Perfume; ultimately, those influences are why their music feels like if Cibo Matto got trapped inside of a Super Famicom at a dancehall battle.
You can find their music on kerokerobonito.com and you can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Way up north in Japan, holding down the Hokkaido hip-hop scene, is 072 (pronounced “Onatsu”). The 31 year-old MC was born in Asahikawa and raised in Obihiro, Hokkaido and, after watching the movie Sister Act 2 when she was 12, decided to start writing her own lyrics. In 2006, she moved to Sapporo and started to connect and build in the local hip hop scene. 072 has two solo albums under her belt already and collaborates with artists in Tokyo and way down south in Okinawa.
She pulls inspiration from Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and often pulls influence from artists outside of her hip-hop framework. She also has a very close relationship with Sapporo hip-hop legend, B.I.G. Joe, and, in 2012, he helped her put together her first album, “Inquisition”, on the Lo-Vibes label. In 2013, she went to Okinawa to finish up work on her second album, “Sol Terra Three”, and dropped the album later that year on B.I.G. Joe’s Triumph Records. For this album, she worked with Okinawa-based producer, LF Demo, who has been called the Japanese J-Dilla. This album is a unique blend of the far-reaching influence of hip-hop on the far northern and southern ends of Japan.
Currently, 072 is in a group called TANEMAKE with MC Kai and 1Loop on the beats.
Check out their video for “Taiyaki”:
You can find her music at Apple Store and you can keep up with her on Facebook
Teng Gang Starr is a trip. Deep in the fat bass and psychedelic trap department, the group consists of two rappers, Kamui and Minami Nakamura a.k.a. MINAMI. The group initially met while MINAMI was playing drums at Tsujidou Suwajinja Shinto Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture and shared a love for the NYC hip-hop group, Gang Starr, hence the name. The Teng part of their name comes from Tengu, which means “celestial dog” and is a Japanese folk trickster demon with an unusually long nose, who is connected to the Tsujido shrine.
Kamui and MINAMI were both solo artists and, when Kamui heard Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in a taxi, he decided that hip-hop was what he wanted to do. They started the group up in 2015, took a year off, and then in 2017 came back stronger with their track, “My Style”. The duo prides themselves on futuristic Akira-esque neo-Tokyo vibes and deep bass tones.
They haven’t released a full length yet, but they have put out some singles on Trekkie Trax and bpm tokyo and Kamui’s production (done under the moniker 3-i) has received props and attention from some major producers around the world, such as Diplo and Skrillex, just to name a few.
You can find their music on Apple Store, Spotify, Soundcloud, and you can follow MINAMI on Instagram and Twitter
Tokyo-born RIN a.k.a. Nukui Riran (her real name) grew up in Odawara City in Kanagawa Prefecture and has been into hip-hop since elementary school. She started to explore the genre after listening to the track “Urban Grammar” by old-school nineties Japanese hip-hop crew, Scha Dara Parr.
She started hanging out with other hip-hop fans in high school and started rapping in 2014, with the help of producer K.E.N a.k.a. kiddblazz. Together, in 2014, they put together the “DRIP EP” and have since released another EP called “Eniro Nana Hengen (Glossy Colors Seven Transformations)”. In 2016, she released a full length album, “Rinne (Cycle of Life and Death)”, on Taidou Label, featuring guest spots from Ken The 390 and Meiso. She also was the feature MC at the 2018 Poetry Slam Japan competition.
You can find her music on Apple Music, YouTube, and you can follow her on Twitter.
NENE from Yurufuwa Gang is definitely the most trippy, psychedelic artist on this list and is probably the most detached from Japan’s current hip-hop boom. The name comes from a combination of the word “yururi”, which means “leisurely”, and the word “fuwa”, which means “light” or “fluffy”.
The pair of Ryugo Ishida and NENE writes all the lyrics and producer, Automatic, makes all the wavy, pseudo-trap beats. NENE, who is 23 years-old and used to go by the name Sophiee, grew up in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward and the duo met at a hip-hop event in Tokyo in 2016.
Their 2017 debut album, “Mars Ice House”, was put out on Mary Joy Recordings and was influenced by the films of Quentin Tarentino. NENE released a solo album called “NENE” in December 2017 and the duo’s follow-up album, “Mars Ice House II”, just dropped in July of 2018. They released it with a music video for the track “Palm Tree”. They’re also getting props abroad with Diplo giving them a shoutout on Twitter and The New York Times Style Magazine featuring the duo.
You can find their music on Spotify, Apple Music, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
31-year old Akiko Urasaki, from Okinawa, raps under the name Awich, which is short for “Asian Wish Child”. She often bounces back and forth from Japanese to English, which she learned on the U.S. military base. She grew up going to protests with her parents that were against the United States military occupying Okinawa and started writing raps when she was 14 and she often incorporates indigenous Okinawan dialects. Awich signed with a record label in Tokyo a few years ago, but left when they told her that she couldn’t be political.
She first got into hip-hop by listening to Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me” and released her first EP, “Inner Research”, in 2006, right before moving to Atlanta for college. Awich later moved back to Japan and, in 2017, she put out a full length album on Yentown called “8” and performed live on Abema TV.
She also runs her own company, called Cipher City, which sells local Okinawan goods abroad. As it says on her Facebook page, “Her lyrics, positions, and perceptions turn both the positive and negative aspects of her surroundings — cultural fusions, identity crises, pride and shame — into an honest craft. This process, in turn, becomes a vital part of creating a modern Okinawan sense of space and identity”.
You can find her music on her website at awich.jp and you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Despite the name, DJ Misoshiru and MC Gohan is actually just one person, 28-year-old MC Gohan, from Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture. Her recipes-that-you-can-rap project started in Saitama Prefecture at Kagawa Nutrition University, where MC Gohan started making raps for her final graduating project. After her YouTube channel gained lots of followers, she released her first album, “Mother’s Food”, and signed to the Ki/oon Music, a subsidiary of Sony Music Japan. Her hip-hop influences include Pete Rock, Nitro Microphone Underground, and Q-tip and her fans lovingly call her by the nickname “Miso-han”.
Food is the epicenter of MC Gohan’s raps and, when I went to the multi-venue Yatsui Fest in Shibuya, Tokyo, to see MC Gohan perform at Club Harlem, she had everyone in the crowd throw up a pizza gesture with their hands as she rapped about how delicious home-made pizza can be. She also, with the help of Richako from the J-pop group, Vanilla Beans, stopped the show to ask the crowd what food they didn’t like and tried to suggest new ways of cooking or recipes that could make those items enjoyable. Some of the most popular answers were cilantro, Goya (bitter melon), and a little girl in the front row said corn.
MC Gohan definitely has a passion for all foods and is known to have cooking demonstrations at some of her concerts. BBC Radio recently featured an English translation of MC Gohan and her recipe for making onigiri rice balls that look like soccer balls.
Tsubaki is a 27 year-old rapper and battle MC from Chikushino, Fukuoka Prefecture, and is currently living in Tokyo. The name Tsubaki is the Japanese word for the flower Camellia japonica, which is very popular in her hometown. Tsubaki discovered hip-hop through dance, then started rapping in Fukuoka, and got her big break when she was the first female MC featured on a TV Asahi show hosted by ZEEBRA called “Freestyle Dungeon”. After that, she participated in the national UMB (Ultimate MC Battle) competition and was the first female MC to win the Fukuoka qualifier. She went on to make it to the final 16 and made a huge name for herself as a dominant battle MC.
In early 2017, Tsubaki was the overall winner of the second annual Cinderella MC Battle, a freestyle battle solely for female MCs, held at Harlem in Shibuya. The overall winner of the first battle was Akkogorilla.
Tsubaki has also done tracks with MCfrog, Coma-Chi, and FUZIKO, and, in November 2017, she released her first album, “Misaki Murasaki”, which means “Beautiful Blooming Purple”. She raps proudly about the Fukuoka scene and you can see it in the video for her track “Fukuoka”.
You can purchase her music on Apple Music and follow her on Twitter.
“Through my filter, I want to live as I want to live.”
Acharu is a singer, rapper, producer, and painter from Sagamihara, Kanagawa. Her real name is Aya and she wanted to add the word “ryuu”, which means “style”, to her name to make her MC name mean “Aya-style”. “Ryuu” also is a homonym for “flowing”, which ties into her musical philosophy that the pulse of life and the rhythm of music are eternally flowing interchangeably. Because of this, in 2017, as a follow-up to her first album in 2010, “Nasty”, Acharu named her second album “Art of Flow”.
Her grandfather is a music producer who has worked with many popular Japanese artists, including a popular enka composer and actor named Chitose Shokakuya. When she was little, she would play around in his studio and mess around with instruments, When she was in junior high school, she heard about hip-hop through a Japanese rap group formed in New York called Buddha Brand, who she describes as having “a real New York sound”. She said,” I really respect them and they influenced me to start writing rhymes.”
Acharu told me that the Kanagawa hip-hop scene is pretty interesting and she recommended a club called Flava, in Machida, to see real Kanagawa hip-hop. “Lots of farm-grown graffiti writers with high skills. Their life itself is hip-hop – there are many good vibes that you can get here.”
I asked Acharu about some of her favorite albums that have influenced her and she mentioned D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and many songs by H.E.R. Interestingly, she incorporates recorded sounds of rivers or other natural elements in her production and she has a Okinawan-style track on “Art of Flow” that was produced using stones that she picked up in Okinawa.
Acharu also has a very active YouTube page, where she often interacts with an online world-wide community of musicians who cover songs and share their reinvented versions on their channels. Outside of the internet, she also performs all around Japan in such locales as Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, Ehime Prefecture, Osaka, as well as Tokyo and runs her own label, NaturalHighSense Productions. She is currently working on a remix version of her album “Art of Flow” and is working on finishing up the artwork, as well as a music video.
You can check out her Youtube page here, you can buy her music from her website here, and follow her on Instagram here.
Listen to my interview with Acharu here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.
“Everybody is different in what they want to transmit, their message. Some people want to convey some good time that they enjoy, or some people do it because it’s cool, but the point is that each person has their reasons. I think, for those who become serious about music, they are the real rappers. For those who dropped out along the way, maybe they just wanted to show off.”
I interviewed MCfrog on the day of a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in Osaka that woke everyone up at 7:58 AM and stopped the trains for the rest of the day. My tenth floor Namba hotel room shook for nearly sixty seconds and literally threw me off the bed. After frantically gathering my things and running down an emergency exit staircase with loads of screaming Chinese tourists, I headed out into the Osaka morning and met MCfrog at a curry restaurant in Nishishinsaibashi to talk about her rap career and the Osaka hip-hop scene.
MCfrog is a twenty-two year-old rapper from the Hagashinari Ward of Osaka, located east of the city center. She first heard about hip-hop through her mother, who would play a variety of different musical genres in the house. Growing up, she was always listening to mostly Lauryn Hill, Beastie Boys, and Cypress Hill. MCfrog is mostly known as a battle MC, but also composes music and “would like to be a rapper that can do both.” When I asked her what she likes to talk about in her rhymes, she told me that she mostly raps about her bitterness in not having achieved her dreams yet.
MCfrog told me that the current Osaka hip-hop scene is really hot right now and it is very unique with lots of strong characters and cool MCs. The main MC Battle event in Osaka is called Enter, which is held once every three months and, if you win in the top three, you can move on to an event called Spotlight, which is the grand championship.
MCfrog confirmed that there are some other female MCs in Osaka, but not many that are very active. She said that, at first, the other MCs treated her like she was “the female rapper”, but, after keeping at it and never budging from what people say, she doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all. MCfrog received help from the east Osaka hip hop crew, NFMCS, who she says, “have taken care of me a lot and they are the people who are taking care of the humanities. Given the scary image that hip-hop has sometimes, those people are working to turn that image upside-down.”
When I asked her to tell me about a female MC in Japan that we should celebrate, she suggested Fukuoka-born MC, Tsubaki, who is now living in Tokyo. We’ll cover more on Tsubaki later on the list. She also told me that one of her current favorite Japanese MCs is Chinza Dopeness and she likes his style of music.
You can find more of MCfrog’s music on Youtube, at Castle Records in Tokyo, and you can buy her second EP, Find the Street, here. You can also keep up with her on Twitter.
Check out this MCfrog track with Tsubaku called “Furubokko”.
Listen to my interview with MCfrog here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.
Lyrics to “Furubokko” by Tsubaki and MCfrog (“Furubokko” is slang for “full” + “bokobokonisuru”, which means “fully beat up”)
(MCfrog) Don’t take it wrong, fun and courtesy. A quick fix will become a shame and I roam Wherever I go, same mistakes This stage is not that easy.
Just a mouth that asserts anything, Cheap spirit and motivation, that is not enough. Only a pretense, the words are light, I don’t want even a bit of such collusion.
Time limit doesn’t give me a time to choose. Impending, will go insane. When it becomes complicated, try to escape immediately. View the negative race cycle as dangerous.
The stage, to show my potential, From this place, I can go up anywhere. To show the hope, limitless, Do or do not, will be a friend or foe tomorrow.
I chose this from many, Think carefully. Take action, this site. Too many players to sweep and throw away, See to let them live or kill and cut off the chain.
Ordinary is not any different from general. Social reform, a maverick, an extreme, a worthless rascal. Find your value, polish yourself, No mercy, until the day that we meet at the high point (stratosphere).
(Tsubaki) Do not touch, danger, it’s scary if you lick it. There is not a tepid awareness, nor a sense of crisis. Try furiously and sometimes a poor shot hits, A suspension bridge of dream, check your steps.
Blindly nervous, open microphone, As soon as I get off (the stage), flattering, boring. Preach needs love. If not, using armed force, dragged out and cross-examined.
Mouth is evil, I am fully aware of it. Disgorged poison and virtue fall upon. Your problem resolver is not helpful. At last, what is questioned is my own value.
Sowing, watering, growing lyrical, Shine with the inner growth, Don’t misunderstand the meaning of being selected and standing here. If you just want a flower, go to some other place.
I chose this from many, Think carefully. Take action, this site. Too many players to sweep and throw away, See to let them live or kill and cut off the chain.
Ordinary is not any different from general. Social reform, a maverick, an extreme, a worthless rascal. Find your value, polish yourself, No mercy, until the day that we meet at the high point (stratosphere).
“Since I was little, I was physically big, so I was always like a big sister character and everybody always came to me to consult with them about their problems. So there, I realized the power of words and, even if there was a negative situation, the way of thinking can convert it to a positive.”
Kagura Sunshine is a rapper and a poet from Miyako City in northern Iwate Prefecture, currently living in Kanagawa Prefecture. The name Kagura Sunshine was inspired by her uncle, who was a Shinto priest, and often danced the Kagura dance, which is part of a religious ceremony. After he passed away, to pay tribute to him, she took the MC name, “Kagura”. In 2011, after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami destroyed the majority of Sendai and Kagura Sunshine’s hometown area in Iwate, she wanted to “become sunshine” for the displaced people from her region, so she added the name “Sunshine” to her MC moniker.
She first heard about hip-hop during her second year of high school and started listening to Japanese R&B and hip-hop artists like Sugar Soul and ZEEBRA. After graduating high school in Iwate, she moved to Kanagawa Prefecture and took her music with her. About her writing process, she told me, “I’m always searching for the beat that matches to myself and my voice and, when I find something that matches to my voice, I get the words that are suited to my emotions at the time from the drawers of my emotion.” She told me that, originally, hip-hop artists in Iwate had a complex about being rural country people, but, after they lost so much during the 2011 disaster, they have become stronger and hip-hop artists are putting more emphasis on building homegrown scenes and improving their lyricism.
Kagura Sunshine’s latest release, a 7-inch record with rapper Aruma called “Stay With Me”, came out in May 2018 and the beat was made by Yakkle, who often works with popular Japanese hip-hop artist, Shing02. The song was originally about the 2011 Tohoku disaster and she told me that it was the first time that she felt like she could write about the devastation. However, when she found herself singing on the track, she felt that it wasn’t a sad song, but a song of love, so she rewrote the lyrics and the rest is history.
Even though she currently lives in Kanagawa, Kagura Sunshine spends most of her time working in Tokyo but she has noticed that the Kanagawa scene is very confident and the artists love celebrating their local areas. She often performs at Club Family in Shibuya, in Tokyo, and around the Kansai area, near Osaka. She’s also producing new music now for her third album, set to come out on her label, Far East Bay Records. She started the label in 2015 and her husband, Towa, does most of the artwork for her projects, in addition to his live painting performances.
Some of her favorite current producers are DJ Premier and DJ Krush. When I asked her what she wished that our English-speaking audiences knew about Japanese hip-hop, she said, “The power of the word: in English, words have a groove to them, but in Japanese, they don’t. But in Japanese, our words have a soul and I want them to feel that.”
You can find her music on ITunes and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook
Listen to my interview with Kagura Sunshine here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.
Lyrics for Kagura Sunshine x Aruma – Konya wa PARTY MAKER Beat by CHIBA-CHIIIBA, Scratches by SPIN MASTER A-1 (Aruma)
I got older, my body is now heavy. Don’t worry, party tonight. Popping rhythm and a song like this, Dance, shout, entirely high. If you get tired, just sit down, Go home without being found. Cool arrangement! Cheers! Tequila! 1 shot, 2 shot, Sunboy Killer!
If you have ears and eyes, should be fun. Dancer, dance relying on them. Rapper, DJ, let them listen, This is the world HIP – HOP, no doubt. It is not outright, such a flow-master, Avoid it if you are not interested, for today. Yes, I guess that’s the way it should be, Break down like this, take care of it.
That clerk at their part-time job Has a discriminating ear and seems really good. Create a local technique and fight it out, Just a few seconds of chance time, a-ha! If you can speak, you can dive at the fastest speed, I have a discriminating nose, groping in the dark, Rhyme is a coup d’état, Operating the time, it is a PARTY MAKER!
Yeah yeah, you tell me it’s a fun time, Leave it to me, I’ll rock the floor. Try to check meaningful words, Try to detect your heart beating fast. Check it out, yo! How are you feeling? No worries, tonight is the party. It’s not outright, this kind of flow, blow up blow up, get high!
(Kagura Sunshine) I am speaking from a humble place, The outstanding low voice female in Japan. Even on the B-side, there won’t be any slip-ups A-Spin, the master is blowing. A black donut changed my life. What it will become? I achieved my dream at that time. Not an dimwit any more, tough tortoise, A cool Future is in this hand.
My soul is a non-flattering yellow, This clown is flying, betraying expectations. Every time, people want to dance. 2 Turntables, leave it to the DJ. Wanting this original world as well, Really shy, but l am an invincible girl. This verse blows me away, Lock on your heart, lock-on.
Tonight all ages and cultures in the house, yo! Everyone has their own roots, Black disk magic. To your identity, bi-bi-bi-bi, To extraordinary days, rigorous and gallant, Surely everyone is a lyricist. Rhyme is survival with vinyl, Yes, that’s it! PARTY MAKER!
Yeah yeah, you tell me it’s a fun time, Leave it to me, I’ll rock the floor. Try to check meaningful words, Try to detect your heart beating fast. Check it out, yo! How are you feeling? No worries, tonight is the party. It’s not outright, this kind of flow, blow up blow up, get high!
“We all have our own different ways of expression, but what we have on the bottom line is all the same: to put importance on individual personalities. So many times we hear the line that “female rappers are good” or “who is going to be the best of the females”, but we are just individuals. It’s personal; it’s different.”
Akkogorilla is from Tokyo, or, as she clarifies, she is from Planet Earth. She first heard about hip-hop when she was ten years-old, in elementary school. When she first learned about Japanese hip-hop artists RIP SLYME and Kick the Can Crew, she was influenced to start writing her own lyrics. At first, she started just writing rhymes to play with rhythms, just for fun, but after gaining confidence and becoming a full-time rapper later on, she has been more influenced by other artists and her unique and vibrant style, juxtaposed in a world of J-pop monotony, has manifested brilliantly.
She first started out playing drums in a two-piece pop-rock girl band called Happy Birthday. During Halloween shows, she would come out on stage dressed up as a gorilla and would play drums behind her friend. At home, she would practice writing and recording and finally took her raps to the stage in 2015. After talking with Ken the 390 and soliciting advice for getting more shows, he encouraged her to participate in local MC battles. At first, she was scared and nervously threw up before most battles but, eventually, she won a few battles and gained admiration from fellow MCs. At the time, much like her friend MC Frog in Osaka, she was one of less than ten female battle rappers in Tokyo but she feels like the number is increasing these days.
The name Akkogorilla came from when she was still a drummer. As she said, “without thinking very seriously about it,” she named herself that because she learned that gorillas communicate through rhythm and thought it was cool. In 2016, Akkogorilla released her first mini-album, “Tokyo Banana”, on Kamikaze Records and it features a track called “Donkey Kong” that sampled music from the Super Nintendo game, Donkey Kong Country.
The gorilla motif continued in November of the same year when she quickly followed up this release with an EP on 2.5D Production called “Back to the Jungle” and, for the video of the title track, Akkogorilla traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. When I asked her how the experience in Africa was, she said,” I can’t say much about that trip except that I had some of the best moments of my life and also some of the worst moments of my life.” The beat for the song, made by HirasaWonder, samples Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Akkogorilla told me that this song really represents her transitional period out of rock music and into the realm of old school and new school hip-hop. She is a big Public Enemy fan and, right now, she told me that she is digging the new Anderson Paak and Princess Nokia tracks.
In early 2017, Akkogorilla released a number of singles on 2.5D Production leading up to the release of her EP, “Green Queen”. In April 2018, Akkogorilla released the “Tokyo Banana 2018” EP as well as her first major label single with Sony Music Japan, called “Yoyuu (Margins / A Cinch)”. The song is really a reflection on her last 3 years figuring out how to be a rapper and gaining the confidence that she can do it and do it in her own unique style. She is also working on her first major label album for Sony at the moment and, when I asked her if she had a title decided yet, she said,” I haven’t decided the title yet, but it’s very clear what I want to say and what I want to do. I’m just looking for the exact words to express those.”
Currently she is organizing annual events in Tokyo called “Donkey Kong”, that blend a multi-genre variety of rock, rappers, beat-makers, and others artists assembled in a unique way that only Akkogorilla can put together. If you check out her Instagram, you’ll see that fans often bring bananas to the show and hold them up to show her their support.
When I asked Akkogorilla what female rappers should be celebrated in the world, she mentioned a transgender Japanese MC named Fuziko, who was born a female and recently married a woman. Akkogorilla glowingly added, “She is the real cool rapper that we can be proud of.” Akkogorilla has a song about gender fluidity called “Ultra Gender” and, she said that, when she met Fuziko, she thought of the song and said, “Wow, it’s real.”
Listen to my interview with Akkogorilla here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.
Lyrics for Akkogorilla’s “Yoyuu” (which literally means “Margins” or “A Cinch / A Piece of Cake”)
A cinch, (say it) it’s a cinch, a cinch! While reading the surrounding atmosphere, Life is finished in an instant. Before someone says something, I’m making a comeback to myself.
“What are you doing,? Hey!” “Who is imprinting?” “Remember your place!” “It’s beyond your ability!”
If you move before hearing the voice, the world can be changed. It saved me; it was not a man, It was not a prince. The heart to believe in yourself is king.
(I wonder) why at that time I did that? Just remembering it, I shouted it in the bathroom. If I repeat being out of place, After some years, It would become “normal”.
You can repeat it multiple times, And live life like a lie, But before looking down on yourself, reach out a hand. Fully experience today and create your real self. A Cinch, (say it) it’s a cinch, a cinch!
Actually it’s not a cinch Lean, lean and mean, mean, everyday. I have come to understand, because I have been running, That the ultimate result is just a cinch!
Although the self-esteem is low, Nurture the pride. Getting a laugh only by self-degradation. I was bound, bye bye! What about it was frightening? Someone let me borrow a ruler to measure. Is it a cool style? That judgment, I want to make by myself. Defense mechanisms are abundant But now: how to, how to, Check 1. 2. Alright?
Many of you are laughing, You have weapons, But my magnum Is ultra-gigantic. Laughing with the voice volume that is twice as big, Let’s raise the volume of your inner voice!
It’s really a cinch, A piece of cake, It’s a cinch, if you do it. It’s a cinch, you can do it!
Follow than the natural inclination and smartness. It’s more important for the heart to say you like what you like. Are you ready?
You can recover yourself multiple times, And live an awesome life like a lie. I want to live everyday properly, You, who save yourselves, are invincible!
“This is just my way of thinking, but I think those who are seeking the real hip-hop, they are not looking for just fashion but they are looking from the bottom of their soul.”
Coma-Chi is a Tokyo-native rapper, singer, DJ, and mother, currently living in the bay area of Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture. She first heard about hip-hop when she was 15 and was deeply moved by the feminine strength of Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte. She started rapping as Coma-Chi at 20 and began writing lyrics after listening to Japanese rap groups like Rhymestar, Nitro Microphone Underground, and Tha Blue Herb. At 34, Coma-Chi reflects on the Japanese world around her from an underrepresented female perspective. Her lyrics include everything from relationships and the female point of view of going to the club to calling on the spirits of ancient Japanese empresses to speak to their modern feminine descendants.
In 2005, Coma Chi participated as the only female in the pioneering annual B-Boy Park MC battle in Yoyogi Park, in Tokyo. When the organizers planned the tournament, they had not envisioned that a female MC would make it to the final, so they organized the final to be in the center ring of the sacred sumo stadium, Ryogoku Kokugikan. Traditionally, women are not allowed to enter the ring, which created quite a debacle when Coma-Chi fought her way to the final. At first, the organizers had discussed suspending the final battle, but ultimately determined that, since it was not sumo, she could participate with the caveat that she could not wear high heels in the ring. Barefoot and determined, Coma-Chi took second place and became the first female ever to battle in the reverent Dohyo of Ryogoku Kokugikan.
In 2006, she put out her first independent release, “Day Before Blue”, on Da.Me Records, and the success from this record and her fame from B-Boy Park lead to her signing a contract with Knife Edge Records. In February 2009, Coma Chi released her first major label album called “Red Naked” and, a year later, released a second album called “Beauty or the Beast?” in May of 2010. When she made her major label debut, there was a feeling that only male rappers were allowed in Japan’s rap scene, but Coma-Chi wanted to change that. Being a trailblazer, Coma-Chi overcame the initial looking down on female rappers in Japan, and when she made her major label debut, she proved that women could do it and do it well. In 2011, Coma-Chi finished her contract with Knife Edge and decided to take her career in a different direction.
After experiencing the lack of control that major label artists experience and how they often don’t take the artist’s opinions into consideration, Coma-Chi decided to return to putting out her music independently. She started her own label called Queens Room Records, which first published a children’s picture book and CD called “A Boy Called The Sun”. Inspired by the 2011 Fukushima disaster, this books talks about the connections of love and nature and is about a young boy’s parents who catch a disease called “American Dream”. The disease forces him to go around asking for advice on a cure. He ultimately asks the sun, who says that they must return back to the origin of human beings, in Africa, to be healed. When they are healed, they become African. The book also comes with a CD that has a collection of original R&B, jazz, and afro-beat music on it.
In 2012, after doing loads of features on tracks with Japanese hip hop stars like RIP SLYME, Rhymester, Zeebra, Coma-Chi put out her first full independent album on Queen’s Room called “Golden Source”, and, in December 2013, she gave birth to her first child.
Her new album, released on Queen’s Room in March of 2018, is called “Jomon Green”, and it was inspired by a photo in a magazine that Coma-Chi saw last year. The photo was of a Kaen-Doki, a Jomon-era earthenware piece from around 4000 B.C., and she felt like our modern society was in great need of the ancient wisdom from the Jomon Period, a period of human civilization in Japan stretching from 14,000 B.C. to 300 B.C. and noted for the earliest evidence of fired clay pottery. She studied more about the era and discovered that, within it, there was a period of 10,000 years with no war. She also discovered that, because they were hunter-gatherers, they lived a sustainable lifestyle and the Jomon civilization was a maternal society, where mothers were the center of society. Ultimately, Coma Chi wanted to meditate on the connection between strong ancient Jomon matriarchs and women in today’s modern Japan and she does this very thing on her song, “Woman” (see below for link and lyrics).
I asked Coma-Chi to tell us some other Japanese female MCs that we should celebrate and she recommended a Shinto Shrine employee named MC Mystie, who started rapping at 42 and is featured on “Jomon Green”. She also recommended Tsubaki, who is also featured on this list. Her favorite female rapper in the world, at the moment, is Rhapsody.
When I asked her what message she wanted to share with our English-speaking audience, she said that you can listen to her album Jomon Green from anywhere in the world, that there is a song on the album called “Water” that has English lyrics, and she wants you to give it a listen and feel the ancient Japanese vibrations.
Listen to my interview with Coma-Chi here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.
Lyrics to Coma-Chi’s Woman:
戦うために生まれたわけじゃない 大事なものただ守りたい Overflowing love, I don’t deny it anymore. 溢れだす愛 もう否定しない 心に広がる母なる大地 Mother Earth, which spreads in the heart. 両手でハグするソウル 君に届ける優しい鼓動 「おかえり」 Soul to hug with both hands, gentle heartbeat to deliver to you. ここが帰る場所 何故って答えはひとつ Because Welcome back, here is the place to return to. Why? The answer is one because
We are the woman… 安らぎの 歌を歌おうLet’s sing a song of peace. This is the women’s world
そうそれはDNA 組み込まれているのさ先天的に むしろ原始人 Yes it’s DNA, inherited congenitally, rather than from primitive man. ネアルデルタールの頃からずっと受け継いできた長い歴史 It’s a long history, inherited all the time, since the age of Neanderthal. 女は守り 愛し育み 一人一人がまるで女神さま Women protect, love, and raise; each one is a complete goddess. だからいたわってその体 いつか大事な子を宿すから So, please take care of the body because one day you will carry an important child そしてその命が繋がり未来へ羽ばたき緑は輝き水は青き And the life connects; to the future, wings flapping, green shimmers and water is blue; この美しい地球を彩るcolorになる Those will become the colors of the beautiful Earth. 明日を担う力生み出す 母の子宮恵みのひとしずく Mother’s womb creates power for tomorrow, one drop of mercy, 苦しみ産み落とす 思い残すことなく種を残すBecause Suffering by giving birth, never regretting leaving seeds behind because
We are the woman… 安らぎの 歌を歌おうLet’s sing a song of peace. This is the women’s world
男たちは競い合う事で得る快感 深めてゆく絆 Men gain pleasure and deepen bonds by competing. それも素敵だけど私達は違うの方法が It’s nice as well, but we are different; the methods. 同じ土俵じゃ比べられないのわかってちょうだい We cannot be compared on the same ring, please understand. この世界の構造自体通用しない新時代 New era, the structure of this world itself is not accepted. Back to母系社会 偶像崇拝なら美しい裸体 Back to the maternal society, if it is idolatry, beautiful naked body マグダラのマリア宝のありか隠す内側 Mary of Magdalene, inner-side hides the treasure. 慰め癒す力 きっと何よりも尊いから The power of comfort and healing, there is nothing more precious. 確かな第六感と共感力フル稼働して振りまくのさLOVEを Fully operating a certain sixth sense and compassion; spread love. 笑わないでよスピリチュアルな波動 Don’t laugh, spiritual wave Don’t think feel 伝える感情 Don’t think, feel emotion to tell 母なる地球 みたく包み込む 許し与える全て Embrace like the Mother Earth. Forgive and give all. 混ざりあう色 時は優しく 溢れ出す永遠のLove‥ Mixed colors, time is gentle. Overflowing eternal love.
The folks at Japanesepod101.com also featured Coma-Chi and her track “The Voices of Kamuy” from Jomon Green and you can check it out here:
There are more connections between Osaka, Japan and Kentucky than one might probably expect. Firstly, the University of Kentucky has a very close relationship with Osaka’s Kansai Gaidai University and has been sending students abroad there for decades. In addition to this academic connection, in 1985, following the victory of the Osaka-based underdogs of the Nippon League, the Hanshin Tigers, at the Japan baseball Championship Series, some rowdy Tigers fan removed a statue of Colonel Sanders from the front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and threw it in the Dotenburi Canal from Ebisu Bridge, as an effigy to Tigers’ foreign slugger, Randy Bass, who had helped carry the team.
This incident led to the “Curse of the Colonel”, which is believed to have caused an 18 year long losing streak, which was not broken until the statue was pulled out of the river in March 2009. The statue was still missing it’s glasses and left hand, but, nonetheless, the curse was broken and now all KFCs in Osaka have been ordered to bolt down their Colonel Sanders statues (especially when the team is playing well.)
Here is video of when they found the sunken statue.
While the connections are obviously there, most Kentuckians may only be aware of Osaka Japanese Restaurant in Lexington, but likely don’t realize that there are 3 University of Kentucky themed restaurants, all called UK Cafe, in Osaka and Hyogo Prefectures.
UK Cafe in Osaka, Japan
When most people around the world, and in Japan, hear “UK”, they likely think United Kingdom, but for the initiated Big Blue Nation fans, we undoubtedly think University of Kentucky every time. As a UK alumni and Wildcat fan, I decided to venture to western Japan to interview the owner of UK Cafe, Yoko Hirayama, who is from Osaka, and runs all 3 UK Cafe restaurants. She picked us up from Sakura Shukugawa Train Station on a rainy Tuesday in her Cadillac and told us her story.
In 1979, Hirayama’s husband went to the University of Kentucky for one year as an exchange student and was inspired by the American diner food that he had at student potluck parties. Initially, when he arrived, he didn’t speak English and was very timid. While he was here, he started playing billiards and, through that, met some friends. When he came back to Japan, to settle back into the Kansai area, he wanted to start a diner that had similar “American Size Power Food” for other university students in Osaka who were in need of late-night high calorie meals. He loved the University of Kentucky and thought about naming the restaurant Lexington Cafe, but he ultimately decided on UK Cafe and that was the beginning.
The first UK Cafe opened up in Eastern Osaka in 1980 and, now, there are three different UK Cafe restaurants, including the second Osaka shop, in Sakai Ohama Nishimachi, that opened in 1992. and the most recent shop, in Hyogo Prefecture, opening in 2010. The menu is based on the travel experiences of the Hirayamas and their trips to Kentucky and every state in the U.S., trying specialty foods that they discovered on the way. They arranged these items, like Denver Omelets, to fit the Japanese palate and quickly gathered a large following of people hungry for good food, for a cheap price, and lots of it. In fact, people constantly steal their handwritten menus because of the stories attached to each item.
The menu is divided between main dishes, salads & sandwiches, breakfast & lunch, burgers, spaghetti, & omelets, desserts, and drinks. There are bourbon cocktails and there is a UK Special Sandwich, which is made up of potatoes, country ham, and cheese. There is also an item on the menu called Super Soul, that is a spicy Gyu Motsu Korean dish connected to former WLAP-FM Lexington radio DJ, Billy Love. Initially, they were open all night, 365 days of the year, but lately, due to a shortage of personnel from 3-8AM, they’ve been closing for a few hours in the late morning.
Before her husband’s passing a few years ago, the couple visited Kentucky many times together and, when I asked Hirayama what her first impression of Kentucky was, she mentioned Kentucky’s beautiful farms and it’s unique fencing. The couple modeled the fencing in the front of the Hyogo Prefecture branch of the restaurant with the same type of Paddock Fence design motif. The couple also thought that Lexington was a beautiful university town that was very safe and peaceful and had a unique connection to Japan via Toyota and other Japanese businesses. The crowd at the restaurant is a mix of Japanese students, families, and the occasional visitor from Kentucky. Hirayama told me that the UK Men’s Basketball team has visited the Higashi-Osaka branch of the restaurant.
The restaurant is decorated with UK Wildcat posters, tables with the Kentucky state flag on them, and tons of model cars all over the interior. There is even a set of JBL speakers that play Bob Marley, The Doobie Brothers, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and mostly southern classic rock. There is another special Kentucky item in the garage of the Hyogo restaurant, in the form of a 1963 Chevy Corvette Stingray split-window, which the couple bought in the US about 30 years ago and had it shipped to Japan. The car was her husband’s favorite car, and he dreamed of owning one since he was in elementary school. A rare site, even in the states, 1963 was the only year that Chevrolet produced these Corvettes with the split window in the back.
Some of the other items on their menu include a dish called “Goodbye Donkey”, which is taking a jab at the generic Japanese burger chain restaurant, Bikkuri Donkey. There is also a dish called Mr. Trucker’s Sandwich, which is a huge cheeseburger with onion, ham, and pickles, dedicated to very large Union 76 truckers that the couple met everywhere.
My friend from Gunma, Chef Shinya Matsubara of Tokiwakan, told me that while he was a college student in Osaka, he often went to the Higashi-Osaka branch and ordered the Good Bye Nagoya, which is a piece of miso-katsu-sauce-covered sinewy meat atop a pile of fried rice. When he was reflecting on his time there, and how many interesting canned American beers that they used to have, Shinya remembered that the cafe was relaxed, affordable, and gave you a lot of food; the perfect place to power up for a busy Osakan university student. However, when I asked him if he was aware that the theme of the cafe was based on the University of Kentucky, he said, “Honestly, most people probably think it’s based on the United Kingdom, but I guess I was wondering, where are all the fish and chips?”
Check out my interview with UK Cafe Owner, Yoko Hirayama, with interpretation assistance from Junko Takahashi.
If you can’t make it to Japan, you can visit UK Cafe’s website at http://ukcafe.net
However, if you can make the trip, here is the information that you’ll need:
UK WILDCATS CAFE – The larger shop with the 1963 Corvette in Hyogo Prefecture
西宮武庫川店 (Nishinomiya Mukogawa Branch)
Amagasaki-Shi, Hyogo-Ken 661-0046
Hours: Open 365 days of the year from 9AM-3AM
Link to the Yelp page: Here
UK WILDCATS CAFE – Honten (the original Eastern Osaka shop)
高井田店(Higashi-Osaka Takaida Branch)
5-4-30 Takaida-Nishi, Higashi-Osaka-shi 577-0067
Hours: Open 365 days of the year from 10AM-4AM
Link to the Yelp page: Here
UK WILDCATS Cafe – Southern Osaka location
堺大浜店 (Sakai Ohama-Nishimachi Branch) 23 Ohama Nishimachi, Sakai-shi
Sakai-ku, Osaka-fu 590-0977
Hours: Open 365 days of the year from 9AM-Midnight
Also, if you are from Kentucky, why don’t you send them something nice? 🙂
Listen to a conversation with Chuck on WEKU’s Eastern Standard:
We often talk about “saving the world” in a lofty, abstract sense, devoid of any tangible plan of action to actually deter the rapid path of ecological destruction that we’re on. The truth is that only about seven percent of Kentucky’s lands are publicly protected, which is lower than any other state that borders Kentucky. In the face of all of this, since 1995, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT) has been raising awareness of Kentucky’s natural treasures as well as raising money to purchase and protect some of the most endangered and diverse ecosystems in the United States. As of 2018, KNLT has directly purchased 13,000 acres of land and helped financially leverage the purchase of more than 34,000 acres across the state.
Kentucky Natural Lands Trust started as a group of friends who were highly motivated to make a difference and succeeded in saving the largest tract of old-growth forest in the state, Blanton Forest. The state-wide non-profit land trust is working to protect, connect, and restore wildlands throughout Kentucky. It was formed in the mid-90s when Senior Ecologist at the Kentucky State Nature Preserve Commission, Marc Evans, teamed up with former Director of the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Hugh Archer, along with several others, in a communal effort to protect Blanton. The scope of their work quickly expanded from 2000 acres to working towards the preservation of the entire Pine Mountain corridor. Many of KNLT’s purchases have connected critical habitats essential for already marginalized wildlife and some of these lands have already been sold to become part of state-owned preserved Kentucky public lands.
Black-throated green warbler ~ photo by Dan Pancamo (Creative Commons)
“The way that we got here and started working on it [Pine Mountain] was Blanton Forest, this unique, iconic place that we protected back in the nineties, working with the State Nature Preserves Commission. Ultimately, the group realized that they knew, from the work that they had done there, that it was a really unique place and there was an opportunity to work more on the mountain.” – Greg Abernathy, Executive Director of KNLT
The main chunk of KNLT’s work is in the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, which is a 125 mile overthrust fault that starts at the Kentucky-Virginia border at Breaks Interstate Park, “The Grand Canyon of the East”, and extends all the way through Harlan County to Tennessee. It has only a few roads that cross it, a handful of river breaks, and is a major contiguous migratory corridor for wildlife. The geological history is such that it doesn’t have a lot of merchantable coal, so Pine Mountain’s vast number of rare and unique species haven’t been disturbed. Kentucky has 700 rare species and 1/10th of them are found on Pine Mountain. One is the endemic Icebox Cave Beetle, which only lives in one cave in the Narrows Preserve and nowhere else on Earth.
High Rock, KNLT Artists’ Retreat ~ photo by Greg Abernathy, KNLT
In addition to Pine Mountain, KNLT also works in central Kentucky with Bernheim Forest on the Bernheim-Fort Knox Wildlands Corridor, a vital migratory habitat which ideally will include a protected one mile buffer zone around the Fort Knox army post, leveraged as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Army Compatible Use Buffer Program.
American black bear ~ photo by Marc Evans, KNLT
“When you think about the region that we’re working in in Eastern Kentucky, it’s a region that historically has been taken advantage of by outsiders, so there is a lot of cautious agreement to engage with you because, though we are offering fair market value for what the land will appraise for, at the end of the day, people are wondering if there is some value in this land that you know that they don’t know about. We’re buying and protecting some of the most biologically diverse land in the state for a very reasonable rate.” – Greg Abernathy
Land conservation work is definitely the long game. In 2017, KNLT closed a land deal for 2000 acres in Letcher and Harlan County that took 18 years to complete. These lands fill in the gaps between Kingdom Come State Park and the Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Once lands are acquired, KNLT has two stewardship staff members who focus on conservation stewardship objectives to protect their conservation investments, which include eradicating invasive species and preserving Kentucky’s natural heritage. This recently acquired land also ties into the multi-state Great Eastern Trail, which has been unfolding across the eastern U.S. for the last 15 years and covers 1600 miles from southern New York to Alabama.
KNLT pays their staff and funds acquisitions with a combination of private dollars and funds raised through foundations. KNLT is the first Kentucky partner to team up with the Forecastle Foundation, the non-profit wing of Louisville’s Forecastle Festival, and often partners with Louisville’s Snowy Owl Foundation to promote their conservation work and underwrite events.
KNLT’s new Executive Director, Greg Abernathy, is a graduate of the first class of the University of Kentucky’s Natural Resource Conservation major. Abernathy first heard about Blanton Forest off-season on a WYSO radio program in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Years later, Abernathy found out that the preservation of the forest was due to KNLT’s efforts. While working with Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED) in 2000, Abernathy started working with the KNLT staff on projects and, naturally, they joined forces. He joined KNLT as the fourth staff member about five years ago and they have since added two more employees.
“Through the artists, we hope we can spread that love of place, love of land, and it is really an extension of Wendell Berry’s love of place, and pride of place, and connection to place. We hope through the artists’ retreats that we can create that in the artists and, through their circles, ripple their exposure and understanding of it out to a larger population, to bring people more awareness of it. We’d love to bring you down to the mountain.” – Greg Abernathy
In 2008, KNLT hosted an event in Lexington called the Tsuga Art Show, which featured performances from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Chris Sullivan, and Warren Byrom, all to raise awareness of the invasive Hemlock Woody Adelgid insect. After the event, Abernathy spoke with University of Kentucky English professor, Erik Reece, who reminded him of the writers retreats that Kentuckians For The Commonwealth used to host in the mountains.
KNLT teamed up with Reece and Transylvania University art professor, Zoe Strecker, to organize a series of retreats for artists to come down to Pine Mountain Settlement School for the weekend and have an immersive experience with KNLT in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. 2017 was the third year that KNLT invited a group down and the more than 100 attendees have come to be known as The Pine Mountain Collective. This kinship of artists have already produced extensive work together including collective art shows in Lexington and Louisville and songs about the mountain, many of which have been written and recorded for an upcoming compilation being assembled by Louisville’s Daniel Martin Moore, featuring recordings from Wendell Berry, Warren Byrom, Joan Shelley, Jim James, and a slew of others.
KNLT Artists’ Retreat, Pine Mountain ~ photo by John Lackey
In addition to the retreats and acquisitions, KNLT partners with The Explore Kentucky Initiative to create community hikes around Kentucky’s wild spaces and also hosts Wildlands Social Club events that bounce between 21C Museum Hotels in Lexington and Louisville as well as West Sixth Brewing. The events highlight ten-minute talks about why wild places are important from an art, health, economy, and conservation science perspective. In the spring, 21C Cincinnati will be hosting a Wildlands Social Club event. If you want to know more, you can visit their website at knlt.org.
Listen to Chuck Clenney’s interview with Greg Abernathy of KNLT.
“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), globally, there are more than 65.6 million forcibly displaced people and, among them, 22.5 million are refugees. These are the highest levels of displacement on record and more than half of these refugees are children under the age of 18.
Refugees are defined as those who are forced to leave their home country to escape war, violence, or persecution. After fleeing their country, people seeking refugee status must register with UNHCR in a country of asylum and, of these 22.5 million, less than 1% of refugees end up resettled in another country like the United States. Most end up staying in the country of asylum to set up a new life or waiting with uncertainty until it is safe to return to their home country. The Trump administration plans to reduce the 2017 national number of accepted refugees in the U.S. in half and admit no more than 45,000 refugees in the coming year, including a limit of 19,000 African refugees.
Currently, Kentucky welcomes refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Syria. The largest community of refugees in Lexington is, undoubtedly, the Congolese, which is the fourth-largest resettlement of Congolese in the U.S.
Congolese-born and Kenyan-raised Lexington musician, Abraham Mwinda, is one of these refugees and has been living and making music in Lexington for 4 1/2 years. He speaks Swahili, Lingalas, English, and French. In July, Mwinda released his debut record, Dreamer, with a sold-out release show that raised $1,600 for 4 local non-profits organizations. Since Dreamer dropped, Mwinda won Song of the Year at the annual Sauti Awards in Atlanta and is finishing up his second album, Home, to be released in December.
“One of the hardest questions that I always get asked is “where are you from?” because I never know what to say because I was born in Congo, but I really didn’t fully experience it, and I was raised in Kenya. Kenya taught me pretty much everything that I know. It’s a process of trying to discover myself and my home in physical location, spirituality, faith, relationships, friendships, and just exploring all that stuff; and my discoveries.”
Mwinda started writing songs when he was 7 years old and, after moving to Kenya with his family because of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they applied for refugee status and Mwinda began exploring the Nairobi music world and writing songs about stories he heard from fellow refugees.
“When I was 14, we were so broke, so hungry, that you want to throw up but you only throw up saliva, because you don’t have any food in your stomach. My mom got this money to pay rent, but she was like, I think you should take this money and record that song that you sang for me the other day and she has been my inspiration since.”
In 2013, with the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Mwinda and his family resettled in Lexington.
“The African refugee community in Lexington is big, it is really big. Maybe it’s just because I’m part of it but I feel like, everywhere I go, I turn around and see one person that I know. There is somebody, somewhere, everywhere – that’s how big it is and they are really united, they’re really supportive of each other and supportive of their communities, even their American communities. People are opening businesses, making friends, and adding value to the Lexington community.”
Mwinda started playing open-mic nights at Common Grounds Coffee Shop and got a job working at the University of Kentucky hospital. He then started to build a basic home studio to record his vocal tracks and, using a combination of producers from Nairobi and Lexington, Mwinda was finally able to find the positive Afro-pop sound that he was looking for.
“In Nairobi, they have studios. You have to go to a proper studio to do your music and recording. The other difference that I have seen here with the music industry is that there, if you call yourself a producer, you are able to play every instrument, mix, record, master, and do everything, and compose a beat. But here, one person does the mixing, the other person does the mastering, so in Africa, we don’t do that, we know everything, so I think just having that knowledge really helped me because I could do some of the stuff myself.”
The new album, Home, is heavier on using Yo Alex and other Kenyan producers than his debut and, as Abraham jokes, “I import beats from Nairobi because they are cheaper.” The album features a Swahili track called Domo, which means “cheap talk” and also features Proud Refuge, a rapper from California. The album’s title track, Home, was inspired by a conversation that Mwinda had with a teacher about DACA and the effects of being told to go back home when America is the only home that these children know.
“For most of these kids, the only connection they have to their home countries or their countries of birth are their parents. Some of these kids don’t even speak the languages from there. This is all they’ve known their whole lives. I can totally relate to that because, being born in Congo, my Congolese friends make fun of me because I actually have an accent in my Congolese language. I was born there but I wasn’t really raised there. I didn’t get to experience it fully. There were so many times that I was reminded that it wasn’t really home for me. Home is not necessarily a place, you know; it’s the people. It’s in friendships, it’s in relationships, it’s in culture.”
Check out Chuck’s interview with Abraham which includes tasty bits of his music at this link.
“You get, oftentimes, this interplay of multiple time signatures and so it’ll let you move to it and it’ll like change it up for you, whether you want it to or not. There is sort of this anxiety in Italian Beaches and I think the anxiety is expressed because of the fact that the band is a both a digital and an analog band – which is sort of how we are all experiencing our lives these days.
We have this like digital reality that is not the reality that any of us evolved for or with, and so, most people I know are experiencing a cognitive dissonance and extreme anxiety, and Italian Beaches tries to harness that and let us experience it, but in musical form.” – Reva Russell English
By oscillating time signatures with a futuristic wabi-sabi complexity, Lexington electro-jazz band, Italian Beaches, reaches new musical frontiers with their dreamy theatrical performances and their vibrant double-vinyl album coming out on November 4th via Lexington label, Desperate Spirits.
Italian beaches is a potent collection of live synths from Farhad Rezaei, pre-programmed and live beats by Dave Farris, and haunting vocals from Reva Russell English that accumulate into some kind of disorienting science-fiction reality; think Massive Attack but loose enough to be from some alternate dimension.
I sat down with the band at the North Limestone home of lead singer, Reva Russell English, and asked them about how the band and the concept for the album came about.
“Italian Beaches is this future-driven creation that has come back to the past, led by what is basically a sex robot, let’s be honest, she’s a companion, created in the future, for poor humans, who no longer know how to relate to one another because of artificial intelligence and phones. We’ve learned not to need each other and we’ve learned to be very lonely and this coming back to now, that Italian Beaches is doing, is kind of an attempt, sort of in Sun Ra fashion – without having a religion, to sort of like, say:
Let’s try again.
Let’s try again before it’s too late.
Let’s tell our story.
Let’s tell it faster.
Let’s tell it slower.
Let’s get to know each other again.
Let’s feel our feelings.
Let’s open up to love.
Let’s be ready.
Let’s make ourselves known.
It’s an invitation.” – Reva
In addition to Italian Beaches, it is important to note that all of the members of the band have more than 10 other current bands and musical projects between them. Reva plays guitar in clusterfolk group, Reva Dawn Salon, banjo in the proto-bluegrass outfit, Small Batch, and joins her husband, Andrew English, on his projects as Englishman. Percussionist and keyboardist Farhad Rezaei played with March Madness Marching Band and now plays with The Payback and joins Jeff Watts and Berea College drum professor, Tripp Bratton, to perform a unique mix of Middle Eastern and North African music with Hallwa. And finally, Dave Ferris is a Lexington institution and one of the busiest drummer in town; playing with The Tall Boys, Club Dub, Big Fresh, ATTEMPT, The Payback, C The Beat, and that’s just scratching the surface. All of these myriad influences concurrently accumulate into the fragile compositional details of the new Italian Beaches record.
“There are time when you’re trying to figure things out, but even then, it’s so easy – it’s not like you’re hurting my feelings. We’re ok with each other. It’s like having a conversation where you know your language; unlike me talking in English. You don’t hiccup. There is this fluency.” – Farhad
The first time that Reva and drummer Dave Farris played together was at The Green Lantern. She called Dave to book him for a gig because she needed a drummer and they didn’t have time to rehearse, so their first set together was live in front of people. Dave met Farhad Rezaei, at Nema’s Grill, an Iranian restaurant in Frankfort, when their bands were playing across the street from each other. Dave invited Farhad to come join him on-stage at one of Ross Compton’s Outside The Spotlight Jazz Series shows at the Mecca Dance Studio on Limestone spot and speak Farsi through an Echoplex.
Dave and Farhad started playing together in the band FUMA and Reva, when she had just moved back to town in 2010, saw them play in the building on Loudon Avenue that Bullhorn Creative is currently in. After FUMA ended, Dave and Farhad started a new musical project in early 2011 and invited Reva to come on board and sing. After playing together for 6 years and four-tracking recordings at practice, local producer and member of Big Fresh, John Ferguson, connected with the group, recorded and mastered the album, and is putting it out on his Desperate Spirits label.
“We would get together and record and work on stuff and, after a while, if I can’t get any idea, any inspiration, just think: playing a show in Italy, we’re on the beaches there. So, whenever there would be a block, just think Italian Beaches, okay?” – Dave
Reva added, “What’s wrong on an Italian beach?”
When I asked the band what they hoped that people will take away from listening to this album, their responses mimicked the delicate and thoughtful balance that their songs do. Reva hopes, “They feel themselves in their body, where they are.” Dave hopes, “It makes their heart feel something – hope it gives it the pitter-patter.” Farhad hopes, “That people will be happy, being there, being next to this thing that we made – just for a little while. Listen to it once and see what you feel. It’s not conventional music, it’s a conversation.”
Italian Beaches album release show
Early set starts at 8PM
Late set starts at 10PM with a solo performance from Emily Hagihara
18 and over