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.
Music isn’t just music for hip hop artist Devine Carama, it is everything. It is the backdrop to his drive, to his work, and to his life. He raps about a mission that he believes with all his heart, and his life’s work reflects that daily.
Friday night, the first of December, a diverse group of musicians took the stage at The Burl to embody and play for Devine’s mission about community. His non-profit Believing in Forever was hosting a Coat to Keep the Cold Away fundraiser that night, sharing the donations with The Nest and the Reindeer Express. All the funds for the show went to the charities, and cover could be paid in a new coat or toy for donation. The trade off for the act of kindness was a line up of some of Lexington’s finest musicians, boasting a wide variety of genres of high quality music.
Robert Frahm started the night with his tight guitar slinging skills, followed by Sunny Cheeba. Joslyn and the Sweet Compression went next and set the stage for Devine Carama, the headliner of the show and the organizer from the Believing in Forever non-profit. Devine Carama was followed by The Summit and the Johnny Conqueroo. Devine was on the other side of having recently performed a 24-hour Hip Hop for Hope marathon in front of the Fayette County Courthouse.
For the past four years, Devine Carama’s winter season has centered around the Coat to Keep the Cold Away campaign. The first two years, his organization raised funds and collected coats for low income kids and families in the Central Kentucky area. Last year they expanded to Eastern Kentucky as well and bought and delivered 1500 coats to kids who needed them. This year, the requests reached nearly 2800. So Devine went to work. He did the 24 hour marathon and raised almost $4,000 for new coats, but it wasn’t enough. Thus, the beautiful night of music at The Burl that Friday evening.
Joslyn and the Sweet Compression are a great act to follow. They always leave the crowd happy and moving and loving life and everyone in it. From there, Devine took the stage solo. His DJ wasn’t able to be there that night, so he used pre-recorded beats as his backdrop. He did a short intro about who he was and why were were all there that night, and then, he let the words go. Oh man, all those words…
Divine Carama | Photo by Derek Feldman
For twenty minutes Devine Carama slayed lyrics upon lyrics. His rhymes were tight and flowing and talked about so much, about what is real. About life on the streets and about poverty and disenfranchisement and unarmed black men getting shot and community and Africa and about so much. His lyrics are dense and vast and you follow along with him, line by line, as he tells you what it’s all about. He calls to the crowd and they answer along, following the beat with him, moving in time to the rhyme.
“Poetry and lyrics are so important for me…” Devine commented, speaking of the early days of hip hop and of “Diverse complex parallel rhyme schemes, when it really mattered, and substance.” He wants his lyrics to speak about the truth of the struggles he sees in his community and America daily, “things that are going on in the world. Charlottesville, a lot of unarmed black men dying, Trump in office. You rarely hear them mentioned in hip hop. I come from the era of Public Enemy and NWA” when hip hop artists spoke out against the subjects that “will be in the history books.”
His lyrics are packed full of these themes. It’s astounding, how someone can remember all those words, to stand up there and preach and say all the lyrics with emphasis and pathos. To remember and to move, to instill the message in the hearts of the crowd below. The fog on the stage mixed with the cold air from outside and swirled around Devine as he shared his poetry and his passion with the room. The bass bounced against the walls and moved The Burl to a beat it wasn’t as familiar with, and it liked it. You could tell. The room danced that night, from one performer to the next, and the feeling was real good.
Taking a break after twenty minutes, Devine spoke to the crowd about his non-profit, Believing in Forever, which was founded in 2014. Their mission is to inspire education, community service, mentoring and expressive art. They hold nine in-school mentoring programs, called Impact 859. Sons of Single Mothers is another aspect, which recently received a grant from State Farm. They also hold Youth Open Mics, do Philanthropy projects such as A Coat to Keep the Cold Away, motivational youth speaking, and mentoring. They try to inspire strength in the next generation in ways that are “a little different than the norm.”
Mainly, Devine Carama wants all the forgotten, disenfranchised folks out in the community to know that there are people who do see them, who do care. Those are the people he raps about in his hip hop songs, those are the people he works tirelessly for to give them the comfort of a new, warm coat that fits well, and the comfort of taking the time to help with homework, and mentoring them through the difficult choices and consequences life brings. Even free haircuts earned for good grades. And a place to express themselves through spoken word and song as well. All of these things build community, and community is what Devine is all about.
Believing in Forever had a goal to reach, those 2800 coats that had already been requested from all over central and eastern Kentucky. The goal was not quite met after Friday night, so, driven as he is, Devine committed to another hip hop for hope marathon. This time, for 48 hours. For two days straight he would sit outside in the cold and rap his hip hop lyrics every hour, on the hour, for twenty minutes or so each time. Even in the cold, dark night, at 4 and 5 am, he was out there rapping. That was the point, he commented, “The commitment- even when there’s not a lot of people around. [It] symbolizes those families that are struggling that not everyone knows about. Every hour on the hour…Every hour.”
I sat with Devine outside the courthouse during hour eight of his 48 hour marathon. It was a sunny day at 3pm, but the wind was blowing cold, driving the dry, dead leaves around in circles, and after thirty minutes I was frozen cold and couldn’t feel my hands. He had forty more hours to go. He rapped outside to the traffic driving by. Folks honked in support, or walked by to greet him and shake his hands or donate to the cause. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes stopped by to visit. And there were several interviews — including mine:
Music is a strong force within a community. Whatever the genre, it can move people to act and to gather and to commune. When that music is joined with action, it can move mountains. Devine Carama channels his music from his soul, and imbibes it with his passion for community. When he puts that music to work for his beliefs, magic can happen. The magic of a kid getting a great new coat for Christmas, and the relief his parents or guardians feel with the gift of a stranger. The magic of a kid who passes a tough test because members of the community spent their free Saturday with him, working hard on helping him pass. When he does, he gets rewarded and praised and gets a new haircut. These are the differences that matter, this is the real magic of community. Devine Carama embodies that in everything he does.
“With the music I think its always about unearthing truths or emotions that are often suppressed in hip hop music. I’m an agent of change when it comes to that I am the voice that you don’t normally hear in hip hop music. The boy that doesn’t have a father, the young teenage girl who was molested. The underserved black kid that lives in a city that 90 percent don’t look like him. I want my music to be that, and I want my music to be uplifting to those who don’t have a voice.”