G Yamazawa has a voice made for rapping. It resonates with a low rumble from his chest and releases in a combination of sharp staccato bursts and slow rolling waves. His words come strong but effortlessly, with grit, precision, and a slight Southern drawl.
“Honestly, man, I haven’t been able to pinpoint somebody I sound like or emulate, and I think that’s a good thing,” the 27-year-old North Carolina native tells SF Weekly.
Yamazawa introduced his unique sound to the hip-hop world last year when he dropped his debut album, Shouts to Durham. The name of the 12-track independent release pays tribute to his hometown and signifies the deep reverence he carries for the place locals know as Bull City.
“For me, the whole project is a yearning for home,” he says, explaining that although he left Durham for Los Angeles six years ago, his birthplace will never cease to represent a central pillar of his identity.
Shouts to Durham’s most prominent testament to that is “North Cack,” a thumping, hypnotic ode to Yamazawa’s old stomping grounds. The accompanying video was shot in the Carolina backwoods, with Yamazawa and his buddies gleefully romping through a sparse landscape while the sun sets into the trees. Watching them cut loose for the camera, you imagine Yamazawa must return often to reconnect with old friends and recharge his batteries.
“The thing I probably love the most about where I’m from is just the power of simplicity,” he says. “People find a way to live with each other and appreciate life, and so for me what I love about North Carolina is that simplicity. It’s the food and it’s the hospitality and it’s the neighborly attitude toward everybody in the town that I really love, that helps shape who I am.”
Yet whatever lessons about the virtues of simplicity he may have gleaned from growing up in this environment, Yamazawa has clearly developed into a complex adult. Having garnered several honors and awards as a spoken word artist, he’s spent much of the last six years on the road, bringing his poetry to college campuses and talking to students about weighty topics like race and identity.
These kinds of deeper reflections naturally seep into his music as well. Yamazawa seems a tad resistant to this notion, asserting that “in the album, I honestly feel like you don’t get the traditional introspective aspect that you would in my poetry.”
But you don’t have to listen long to hear nuance and rumination in Shouts to Durham. Take “Talk That Talk,” a song for which Yamazawa released a video just last weekend. Featuring Rhymesayers rapper Toki Wright, the song’s chorus asks: “Why you talk that talk, homeboy / You don’t walk that walk, do ya? / Why you talk that talk, homeboy / You don’t want no war, do ya?” A casual listener might interpret these lyrics as standard hip-hop braggadocio, the predictable jawing at some strawman MC or hypothetical foe. But in discussing his lyrics with SF Weekly, Yamazawa reveals that he is in fact directing the question at himself.
He’s grappling with the impact of his work, and what it means to speak out against injustice in society.
“Am I really doing anything, does what I say really change anything?” he muses.
This inquiry applies to other parts of the song, as when he angrily spits: “Fuck Donald Trump / And all of his partners / And all of his towers / And all of his power / All of his henchmen / But all of them cowards.” On the one hand, Yamazawa believes it’s necessary to convey his indignation, but on the other, criticizing “Donald Trump is really easy, and it’s actually almost too easy to me.”
This kind of critical self-awareness helps Yamazawa operate within a Black cultural art form without exploiting or mocking it. He shows utmost respect for the origins of hip-hop, and demonstrates a keen perception of the opportunities and limitations he encounters as an Asian-American within the genre. You’d be hard-pressed to credibly accuse him of co-opting anything.
You’d also be hard-pressed to prod him into accusing anyone else of such transgressions. It would be very easy, for example, for him to unload on someone like Brian Imanuel, the Indonesian-Chinese teenager who, using the moniker Rich Chigga, piled up more than 90 million views for the 2016 YouTube rap single “Dat $tick.” Imanuel drew scorn for his handle, and for uttering the slur that rhymes with it in the video. Now performing as Rich Brian, Imanuel has launched the beginnings of a lucrative career under the auspices of catch-all media company 88rising. He’s since been profiled in such publications as The New Yorker, Pitchfork, Forbes, and Time, and appeared on late-night network television earlier this year to promote his recently released debut album.
Yet when asked about Imanuel in the context of appropriation, Yamazawa says, “Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing for Asian-Americans and Asian-identifying artists to be getting acclaim.” The closest he gets to leveling any criticism at the Rich Chiggas of the world is to acknowledge “there is an element of embarrassment for American-born Asian artists who have been in the culture daily and deeply their whole lives” and then must watch “the big wave and the big level of recognition coming from artists from overseas who haven’t lived in communities of color or with Black people” and who hold a tenuous understanding of “the rooted element of what hip-hop is.”
But even this kind of tension provides an opportunity for more of the introspection Yamazawa has showcased in his own work.
“It makes the conversation confusing and interesting and fun,” he says.
That conversation will take center stage later this month during CAAMFest, for which Yamazawa appears on a panelat the Oakland Museum of California moderated by Joy Ng of Hip Hop x Asian America. Later, he’ll join East Bay hip-hop fixtures Lyrics Born and Ruby Ibarra for a ruckus concert at Starline Social Club. For those who care to listen, both events that evening should offer a chance to hear an original voice, shouting wisdom with a slight Southern drawl from Durham.
G Yamazawa with Lyrics Born and Ruby Ibarra,
Friday, May 18, 5:30 p.m., at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland,
Friday, May 18, 9 p.m., at Starline Social Club, 2236 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. Free (panel) and $15-$25 (concert); 415-552-5580 or caamfest.com