YONSEI RAPPERS ON A HIP-HOP JOURNEY: ScoJourners claim their history and connect across borders through rap

STRAIGHT OUTTA J-TOWN — San Francisco hip-hop group, the ScoJourners, (from left to right:) Max (Max Leung), Skitz Da Samurida (Scott Shimamoto), Estairy (Toby Kanzawa), Curt Sak (Curtis Sasaki) and An Na (An Na Tran); photo courtesy of ScoJourners

It’s not easy being independent these days. All the harder if you are a group of hip-hop artists committed to musical integrity in an era of the corporatized, cookie-cutter music. Even tougher when you are Asian Americans, meaning you don’t exactly fit the mold of the generic rapper.

But galvanized by a love for the music, a solid plan, a thirst for adventure, and a lifetime of memories, San Francisco’s own ScoJourners are crafting a path that allows them to work together, connect to their roots, speak their message, and pursue their creative passions, one gig at a time.

With their release of their second album, “ScoJourners,” the group — comprised of Skitz Da Samurida (Scott Shimamoto), Estairy (Toby Kanzawa), Curt Sak (Curtis Sasaki), An Na (An Na Tran) and Max (Max Leung), along with producer AyeWeezy (Abel Peneyra) — is writing the next chapter of their story, one that has taken them from the streets of San Francisco to the shores of Asia, and back. The ScoJourners produced their self-titled album, which follows their 2009 debut, “The Premiere,” at Shima Sounds recording studio and label on Haight Street, a studio that Skitz runs.

Building on the momentum created by their first record, their second venture establishes the ScoJourners as a presence to be heard in the hip-hop community, on both sides of the Pacific.

ON A JOURNEY — (From left to right): Estairy (Toby Kanzawa), Curt Sak (Curtis Sasaki) and Skitz Da Samurida (Scott Shimamoto) — who grew up playing basketball with the San Francisco Japantown-based Associates basketball team — are the three main rappers of the ScoJourners. photo courtesy of ScoJourners

The ScoJourners united in 2004 after years spent pursuing solo careers. Although they had been friends for their entire lives — having played basketball together in the San Francisco’s Japantown community institution, the Associates league, and later, performing at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival — it was actually a trip to Japan that brought the group officially together. Like generations of Nikkei before them, the ScoJourners — the majority of the members are Yonsei — transformed a journey to their ancestral homeland into a moment of self-definition. By sticking together and joining forces, the ScoJourners realized, they would be stronger and could accomplish more. They could build on the history and lifetime of experiences that already bonded them as brothers as they went about pursing their dreams to make music.

Estairy relates their vision in “The Plot,” an early track on the new album: “we stay together, and just grind it out, cuz we all share the life of just rhyming routes.”

The ScoJourners found in their name a charge that melds the legacy of their Asian American forbearers — often times represented by a hostile American society as itinerant travelers, or sojourners — with a desire to represent their particular truths, coming from the place where they come from — the Sco — as in San Francisco. For the ScoJourners, this has meant claiming the legacy of the wanderer and bringing their brand of Bay Area hip-hop to audiences both local and global. The ScoJourners have now played gigs ranging from local Northern California venues and Festivals, like the Nihonmachi Street Fair, to the clubs of Japan and Thailand.

“Music was the vessel,” as Skitz recalls it, “but it was a broader life experience we were after.”

As the ScoJourners made clear on their first album with tracks like “Independent Hustle,” their musical journey is marked by a commitment to steer clear of the mainstream music industry, with its tastes for dumbed-down hip-hop: “put it this way,” Skitz explains, “I haven’t listened to the radio in hella long.”

Not wanting to subject themselves to a corporate system where, as Skitz explains, “your average Asian is definitely pushed aside,” the ScoJourners decided to find a path of their own making. This has meant overcoming the obstacles many indie artists face, like not having the seed money and instant publicity offered by a mainstream label; rather, they would have to build a sound and audience on their own, with the support of family, friends, and the network they themselves put together — meaning from the underground up.

For the ScoJourners, this also meant the development of a trans-Pacific audience, one that brings together Bay Area rap with emergent hip-hop communities across the sea, like the ones they saw burgeoning in Japan on their first trip. The group has now taken numerous trips to Japan, performing in venues throughout Tokyo, Yokohama, Mito and Yamagata.

On their latest album, the ScoJourners highlight the collaborations their travels have afforded them by featuring artists like Shing02, Emi Meyer and GSB on various tracks. The transnational, multilingual aesthetic featured on tracks like “Hero,” “We Buildin’” and “Live As One” is yet another example of the innovative spirit of hip-hop bred in the Bay Area.

Yet just as the ScoJourners, being Asian American, are probably not the first faces you would think of when you think of your typical rap group, they encounter a related predicament when touring Japan — as Nikkei hip-hop artists, they’re not your average Japanese.

Working to “bridge that gap,” as Estairy sees it, has given the ScoJourners a fertile ground to grow as artists. It’s a place that allows them to pursue their love of entertainment yet also feed their desire to promote a socially conscious message.

“Anyone can write a song about partying and weed,” as Curt Sak puts it. Rather than follow the ready-made script of the music industry, Estairy notes, “We take it upon ourselves to create music where we know what we’re talking about.

Listening to the second album, what the ScoJourners know is who they are, where they come from, and how they want to relate to the world around them. The ScoJourners, through their music and community commitments, affirm Japantown’s historical ties to the Fillmore District, as well as the long cultural connection between Asian Americans and African Americans, by speaking up through the language of a new generation — hip-hop — and paying homage to the music’s roots back in the late 1970s and 1980s, the time when they were coming up together as kids.

In addition, just as their group attempts to build on the legacy of the sojourner, the ScoJourners have claimed another aspect of their history in their second album: the defining ground of the World War II American concentration camps.

On “ScoJourners,” the group mines historical matter on tracks like “Herd’em up, Pack’em Off” and “Warchild,” exploring the impacts of the camps as well as the challenges and vexed set of possibilities facing men of color in U.S. society. On “Warchild,” recorded with “Equipto,” we hear lyrics like: “so it’s like combat when we speak on songs, since they took everything that my jichan owned. Mind gone, so all I really have is expression. Just imagine being stripped of every single possession.” Even from the perspective of generations after the camps, their work registers the continued toll of war on their lives: “we are war childs, grippin’ the microphone, steppin’ in position we a long way from home.”

Yet just as the ScoJourners are committed to speaking out, their message is also about searching for wisdom within. The later tracks advocate for an ethos of resistance, but also one of humility and introspection, of an engagement with the world marked by an awareness that in order for social change to take place, it has to happen from the inside out. On the track, “Live as One,” they sing together: “Look at this world around us. Ain’t no one to blame but us, change has to happen through us. We must think about our actions and how they affect the world. Gotta change the way we live, make it safe for our kids.”

Although you may not see the ScoJourners trying to fly high like a G6 anytime soon, you won’t see them conforming to conventional pressures or corporate standards either. What you can count on is their presence as artists able to entertain and at the same time stand up for the communities they represent — a rarity these days — and that they’ll be giving it all as they make their peace with the world.

“I know in my heart that this is what I want to do,” says Skitz, summing it up.

 

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