THE EVOLUTION OF G YAMAZAWA: From Buddhism in the South, spoken word to hip-hop


G Yamazawa. photo by William Lee

G Yamazawa. photo by William Lee

Poet and rapper George Yamazawa, Jr. — known by his stage name G Yamazawa — performed at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s seventh annual Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival in San Francisco June 17. Prior to his performance, the 26-year-old native of Durham, N.C. took a few moments to talk about his life and work.

Nichi Bei Weekly: How did you get into spoken word and hip-hop?

G Yamazawa: I loved art itself — like visual art — and then got into graffiti, and then got into dancing. I wanted to pop lock and all of that when I was in middle school. And then I got into rhyming when I was about 12, 13. And then when I was 17, I ran into the poetry community — fortunately there was a small one in the Durham area. I went to a huge youth poetry festival and competition called Brave New Voices that really changed my life. I wanted to be a rapper, but all I knew of rap at that time — beyond some positive music that I had come across — was sort of a mainstream, convoluted, commercialized form, and I knew that I didn’t want to go that route. So poetry allowed me to be confident and honest and creative and dope, and still have a really hip hop-centric performance style and writing style. And so for the last nine years I have been doing poetry heavily, and full-time for the last five years. And also in the last couple years I’ve been working back on music again.

NBW: What’s the lifestyle of a full-time poet?

GY: I tour at colleges and universities full-time, which is in the spring and fall semesters, all around the country. I’ll usually do an hour set at different schools that bring me in. It’s usually a really intimate experience. I get to share space and tell my story in front of young, diverse, progressive, critically-thinking audiences. And so it’s really, really fun. It gets lonely sometimes, because I travel myself everywhere I go, but for the most part I’m really blessed to be able to get to travel and share my story.

NBW: What response do you get from the students?

GY: I think most times they end up enjoying it and they end up being exposed to a world of art and performance that they never knew of. And we end up just having cool conversations. And a lot of times, young people’s social-political idea of their race and identity gets really formed in that 18 to 22 period. So sometimes students come up and they talk about how they never really thought about their identity in that sense. And whether it’s Asian, black, white, Latino, immigrant, indigenous communities, I think identity rings true for anybody, and thinking about how you view yourself is really important.

NBW: What are the main components of your own identity?

GY: Asian. North Carolina born and raised. American as hell. I’m Japanese but also really I’m a North Carolina boy. I’m also Buddhist; I grew up practicing Buddhism in the Bible Belt. That unique background gave me the skill to be able to, not compromise who I am, but sort of allow myself to accept myself so much and so deeply that I’m able to open myself up to other ideas and other cultures and other ways of living and so I feel that I’m pretty flexible. I don’t like the term code-switching, but I’ve learned the skill of having to change aspects of your language, your behavior, your tone, for the sake of a harmonious encounter.

NBW: How does Buddhism play in the South?

GY: Most Eastern philosophies are appreciated but never really explored. A lot of Eastern philosophies in general are so easily condensed into a sound bite that it’s cool to feel like you’re getting a lot of things out of a really simple line like, “Be the water,” or some corny stuff like that. But Eastern philosophy is really deep and the ways that Eastern and Western cultures and civilizations have thought about the world have been vastly different, and they have spread vastly differently as well. Often times I’m careful about it, because when you think about different forms of faith, the way that Islam is viewed in the South is much different from the way Buddhism is viewed — so I would never say that I had it necessarily hard practicing Buddhism. But what it did do, it made me really think deeply about what do I believe, why does my family believe the things they believe, why is that different from the way they do things here in North Carolina, and what is the truth. It allowed me to dive deep into myself and ask those questions, and I think over time I’ve been able to start to form my own ideas of that.

NBW: Are there ways in which Buddhism informs the new record?

GY: Yeah, I think Buddhism informs everything I do. And that’s the hope, that’s the goal. Buddhism has definitely been a major foundation, and it really is a revolutionary idea: believing in the sanctity of your own life and the life of others, of humans and also all living things, and the interdependence between all of us. Although my identity is so unique, it’s my hope that my work can transcend a lot of different ethnic and cultural barriers that plague American culture. The point of poetry is to make the personal universal, and to really draw the connection between your story and everyone else’s. So Buddhism plays an amazing role in that it allows me to keep that in mind.

NBW: What other elements are in this album?

GY: So the album is called “Shouts to Durham.” I actually moved away from Durham when I was 21, five years ago. And in the last five years I’ve really developed my own sense of self as an artist, and I’ve been able to travel globally, domestically, all over the country, and all the while trying to maintain the small town spirit that I have, that I cultivated at home. So the album is mostly about me traveling and getting outside of Durham, while still trying to remain parallel to what Durham has taught me and the people there and all the stories that made me who I am. I just wanted to celebrate the idea of honoring and paying homage to where you came from and the people who made you who you are — but also to share that I want to get outside of Durham, and I want what I’m doing to be global. I want to be a global citizen.

NBW: What kind of response have you gotten so far from the music?

GY: Man, it’s been crazy… We just put it out there, and put it up on iTunes and Spotify. We released the video (for the song “North Cack”) a few days after the album dropped, and it really pushed the record a lot. It hit charts, which is crazy to me — I never thought it would hit any kind of chart anywhere, and the response has been overwhelming.

NBW: The video for “North Cack” is remarkable — can you give some insights into its creation?

GY: It’s a really Durham project. The two features are both from Durham, the person who made the beat is from Durham, the dude who shot the video is from Durham, the dancer is from Durham, the whole video crew is from Durham, the location where we shot it is right where my homie Junior grew up, which is in the cut back off by Highway 64 in the sticks. The concept of the one shot with the people popping in and out of the video was the idea of director Saleem Reshamwala. Videographers keep ideas in their pocket for the right video to come along or the right person to work with, and I think he had been saving that idea for a little while and was like, “Let’s try it for this video.”

NBW: So what’s next for you?

GY: Keep pushing this record, keep learning the business of what’s going on. I’m starting to build a team. A lot of people know me from poetry, and that’s probably my strongest suit, but more and more people are starting to find out about the music, and enjoy the music. This is something that I’m creatively more inclined to be doing. I worked so hard to get good at recording and mastering and polishing the actual records — that needs to get translated on stage now. … We’re going to work with a band in LA and start to fuse the rap and the poetry. So that’s the next big goal, and hoping to start touring with a band, and start doing festival spots, and also of course working on music. And I’m going to write a children’s book this year. I want to work on manufacturing clothing and expressing myself in many different creative ways.

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