Much like Randy Newman, G Yamazawa loves LA.
Since moving from Washington, D.C., to the West Coast in 2015, the Japanese-American MC/poet and Durham native has become enamored with the city’s plentiful musical and cultural offerings. But, as a working artist who makes all of his income from touring, he’s not home nearly as often as he’d like. Returns to his native state, however, make the time away from his current nest more palatable, including a Thursday, June 6, show at The Mothlight, which marks his debut in this city as a rapper.
“I’ve done poetry in Asheville a few times, but this is my first time doing any kind of music in Asheville,” Yamazawa says. “I’ve been making my rounds for a long time in the poetry world, but I’m still really new to making my rounds in the rap shit.”
When Yamazawa was 21, he left North Carolina for the nation’s capital and spent three years there working with youth poetry nonprofit organizations, focusing on collaborations with high school students. Though D.C. is a much larger city than Durham, Yamazawa notes it’s still relatively small compared to Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and its somewhat slow pace and perfect proximity to the Triangle allowed him to gain his footing as a young adult.
“By the time I came to LA, I felt I was ready. I’ve had a global perspective in the last four, five, six years, and, resource-wise, it’s the capital of mass media,” Yamazawa says. “There’s also a feeling in LA that there’s no way you can take over a city like LA. There’s just no way you can feel like you’re really running shit, so I think it’s a good place to humble myself and learn about the industry.”
Regarding musical collaborations in the California metropolis, Yamazawa points out that connections via the internet mean “your actual proximity doesn’t matter in many ways.” Still, he’s worked with other LA-based MCs as well as producers, engineers, videographers and DJs who helped create and promote his album Money Is Time, which was released last October. He’s also linked up with event organizers, community organizers and activists in music and other fields, along with what he calls a “large youth-oriented, diverse network and community” of fellow Buddhists, all of which strengthens his sense of belonging.
“The Asian entertainment and specifically Asian hip-hop scene is just incredible,” Yamazawa says. “I don’t even know how to put a finger on how normalized being Asian is out here and how different folks from within the Asian diaspora interact with each other, and also the Asian diaspora interacting with other cultures as well. And food and the languages — ‘infrastructure’ is kind of the only way to put it. Being in the mix of all that is definitely eye-opening and a new experience for me.”
Also still fairly novel for Yamazawa is the world of hip-hop. His acclaimed 2017 single “North Cack” marked the first time his name was introduced to most people in his home state as an MC. Coupled with no longer living in the South, he says it’s been “a slow process connecting with folks,” especially when he prefers the one-on-one human relationships that the internet can’t fully provide. While he’s still largely known as a poet, he says the affirmation he felt from the breakthrough track led to a 100% creative focus on music. In turn, he wants to follow that muse but sees space for his past and present to intertwine.
“I spent so much time writing poems that I’m just behind when it comes to learning about what it means to make music, so I’ve been trying to teach myself all about music and production and engineering and videography,” he says. “I’ve been completely away from poetry for a long time now, so I haven’t written a poem in a minute. But I’ve been starting to try to think about ways to have a poetic element back in my music and maybe publishing rhymes.”
As for demarcations between the two seemingly overlapping realms, Yamazawa agrees that while the writing process has much in common, the similarities soon cease. The places each will end up and the potential avenues they have to reach an audience are wildly different. The same goes for the business model, marketplace and cultural awareness around the two forms.
“The bottom line is poetry is an ancient, ancient form of art and communication throughout history in all civilizations, but hip-hop is this commercially viable, multibillion-dollar industry where you would hope your art ends up in that circulation. Poetry is a much more curated, concentrated, intimate kind of marketplace,” he says.
“In that way, it’s hard for me to think, while I’m writing a poem, ‘Where is this going to end up? Who is going to hear this? How do I put this out?’” he muses. “‘How does it become a product?’ is, I think, the big question, which isn’t what discourages me from writing poems — but as I make music, I’ve run into a lot of walls. It’s not that I’m afraid of that, but I just want to be the best MC and recording artist I can possibly be, and in order for me to do that right now, I’ve had to put some blinders on everything else I’ve known up to this point.”
WHO: G Yamazawa & Elevator Jay with Sk, the Novelist and Musashi Xero
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Thursday, June 6, 9:30 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show