I’m sitting in a club in Shinjuku, Tokyo, sipping distilled snake venom, jet-lagged to the point of hallucination. A statue of Godzilla glares from the corridor outside. I’m in the VIP section of an after-party celebrating Awich, Japan’s biggest rapper.
Four hours ago (three hours of concert and one hour by bus), Awich played the newly built K-Arena Yokohama stadium, the second largest arena in Japan. Twenty thousand people, myself included, watched her undertake the kind of herculean, all-encompassing, oeuvre-building performance through which an artist turns themselves into a legend (Beyonce’s Renaissance, Taylor Swift’s Eras).
We were surrounded by Awich before she even arrived on stage. First, her voice—deep and feminine, welcoming us. Then a slide show of her life. Twentysomething Awich holding her infant daughter Toyomi Jah’mira. Awich, shy, in a photo with her late husband. Awich at home in Okinawa. Awich in the studio with the Tokyo rap collective Yentown (she’s the only female member). The photos were an overture to the show—Here are the stories I’m going to tell. And, finally, Awich herself, backlit by the sun rising over Japan.
As the beat changed, a drum kicked in. Awich shouted, “Let’s go!”
There were pyrotechnics. There was a performer in a kimono playing the sanshin, a traditional Okinawan stringed instrument. There were also somber moments amid the hot, bad-bitch songs—a painting of Awich looking through a barbed wire fence, the whir of jets. A blond girl with dip-dyed wings like an avenging angel rode out on the backs of dancers. A Japanese comedian named Yuriyan Retriever did a vaudeville impersonation of Awich. A rapper from Yentown talked into the mic: “When the yen was the most powerful force in the world…Yentown.”
At the end of her show, Awich had an announcement. Strapped into a glittering silver highchair and hoisted hundreds of feet up in the air, she was so small and so high up that if it weren’t for the monitors, you’d just have to go by word of mouth that she was even there. From the levitating chair she said something along the lines of “Awich to the world 2024! Let’s make this change together!” In response, fans held up little plastic baggies with single roses in them.
I know something the world does not. I want to ring a bell in the town square. Awich is coming.
Both musically and culturally, hip-hop shapes the Anglosphere. In Japan, though (the second-largest music market in the world, behind the U.S.), and this feels sacrilegious to write, hip-hop is a nonfactor. The charts are almost 80% Japanese pop, with the remaining slots filled with foreign hits and anime soundtracks. If hip-hop and streaming fuel America, Japan runs on J-Pop. And the CD, a format that I assumed had gone the way of the dodo bird, remains the number one form of musical consumption in Japan.
To understand why Awich, 36, is a Big Deal, you need to understand the hypersaturated, hypercontrolled and mysteriously sexless world of J-Pop. In J-Pop the assembly-line aspect of pop stardom is part of the appeal. It’s text, not subtext. Girls are auditioned and trained by a handful of uberpowerful management companies. Each has compelling stories marketed. Like well choreographed vestal virgins in schoolgirl outfits, “idols” are not allowed to smoke, drink, or date. By 30 the idols “graduate”—an enforced obsolescence.
The J-Pop girl group AKB48 has sold more records than any other female musical act in Japanese history. They’re the fifth-best-selling girl group globally. At points the group has boasted 120 members. The girls are divided into teams so there is an AKB48 performing at the special AKB48 theater, and another to do TV appearances, and another to attend “handshake events.” Although in America superfans are seen as anomalies, in Japan the musical economy relies on every fan being a superfan.
Yasushi Akimoto, the producer of AKB48, created the franchise around the idea of having “idols you can meet.” In some ways AKB48, and other J-Pop groups like it, feed our most narcissistic secret wish about art: that someone might create it specifically for us. The music is divorced from the reality of a creator, and the artist and their own messiness eliminated. In fact, the system is a surgical separation of art and artist; no longer artists at all, but idols.
Harvey Dickson writes in The New York Times, “I have come to believe that serious musicians in Japan are kept in an archipelago of secret prisons for the talented. Japanese TV is afflicted with a permanent plague of Justin Bieberish boybands…” One thing that troubles Japanese artists and management alike is the rest of the world. J-Pop, and Japanese popular music in general, tends not to perform well overseas. Awich’s success has given rise to a sense of pride and possibility. Her fans hope she is exceptional.
At midnight on a cold Sunday, the ticketed after-party for Awich’s concert is just starting to fill up. The Awich fans are young, cool, and diverse in gender—20-somethings on dates, groups of girls in platform boots and Awich The Union T-Shirts, millennials in Issey. A teenage boy with shaggy bangs has a white shirt that he’s scrawled “REPRESENT OKINAWA” on in Sharpie.
Up in the VIP section, Asian journalists from Taiwan to Singapore flirt with Japanese celebrities and talk about Awich’s odds of making it big. Diddy has Ciroc, and Rick Ross has Belaire, and Awich has Habush, an Okinawan alcohol made with herbs and snake venom. There are photos of Awich, smizing with bottles of Habush pressed to her chest, pasted to every floor of the club. Bottle girls circulate with shot glasses of the brown liquor.
The label’s A&R guy giddily tells me that he hasn’t seen a press push this expensive (management flying journalists out from across Asia) since Whitney Houston toured. At a brief meet-and-greet after the show, Awich shook his hand and remembered his name. He looks at me significantly. “She just had the biggest moment of her career, and she remembers my name,” he says. He takes a sip of Habush and chokes, “That’s star quality.” I (absolutely not star quality) had a hard time remembering his name, a side effect of the Habush.
In her song “Link Up,” Awich raps, “Eastside, Westside, let’s link up. Northside, Southside, let’s drink up.” And then, in Japanese: “I learned that there is a story there too.” When Awich raps “Eastside, Westside,” she’s not talking about Compton or New York. She’s talking about Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, and she’s talking about the West and the East, a divide thousands of years in the making playing out on a tiny cluster of islands.
Okinawa sits in the middle of the Pacific, connecting Japan, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. It’s known for the longevity of its people (one of the rare parts of the world where an average resident lives into their hundreds), its clear waters, and a painful history. Before the Japanese colonized Okinawa, it was ruled by the indigenous Ryukyu Kingdom. Under colonial rule the native culture of the Ryukyu was suppressed; children raised to speak Okinawan were taught their language was a dialect of Japanese.
American troops invaded Okinawa during World War II. In the ensuing battle, which lasted 82 days, it’s been estimated that over 100,000 Okinawan civilians lost their lives—one-third of the island’s prewar population. After the war, Japan gave Okinawa to the US. In 1971 the US gave the islands back to Japan, but the American troops stayed. They’re still there today. The American military occupies 20% of the island and as much as a third of its livable space. It’s a burden. Barbed wire surrounds swaths of the island like inorganic brush.
The next day, in an office building wedged in the narrow streets of Harajuku, I meet Awich.
For Awich, growing up in Okinawa, the sounds of America were everywhere: noise pollution from American jets, soldiers training, their families speaking English at the bars on the streets, and the music—always the music. Awich recalls the first time she listened to rap. “When I was in junior high school, it was just, like, me walking around the streets, because I couldn’t get into clubs or anything. The American influence was so heavy. So heavy.” She rented a CD of 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me. “It’s two discs—the first disc, first track is ‘Ambitionz Az a Ridah,’ and the voice. It starts with a whisper and a piano.” She’s whispering to herself. She hums the chords softly. “And the bass. And the drum. It was like—I don’t know. I’d never heard anything like it before.”
Her influences range from Tupac and Biggie to the Wu-Tang Clan to Beyoncé. On 2022’s Queendom, in the song “Link Up,” Awich raps her gratitude: “Thanks to hip-hop, to hip-hop.”
“I feel like hip-hop gave a platform, for artists, to talk about our roots in music,” she says. “And that is the culture of the genre. How to represent where you come from, or what makes you you. To represent. Through hip-hop, I’m able to tell my story.”
Her first album, Asian Wish Child (2007), starts with static, as if Awich is communicating from years away, a new voice with an old connection. In English, she says heavily, “Asian wish child, I’m yours.” Like a spell to cement her own existence, she repeats her name often. She’ll call out “Okinawa” the way other rappers might say “Brooklyn” or “Atlanta.” On Partition (2020), “Patrona” is a reggaeton earworm. Album by album there’s a growing confidence to her sound—more vocals, more jazz, more blues, more rock, more traditional Okinawan influence. The opening to The Union starts with a chant and ramps into her flow. The music video features dancers practicing Okinawan martial arts. Her discography is not without growing pains, but at her best Awich is gripping and full-spirited.
In person she’s stunning, lit from beyond, karmically blessed. Shiny dark hair slicked up. Strong jaw. Full lips over a lightly crooked smile. By J-Pop standards, though: “I’ve never felt perfect. [Perfection] is like trying to protect the purity of something.” Awich shakes her head. “Because I'm always scarred up. Like, right now my legs are so messed up from going to the jungle at night. You want to see?”
Quickly, she kicks off her thigh-high PVC stilettos. “I love swimming, jumping, running. If I get bug bites I can never not scratch. I mean, I would rather be in pain than itching. That’s my personality. I can't sit still. If it’s going to hurt me, I still got to do it.” Awich shrugs.
After high school Awich moved to Atlanta. “Growing up in Okinawa, America was right in my face. And it’s, like, so mysterious. The base, the Army. I had to go to America. And I felt like I was…” She searches for the word. “Allowed. Allowed to go to America because you know, you have these military bases on Okinawa, you can't tell me I can't go to America. You can't tell me I can’t be Americanized! You made me Americanized! You better take responsibility for that. I’m very entitled to be Americanized. You can’t tell me shit. Then take all this shit off the island, then.”
Over the past three or so years there has been a parade of articles declaring a slippage in hip-hop’s dominance of American charts. But as the music’s domestic grip wanes, a crop of international artists has emerged: from the UK (Central Cee), from Puerto Rico (Bad Bunny, the king of Latin American rap), from Nigeria (Burna Boy). Some wiser US artists have taken notes—one Travis Scott hit, which is actually titled “K-Pop,” features Bad Bunny and the Weeknd (Canadian). There is an urge to regulate who is allowed in a genre, especially one as tethered to identity as hip-hop is.
If hip-hop was and is on some level a reaction to the colonial forces that once enslaved and still oppress Black Americans, that same force then delivered hip hop to the doorstep of a girl growing up as far from the origin of rap as possible. While the culture may have been foreign, the story told—of continuous colonization, displacement, suppression—felt familiar. How do we receive music, passed unplanned by jets and radio to unwilling ears? At this point, is it possible to close borders? Or is there a new, global sound in hip-hop? Awich’s management, the same team that flew journalists from Singapore to watch the concert, is betting on it.
If Awich was looking for answers in Atlanta, she found love. She tells me the story quickly and painfully. At 19, living in Atlanta, she met a man and fell in love. While she was pregnant, he was incarcerated. He got out of prison. They got married. By the time she was 24 her husband was murdered in a shoot-out. She found out that he had been cheating on her. She jokes, quasi-outraged: “If he didn’t die, I would’ve killed him myself.” By her early 20s, Awich was a widow with a kid, left by the person she loved with a mess of a life.
She moved back to Okinawa with her parents and wallowed in a house she hated. She considered dying. The idea freed her. “It's like, if you can die right now that means you have nothing to lose. Like, you don't have to do anything! You are blessed. You have a daughter, you have parents that support you, that allow you to be a depressed shit in their house. So, okay—if I don't have to do anything right now, what do I want to do?” What she wanted was to write music.
Awich recalls her parents’ house in Okinawa. She would lay in bed telling the house how much she despised it. “And then the house was like, Why don't you like me?”
She has me in her palm—what else did the house say? “Don't you remember our memories? You came into this house when you were 10 years old. You were so excited. You were saying this house is so nice and so big. I'm talking for a while, like I'm in a phone conversation with a house. It's probably in my head. But a lot of things are just in your head. Like the fact that you cannot become the person you are.”
This came up a lot; the idea of never fully becoming the version of yourself that you are. “If you can start changing what’s in your head, then you start changing your reality,” Awich says. I tell her the obvious, that in English her name sounds like “a witch.” That doesn’t bother her. “I’m in touch with the spiritual side of this world. There is energy that moves things around. Everything is made of energy.”
Energy rules Awich’s world. She is skilled at seeing the essence of a thing, a seed often overlooked because it’s too difficult or indelicate or ugly. Awich only wears gold because it deforms easily. She loves fruit because it's a death trap for bugs. The alcohol she sells is part poison and sweet as sugar. She aspires to write a sci-fi novel one day, about a worldwide conspiracy and what people in power do behind gates. “It starts with an Okinawan high school girl who likes to sleep around with the US military.” She laughs at herself.
Then, suddenly, Awich is serious. “I feel like I'm releasing people from thinking that there is just one way of being successful or being beautiful, [that] there was just one way of being a woman or a mother, or a good person, or a cool person. You can be cool and smart. You can be a mom and sexy too, and you can have fun and do your job. People needed some options. They needed some more ways to be themselves.” The specter of J-Pop hovers. When I ask her about how it influences her work, Awich demurs—speaking about the J-Pop scene gives J-Pop license to speak about her.
Awich raps in English, Okinawan, and Japanese, fluidly transitioning between languages. For all the talk of marketing and global appeal, her music is not music for everyone. It’s art created for the artist. For Awich, with her eagerness to show bug-bitten knees, to reveal her humanity, her reality, to talk about her mistakes, there are no false idols. Awich peddling her Habush, a word impossible to say without a hiss. Awich who wants to represent Okinawa. Awich who is complete in her resolve to succeed across the world because it’s who she’s meant to be.
“It's like the beginning all over again. I'm finally starting to feel comfortable in my place in Japan, so I'm getting out of my safe zone, going out there and throwing myself into the pool of sharks. It's a new challenge for me. It’s not going to be easy, but I’d rather do it.” She looks down. “Because I don't want to be itching. I just want to scratch and bleed.”
Originally Appeared on GQ