Hanging out at a Hip-Hop club in Roppongi, I was having a conversation with a Japanese friend of a friend while vibing out to Kendrick Lamar over the booming speakers.
“Why are you wearing this?” She waved up and down from my blazer to my khakis.
“I guess I just like this style. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you just don’t seem Hip-Hop”
Our conversation sort of fizzled out after that; I was speechless. A woman who I just met, looked me up and down and told me that I wasn’t Hip-Hop? I was borderline about to drop lyric upon lyric, historical facts and figures from the musical encyclopedia in my head, right on top of this girl. But there was no point in wasting my breath just to affirm my identity to a stranger. I knew I was Hip-Hop. And I didn’t need baggy jeans and a Yankees fitted-hat to prove it.
That brief exchange got me thinking about Hip-Hop: not just as a musical genre, but as a culture, too. A culture whose ideas have morphed and evolved long after it’s global pollination started on the streets of 1970s New York City. It’s much more than what I thought it once was. How Hip-Hop is expressed and interpreted changes depending on where you are in the world.
I’m reminded of the many occasions I’ve seen one of my young students rocking Baby Shoop; an increasingly popular women and kid’s wear brand in Japan. The “Black is Beautiful” slogan is often imprinted in graffiti lettering on their clothing.
When I ask my students what they think that statement means, they’re often at a loss for words. Honestly, I don’t expect them to have any knowledge of the slogan’s meaning. Especially since they’re still in the process of learning their own country’s history and culture. For them, Hip-Hop culture is almost entirely about the style. They may not be able to quote a Rakim lyric, but they are still expressing themselves freely through their appearance. Which one could say is quite characteristic of Hip-Hop.
On the other hand this could be seen as cultural misappropriation, in the same way you might find football fans wearing headdresses at a Redskins game. Or non-Japanese streetwear brands throwing an incomprehensible line of kanji characters on a T-shirt because it looks “different”.
Even adult Hip-Hop heads in Japan seem to use their style to represent themselves. At live shows with an old-school vibe, almost everyone there will be wearing clothes from that era. In a more new-school environment, both performers and audience members will be wearing the latest music video fashions. And then there are the very rare b-stylers (or B系/B-kei in Japanese).
Yet with such a large barrier of cultural understanding between America and Japan, do these fashionistas really understand what it means to be black?
Although they are a subculture within the already tiny culture of Japanese Hip-Hop, they seem to take appearance to heart when it comes to representing themselves. From tanning to hair braiding, B-kei’ers seem to have an obsession with what they believe to be black. Someone looking in from the outside might find their black aspirations to be in poor taste; harking back to the era of minstrel shows and sambos.
Yet these young Japanese women (and possibly men, too) would say that they are emulating the culture out of appreciation, not mocking it. Yet with such a large barrier of cultural understanding between America and Japan, do these fashionistas really understand what it means to be black?
Hip-Hop has grown from DJs scratching records at summer barbecues, to being a significant part of black culture, to being an idea of self-empowerment and individuality, which has spread around the world and infected many cultures in various ways. At first glance, Hip-Hop might seem like a purely visual trend in Japan. Which makes sense. In a homogenous society, appearance might take a certain precedence in affirming ones identity.
Yet if you take a stroll around Yoyogi Park on a warm Saturday, you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find b-boys and b-girls breakdancing…rappers in a cypher with a boombox blasting. Graffiti fills up the walls when walking through the narrow, hidden corridors of Shibuya. Out by Sumida River, you might run into Kohh and the Riverside Mobb, who have used Hip-Hop as a means to escape their negative environment. At night, there’s DJs on the radio playing homage mixes of Nujabes. Japan has a way of taking existing things and making them uniquely their own.
So I have to say: even on this small island nation, the beat is alive and well.