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.
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