Exclusive: Japan's Queen of Hip-Hop Awich Talks Influences & Shares Gritty Playlist
From bars to fashion, the influence of hip-hop and its culture is seen, heard, and felt around the globe. It’s hip-hop’s ubiquitous energy that hit Okinawa-born Japanese hip-hop artist Akiko Urasaki, a.k.a. Awich – and changed her life forever. Short for “Asian wish child,” Awich adopted her moniker as a homage to her Japanese roots.
Awich’s first encounter with hip-hop was through the late legendary rapper Tupac Shakur. After listening to his iconic All Eyes on Me album when she was 13, she was hooked. Hanging on to every word from Shakur’s lyrics, books, interviews, and movies, a young Awich aspired to become a rapper. At 14, Awich was featured on a local hip-hop compilation album titled Orion Beat, which showcased various Okinawan artists. Then, in 2006, Awich released her debut EP, Inner Research, before relocating to Atlanta that same year. The big move between Tokyo and Atlanta served as the catalyst for her debut album Asian Wish Child, released in 2007 - and she hasn’t looked back since.
See more: Take An Inside Look Into the Legacy of Acclaimed Artist Tupac Shakur In 2022
In 2020, Awich joined her first-ever major record label, Universal Music Japan. Last month, the burgeoning global star released Queendom, a solid album highlighting her personal and professional growth. Awich’s seamless switch from Japanese to English throughout her lyrics is backed with bravado, charm, and a flawless flow. Here, the Japanese queen of hip-hop talks heritage and inspirations, plus shares a power-packed playlist.
Growing up in Japan, what was your first introduction to hip-hop in the English language? How did this initial intro impact you?
My introduction to hip-hop in the English language was when I went into the rental CD shop, thinking that I’ll pick up a CD with my eyes closed and rent that – and that was Tupac. That was my first encounter with real hip-hop. When I popped on the CD and just pressed play, it was something I’d never heard of. I don’t know what moved me so much, but I was just captured from then on. I read all of his lyrics, listened to all of his songs, listened to all of his interviews, and just studied.
At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in the music industry?
Because I had been writing poems since childhood, after my first encounter with hip-hop at the age of 14, I immediately thought that I can write rap, too. Ever since then, I went around telling people “I am a rapper.” As more people noticed me and found me interesting, I started getting invited to perform at day events and participate in a compilation album.
What do you love the most about hip-hop and the culture it encompasses?
What I like the most about hip-hop is that it makes you stay true to your roots, and by doing so, it urges you to give back to your community and your people. I think that’s the biggest thing about hip-hop for me.
In what ways does your heritage come into play with your artistry?
I’m from an island called Okinawa in the southern part of Japan. Okinawa is very unique and different from other parts of Japan. We learn more about the importance of peace, but we are so close to the American military base, and we admire the colorful and happy image inside the fence. I felt that way about America growing up, and I’ve always wanted to go, which I actually did for college. Okinawa is a place where I could directly experience American music, so I believe it had a big impact on me. Also, the easy-going Okinawan spirit and laid-back lifestyle are the foundation of my mind and values.
How would you describe the hip-hop scene in Japan?
I think it’s becoming more and more diverse. We have all kinds of styles within the genre of hip-hop, like old-school community, battle rap community, and trap community – all kinds of different styles and different people doing different things.
You moved to one of the South's key hip-hop cities, Atlanta, when you were 19. How did the relocation influence your approach to rap?
Before moving to Atlanta, I had this hypothesis that Atlanta is like my hometown of Okinawa. We both have southern hospitality, chill vibes, and time flows differently in Okinawa compared to a city like Tokyo. I thought that’s how Atlanta stands as opposed to cities like New York and L.A. When I went to Atlanta, that was proven right. So, it just made me comfortable to be myself in Atlanta.
When I went there, Atlanta people were so original – their fashion, the way they rapped, and the music. They were so different. It was so fun to see. They were even rebellious in a way to make those statements like, “This is who we are!” It gave me more comfort to move on as myself.
Tell me the inspiration behind Queendom. What's behind the title?
I actually had an album completed with a different title back in March of 2021, but I decided to do it all over from scratch and made Queendom. The album was cool even before I started over, but as a rapper, I wanted to expose my life more and express my determination through the album. At first, I was scared of declaring myself a “queen,” but I had my heart set on becoming one and named the album Queendom. In my queendom, I ask everyone to respect diversity and accept each other as who they are to make it a better place for everyone. That’s the role and responsibility of the queen, in my opinion.
As a double minority, what's a solid piece of advice you would give Asian women interested in tapping into the world of hip-hop?
Know yourself, know what you want to do, and just do it. This is not just advice to them but also to myself because I’m still on the journey myself. I should show you through my experience and see if that works. So, I can’t really tell people what to do or give advice but let me try.
Listen to Awich’s top 7 handpicked of-the-moment rap tracks below.
“Queendom” - Awich
It’s a song and the story of my life and the determination for my future.
“GILA GILA” - Awich feat. JP THE WAVY, YZERR
This song is all about showing off, and it embodies the best of hip-hop in Japan right now. GILA GILA means “Bling Bling” in Japanese.
“WAVEBODY” - JP THE WAVY feat. OZworld, LEX
The song by one of the rappers featured on “GILA GILA” is named JP THE WAVY. This song also features young talents from the Japanese hip-hop scene, and it is really a fun song.
“GIOTF” - ¥ellow Bucks feat. JP THE WAVY
This song is another banger. It shows all the rappers in Japan are friends, and we’re just having fun. ¥ellow Bucks and I also did a song called “Link Up” on my album Queendom.
“Blick Blick (with Nicki Minaj)” - Coi Leray
Me and my daughter Toyomi’s current favorite. I love her energy, and she looks so fun to be with.
“Wheelie (feat. 21 Savage)” - Latto
One of my favorites. I like all her songs and how she spits, and her wordplay. But also, I love watching her interviews and how down-to-earth she is. I learned a lot from her. She’s really young, and I just respect her for being so humble and powerful at such a young age. I respect her.
“I Like” - Rubi Rose
I love Rubi. She’s so beautiful and confident. Her voice is irreplaceable – one and only.
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Photography by: HIROAKI FUKUDA