Billboard Japan launched its Women in Music initiative this year, following the established example of BillboardThe annual issue of Women in Music which has continued since 2007. A series of interviews focusing on women in the Japanese music industry is published as one of the first projects under the Japanese Women in Music banner, which will include several projects, including interviews, live performances and panel discussions.
Japanese rapper AKKOGORILLA, who named her first album released in 2018 GRRRLISM in homage to the Riot Grrrl movement, coined the word based on his desire to “transcend the image of [a female rapper] representing girls. The 34-year-old’s mini-album theme Magma I released in June is “something no one can touch / something everyone owns”. The pioneering solo artist who has consistently sent messages that transcend various categories such as gender, age, and nationality sat down with Billboard Japan for an in-depth interview exploring her journey so far.
You have sent messages of freedom from categorization and prejudice through various channels. When did you first feel the need to do this?
Even before I started making music, I was uncomfortable with the idea of being typecast as a girl. When I was in college I saw guys wearing oversized sweatshirts and such in the popular drama series Ikebukuro West Gate Park and I liked it so much. Not love as in romantic interest, but in the sense that I wanted to be like them. I also really liked the animated series Lupine the Thirdbut i wanted to be like [the male protagonist] Lupine III, no [the female frenemy] Fujiko mine. But that was a time when lookism was still socially unchecked, with the media praising women with typically feminine qualities and articles about how to dress to get men attracted to you and stuff like that. . I also liked fashion magazines, so I was also influenced by these values and I felt really trapped.
How did you get out of this state?
I think I’m still a mess! [Laughs] When I felt trapped, there was also a part of me that said, “Why can’t I do everything I want? I started going to live shows when I entered high school and came across [Japanese two-women band] AFRIRAMPO. I saw them live and felt really excited because they were so cool. I don’t know how to say it, but something clicked. I started listening to different types of music from there and came across [British all-women band] The slots. Their album cover To cut shows the members standing in a row with their upper bodies exposed, and they did it because they felt like it, not because someone told them to. They showed me another side of this world. These influences inspired me to start a band and I played drums. But there was also a part of me that thought my boyfriend would dump me if he saw the way I let myself go on stage because it wasn’t cute.
So you were still in the middle of confusion. How did you go from there to becoming a rapper and calling yourself AKKOGORILLA?
I was playing drums in a band called HAPPY BIRTHDAY, and I thought to myself that if we broke up and I wanted to keep playing music, I should become a session musician, but I didn’t have the skills for that. So I started to consider a solo career. To figure out what I liked, I started out vocalizing, kind of like therapy, and rapping before I knew it. Ever since I was originally a drummer, loudly vocalizing my feelings was a downer for me. At the time, there were a lot less female rappers [in Japan] than there are today. People asked me why I started rapping all of a sudden, but I really didn’t know why. [Laughs]
Is there a specific reason why you became aware of gender bias and gender gaps?
That’s definitely when I started doing MC battles. My [male] my opponents insulted me with things like “you had to sleep all the way to the top” or simply “you’re ugly” in front of a crowd. If it was between men, the battle would be to sort out the specifics of the rap itself, but female rappers were still rare, so they focused on the “being a woman” part. As I responded to them, I gradually began to put into words the feeling of discomfort I originally had inside of me. But at that time, I didn’t want to call myself a feminist. I hadn’t read about feminism at all and had this arbitrary image of something uncool.
You are now quite open about being a feminist. How have your feelings evolved so far?
I consider myself a feminist now. Before I got there, I expressed my discomfort in my own words by writing songs like “Ultragender” and coining words like GRRRLISM. But my prejudices were based on half-baked knowledge, so I thought I should understand the meaning of the term [feminism] properly by thinking about it with my own mind. After learning about it, I became convinced that I was a feminist. Thinking for myself and being myself is what hip-hop means to me, so the fact that I’ve said publicly that I’m a feminist means that I take hip-hop seriously.
Do people react differently now that you call yourself a feminist?
I received various reactions. I’ve been told things like, “I like your rapping, but you’re going in the wrong direction. I don’t care what strangers say, but it was hard when people closer to me couldn’t understand.
How did you fix that?
I did my best to be open with them! Some people came that way, and some didn’t. But things have changed drastically over the past few years, and the concepts I was expounding in GRRRLISM are considered normal now by the younger generation I meet in concert halls. To be honest, I forgot what it was like when people didn’t accept my way of thinking. If someone ignorantly makes fun of another person’s sexuality in front of me, I will confront them head-on and tell them about it.
Although times change, some values remain the same and the percentage of women in the Japanese music industry is still low. In your opinion, what are the obstacles?
I think what’s important for minorities to stop being minorities is how people who aren’t [the minorities] to behave. In Japan, when someone who is not a victim of gender gaps or discrimination against minorities speaks out and says, “That’s wrong,” they are immediately treated as an authoritarian class representative or something. something like that. There is a widespread feeling that only those who are part of the issue are allowed to speak out, but that is not true. Unless people who are not stakeholders do better, the world will not change.
Is there anything you rely on to keep going?
For me, playing live is the best way to take care of myself. I love those moments when my feelings burst. I also like to see people burst with emotion. So I like the live performances the most.
—This interview with Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan.