Japanese beatboxer Afra causes a scene

by Mike Sunda

The United States can point to Rahzel, Scratch (both formerly of The Roots) and reggae-fusion artist Matisyahu as examples of human beatboxers who have experienced mainstream success. Britain has Killa Kella and Shlomo, the latter of whom, as well as having contributed to Bjork’s 2004 album “Medulla,” now performs in front of a variety of unlikely audiences via his residency at London’s respected Southbank Centre alongside the likes of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

For Japan, however, there is only one leading beatboxer: Osaka-born Akira Fujioka, better known as Afra. Yet, it is in no small part thanks to his efforts that the future of beatboxing in Japan is arguably brighter than anywhere in the West.

On Dec. 23, Afra will perform at the Japan Beatbox Championship 2010 at Club Asia in Shibuya, Tokyo. He will no doubt be pleased to see how well the subgenre has come along since he started practicing more than 10 years ago.

“(Back then), although there were people involved in the hip-hop scene who beatboxed, there was no real Japanese beatboxing scene,” he says.

Afra, 30, began beatboxing as a high school student, teaching himself the art by listening to CDs and records of Western beatboxers in the absence of any notable Japanese scene. Afra even went so far as to record a bootleg of The Roots’ live show when they came to Japan, just so he could practice imitating Rahzel and Scratch’s segments afterward. He then moved to New York at 19 to hone his craft in a city still thriving after the hip-hop boom of the 1990s, but it was only after returning to Japan that Afra’s breakthrough came about.

After becoming the first Japanese human beatboxer to release an album, his 2003 full-length “Always Fresh Rhythm Attack,” the following year Afra featured in a Fuji Xerox TV commercial that acted as many viewers’ first introduction to the world of vocal percussion.

Twenty-three-year-old beatboxer Ryo Fujimoto, who himself will be conducting a pilgrimage of sorts when he relocates to Berlin in 2011 along with his more digital brand of “human electro,” was one of those who first became aware of Afra via the Xerox ad. Fujimoto, who is himself one of the brighter prospects for a new generation of Japanese beatboxers, not only cites Afra as an influence, but also considers him a true pioneer. “Because of his appearances in the media, beatboxers have gained recognition and more people have started beatboxing as a result,” he says.

Equally important, claims Fujimoto, is how “hip-hop” Afra is — which may seem obvious when you think of how closely the two worlds are intertwined, yet it is this sense of urban credibility that plays such an integral role in defining beatboxers as musicians, rather than simple street performers. Afra achieves this not only through his tight live performances, but also through other aspects of hip-hop culture — not least fashion.

The precedent had been set long ago when Run-D.M.C. effectively defined a quarter century of hip-hop fashion with their pioneering endorsement of Adidas. But the way in which Afra has followed suit in Japan nonetheless represents a very significant step in bringing real Japanese hip-hop out of the underground and into the mainstream. Like Run-D.M.C., Afra’s brand of choice is Adidas, having first linked up with the company in November of 2005, when he toured Britain as the support act for Ian Brown as part of the trio “Afra & the Incredible Beatbox Band,” alongside peers Kei and K-Moon. Afra has maintained a close relationship with Adidas ever since, going as far as featuring a cover of Run-D.M.C.’s classic 1986 track “My Adidas” on last year’s album “Heart Beat,” as well as regularly playing at Adidas-branded events.

“Heart Beat,” Afra’s third solo album released in October 2009, represented a landmark step both for the beatboxer’s career, as well as Japan’s beatboxing scene as a whole. Much like Bjork’s foray into avant-garde a capella experimentalism on “Medulla,” Afra decided to showcase the scope of human vocal chords by creating an album constructed entirely out of his natural voice, foregoing the use of even a single musical instrument or electronic aid.

“Creating an album using my voice alone was something that, as far as I know, no beatboxer had ever done,” Afra says. “It was a specific wall that I wanted to smash as a beatboxer.”

An analog re-release of several of the album tracks back in August illustrated its continuing relevance nearly a year later, since it was brought out largely to appease the demand from Japanese hip-hop DJs, for the vast majority of whom vinyl is still very much the format of choice. Indeed one only needs to go to Afra’s monthly event “Breath Control” at Shibuya’s Organ Bar, a hangout for Japan’s top underground DJs and rappers, to see that he hasn’t strayed from his roots.

Afra’s next challenge is to spread these roots. “It would be a shame not to introduce people to the wonders of beatboxing,” he says. As he continues to gain crossover success, such as by featuring on J-pop megastar Ken Hirai’s recent single “Sing Forever,” it is his contemporaries who will find themselves benefiting from the increased media attention. But you can bet he won’t be giving up the top spot just yet.

Afra performs at the Japan Beatbox Championship at Club Asia on Dec. 23; and at Breath Control at Organ Bar on Dec. 24. Both events are in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. For details, visit www.a-f-r-a.blogspot.com.