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Can Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic give U.S. hip-hop a boost in Japan?

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

This summer’s slate of music festivals are putting more of a spotlight on American hip-hop. Fuji Rock Festival announced Kendrick Lamar and the group N.E.R.D as headliners, while Summer Sonic features Chance the Rapper on its main stage. It’s a considerable showcasing moment for a genre having an up-and-down year in Japan.

U.S. rap has become the dominant sound globally, but has remained somewhat niche in Japan with domestic artists getting far more attention. The last Western rap-heavy album to perform well on charts here was the soundtrack to the eighth “Fast and the Furious” film, its success probably owing more to Vin Diesel than Lil Uzi Vert.

Scoring a spot on the biggest stages at the most popular music festivals in Japan, however, offers a big opportunity for U.S. acts. American rappers have appeared frequently at these events, but rarely on the main stage — in 2015 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came for Summer Sonic, while the Beastie Boys played Fuji Rock’s Green Stage back in 2009. American hip-hop acts have occupied the smaller stages, and don’t draw as strongly. Everyone who saw Outkast at Fuji Rock in 2014 loved it — but the crowd was surprisingly small for the reunited duo.

The state of U.S. rap in Tokyo is more complicated. Hip-hop artists come through, but they often play smaller clubs (or are legacy acts playing the prohibitively pricey Billboard Live). New developments are presenting opportunities, though. Last summer, popular New York nightclub 1 OAK (“One of a kind”) opened its first international venture here in Roppongi, its fourth outpost worldwide. While featuring appearances from DJs and former One Direction members, it has also become a go-to spot for American rappers such as Desiigner, Trippie Redd and A$AP Rocky. The prices are a bit high, though, and the whole enterprise comes off as a Trump Room for hypebeasts.

Recent attempts at more mainstream shows have fallen through. Popular Atlanta trio Migos were scheduled to play Studio Coast this February, but that show was canceled due to “unforeseen circumstances.” (Maybe it had something to do with tickets costing ¥10,000 a pop?) Recently, rising New York rapper 6ix9ine’s tour of Japan was postponed. According to someone helping organize the show, this happened due to American police questioning 6ix9ine’s manager, Tr3yway, over alleged shootings.

So perhaps things will get easier if American acts make a big splash at the summer festivals. Remember when Fuji Rock had around half a dozen EDM producers on its bill? Japanese concert promoters do, which is why beats are still dropping at events nationwide. Snagging Lamar for Fuji Rock this year will introduce him to a crowd that is probably more pumped for Bob Dylan’s headline set. If nothing else, festival-goers can at least say they saw a Nobel prize winner and a Pulitzer recipient perform sets on the same weekend.