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Kendrick Lamar and the politics of Japanese PR

by Alisa Yamasaki

Contributing Writer

The news of Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar returning to Fuji Rock, one of Japan’s most celebrated music festivals, was met with excitement from hip-hop fans here as soon as it was announced in February. To leverage the hype ahead of the festival, Universal Music Japan launched a politically tinged campaign earlier this month that has inspired mixed responses.

On July 13, posters of redacted documents from the Moritomo Gakuen scandal with the words #KendrickRainichi (#KendrickComesToJapan) were put up all over Kokkai-gijido-mae Station, home of the National Diet Building, and Kasumigaseki Station, where many of the Cabinet ministry offices are. The blacked out sections of the document are inscribed with the words “DAMN.,” the title of Lamar’s award-winning 2017 album, and the bottom corner of the document contains the rapper’s signature.

Commuters who saw the posters took to Twitter to express their thoughts. “It’s so awesome that you can do something like this on mainstream platforms in Japan. I want to work with ad agencies like this,” said Twitter user @OsawaYudai. Another user @RJTBU called into question whether Lamar had any input regarding the poster, saying, “I wonder if this actually matches up with Kendrick’s stance. Kendrick’s lyrics feel real because he raps about what’s happening around him.”

The creative team behind the campaign responded to questions from online site Cinra about the concept of the posters, saying that they “wanted Japanese people to acknowledge that this important figure who represents black power exists today, and that he is coming to Japan soon.” To illustrate his impact on the world, the team decided to “turn important political and social issues into advertising Japanese people can understand.”

But is a scandal that saw Prime Minister Shinzo Abe push the sale of government-owned land to a school operator with nationalist leanings really the political issue Universal should have reached for? The fact that the creative team acknowledges Lamar as an important figure of “black power” actually points to a lost opportunity.

The issues that are essential to Lamar’s art and politics are those that face people of color in the West such as systemic oppression and police brutality. If the team wanted to relate Lamar’s messages to problems in Japan while acknowledging his identity as a black man, perhaps they could have commented on the ongoing practice of blackface in Japanese comedy, something people here have been increasingly critical of.

All in all, the campaign has been a success in terms of starting a conversation. The keywords “Kokkai-gijido-mae Station” and “Kendrick Lamar” were in the top three trends on Twitter the day the campaign launched. As for Lamar’s opinion on the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, we’ll have to wait until his Fuji Rock performance to see whether or not he gives a damn.