Ask Awich about any frame of humanity and she’ll tell you it’s a construct. Nationality, gender, race, musical genre; they’re all boxes made to codify and control us, and she’s sick of them. “It’s just fiction,” she says over a video call from her apartment in Okinawa. “It’s something that we decided to see, but it’s not there. It’s not a tangible thing.”
The 33-year-old rapper, born Akiko Urasaki, thought about those constructs a lot as she put the finishing touches on her latest EP, “Partition”; questioning the ideas she was told to believe, holding opposing realities in her head as she created her own truth.
“I always had this weird ability to see myself as a story,” she says. As a young girl, she would stay up all night, scribbling in her notebook about themes she was too young to fully understand. “My earliest poetry was like fictional love stories,” she says. “Breaking up with somebody, somebody hurting my heart or I’m hurting somebody. Being a bad girl, stuff like that.” Twenty years later, her latest tracks touch on some of the same topics, but she has lived expansively since then. She’s been abroad, had a baby, seen beauty and agony; her experiences peek through on every record.
Growing up in Naha taught her about contradicting realities, too. From a young age, Awich knew how special her hometown was. She fell in love with the locals; their joviality filled her spirit with warmth. She spent most of her childhood outside, exploring her island’s beaches, jungles and woods. But she was also aware of the darker parts of Okinawa’s history. She went to marches that protested the presence of the U.S. military base. Her father, who had her at 45, was born on the same day as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The stories he and his sister told Awich were visceral, giving her an appreciation of the way people relay information to one another.
“I always loved hearing about the war,” she says. “End-of-the-world, movie type of stories. My dad barely remembers the actual Battle of Okinawa, but his big sister does, and they would always tell me these scary, tragic stories. And funny stories about the postwar era, too. They would laugh and cry, and I was so fascinated by it.”
The stories also helped cultivate Awich’s interest in America. She studied English by listening to rapper Tupac and she had friends who would travel to the States and return with captivating reports of “big pizza, big ice cream, big everything.” The contradictions in the stories she heard about the U.S. had a profound effect on her. “As you grow up, you start to understand that these are conflicting ideas,” she says, “the American Dream and the tragedy of war.”
Eventually, her curiosity with the U.S. won out, and in 2006, she moved to attend university in Atlanta, which she says was “exactly” like she imagined. “It almost felt like I was in a movie or in a music video,” she says. The Southern city happened to be the mecca of American hip-hop at the time, and while there, Awich gained a broader understanding of the genre’s diverse sounds. The elements she discovered there became a part of her musical DNA as she developed her career as a recording artist, releasing her first album, “Asia Wish Child,” in 2007.
When Awich later returned to Japan, she connected with producer Chaki Zulu and released albums and EPs that put her influences and paradoxes on full display: Here was a poet who was as interested in love stories as she was in power dynamics; and where her singing voice was delicate, her rap flow was vicious. Her duality was laid bare on a pair of 2018 EPs, “Heart” and “Beat.” One was filled with bouncy, emotive melodies about love and loss while the other felt fierce and dangerous, like a four-song-long shoving match. (It’s not hard to guess which one is which.)
Those releases and a string of guest appearances on tracks with the label 88rising’s August 08 and international artists Tymek and Krawk eventually landed Awich a major record deal with Universal Music, the label behind her latest project, “Partition.” After years of toiling as an independent creative who relied on organic collaborations, she feels lucky to have the support of a label behind her. “It wasn’t about going major,” she says of the decision, “it was because (Universal) likes what I do, the way I think and the way I live. I appreciate the fact that they want to help.”
For Awich, the EP is part of an ongoing effort to show her many layers and rail against the confines of a patriarchal music industry. “There are boxes around what a woman is supposed to be, what a man is supposed to be, or what an artist or rapper is supposed to be,” she says. “But all of these ideas are void. I want to do everything I feel and be true to the moment of when I wrote the song and the emotion I felt. I don’t know what is true or what is wrong, but I know that the box is fiction, so I don’t abide by that.”
On lead single “Shook Shook,” she cuts a loud-talking, in-your-face figure, lobbing threats over staccato drums. In the music video, a quartet of shirtless men wrestle each other for her attention. Meanwhile, on second single “Bad Bad,” Awich delivers a vulnerable, stripped-down singalong with the refrain, “I’m never gonna leave you lonely.”
Creating her own rules has allowed Awich to find success on her own terms. At the time of writing, the music videos for “Shook Shook” and “Bad Bad” have both racked up over 300,000 views on YouTube. The EP has been well-received. The sun is shining over Okinawa. She smiles in a quiet moment, peeking at the lush landscape beyond the glow of our Zoom call. By all accounts, life is good. But it wasn’t always like this. There was a period — a brutal one — she only recently put in her rear view.
While Awich was in school in Atlanta, she met a man. They bonded over a shared admiration of music and art. They fell fast and got married. She got pregnant. It was the kind of beautiful love story her early poetry was made of. But three years after their daughter was born, Awich’s husband was murdered. She returned to Okinawa with their child, stunned and broken. She doesn’t remember doing much of anything for some time, besides writing; a lifelong habit that helped her process her emotions. “I don’t know if I could’ve kept myself alive if I didn’t write,” she says.
For two years, there were days and weeks when she couldn’t get out of bed, too wary of the world to engage with it. It was a difficult time, the memory of which is only made brighter by the solace she received from a child. “My daughter, she really helped me,” she says. “If I needed to rest, she made me rest. If my parents wanted me to get up and do things, she would even fight with my parents.”
Awich’s voice cracks, her tears flowing. “It makes me cry to think about how strong she is. She’s way stronger than me,” she says.
She realizes it sounds strange to have been an adult who leaned on a child for support. But it’s unexpected only because of social constructs; the roles we’ve been made to believe we have to play.
“Of course, I’m a mother and she’s a daughter, but sometimes she’s a mother and I’m a child,” Awich says. “Sometimes, she’s the teacher and I’m the student.”
It’s in this fluidity that Awich operates and creates. She can appreciate the duality in herself and the ways responsibilities can shift depending on circumstances. She considers this, too, when reflecting on this year’s Black Lives Matter movement that has called for justice in the police killings of Black Americans such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Elijah McClain.
In a recent Instagram post, Awich gives an impassioned speech to a crowd at one of Tokyo’s BLM marches. While she believes nationality and race to be constructs, Awich is, after all, a Japanese woman making music in a genre that was invented and popularized by Black Americans. She takes her role as an advocate for Black people seriously. “I want to help, period,” she says. “I want to show you that I love you. I love Black people. I love Black culture. Period. I was helped by Black culture. I’m fascinated by it. I admire it. I appreciate it. Period.”
It’s Awich’s empathy for those who have lived different experiences that has always guided her. From early years hearing about the atrocities of war to a young adulthood that showed her the depths of her own pain to a creative journey that has allowed her to inhabit different cultures, she has found storytelling to be her way to transcend constructs.
“When you speak to somebody and really have a heart-to-heart, you understand that we’re all human,” she says. “Everybody has their own story. (With ‘Partition’) I’m just trying to get a deeper understanding of who I am and who we are.”
“Partition” is available now. For more information about Awich, visit www.universal-music.co.jp/awich.