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Ground Control Touring welcomes Awich

Ground Control Touring welcomes Awich

Posted 02/05/2024

Hailed as the queen of Japanese hip-hop, Awich is the living embodiment of all that makes the genre so culturally vital. Over the course of her boundary-pushing career, the Okinawa-born artist has balanced real-life storytelling and razor-sharp commentary, larger-than-life personality and unguarded humanity, forward-thinking musicianship and a fierce devotion to her heritage and homeland—a Japanese prefecture whose troubled history and near-mystical beauty have served as an endless inspiration for the rapper/singer/songwriter. As she reaches global stardom on the strength of her music’s emotional potency and limitless originality, Awich now moves forward with her mission of uplifting her community while fearlessly speaking her truth.

The latest body of work from Awich, her powerhouse 2023 album The Union delves deeper into her roots than ever before, merging wildly experimental beats with the luminous and nuanced sounds of traditional Okinawan music. Not only a profound creative breakthrough, The Union helped to fulfill a more personal ambition for Awich. “Ever since I encountered hip-hop, it’s been my dream to create something that represents where I’m from, like so many of the artists I admire,” says Awich, who delivers her lyrics in Okinawan, Japanese, and English. “I want to tell the world about Okinawa—partly because I believe the island has an energy that everyone needs to experience, but also because I want the people in Okinawa to feel empowered and proud of where they’re from.”

Born Akiko Urasaki in the capital city of Naha, Awich grew up playing on the beaches and military bases of Okinawa—a region once home to the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom (a monarchy dissolved by Japan in 1879) and later occupied by the U.S. military in the aftermath of World War II. “Okinawa is a very peaceful place; it’s the birthplace of karate, which translates to ‘empty hands,’ meaning that we don’t carry weapons,” says Awich, who derived her moniker from the literal translation of the Japanese characters in her given first name (i.e., “Asian wish child”). “It’s also incredibly beautiful, with the jungle and ocean and coral reefs, but at the same time there’s so much painful history there.” The site of one of the bloodiest battles in World War II, Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972 but still maintains a heavy presence of American military bases, a major source of political unrest and tension to this day. Raised on the stories of trauma and poverty endured by her family in the post-war era, Awich began writing poetry about her home at the age of nine and soon took up guitar to set her words to melody. But upon discovering 2Pac’s seminal album All Eyez on Me at age 13, she felt an entirely new sense of artistic purpose. “The fact that 2Pac used his talent and charisma to give back to his community was something I looked up to right away,” she says. “I decided that I wanted to do the same thing with my music.”

Not long after appearing on a compilation album showcasing Okinawan hip-hop artists (a feat achieved when she was just 14), Awich signed a deal with a Tokyo-based label but immediately felt constrained by her lack of creative control. “I felt like they were trying to make me into something I’m not, so I ran away to America,” she recalls. Moving to Atlanta for college the same year her debut EP dropped, the then-19-year-old soon met the New York native who would become her husband, then gave birth to their daughter Toyomi at age 21. But when Toyomi was only three-years-old her father was murdered at gunpoint, a turn of events that left Awich unmoored for years to come. “After I lost my husband I came back to Japan with my daughter and went through a long depression,” she says. “I’d already put my music career aside, and I didn’t feel like I could be anything at all. I gave up.” As she processed her grief, Awich slowly reconnected with her belief in music as a transformative force and made the choice to fully devote herself to her art. After launching her own production company, she crossed paths with the members of Yentown and eventually joined the Tokyo-based collective of DJs and rappers, which paved the way for her longtime collaboration with esteemed producer/DJ and Yentown co-founder Chaki Zulu. “Meeting Yentown was a huge turning point,” she says. “They picked me up and gave me life.”

In 2017, Awich released her comeback album 8 to widespread acclaim and quickly emerged as one of the most compelling artists in Japanese hip-hop, flaunting her lyrical ferocity and supreme vocal prowess on standouts like “WHORU?” and showing a stunning sensitivity on tracks like “Ashes.” Continuing her ascent to global fame, Awich soon appeared in Asia Rising: The Next Generation of Hip Hop, a 2019 documentary. The following year, she offered up her next full-length effort—a critically lauded 20-song album called Kujaku—and promptly landed a record deal with Universal Music Japan. Her major-label debut, the seven-song EP Partition arrived that summer and earned raves from tastemaking outlets like Consequence, who praised the project as “bold and commanding and presented with an inescapable outpouring of confidence.” Expanding on the poetry and power of Partition, her 2022 album Queendom marked a seismic step forward for Awich, confronting such complex matters as gender roles and sexual freedom with equal parts raw introspection and exhilarating self-assurance.

When it came time to create the follow-up to Queendom, Awich once again pushed her artistry to the next level, in part by bringing a deeper intentionality to her songwriting. “Queendom was my way of confirming that I’m the queen of my own nation, so with the next album I asked myself what it means to have that responsibility,” she says. “I realized that the goal is to bring unity to people everywhere. In order to have unity, we have to understand each other. And in order to understand each other, we have to understand ourselves. To me that means being completely open about who I am, and showing all the vulnerability as well as the strength.” Her fifth studio LP, The Union sets that soul-baring honesty to a hard-hitting sound echoing her kaleidoscopic musicality—a dynamic in full effect on the album’s title track, a gloriously explosive expression of fear, frustration, and unbridled hope. “The process of making that song was exhausting but worth it, because we came up with something that had never been done before,” says Awich. “With this whole album, my focus was on combining hip-hop beats with traditional Okinawan instrumentation and scales and vocals; I did a lot of studying and speaking with Okinawan musicians to figure out how to create a sound that’s unique to me. Ever since I was 14 I’ve wanted to bring that Okinawan flavor into my music, and for so long people told me it would never work. But I never stopped trying.”

A truly visionary artist, Awich takes a hands-on role in the visual component of her output, including the spellbinding video for “The Union”—a high-concept piece whose choreography reflects a traditional style of martial arts that Okinawans disguised as a dance in order to preserve their culture following Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom. In her commitment to creating an immersive experience for her audience, Awich also delivers a notoriously dazzling live show, thrilling crowds at legendary venues like Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan and at leading festivals like Fuji Rock (Japan’s biggest outdoor music event). “I want my shows to be almost like a movie for the people who come to see me,” she says. “I want them to dance and sing along but also laugh and cry and feel the full range of emotions.” And while she lists iconoclasts like Erykah Badu among her main influences, Awich names her daughter as her number-one inspiration. “She’s a dancer and she raps on some of my songs, and she kills it onstage—you can’t take your eyes off her,” she says of Toyomi, who’s now 15. “Through all the ups and downs she’s become her own person, a support system that I can rely on to keep things in perspective when everything feels out of control.”

Looking back on her career to date, Awich notes that her drive and determination have only gotten stronger over the years. “It’s taken a lot of work to get comfortable with being vulnerable in my music, but it’s given me a power I’ve never felt before,” she says. “I hope that by watching me be honest about my fears and anxieties and dreams, people feel encouraged to be honest with themselves and figure out what they want in life, and then take action to make it happen. When you live your life in a way that’s true to you, you’re able to have compassion for others instead of feeling oppressed or resentful. I want to be a medium for people to connect and find that strength.”

Related Artists: Awich

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