Billboard Japan launched its Women in Music initiative this year, following the established example of Billboard’s annual Women in Music issue that has continued since 2007. A series of interviews focusing on women in the Japanese music industry is being released as one of the first projects under Japan’s Women in Music banner, which will encompass multiple projects, including interviews, live performances and panel discussions.
Japanese rapper AKKOGORILLA, who named her first album released in 2018 GRRRLISM as an homage to the Riot Grrrl movement, coined the word based on her urge to “transcend the image of [a female rapper] representing girls.” The theme of the 34-year-old’s mini-album Magma I released in June is “something no one can touch / something everyone has.” The trailblazing solo artist who has consistently sent out messages that transcend various categories such as gender, age and nationality sat down with Billboard Japan for an in-depth interview exploring her journey so far.
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You’ve been sending out messages of becoming liberated from categorization and biases through various avenues. When did you first feel the need to do so?
Even before I started music, I was uncomfortable with the idea of being pigeonholed as a girl. When I was in junior high, I saw guys wearing oversized sweatshirts and such in the popular drama series Ikebukuro West Gate Park and just loved it so much. Not love as in romantically interested, but in the sense that I wanted to be like them. I also really loved the anime series Lupin the Third, but wanted to be like [the male protagonist] Lupin III, not [the female frenemy] Fujiko Mine. But this was a time when lookism was still socially unchecked, with the media praising women equipped with typically feminine qualities and articles featuring how to dress so that men will be attracted to you and stuff like that. I also liked fashion magazines, so I was influenced by such values as well and felt really trapped.
How did you pull yourself out of that state?
I think I’m still a mess! [Laughs] When I was feeling trapped, there was also a part of me that said, “Why don’t I just do whatever I want?” I started going to live shows when I entered high school and came across [Japanese two-women band] AFRIRAMPO. I saw them live and felt really excited because they were so cool. I’m not sure how to say it, but something clicked. I began listening to different kinds of music from there and came across [British all-women band] The Slits. The jacket of their album Cut shows the members standing in a row with their upper bodies exposed, and they did it because they felt like doing it, not because someone told them to. They showed me another side of this world. Those influences inspired me to start a band and I played the drums. But there was also a part of me that thought my boyfriend would dump me if he saw the way I was letting myself go all out onstage because it wasn’t cute.
So you were still in the midst of confusion. How did you go from there to becoming a rapper and calling yourself AKKOGORILLA?
I played the drums in a band called HAPPY BIRTHDAY, and was thinking how if we disbanded and I wanted to continue playing music, I’d have to become a studio musician but didn’t have the skill for that. So I began considering a solo career. As a process of ascertaining what I liked, I started out by vocalizing, kind of like therapy, and was rapping before I realized it. Since I was originally a drummer, the act of loudly vocalizing my feelings was a counter for me. Back then, there were far fewer female rappers [in Japan] than there are today. People asked me why I started rapping all of a sudden, but I really had no idea why. [Laughs]
Was there a specific reason why you became aware of gender biases and gender gaps?
That’s definitely when I started competing in MC battles. My [male] opponents would insult me with stuff like, “You must have slept your way to the top” or just plain “you’re ugly” in front of a crowd. If it were between men, the battle would be about picking apart the details of the rapping itself, but female rappers were still uncommon so they honed in on the “being a woman” part. As I was answering them, I gradually began putting into words the sense of discomfort I originally had within myself. But at that time, I didn’t want to call myself a feminist. I hadn’t read up on feminism at all and had this arbitrary image of it being something uncool.
You’re now pretty open about being a feminist. How did your feelings change up to that point?
I do consider myself a feminist now. Before I got to that point, I expressed my discomfort in my own words by writing songs like “Ultragender” and making up words like GRRRLISM. But my biases were based on half-baked knowledge, so I figured I should understand the meaning of the term [feminism] properly by thinking about it with my own mind. After I learned about it, I became convinced that I’m a feminist. Thinking for myself and being myself is what hip-hop means to me, so the fact that I’ve been publicly vocal about being a feminist means I’m taking hip-hop seriously.
Do people react differently now that you declare yourself a feminist?
I’ve received a variety of reactions. I’ve been told things like, “I like your rapping, but you’re going in a bad direction.” I don’t care what strangers say, but it was hard when people closer to me couldn’t understand.
How did you deal with that?
I did my best to be open with them! Some people came around that way, and some didn’t. But things have changed dramatically over the past few years, and the concepts I was putting out in GRRRLISM are considered normal now by the younger generation I meet at concert venues. To be honest, I’ve forgotten what it was like when people didn’t accept my way of thinking. If anyone makes fun of another person’s sexuality out of ignorance in front of me, though, I’ll confront them head-on and talk to them about it.
While it does feel like times are changing, some values remain the same, and the percentage of women in the Japanese music industry is still small. What do you think are the obstacles?
I think what’s important for minorities to stop being minorities is how the people who aren’t [the minorities] behave. In Japan, when someone who isn’t on the receiving end of gender gaps or discrimination against minorities speaks out and says, “This is wrong,” they’re immediately treated like some bossy class representative or something. There’s a widespread sentiment that only those who are party to the issue are allowed to speak out, but that isn’t true. Unless the people who aren’t party to the issue do better, the world isn’t going to change.
Is there anything you rely on to keep you going?
For me, performing live is the best way to take care of myself. I love those moments when my feelings burst out. I also like seeing people bursting with emotion. So I love live performances the most.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan.