George Yamazawa, better known simply as G, stands in the middle of an auditorium at UNC-Greensboro, his hair in a bun, his bushy goatee puffing out beneath his chin. About a dozen students have arrived between classes for his spoken-word workshop on a Wednesday afternoon. The students share their own pieces and Yamazawa listens, nodding along and offering encouragement. Finally, the kids convince him to perform one, too.
"All right," he says, "here's one called '10 Things You Should Know About Being an Asian From the South.'"
Yamazawa begins to spit verses about growing up liking both teriyaki and fried chicken, about the results of being torn between two cultures. He rattles off a list of famous Asians, including Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, whom guileless folks use as their only reference points for his people. He talks about being called Chinese and correcting the perpetrators, only to know you'll always be Chinese to them.
I look up from my notebook. The more lines Yamazawa performs, the more I recognize myself in his story.
"I won't rap like you, because dog, I'm Asian," he concludes. "I eat cats like you."
The students whoop: "Yo, that's dope!" one kid affirms.
On Yamazawa's self-titled debut EP, set to be released this week, considerations of his complicated heritage dovetail with ideas about race, police violence, gratitude, and his hometown pride for Durham. Though he's a relatively new rapper, Yamazawa, twenty-five, is a veteran of verbal acrobatics, an award-winning spoken-word artist who helped galvanized the Triangle's poetry scene when he was still a teenager. He's since moved to Los Angeles, where he's using that past to write raps that reflect his complex, sometimes contradictory lineages.
"As an Asian rapper, I'm a mystery," says Yamazawa. "People see my race as non-threatening, while people are afraid of black men. People just don't react the same way to me. In that way, I'm privileged."
Yamazawa was born and raised in Durham by Japanese immigrants who encouraged his interest in fashion design and dance early in life. When he was only 16, his dad took him to Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre, a moment that stoked his entertainment ambitions.
His parents' support has been a huge factor, he says, a claim he acknowledges in the centerpiece song of his EP, "Dining Room." The song honors his family while exploring the immigrant experience of making food meant to connect with Americans and, again, being torn between his Japanese and adopted American culture. In the tune's video, Yamazawa raps inside his parents' high-end Durham sushi restaurant, Yamazushi.
"From the ages of thirteen to seventeen, all I wanted to be was a rapper," admits Yamazawa. "Hip-hop has always spoken to me."
But the road to becoming a rapper wasn't always easy. He had to fail before he started to write at all. At sixteen, Yamazawa was caught selling weed in high school. Officials transfered him to Lakeview Alternative School, a place for students who "have a history of chronic misbehavior or have received long-term suspension."
"It's where the bad apples from all around Durham gather," Yamazawa says, laughing. He talks about witnessing the city's gang culture firsthand at school. "It got me some street cred though."
After a year in alternative school, Yamazawa returned to Jordan High School. Those transitions became a formative framework for Yamazawa, who at last was moved to consider his parents' Buddhist heritage and his own identity in tandem. G talks now about understanding karma through pacifism and taking responsibility for one's actions in life. He stopped selling weed and cut ties with those he deemed not his real friends. He began performing with slam poetry groups, becoming obsessed with the art of it all. As a senior at Jordan, he even started a poetry club. The next several years, as he puts it, became "breakout years."
In 2009, he won the Bull City Slam championship. His team performed at Brave New Voices, an international poetry competition, and came in second. By 2014, Yamazawa had climbed the national slam poetry ladder. He won America's top prize.
By then, he had left Durham for Washington, D.C.
"I had a great show there and I felt a connection to the city," he says. "Durham was too comfortable. I wanted to push myself. I knew there was more that I wanted to do."
In Washington, his restlessness became apparent. He published a chapbook of poetry, for instance, but realized that wasn't enough to sate his ambition.
"It had a good reception, and it was fun. But I felt so isolated," says Yamazawa. "The academic world, which is so white-washed, was not for me. It wasn't my battle, and I felt creatively tapped out."
Hip-hop kept tugging at him. One night, Yamazawa put on some beats, started rapping over them, and liked the way it felt. He swiped some instrumentals from YouTube and kept rhyming. In November 2014, just months after winning the National Poetry Slam title, he released his first mixtape.
"It was like the stars had aligned," says Yamazawa. "Winning the National Poetry Slam was enough closure and validation for me to go into rap."
As we finish talking, I ask Yamazawa about the necklace and bracelet he always sports. The first is a lotus flower pendant surrounded by wooden beads.
"As a symbol in Buddhism, the flower represents simultaneous pollination and blooming," he says. "It's cause and effect."
The words "never be defeated" are etched into a curved sliver of metal on the bracelet.
"It's the last line of a poem I wrote about my grandmother," he explains. "It reminds me I can't give up. Every moment is win or lose."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rap Lines"