G Yamazawa’s latest album ‘George’ is a reflection as much as it is a longing for balance

By Cameron Lee

December 13, 2022

Photo: Derrick Beasley

When “North Cack,” the anthemic viral hip-hop banger by Durham rapper and poet, G Yamazawa, hit the internet in May 2017, it was a moment. Amassing millions of views and listens in a matter of days, it wasn’t just a moment for the state of North Carolina but for many Asians across the country. 

“Yeah, just thinking about how much this one song, you know, was able to help people be more proud of being from North Carolina, is a really intangible and immeasurable kind of feeling…in that same kind of parallel, for Asians feeling like they belong in this country, in their own skin even,” said Yamazawa. 

When the song was released, Yamazawa was living in Los Angeles, touring extensively, mainly as a spoken-word poet at colleges and universities. Coming off the success of his performance at the 2014 National Poetry Slam in Oakland, California, he became one of the youngest National Poetry Slam champions in the country. His team, the Beltway Poetry Slam, took home first place out of 72 groups, anchored by his poem titled, “Elementary.”

The Washington Post published an excerpt of the piece: 

I hated myself
for the shape of my eyes
so I became a bully, 
because we all wanna feel
like America
Sometimes.

Durham rapper G Yamazawa released his fourth studio album, ‘George,’ in November. Photo: Derrick Beasley

Growing up G Yamazawa  

Born and raised in Durham to first generation restaurateurs, George and Mayumi, Yamazawa’s childhood was conflicted. A Japanese kid growing up in the South enduring the cultural contrasts of his parents’ teachings versus his classic American upbringing, Yamazawa’s internal acrimony from his poem “Elementary” probably started in his own household. 

In the song “You Would Too,” from his latest album– and probably his most personal to date– George, Yamazawa details the struggles he faced growing up with an overly strict father whose “hands was the heaviest.” Suffering from domestic discipline from the hands of his father, at the end of his fifth grade year, he moved into a foster home in Chatham County after Social Services had to step in. 

 

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A post shared by George (@gyamazawa)

In the same year, Yamazawa’s father was diagnosed with cancer and had a life-saving bone marrow transplant. 

Yamazawa says he recently discovered that his father’s diagnosis was the main reason he returned home at the time, and his family is now closer than ever. 

“Our Buddhist practice is the core of my family’s harmony, for sure. And of my own, and his own transformation… kind of both independently, and in the way that it’s correlated…it’s been mostly a faith based process,” Yamazawa said. 

“On his latest studio album, ‘George,’ Yamazawa’s tongue is as sharp as ever, with more intention in each bar, note, ad-lib, backing vocal, and bass knock on the nine-song project. Photo: Derrick Beasley

It wasn’t until his freshman year at Jordan High School in Durham that he started expressing himself through poetry, using the art form as an outlet. Yamazawa started his own group called “Spoken Ink” and was a part of the Chapel Hill spoken word poetry team, Sacrificial Poets. He performed at his first international poetry competition, Brave New Voices, in 2008, and won the Bull City Slam championship in 2009. After moving to D.C. in 2012, he started teaching poetry workshops as his star as a poet was rising, but so was his urge to further the reach of his craft. 



“There were some aspects of my life that had to be expressed in different ways. And music kind of naturally, was the next realm…I got excited about really getting some bars off and chasing the dream,” he said.

In 2014, Yamazawa dropped his first mixtape, 23. The project– utilizing several classic Golden Era instrumentals– was a bit cluttered and unfocused as many early mixtapes can be. But it was clear his lyrical prowess was special, easily transitioning his spoken-word acumen into heavy-hitting bars. The mixtape accumulated thousands of listens and a burgeoning fan base leading to his debut studio album, Shouts to Durham, in 2017. 

Album cover for G Yamazawa’s latest album, ‘George.’

George 

On his latest studio album, George, Yamazawa’s tongue is as sharp as ever, with more intention in each bar, note, ad-lib, backing vocal, and bass knock on the nine-song project than in his previous work. Connecting with Armenhammer (the producer of Yamazawa’s seminal track, “North Cack”) on the mixing and mastering, there are far more instrumental nuances in George. From the spacey intro track, “Favorite Song,” produced by Solomon Fox (Young Bull)– who also sings the echoing backing vocals– to the somber saxophone by Alan Washington (Zoocrü) on “Btw.” 

The most recognizable feature on the album is from Southern rap stalwart, Big K.R.I.T., on “Make it Knock,” produced by the duo FRGN-SPCMN. Yamazawa, who was introduced to K.R.I.T. through producer and music executive Sha Money XL, connected with the Mississippi rapper in August of 2020 in Atlanta to record the track. K.R.I.T. is a fan of Yamazawa, and even mentioned him as an inspiration on the Bootleg Kev Podcast earlier in the year. 

 

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“I had never really actively, you know, imagined working with K.R.I.T., so when it happened, it was just so perfect. It was so aligned,” said Yamazawa. 

Another standout track is “As Always.” The penultimate song on the album finds Yamazawa smoothly articulating the ever-present mental battle that many artists face: self-doubt. His lyrics are accompanied by a thumping beat by Bay Area producer, Tim Vickers aka GrandBankss, with keys by Solomon Fox. 

Yamazawa’s struggle as an artist, like many, is finding purpose and meaning beyond a record deal or money. He admits that, during the pandemic, his confidence was “reallocated,” coming to grips with “not needing these other outside entities to validate who we are, and what we do.” 

Yamazawa has found asylum in knowing that “in order to be a great at creating art, you cannot give a f*ck what nobody thinks…you have to follow your inner intuition, and it can’t be derivative in a way that is not you.”   

Coming home 

On February 22, 2022 at 2:22 p.m., Yamazawa married his longtime friend, Krys Bragg, who he first met in 2010 at a youth poetry festival. Bragg, who is also an artist, is originally from L.A., where they were living prior to 2020. Bragg had the intuition to move back to North Carolina during the pandemic. While Yamazawa didn’t necessarily agree with the decision, lobbying to move to Tokyo at the time, they returned to Durham and purchased a home weeks later.

 

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The transition has been fruitful, and Yamazawa feels much closer to his heritage and culture. 

“I feel like coming back home, oddly enough– even though it’s not Japan– It’s closer to Japan in the sense that I’m closer to my parents. And I feel like I’ve really earned, you know, the right to wear a kimono…like, the right to express myself in these ways. In a way that’s not shallow,” he said. 

 

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In August of 2021, while coming up with music video treatments for George, he focused on his parents as subjects, but it quickly transitioned into a short film about his parents and their restaurant, Yamazushi. The 14-minute short film, Becoming Yamazushi, directed by Yamazawa, recently won a Jury Award at the New Orleans Film Festival. 

In many ways George is a reflection as much as it may be a longing for balance. It’s a name he shares with his father, representing the cultural clash he has endured throughout his life, and the harmony he seeks through his religious practice and the therapeutic haikus he shares on social media. And through it all, G Yamazawa continues his compelling creative journey for all of us to relish and celebrate.

Listen to the latest album by G Yamazawa, George, and follow Yamazawa on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.




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