American rapper Aisha Fukushima in Nepal: Here’s how she’s bringing ‘politics back to rap’

Aisha Fukushima is an American rapper who collaborates with musicians around the world to compose songs that have a message. She was recently in town, at the invite of the American Embassy in Nepal. She calls her work ‘RAPptivism’. Excerpt from a conversation:

Your last name Fukushima is quite uncommon for an American. Could you tell us about that?

My last name, in many ways, represents my ‘blackenese’ roots. I am an African-American and also Japanese. I was born in Seattle, but I spent some of my childhood in Japan. My father was Japanese, and I was living in Yokohama, which is 20 minutes drive from Tokyo.

You said in one of your interviews that your parents got divorced when you were small, and you’d spend your evenings learning to sing. Could you tell us about the first time you sang in public?

It was an afterschool event. They were holding an audition for a musical, I think it was Anastasia that we were going to perform. So, we were all in a line, taking turns singing lines from the play. You know when you are supposed to take turns and your turn gets closer and closer you get really nervous.

When my turn came, all of a sudden, I started to sing and I let go of my fear. When I opened my eyes after the song, I felt a huge rush. I felt like electricity was flowing through my body. Everyone in the room was looking at me. I felt as if I was connected to everyone in the room, and the energy of the whole room shifted.

I think that was the moment when I said to myself that music is powerful. I realised that I have a voice for a reason and I need to use it. I felt its impact for the first time then.

Do you remember the song that you performed?

It was like, “Far away, long ago,

Glowing dim as an ember
Things my heart used to know
Things it yearns to remember

I think it is about being far away from your loved ones, and dealing with the loss of a person you love.

They say that when a person singing a song relates to it, then they sing it much better. Did this song resonate with you personally?

Of course. By American standards, I grew up in a working class neighbourhood. My parents got divorced and I experienced loss at an early age.

Since an early age, I was looking for happiness within myself. I think that song talked to me about embracing the fact that things don’t last forever, including relationship with other people. It helped me find my more optimistic self, and find happiness in a more profound place.

How was your childhood? 

I am the only kid in my family, but me and my mum lived with my cousins. We operated as a multigenerational family. We took care of each other.

I had certain privileges of being the only child in my family, and at the same time it was also about being independent at a very young age. I had to juggle between many responsibilities since my mum was working three jobs.

I started to realise as a kid, I was very insular in the sense that I was growing up with so many adults around me having to make my way. I started writing to myself.

In your earlier interviews, you have talked about the discrimination you faced as a child. Did this shape you as the person you are today? 

Yes. That was the case even in elementary school. I think it is a series of different experiences I have had that has shaped me.

I remember being the only student of colour in my classroom in elementary school. One day, the kids were having a food fight at lunch, and I was the only one who was not involved. After thinking about it a lot, I eventually joined in. When the principal came to the room, I was the first kid he pointed his finger at. He told me that I was responsible for everything and he pulled me out. He said all these negative things and said that I was a dog and that I didn’t deserve an education, and that I didn’t belong there.

I had a little self-worth even at that age (6) to be able to set up a meeting with the principal. I told him that he was passing judgments against me based on many prejudices. When I did this, I was not only concerned about me but also other students who could face similar prejudices.

Even at a young age, something in me wanted change.


You said you hesitated for a while before you joined the fight. Why so?

I was a little concerned and worried about the repercussions. Also, I had just returned from Japan where the school system was very regulated. In Japan, everyone has the same backpack, the same pencil, and the same uniform.

You write poems and are also involved with spoken word. Which medium gives you the best way to release what you feel?

I think all poetry, rapping, and emceeing are connected. I grew as a very visual child. When I write my songs, I can envision the song.

I started to realise as a kid, I was very insular in the sense that I was growing up with so many adults around me having to make my way. I started writing to myself.

In middle school, people started making fun of the clothes I wore, my color, everything. Instead of keeping these poems to myself, I would read it aloud to my class.

Once every week, my teacher would turn off the lights in the class and light candles. Anyone could read aloud whatever they had written. This was in middle-school. I realised people wanted to talk about the issues I raised through poetry as opposed to just talking about it. Just raising issues would often turn the debate into something vitriolic whereas poetry, I realised, engaged people in dialogues and started a conversation.

I think through art, we can see other people’s humanity.

Prejudices against race and culture have persisted in the USA. In this regard, I found my college environment to be distinctly discriminatory.

Is art a better medium to talk about issues than mere words?

For me, it is. But I think for change to happen everyone has to work together like an ecosystem. Music can be a tool, education can be another.

How was college? Was the experience different from your school years?

I had applied to many other colleges when I visited Whitman. It ended up being this amazing place where I could grow and learn. We had people from all over the world and it was a great place to focus on my studies.

However, it also came with its own issues. Your level of participation in college programmes depended on where you came from, you couldn’t fully participate in the college experience if you weren’t rich. You were expected to buy costumes for the play and afford expensive textbooks.

That’s when I came up with the idea of RAPtivism.

Was it discrimination of a different kind?

Yes and no. I think there were similarities.

Prejudices against race and culture have persisted in the USA. In this regard, I found my college environment to be distinctly discriminatory.

However, we pushed our activism so far that we got our class shut down for a day. We put on something called a symposium on race and community.


Photos: Shreedhar Poudel

Was this a reaction to something that had happened on campus?

Yes. There were some boys from a fraternity who had decided to dress up like people of colour. It was a theme party based on the TV show ‘Survivor’. The show used to have different themes every season and that year the theme was race where contestants were categorised according to their race. They had an Asian group, a black group and so on.

The guys started jumping around the party, which I found very problematic. It brought up a lot of past wounds that are still painful today. It triggered a lot of debate on campus. We had to speak out. That led us to organise the symposium

How did you end up in France?

I went there in the middle of my college years. I got this incredible scholarship that allowed me to go there to continue my studies.

I was introduced to the French hip-hop scene there, and I met all these incredible artists who were not just rapping but also using rap as a medium to say something through it. There was this popular radio hit that talked about differences between people. It was not a complaint, but the rapper was just pointing out things.

Then I realised that hip-hop was not just big in the USA, but it was big all over the world.

Could you tell us exactly when RAPtivism was born?

I think I started travelling and developing RAPtivism as a global hip-hop project around 2009, after college.

I had started a band in college called the ‘RAPtivist’. Over the period, I met different artists from around the world and started working together to co-write songs. We would take up themes which we could all relate to, and find a recording studio to collaborate.

So many social movements have started with music. Music and dance have given people something different to believe in. It is a powerful tool.

In these seven years since you first started RAPtivism, how many countries have you visited?

Lots (laughs).

I have started doing local workshops in my community. I have also worked in public schools teaching in addition to performing. I want to bring rap to classrooms.

I still collaborate with artists I had met abroad. Apart from that, I do a lot of performance in the Bay Area. I think people back home need to know what I do.

In Denmark, you produced a song about asylum seekers in Iraq. How did it happen?

Denmark was the first country I had visited after I started RAPtivism. I ended up living near a church where where 35 asylum seekers were staying. Some of them had lived in Denmark for more than 20 years then. One guy was 22. He didn’t know anything about Iraq. He had spent his whole life, pretty much, in Denmark.

We started the project by having conversations. They would tell me their stories and I would write about it.

Police are not supposed to raid churches, but in this case, they did. They raided the church in the middle of the night and transferred them to an asylum centre. That song was dedicated to them. It tries to make the issue visible because I don’t think many people knew about the incident.

In one of your other songs, you say that RAPtivism is about bringing politics back to rap. What is that about?

Yeah. It’s about bringing back the message that activism is at the roots of hip-hop. Rap started out as a peace treaty between groups, it started off as a way of getting people to work together. It is about encouraging people to be more free. It’s about finding happiness and still pushing the envelope even given the many constraints and discrimination that many face.

So many social movements have started with music. Music and dances have given people something different to believe in. It is a powerful tool.

For example. if you look at American history, long before segregation ended officially, it ended on the dance floor. When people danced, they did not think about colour, anyone could dance.

When you say bringing ‘politics’ what are you referring to?

It’s about getting a message across. Many people would think that hip-hop is just about women, violence and drugs. But it is so much more than that.

It is about bringing social justice.

How has your experience in Nepal been?

It’s been so fantastic. I am honoured. I am thankful to the people who came to see us perform. I feel very much at home in Kathmandu. There’s a sense of community here. There is a sense of social cohesiveness here. I think, even after the earthquake, people went out of your way to help those in need. Those acts of compassion make all the difference at the end of the day.

Activism is not just an idea that we think about, it’s a daily choice we make. It comes from our action.

Any advice to young Nepalis?

Your voice is important. When you collaborate with others, you get solidarity.

Believe in yourself and use your imagination. There are times in our lives when it may seem that there is only one way things could be done, but creativity and imagination can help you figure out another way of doing it. Hope and imagination can go along a long way.


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