Like jazz before it, hip-hop started out as a wild form of self-expression situated distinctly on the outskirts of musical conventions. From its origins, hip-hop was about providing a voice and means of self-expression for the disenfranchised. Its forms and rhythms spread from the Bronx in the 1970s across the globe.
Although four decades have passed since its origins, that more transgressive and less commercialized brand of hip-hop is alive and well in all corners of the world. Aisha Fukushima, singer, speaker and activist, can attest to the unabated vitality and creativity of the contemporary hip-hop scene.
“To me there is a fiercely intellectual, critical aspect of hip-hop culture that also exists beyond the Top 40 and beyond what people often see when they scratch the surface,” she says from her houseboat home in Copenhagen.
Fukushima is a U.S.- and Denmark-based hip-hop artist who performs and writes her own lyrics and is a curator of other artistic talent. One of her major projects, RAPtivism, a global hip-hop project that she founded in 2009, is a collaboration among artists from across the world. She also has a foot in the academic and intellectual world, speaking and leading workshops at academic conferences.
These multiple identities are not at odds with each other, Fukushima says. After all, hip-hop is a form of social analysis and critique. “‘Hip-hop’ stands for highly intellectual people hovering over politics; the hyphen is the bridge that we walk across,” Fukushima says, attributing that analysis to the Narcicyst, an Iraqi-Canadian hip-hop MC.
Although music is now a fundamental part of her life, Fukushima says it took her a few years to realize she wanted to be a performer, even though she grew up enmeshed in the international music scene.
Her parents, who worked in the music industry, shuttled her back and forth from Japan to the United States, bringing her backstage with them during James Brown, Funkadelic, TLC and Ice Cube concerts.
“Those early years definitely influenced me in that I could see how international music was and that it could communicate across a lot of different languages,” Fukushima says.
In Japan, she was struck by massive crowds singing along to words in a foreign language they might not even understand. Despite the language barrier, they were totally caught up in the moment, bonded with the band or singer in a sort of collective euphoria.
“It’s like a mini-social movement, every time you see a concert,” Fukushima says.
The international travel slowed down when Fukushima was 7 and her parents divorced. Her father, who is Japanese, stayed behind, while her mother, who is African-American, returned to the Pacific Northwest with her daughter. As a single parent for the first time, Fukushima’s mother had a lot on her plate managing work and child care. So she decided to find an after-school activity for her daughter, enrolling Fukushima in an after-school musical.
Fukushima distinctly remembers the audition for the musical, opening her mouth to sing and surprising even herself with the force of her passion to be heard. “In that moment it became very palpable to me that I needed to do something special with my voice, and that I needed to continue to hone that craft and pursue it, and that it has the power to move people,” she says.
She found her direction during a college study-abroad program in France. It was there that she met Emcee Kev, a French hip-hop artist with whom she has since collaborated on a number of songs.
“When I went to France, I started to hear hip-hop on the radio that had a message that I could relate to [in] some of my life and some of my struggles,” Fukushima says. “I started to think, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of music that’s not being heard. Not just in the States, but all around the world, that speaks to people and can be empowering and actually foster folks to think a little differently about their realities.”
Although Fukushima graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Whitman College in 2009, she is not following the “typical” career path someone with her talents might be expected to take. After graduating, Fukushima spent a year traveling the world on a Watson Fellowship and then taught and worked at a nonprofit in the Bay Area.
Throughout it all, she kept working on her RAPtivism project. As of this summer, Fukushima decided to dedicate herself to the world of hip-hop, creating, collaborating and traveling, full time. “In my music, I want to talk about where we want to go from here,” she says, “to start to think about the future that we’d like to embody so that we can create it.”