Recently, I met local hip hop organizer and emcee, Kensho Kuma, over a virtual interview to talk about his new mixtape, “Lineage ov the Lyricist.” Along with a look into the making of the project, I also wanted to learn about Kensho’s entry into hip hop culture, musical influences, beliefs as an educator, his involvement in the community, and his contributions to local Bay Area hip hop culture as a director of Return of the Cypher. Since this was also a review request for “Lineage ov the Lyricist,” I’ll also throw in my humble two cents about the project.
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Entry into Hip Hop
With any emcee, or any bboy, DJ, or writer, I’m always curious to know what draws a person into hip hop culture. Bring me to your beginning. “Hold on, I have an artifact,” Kensho dipped out of frame and re-emerged into view, holding a cassette tape. “This is ‘The Purple Tape,’ which was Raekwon’s solo debut in 1995: ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’.. I also credit the GZA’s ‘Liquid Swords,’ to be [one of] the first pieces of recorded music that sparked my interest in emceeing. At the time I didn’t know what it was. Wu Tang [was] a melting pot and combination of things I thought were cool, which was kung fu, mafia, sneakers, having fifteen rap aliases.. and I gravitated towards their universe. This [tape] was my official entrance into their universe.”
What were the impacts of those albums on you as an Asian American kid?
“First, I realized at the time that, not just being of Japanese descent, but being Asian American in general, was perceived as something really positive in hip hop culture. Kung fu, ninjas, assassins, rōnins, samurais… all these things that are traditionally Japanese, or Chinese, or having an Asian background, are perceived as something really cool, and that made me feel included. Even as a fifteen year old kid, I knew I wanted to eventually rap in Japanese, because I knew it could be perceived as something cool, so I credit hip hop for making me feel included as an Asian American kid in Berkeley.”
Education & Pedagogy
Kensho started his career in education as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher overseas in Tokyo and Shanghai. He returned to the states in 2007 and continued adult ESL instruction, but soon realized he wanted a fuller teaching experience working with youth. After going back to school and earning a multiple-subject teaching credential, Kensho joined Oakland Unified School District in 2011. As for his role as an educator, Kensho believes in pedagogy, which he defines as “the art and craft of teaching. That’s something I respect very much.. It’s a continuous process that a teacher has to be a part of. What I have learned in my years of being a teacher, is that education means nothing unless the learning process takes place in an emotionally and of course, physically safe learning environment. This is a prerequisite for proactive learning and teaching to occur. [For] a lot of schools in Oakland, especially in East Oakland, that prerequisite is not met.” Although no longer with Oakland Unified, Kensho continues his role as an educator, as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor. Kensho applies this pedagogy to both his craft as a teacher and emcee: “A teacher is a student of pedagogy, you have to continuously work on [your craft]. And [there is a parallel] as an emcee, [who] has to continue working on lyricism. Teaching has never been a job; you’re a positive older person in the learner’s life.. That’s your main function as a teacher. Delivering learning objectives is secondary to being a positive influence in a young person’s life.”
Return of the Cypher!
Return of the Cypher (ROTC) is a staple hip hop event in San Francisco, that originally started in 2013 as an after-party for the Black Film Festival. The original members included a beatboxer named MC Infinite, three emcees named MC Orukusaki, Slice 9, MC Mars, and DJ Kevvy Kev. Kensho joined six months in, and has been the event director of ROTC for the last seven years. With the exception of a few Sundays due to scheduling conflicts with the venue, ROTC has never missed a beat, holding a safe space every weekend for emcees— for both veterans and aspiring. “[ROTC] is what I like to consider [the place] where hip hop culture resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s an open mic jam session, backed up by a live band and everyone is invited to perform in the open mic cypher as long as they read the rules and agree to follow the rules. [In addition to a] traditional dancehall segment with DJ Kevvy Kev, [ROTC also had] weekly featured performers who came from around the world— France, Mongolia, Italy, and Japan— and the RZA, Large Professor, and Lyrics Born.” ROTC has also done charity work for the community, such as holiday and Christmas toy drives, working closely with Hip Hop For Change; hosting producer showcases; and monthly ‘Most Valuable Poet’ emceeing competitions. “We always tried our best to differentiate the experience so it wouldn’t be the same show every Sunday. It was always our mission to [foster] a very inclusive nature, where everyone felt comfortable to come through and rap. You had to be a complete jerk to get 86’ed from ROTC!”
Although the spirit of competition is part of hip hop, it’s also important to have spaces where budding artists can work on their craft: “That’s what I can say as ROTC director, [and] as a kid who grew up in hip hop, I can say I always tried my best to make it an environment where the young 22 year-old emcee with absolutely nothing could come through and just rap, and be surrounded by his peers. Because that’s who I was, and I just want to carry on the tradition and give back to the culture… ROTC is what I am most proud of in my hip hop tenure. It’s more than anything I could have done as a single individual. I believe my team was able to really build a platform [that] gave up-and-coming artists an opportunity to hone their craft and get experience.”
In the wake of the pandemic, Kensho has taken the cypher online to Twitch, called Smash Beats Cypher: “I’m still learning the transition into the digital realm.. I enjoy it because it’s accessible to everyone, but that’s the same reason about ‘real life’ hip hop, because it should be accessible to everyone. But I feel ambivalent about it.. and without bashing on the gaming community.. from my vantage point it seems like online hip hop performances just showed up on Twitch, which is owned by the gaming world, and a whole lot of online gaming things come with it. As an individual who grew up in hip hop, I’m not sure how to feel about these certain things; emceeing is controlling the crowd, it’s a real-life craft. You do it in front of people.. I’m going through the awkward phase of accepting it.. [but digital events] just aren’t real enough.”
Hip Hop For Change
In addition to directing Return of the Cypher, Kensho is also a board member of Hip Hop For Change (HH4C). While I tried to dig farther on Kensho’s role as a board member, he humbly emphasized that the credit of the success of this organization goes to the grassroots campaigning team and HH4C founder Khafre Jay’s leadership. In the early years of HH4C, Kensho was invited by Khafre Jay to become a member of the diverse HH4C Board of Directors. Kensho believes that HH4C provides “self-determination for local hip hop culture, and provides another [form] of representation for hip hop culture that is not given to us by the hip hop industry. We do this through our three pillars, which are the grassroots campaigning team; educational outreach with the hip hop curriculum; and events, which highlight local artists.” With fellow ROTC director and HH4C’s Educational Director, Unlearn the World, the organization has taught over 22,000 kids in the K-12 grades. HH4C events also boast impressive line-ups, with guests such as Talib Kweli and KRS One. Kensho also shared an incredible piece of news of the ever-expanding organization: HH4C will be opening an in-house studio, which will be free for artists under 24 years old, who will be able to work with and in-house engineer, Ryan Andrew, aka D-Wiz, who mixed Kensho’s last two projects. In recent news, HH4C also received the Ellen Magnin Newman award for Outstanding Arts Organization from the SF Symphony, and the Award for Social Change from the Zellerbach Family Foundation.
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Lineage ov the Lyricist
Kensho’s latest project, “Lineage ov the Lyricist,” is a one-hour, 20-track mixtape, mixed by DJ Kevvy Kev, and took three years to complete. Kensho feels that this project is different from his other albums: “[Unlike my] other albums, which were official releases of pieces of music, this project, my attitude was, picking instrumentals [from existing songs] that I liked, and [then] I just rhyme about what I want to.” Drawing from inspirations such as Kool G Rap, Big Pun, and Ghostface Killah, Kensho offers up “Lineage ov the Lyricist” as “another brick in the road” for the tradition of lyricism. Kensho worked meticulously with D-Wiz throughout the process of recording and mixing, and noted that although it’s a mixtape, he wanted to give it the same level of attention as he would for an official album. As an independent artist, the learning curve is still ever-prevalent when it comes to promotion: “Touring is a lot more fun than sending emails.. But it’s surprising where the support is [for this project].. blogs in Latvia, Germany, Spain.. and Japan” have uploaded the project. The features on this project were kept to a minimum and came organically, which include Z-Man, Watzreal, Jane the Message, and Rikinish— some of whom were regulars at ROTC.
“Lineage ov the Lyricist” is a multilingual project, with tracks in English, Japanese, and French. As mentioned earlier, Kensho always knew that he wanted to rap in Japanese, which was particularly important because he was born in Japan, and felt that he would be missing a big part of his identity as an emcee if he couldn’t rap in Japanese. Although he started rapping as a teenager, he didn’t start rapping in Japanese until his late 20s: “The learning curve for rapping in Japanese was easier, because [by this time] I knew the basic concept of how to rap. Although I’m more confident in English than Japanese, I think [this is] because of my time and experience that I’ve spent in [within the] English language— I grew up rapping in the streets of Berkeley and Oakland, not downtown Shibuya.” A lot of hip hop heads may look to Japan for some of the best hip hop to influence our generation (RIP Nujabes!). Kensho drew some fine lines in the gray areas when it comes to geographical backgrounds, identity, and sound: “I’m not a product of Japanese hip hop, I didn’t grow up rapping in Tokyo; An emcee is a vocal representation of hip hop culture where he/she is from. It’s everything that the person is, from that soil, where they are raised in. I sound like a Bay Area emcee because that’s where I’m from. If I was a Japanese American rapper from Shibuya, Tokyo, I would sound completely different because the local hip hop culture would be completely different.” In addition to Japanese, Kensho also included a track in French from the Smileys Cheeky Chinky Clique, a group of French Cambodian and French Laotian emcees that he met while overseas in Paris. What factor made Kesho decide to add Smileys Cheeky Chinky Clique’s song, “Asiatik Kings,” to his project? Empathy— empathy and understanding the struggle as global citizens of the Asian diaspora, as immigrants, and as bilingual emcees.
When it comes to the takeaways of this project, Kensho wants his listeners to know that lyricism still matters: “Emceeing is a craft.. I believe it is important for us in 2020 and the years after that to continue the traditional element of emceeing. A discipline within emceeing is writing, and that needs to be preserved. I’m doing my part in carrying on that tradition.” By observation, in this mixtape, Kensho makes his feelings clear towards mumble rap. When we talked about mumble rap and the evolution of rap, he expressed, “I don’t resent mumble rap or trap.. I feel left out [because] I just don’t get it. What is there to get? And I don’t like feeling left out because I’m always going to be a rap fan first.. I do not consider mumble rap as the evolution of rap. I feel that [mumble rap] is a flavor and specific style of rap that is popular in 2020 right now, but not the evolution of hip hop or lyricism. There are up-and-coming artists who still care very much about rhyming actual bars… What we perceive to be traditional lyricism— as in Kool G Rap, Ghostface, Sean Price, Tupac— I think will always be there and there will be practitioners who care about it.”
Who are some Asian American rappers or hip hop artists that you’re listening to?
“I listen to a whole lot of Japanese rap, and anyone that is talented in the Japanese language because that’s who I learn from. A current Japanese artist I really like is a rapper named Zorn, and my all-time favorite Japanese rapper is Maccho from the group Ojiro Zaurus. [When it comes to Asian American rappers], I think Dumbfoundead and Ruby Ibarra are really dope. And of course the god, Lyrics Born! When I go searching for artists that I like, I don’t look within the ‘Asian American section,’ [and what I mean by that is], when I listen to an artist, or even myself, it’s always a dope emcee that happens to be of Japanese, or Chinese, or whatever descent, as opposed to a Chinese [or] Japanese, emcee that is dope. Those two things are different. And the first category of [being] a dope emcee who happens to be Japanese, is the category I always hope to be in.”
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Joyskii’s Two Cents
“Lineage ov the Lyricist” is a dense project. The mixtape starts off hella strong with an introduction from Lyrics Born himself on “Oriental Rugs,” setting the tone, place (Bay Area!), and introduction of the project, as a righteous alley-oop for a solid dunk on the rest of the track, which also functions like a thesis of an essay; it tells you exactly what you can expect from the rest of the tape— Kensho’s long-time affinity for lyricism, Japanese rap, and a plethora of life lessons. From there, Track 2/ “Methadone” takes a straight dive into a commentary on drugs, sobriety, and the pitfalls of addiction, which is also sprinkled throughout the project as references and punchlines. As previously mentioned, Kensho’s feelings towards mumble rap are made clear on Track 5/ “Licka Shot,” which is basically a diss track towards mumble rap and trap. It takes a hard cut without transition into Track 6/ “100 Bars,” which then had four different beat changes mid-track, and switched between English and Japanese. As a singular track, “100 Bars” was both delightfully challenging as a palette cleanser, while also slightly difficult to keep up with, because each beat warranted a different idea and feel.
Throughout the 20 tracks, you get snapshots of Kensho’s life, as well as where his comfort zones and strong points are as an emcee. Kensho plays into Japanese cultural references— through verbiage such as katanas, samurais, and yakuza— and makes it work for himself, in addition to rapping in the Japanese language, or in combination sonically, like Track 14/ “Shuriken.” As an individual that is highly in tune with his community, Kensho also has strong social commentaries on Track 7/ “Killings Must Stop,” which call out corruption, racism, and police brutality; and Track 17/ “Portable C,” a telling tale of the daily compounding obstacles as a teacher, and walking away from education:
“I walked away, yeah you can call me selfish,
but I got so depressed from feeling helpless//
far from a saint, just a regular dude,
we need more than the lessons scheduled in school//
the underpaid teachers rock with us, the traumatized students rock with us,
the parents on drugs rock with us, but the schools have failed, nothing left to trust//
In addition to Track 14/ “Shuriken,” my other top favorite is Track 18/ “the Game,” featuring Jane the Message & Rikinish. As a whole, this track had all the winning elements: the beat choice, pacing, three different yet solid styles of cadence in both English and Japanese, and the scratching. Of all the emcees that Kensho highly regard as great lyricists, “the Game,” was reminiscent of the “Train of Thought” album by Reflection Eternal ((Hi-Tek and Talib Kweli), who also had a snippet on this project!))
As for elements that I personally didn’t enjoy as much, there were a few running themes that undercut the project, mostly due to use of language, which I feel are things that can be fixed or improved for future projects. On Track 16/ “Permanent Scars,” the lyrics contain the word, “retard” as a diss, and I’ve learned from personal experience that this word shouldn’t be used as an insult. On few occasions, there’s also language that either objectify or condescend women, such as Track 6/ “100 Bars:” “Kuma could’ve been Yakuza but I chose the righteous path// I acquired everything in raps… minus finest Filipinas in bikinis with an ass// minus cars, minus many things I wanted with my craft.” While I understand that it’s very common in hip hop to rap about material accolades and achievements otherwise, it still didn’t sit right with me that “Filipinas in bikinis” were listed among material possessions. In Track 10/ “Bivas;” and “Track 15/ “Coke Head Bitch,” the lyrics and the story that is presented paint women as gold diggers, deceptive, and shallow. And yet, these characters are still objects of desire. I can understand relationship problems, and even distaste for characteristics, personality traits, and bad habits, however, these were painted in such general terms that it felt stereotypical towards women, and I personally didn’t vibe with these tracks.
The last song, “Hitori” is a beautiful beat, but as the closing track of the project, it falls flat in comparison to the strong opening track. The mixtape ended very abruptly on the words, “the raps that I wrote,” which is also quite poetic. But a longer track would have been a great closer, for symmetry and as a book end to a lengthy project.
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Overall, Kensho stays true to the style of rap and storytelling from the early 90s that spoke to him when he was a young aspiring emcee, and it’s evident in “Lineage ov the Lyricist,” that he puts in a lot of effort to deliver on those principles. There’s a lot to take from the 20 tracks, and the interview with Kensho definitely added context to some of the songs, ideas, and stories that were presented in this project. I’ve always believed that hip hop teaches us a language that helps us tell our stories, and that’s exactly what Kensho does through the pathway of lyricism.
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Return of the Cypher | Instagram
Hip Hop For Change | Website
Hip Hop For Change awarded by Zellerbach Foundation: https://zff.org/2020/09/william-j-zellerbach-award-for-social-change-to-hip-hop-for-change/
The Purple Tape: Only Built 4 Collectors. NPR. September 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2012/09/19/161403938/the-purple-tape-only-built-4-collectors