“I actually came up and was raised by the poetry community in Durham and North Carolina,” says poet and emcee George Masao Yamazawa Jr., a.k.a. G Yamazawa. “So I can kind of speak a little bit more toward that community, as opposed to the music community. There’s a lot of intersections but it’s just a very tight-knit, family-oriented experience.”
Now living in Los Angeles, Yamazawa reminisces over the small-town approach to the arts, where it’s much less of a business and more about building spaces for people to explore, grow and commune. Just as well, he will return to NC this Wednesday to help kick off Cucalorus 25—a celebration of indie arts and artists, in film, stage arts and tech industries.
“Coming from smaller markets, there’s just not a lot of resources to do things like [Cucalorus] and to properly feel like we’re honoring artists and the communities that they’re from,” Yamazawa says. “So I think any kind of independent effort, whether it’s a festival or a label or just a one-off event, any type of opportunity to build a space where people can and are allowed to feel proud and feel honored, I think is important for everybody.”
G Yamazawa, along with Shirlette Ammons and visual artist Kid Ethnic (Saleem Reshamwala), will kick off the Visual/Sound/Walls block at Brooklyn Art Center this Wednesday. The interactive music-video concert will feature a set from Yamazawa and Ammons, complemented by Kid Ethnic’s visuals and videography.
Hardly 30 years old, Yamazawa was the youngest National Poetry Slam Champion in 2014, and has won other accolades and honors like Kollaboration DC in 2012 and 2013’s Kundiman Fellowship. He began transitioning from poetry into rap in 2017 with “Shouts to Durham” and “Music to Inspire,” followed by “Money is Time” in 2018. Yamazawa is now working on a new album for a 2020 release. For Cucalorus, he’ll draw from his entire music catalog, as well as some new, unreleased material.
“[I’ll pick songs] that allowed for the audience to actually be a part of the song,” he says. “Whether it’s call-and-response or something that’s easier for the audience to just attach themselves to, or there is a singular idea or theme they can grasp onto.”
Yamazawa comes from poetry, traditionally a place of thematic contemplation and intimate space. Moreover, his Buddhist upbringing while growing up in the South is often a topic in his art. He has had to adapt to the different setting of a rap concert (where people are likely drinking, loud and have a lot of energy to expel) and learn which tracks best connect with which audiences.
“I think certain songs speak to different demographics in different ways,” he iterates. “There’s a general rule where a certain song could do well in most demographics. . . . Like “North Cack” in North Carolina translates extremely well, but when I go to Boston or Chicago or LA, people are like ‘OK, barbecue sauce with the slaw, that’s cool.’ . . . I think it’s about finding the songs that people can sort of attach their lives to and be able to enjoy, and not feel too much pressure.”
Yamazawa promises some of his best and most interactive work: call-and-response favorites like “What’s Good,” “Ego Trip” or “That’s My Shit.” He’ll marry it with visuals, which will project on every surface in the BAC 19th-century church.
“I can’t lie to you, I’m actually pretty interested to see what’s going to happen and how it’s going to play out,” Yamazawa says. “This is my first time including visuals in a set. We’re still kind of figuring it out on my end as well, and how to make it a great experience and also try not to do too much experimenting that it would backfire. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Durham’s Shirlette Ammons is a musician and producer (“A Chef’s Life,” “The Hook”), and will have a live band backing her performance. She showed her documentary, “The Hook” (about Durham’s Saltbox chef Ricky Moore) at Cucalorus’s Works-in-Progress Lab in 2018. Ammons’ work is deeply rooted in her rural upbringing and navigates issues of gender and LGBTQIA+ advocacy in her music, which traverses hip-hop, spoken-word, indie rock and pop.
The whole immersive video concept for Visual/Sound/Walls was started by Cucalorian Johnny Gray, who wanted to merge media for a live performance like no other. This year’s production will feature Reshamwala VJing for the evening, starting at 9 p.m., with roughly 20 curated vids are mixed with live drums and other instrumentals. This is Reshamwala’s first time at Cucalorus and he will fulfill more of the “visual” in Visual/Sound/Walls
“For my part of the show I put together a setlist of music videos I’ve collaborated on (mainly as director or co-director, though on some projects with friends, there’s no formal titles and we might even be passing a camera around),” he explains. “I’m going to play a block of 45 minutes or so, but rather than just pushing play, I’m going to be doing a bit of video remixing live alongside beatmaker John Laww and drummer Griffin Wade. They’ll do improvised music in between videos, it’s our first time doing anything like this.
Reshamwala also travels the world, collaborating with artists and filmmakers around themes of culture, ethnicity and music. Reshamwala is a journalist and filmmaker who collaborated on G Yamazawa’s “North Cack” music video, which won Best Music Video at the 2017 Hip Hop Film Festival in Harlem. He’ll screen “North Cack” and another long-take experimental music video featuring Young Bull.
“I’ll also have videos that I’ve filmed with collaborators in Panama, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Croatia and Ethiopia,” Reshamwala details. “With music videos, I’m trying to figure out the weirdest point where we can both meet, what crazy ideas do they have, what do I have, where can it come together into something new.”