George “G” Yamazawa is spending most of his spring on the road, traveling from show to show at college campuses across the country. His tour is rigorous, hitting 19 cities in 12 states in April alone.
But despite releasing his first hip-hop EP in February, the crowds aren't coming to see him rap. The 25-year-old Yamazawa is an award-winning slam poet who has performed his spoken word across the United States, Europe, and Dubai. He is best known for his evocative performances on YouTube, where he lyrically critiques disunity and the racism he knew growing up Japanese American in the South.
“Poetry allowed me to share my story the way I wanted to," Yamazawa told NBC News. "It made me remember that I never needed money."
Now in his mid-20s, Yamazawa said he has mellowed from the lone Asian American who was pressed to choose between black and white culture as a kid in the South to a poet reflecting on the rift between his American self and his sacrificing, strict Japanese parents.
Raised in Durham, North Carolina, growing up without an Asian-American community meant Yamazawa searched elsewhere for identity, finding it in '90s hip-hop long before he found it in poetry.
“Poetry in high school was very phony to me, but it’s always performative and never meant to be read as poetry as you would think,” Yamazawa said. “Hip-hop not only felt really American, it also made me feel really secure and undeniably gave me a surplus of confidence and power. You gain power from that self-encouragement, from your voice.”
Yamazawa started experimenting with poetry at 13 after a friend died, but didn't get into competitive poetry until he was 17. In between, Yamazawa’s strict Japanese father fell ill to leukemia and the teenage Yamazawa was left more to his own devices, leading to an anti-authority streak and expulsion from high school for smoking and selling marijuana. Wandering through continuation school and then community college was formative for Yamazawa. In community college, he discovered hybrid performers like Black Ice, introducing him to the concept of performative poetry.
“[Poetry is] not only just insightful into my life, but I’ve also learned that my experience is as vastly visually different as other people," Yamazawa said. "The concept of wanting to understand who you are, using aspects of your life and upbringing as clues, why you are the way you are, is expansive. It’s not just for Asian Americans. It’s for white people, it’s for anyone whose concept of self-identity is so important. My vulnerability can easily help people begin that process of understanding who they are.”
Embracing vulnerability was a process, but one Yamazawa was familiar with from his father’s strong Buddhist influence. Buddhism became a core tenet of Yamazawa’s poetry and life as he grappled with American society’s hypermasculine conditioning.
“As an Asian American male in the south, I grew up feeling super emasculated in many ways,” Yamazawa said. “But I also learned it has a big parallel with eastern philosophy of gentleness and tenderness. Growing up in America, you grow up feeling super soft and weak. It’s not til you’re older that you discover these are strengths.”
In short order, Yamazawa began touring on the slam poetry circuit, performing with the Durham team The Sacrificial Poets, which he helped start. He made just enough in nightly tips and take to keep the tour going. It wasn't much, he said, but he found his calling.
"Of course every performer wants to reach the largest audience possible, but at the end of the day, truly what the creative needs is someone to listen, and to be able to create," he said. "That’s what poetry did for me. I’m not doing this for money or fame, it’s just a beautiful way to connect with my stories.”
Soon after his first tour in 2010, Yamazawa moved from Durham to Washington, D.C. and dove into the city’s poetry scene. This was another formative period for Yamazawa — his first big city, his first big heartbreak, and a big pool of creatives to workshop his style. Touring also gave him a chance to explore the country, and in turn, explore his Asian-American identity. Exposure to large Asian-American communities in Los Angeles and other parts of California were impactful, but he was wholly unprepared for the massive Asian-American crowd in Hawaii.
“We had a huge show, about 400 people and they were all Asian people, it was so intense," he said. "But I realized the things I was talking about was life on the mainland. They didn’t grow up being picked on because they were Asian. Going on tour was like learning I could rock my poems to all black audiences, white audiences, all kinds of genders, in New Orleans, Texas, California, Vancouver, Denver, Austin, the Southwest. For me, it was then that I knew I could translate my work, that my work had the power to really move you.”
Topping his time in D.C. was his first great professional achievement in 2014: beating out 71 other teams to win the National Poetry Slam with his D.C. team, Beltway Poetry Slam. Basking in the victory, Beltway Poetry Slam founder Sarah Lawson pointed out that the social justice themes in their poetry resonated. During the competition, Yamazawa performed a poem about using the word "gay" as an insult.
As he turned 24, Yamazawa felt the call for hip-hop again. Things had changed since he first experimented with the art form in high school. In 2005, hip-hop for Yamazawa was image-based, and he felt that he would have had to compromise who he was if he wanted to gain attention. But Yamazawa points to the rise of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco as a softening of hip-hop, a shift in the genre toward engaging emotions and masculine fragility.
In 2014, Yamazawa packed up and moved to Los Angeles to transition into recording as a hip-hop artist. Amid touring the country on the more prestigious college circuit of poetry performance, Yamazawa released his first hip-hop EP in February after a successful crowdfunding campaign.
The first track on his self-titled EP, “Dining Room”, tells how Yamazawa grew up working alongside his family in their sushi restaurant. Yamazawa’s parents were strict, his father especially, a “Tiger dad” who had a heavy hand: When he was in fifth grade, Yamazawa was briefly sent to foster care when his father hit him too hard. His parents required As in school and pushed Yamazawa to become a doctor or lawyer, if not take over the restaurant, but they knew he wanted a different life.
Yamazawa looks back on the pressure and discipline his parents' way of showing love. Counter to what he expected, his parents have been fully supportive of his creative endeavors. After all the work and a dozen poetry awards, Yamazawa is grateful for his parents, but is ready to start talking about deeper truths than racial divide.
“At this point in my creative process, I think they did such a huge foundation for my art my whole life. Your family is your first thing, it’s naturally the first thing I wrote about that informed my view of the world,” Yamazawa said. “I’ve been wanting to change what I write about in terms of my views for the world, as a thinker and an artist, to try to transcend beyond racial and ethnic rhetoric — these lines and divides I want to really explore the heart of humanity and what it means to be a person in this world. My parents and the immigrant experience have given me this platform perspective of being an outsider with the ability to look at the world, and not just in an American sense.”
Correction: An earlier version referred to the debut track off of Yamazawa's EP as "Dinner Table." It is "Dining Room."