Review | 24 Bars to Kill: Hip Hop, Aspiration, and Japan’s Social Margins

24 Bars to Kill: Hip Hop, Aspiration, and Japan’s Social Margins. By Andrew B. Armstrong. New York: Berghahn Books, 2019. 193pp. ISBN: 9781789202670

Reviewed by Anthony Bak Buccitelli





While the formal research process for anthropologist Andrew Armstrong's 24 Bars to Kill ran over the course of about eight and a half years from 2000-2009, this work in a broader sense reflects his nearly three decades of experience engaging with various socio-economically marginalized communities in the Kansai region. In this respect, Armstrong describes his study as "both a longitudinal study of the Kansai [hip hop] scene and a snapshot from the late 2000s" (19).

Armstrong’s book centers on rappers from the Kansai scene, rather than on artists in the larger and better known Tokyo scene for several significant reasons. First of all, he notes that the “ghetto/gangsta” style favored by Kansai rappers is a marked difference from the more polished and mainstream Tokyo scene. However, behind that stylistic difference lies a major part of the story that Armstrong wants to tell. Against the backdrop of widely circulated notions, both externally and to some extent internally, of Japanese cultural uniqueness, social homogeneity, and collectivism, Armstrong wants to expose the margins of Japanese society through a study of the artists who have emerged from them. In doing so, he seeks to show how “Japan can be understood as yet another example of ordinary, late capitalist modernity,” as well as how the “individuocentric” cultivation of performative identities is central to the authenticating practices of ghetto/gangsta hip hop performers (14). While the mainstream Tokyo rappers have tended to emerge from privileged class positions within the cosmopolitanism of Tokyo, Kansai rappers are more often connected with disadvantaged groups, frequently invisible, within Japanese society. These include the low caste burakumin, ethnic Koreans (zainichi), divorced or single parent families, or other Japanese people who fall outside the traditionally defined norms of the middle-class.

Armstrong also pays special attention to the wards or “ghettos” from which his central research subjects have emerged. These include the Kyoto areas of Mukaijima, Higashikujo, and the Osaka area of Nishinari. He has chosen to dig deeply into the history of these genba (actual sites of cultural production as Armstrong employs the term), as well as their positions within Japanese social hierarchies of space, because in these spaces “ghetto/gangsta” rap is the favored style; artists tend to locate the authenticity of their performed identities within these sites; and these locales feature prominently in the music itself. To that end, Armstrong devotes a significant portion of the book, including one full chapter “Down in the Ghetto,” to locating these marginal spaces with precision in the history and cultural geography of modern Japan.

Armstrong’s ethnographic research for the project was certainly extensive. He spent years living in the Kansai region, working on kaitai (demolition) crews that were a source of employment for many of the young men that are the principal participants of the study. For this reason, Armstrong pays close attention to the performance of masculinity within these neighborhood spaces. He examines constructions of masculinity through the physical labor that earned him “street credibility” within the Mukaijima neighborhood, but also by tracing young men’s participation in street fighting and bōsōzoku (youth motorcycle gangs), as well as in more oblique ways with local Yakusa (gangsters). Out of this working-class culture comes the “hypermasculine” music of Kansai rappers. In performing this hypermasculinity, Armstrong argues, Kansai rappers authenticate their performed identities through an explicit rejection of the gendered norms of respectability in middle-class Japanese society: they highlight their connection to stigmatized spaces; to crime or violence; to the individual struggles, toughness, and talent that has allowed them to succeed. All of these positions, Armstrong notes, carefully turn Japanese middle-class norms on their head.

Although he worked with many individuals during his fieldwork, two figures are at the center of this study: the Mukaijima-based rapper Anarchy (Kitaoka Kenta) and the Nishinari-based rapper Shingo Nishinari (Ikegami Shingo). In some senses, these two artists offer two usefully separate poles within the Kansai rap scene. Anarchy, the son of a single father who worked as a tattoo artist, bar tender, and musician, grew up in the street world of the Mukaijima neighborhood. He had troubles at school, got into fights, got involved with gangs, and ended up incarcerated for a year at a juvenile detention center, before getting involved in the hip hop scene. By contrast, Shingo, who was raised by a single mother with disabilities, was a successful and upwardly mobile student, who had access to higher education and eventually middle-class employment. Shingo’s move to perform as a ghetto/gansta rapper was more heavily informed by his sense of social obligation and social activism than as a means to achieve personal strength or success. In both cases, however, Armstrong points out that these artists speak of “hip hop” choosing them, rather than the other way around. Armstrong understands these statements as expressions of the artists’ intertwined senses of class and place, as well as other aspects of their social selves.

In later chapters, Armstrong also explores the representation of Korean ethnicity in Kansai hip hop. Against the outspoken stances of other Kansai rappers, Armstrong positions the relative moderation of ethnic Korean MCs. He argues that “Zainichi MCs face a social climate that discourages them from openly acknowledging their ethnicity or from speaking out about their marginalization” (118), and that, for this reason, “poise and equanimity” are more effective rhetorical strategies than the “indignation and outrage” that other Kansai rappers often deploy in the face of class or place-based marginalization (119).

Despite the fact that Kansai rap is often critical of the middle-class norms of Japanese society, generally performed by MCs who occupy marginal positions within modern Japan, and steeped in an authenticating rhetoric of Kansai regionalism, Armstrong also observes that it has a somewhat counterintuitive connection to Japanese cultural nationalism. To an extent this arises from its association with the Yakusa and uyoku (fringe right-wing groups who are associated with the Yakusa), but it is also connected to the hypermasculinity and the claims of regional/local place that are essential to the performance of identity in the scene. These elements of identity are frequently positioned against heiwa boke (peacetime complacency), the fear that the comfortable lifestyle and norms of modern Japan are de-masculinzing or weakening it as a powerful nation.

Much of the musical content of the study comes in Armstrong’s juxtaposition and analysis of observations and interviews from his fieldwork in the neighborhoods and nightclubs of the Kansai region, published memoirs by rappers, and lyrics from their songs. As a folklore scholar whose research explores aspects of expressive performance, it was somewhat disappointing that there were not more extended descriptions of hip hop concerts or events, or deeper analyses of rap performances in this work. Nonetheless, 24 Bars to Kill offers a unique and richly researched study of the culture and society of Japan’s lower classes, as well as an interesting look at the unique musical culture that has developed in Kansai. It will undoubtedly be of great interest to ethnomusicologists, hip hop scholars, and those engaged in the sociocultural study of modern Japan.

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