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The life of an activist-musician: Japanese rapper ECD

When the family of the Japanese rap pioneer and activist ECD aka Ishida Yoshinori announced on 24 January 2018 that he had passed away, the music and activist worlds let out a collective sigh of mourning. Zeebra, Japan’s most commercially successful rapper, cried audibly while honoring him on his radio show. Meanwhile, political theorist Ikuo Gonoi credited his constant presence in demonstrations with creating a “liberal moment” mixing culture and politics. But who was ECD, and what were his contributions to Japanese culture?

Hip-hop pioneer

One of Japan’s earliest rappers, ECD performed in the late 1980s as an opening act for Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, and others when they toured Japan. He released some socially critical songs, like “Pico Curie” (1989, about radioactive fallout from Chernobyl), “Racist,” (1993, about racism), and “Lonely Girl” (1997, ft. K Dub Shine), about young women who date older men for money to buy luxury-brand goods (enjō kōsai).

But he was most remembered for organizing Thumping Camp, the first large-scale hip-hop festival in Japan, on July 7, 1996. It was a showcase for underground hip-hop, as opposed to the idol-pop-inspired J-Rap that was climbing the charts.

Sound demos against the Iraq War, 2003–2004

The Japanese held many street protests in 2003 against the American War in Iraq. ECD was on the organizing committee of Against Street Control (ASC), a group that put together a series of “sound demos” or street demonstrations featuring trucks with sound equipment, upon which DJs and bands performed. At one sound demo on 19 July 2003, the police arrested several protesters—a big deal in Japan as the police can hold people for 23 days without an indictment. ECD overheard a protester yell, “We’re not the kind of guys who’ll do what they’re told.”

ECD made a song out of this retort, “Yūkoto kikuyō na yatsura ja naizo” (2003), with a backing track based on Japanese singer Shuri Eiko’s “Ie ie” (1967). He describes the riotous atmosphere of the sound demonstration, beating “oil cans . . . for three hours,” and the violence of the police, “hooligans with a bad attitude.” The song became the anthem of the anti-war movement and would resurface a decade later.

[ECD] contributed to the formation of a new style of call-and-response in protests, whereby rappers rapped calls in rhythm over musical tracks, and the beats encouraged the protesters to chant them back.

Anti-nuclear protests after Fukushima accident, 2011–2016

The frightening images of the hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the lack of credible information caused many Japanese, particularly parents, to worry about health risks from radiation. ECD lent his booming rapper’s voice to lead calls in the weekly (and still ongoing) anti-nuclear protests in front of the prime minister’s office. He contributed to the formation of a new style of call-and-response in protests, whereby rappers rapped calls in rhythm over musical tracks, and the beats encouraged the protesters to chant them back. One such performance was at an anti-nuclear demonstration on July 29, 2012, which attracted over 200,000 protesters. During this demonstration, ECD chanted a twist on his 2003 anthem: “Yūkoto kikaseru ban da, oretachi ga” (It’s our turn to make them listen to what we say).

This line is from “Straight Outta 138” (2012). The rapper Dengaryū had invited ECD to do a guest verse on his song because he liked the hook from ECD’s 2003 song. ECD explained that the political situation had changed. In 2003, the protesters created mayhem to oppose the geopolitical hegemonic order that allowed the Iraq War to happen. The anti-nuclear issue called for a change in domestic policy; one had to act as a citizen and convince lawmakers to act. He therefore transformed his line to be more fitting with the times:

2003: Yūkoto kikuyōna yatsura ja naizo We’re not the type who’ll listen [to authority]

2012: Yūkoto kikaseru ban da, oretachi ga It’s our turn to make them listen to us

In his verse, ECD makes an urgent appeal for citizens to speak up (“If we stay silent, we’ll be killed”), and calls for citizens to “sign petitions, vote, demonstrate.”

Protests against the Abe administration’s policies

The passage of the Secrecy Law in 2013 (which the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and others believed could endanger freedom of the press) and the Abe Cabinet’s reinterpretation of Japan’s peace constitution in 2014 (to allow Japanese troops to be sent overseas) brought an infusion of student leadership into demonstrations. Students Against the Secret Protection Law (SASPL) began holding demonstrations with a sound truck, on which the group’s members rapped call-and-response patterns to hip-hop beats. ECD was a constant presence, leading calls or helping to deal with the police.

SEALD’s rapper Ushida Yoshimasa, known as UCD, liked ECD’s expression of political agency for citizens in the line, “Yūkoto kikaseru ban da, oretachi ga.” UCD morphed the line into “Yūkoto kikaseru ban da, kokumin ga” (It’s time to make them listen to the nation’s people). This captured the fact that the majority of voters opposed reinterpreting or revising the peace constitution.

ECD’s song “Lucky Man” (2015) captures the spirit of the times with its line, “I hurl my protests in front of the prime minister.” It also suggests someone who has come to terms with the ups and downs of his life, with optimism (“the 21st century has only just begun”).

Rest in power

ECD was diagnosed with cancer in September 2016. Even in his weakened state, he still attended demonstrations, crawling out of his hospital bed to sit by the side of the road and cheer on protesters.

ECD was neither the biggest star nor a movement leader, but his presence had a great impact on both fields. He raised underground hip-hop to commercial viability with Thumpin’ Camp. He was on the front lines of social movements, writing protest anthems, inspiring calls, and performing at protests. He inspired younger rappers to be politically engaged. Most of all, his constant and reliable presence at demonstrations—rare among Japanese recording artists—was inspiring and reassuring to many protesters.

A longer version of this article appears in The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Featured image credit: “DJ” by Mark Vletter. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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