Bay Area Local Artist Spotlight: Japanese-Hawaiian Rapper Chiemi

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Local Japanese/Hawaiian rapper Chiemi is releasing a new music video today, a love song, and just in time for Valentine’s Day. Unlike her other releases, usually filled with assertive messages of female empowerment over 90s style boom bap productions (i.e. “Wrek Ya Style” and “Chiemi Intro”), “Choosin” provides a more candid story of love and loss as the rapper demonstrates her jazzy and raw vocal abilities.

We wanted to learn more about this up-and-coming Bay Area rapper so we reached out to Chiemi and had her answer a few questions for us. We spoke about how she first became interested in the rap game, what the wildest thing is that’s happened to her at a show, and what her favorite neighborhoods are in the city.

How would you describe your sound?

I always make it a point to make sure my lyrics are coming from the heart, that my writing is honest. I think my sound can be described as empowering, raw, and emotional. My sound reflects the experiences I go through in life and in my relationships. And because my music has helped me to heal from a few negatives experiences, I know there must be other young women and men out there who find my music just as healing.

When did you first become interested in rap?

I’ve listened to rap since as long as I can remember. Growing up in San Francisco and with parents and many aunts and uncles who are also of the “born and raised SF” era, I was exposed to rap at a young age by listening to rap on tapes in the car from artists like Outkast, the Fugees, and a Tribe Called Quest. My mom is also a jazz pianist so I was exposed to a variety of music from Ella Fitzgerald to Marvin Gaye as well.

As far as me rapping myself, I sort of accidentally fell in love with doing it NOT because I was good at it, but because whenever I would freestyle or rap in front of people I would always receive such positive energy back from the crowd. I didn’t know that rapping (and I later found out singing too) could have such a strong effect on people. Once I realized the power of music, I started taking my writing and skill more seriously. I started listening to music more carefully, paying close attention to what types of emotions I was getting from each song.

Do you think being of Japanese/Hawaiian descent has helped or hindered you as a rapper?

Although there has historically not been a lot of representation of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the American mainstream music industry, I think we are especially lucky out here in the Bay Area to have such a strong presence of Asian/Pacific Islander communities and cultures, as well as many other cultures! My grandparents and many other relatives were apart of a generation of struggling Asian Americans who came here to work in the early 1900’s but were imprisoned during WWII and labeled as enemy aliens. I grew up with so many awful stories of being humiliated and ashamed of our language and culture, but I also always knew I would be a part of their legacy that could share their story as well. I still to this day am not able to speak Japanese like my elders, and that is something that angers me deeply.

When I started getting into rap and freestyling, something switched. I always had some sh*t to say, but now I had a way to communicate with people. I was well aware of the fact that people were usually surprised to see an Asian girl get up on stage and spit bars, but that never really bothered me. Because I grew up around a lot of very strong Japanese-American women in my family, many of which were single mothers who were raising children alone due to their husbands leaving them, I grew up with a strong respect for my culture and for the women of my culture. I witnessed these women, my mother, aunties, and grandmother, being disrespected and not being taken seriously by their employers and by society and I also knew I would be no different.

I can’t say whether my ethnicity has either hindered or helped my career as a rapper. But I can say that because there are so few Asians and Asian women represented in hip-hop, I am always reminded to do the best that I can do and to pave the way for others like me to have our voices heard. I can only hope that my music helps to combat the stereotypes that Asians and Pacific Islanders, especially women, are submissive and unassertive.

What’s the wildest thing that’s ever happened to you at a show?

I’m not gonna use any names, but I used to go to this one rap spot nearby to my grandmother’s house a lot, and the DJ there would always say kinky things to me in my ear right before I would go up. I’d be pretty disgusted, seeing as he’s a few decades older than me and much deeper in the game. But it also pushed me to remember why I do what I do, and why it’s important to keep holding space for myself and others like me who might be struggling with the same out of pocket behavior in such a male-dominated world. It’s tough, dealing with asshole men in the industry all the time with such big heads who never stop to think twice about what they’re doing. But it also pushes me to work harder. Like… by the time I’m with all this, you’re gonna have no choice but to RESPECT ME.

What are you listening to these days?

These days I have been listening to less rap music and more soul and R&B. I’ve recently been listening to a lot of Jorja Smith and Kali Uchis, they both have sounds that are more unconventional and lo-fi sounding. I’ve also been listening to lots of music by Oshun, Ibeyi, Jhene Aiko — each of these artists has their own stories that they carry in their music, and I love hearing (and seeing in their music videos) how they present their stories.

I’ve also been playing on repeat music from artists I’ve discovered recently that are coming out of the Bay Area. To name a few, there are P-Lo, Elujay, and Rayana Jay. These three artists all have extremely unique sounds and productions, but they also all stay true to the Bay and drop references to our culture out here. I love that!!

And then lastly, I’ve been listening to a lot of music from G Yamazawa, a Japanese-American artist, and poet whom I met a few weeks ago on Ruby Ibarra’s tour when he opened up for her at the New Parish. Like I said, there is such little representation that we Asians have in the mainstream media, so when I see an independent Asian-American artist, especially a Japanese-American one, putting in the time to making stories about the struggles we face amongst a backdrop of mostly white or white-washed narratives, I get overwhelmed with excitement and always want to hear more. I’ve also been showing my two younger brother’s G Yamazawa’s music to encourage them to support more Asian American artists in the music industry.

You’re releasing a new video on Valentine’s Day, what can you tell us about it?

I will be releasing a music video that touches on love and heartbreak and all the juicy stuff that goes on in a shallow, sex-driven relationship! The song is based off a real-life situation I experienced a couple years ago where I was seeing someone who was much older than I was, and also much more immersed in the music scene in the Bay Area than I was at the time. In the process of taking me under his wing to show me the ropes and teach me the ins and outs of the Bay Area entertainment industry, we ended up getting into a complicated sexual relationship that ended up with me realizing that although he was older than me, he was not more mature than me. After a lot of tears and heartbreak, I ended up deciding that I was the one that had to stick up for myself and leave the unhealthy relationship — I was 22 and he was in this thirties.

I made this song and music video with the intention of creating a story for other young women who face similar struggles to learn from. I see so many of my young homegirls deal with unhealthy relationships where they are expected to endure their partners’ lying, cheating, physical abuse, and baby mama drama. In being a young woman of color born into a world dominated by white male-egotism, I think it is especially important to remind ourselves of our strength and our potential (no matter what our boyfriends say they will do/buy for you). And I can only hope that this song will help us to heal from the traumas that we face in an increasingly competitive world that many times, forgets to mention all the strong female role models we have over the men. “Choosin my world, over yours” serves as a reminder to do just that: Love yourself and your world will flourish.

What’s your take on all the live music clubs closing in the Bay Area and people calling the music scene dead?

Seeing as I grew up around a lot of live music due to my mother playing at various venues, hotels, and restaurants growing up, I think it’s sad how the era of live music is decreasing in general. I mean, so much of music is learned just from watching people in real life and receiving the energy they put out to their audience.

The next generation of Bay Area musicians is going to have to learn how to be more resourceful with the smaller, as well as fewer spaces they are given. On the one hand, there will be fewer opportunities to be able to perform smaller local events like house parties or cutty venues like SUB/Mission. But on the other hand, there will also be more opportunity to get their music played for a larger audience via platforms like Spotify, SoundCloud, and YouTube. Regardless of being from the Bay or not, being a musician nowadays will involve having to be more creative about these changes to technology and venue spaces.

What does music mean to you?

To me, music is a language that heals. From place to place, it can tell you a lot about the people and the culture from where it came. And music also evolves over time, just as our spoken language does.

What’s your favorite neighborhood in the city and why?

I know am so biased!! But my favorite neighborhood in the city is my own: The Richmond District. I think the Richmond is a hidden gem that moves at a slower pace than most other parts of the city. The Richmond is home to many new immigrant families who came from places like Vietnam and China and is also home to many OG Frisco families as well. My most favorite part about the Richmond District is Geary Street because I grew up hearing many stories of my father and uncles always racing and have car shows down this street in the 70’s and 80’s. This street also seems to have resisted many changes over the years, even despite all the gentrification and rent increases that have occurred.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to find out about you?

People are usually surprised to hear that I grew up with a strict classical violin training. From the ages of 5 to 10, I was expected to practice the violin at least 2 hours a day, and I won many violin competitions growing up due to this strict practice regiment. I wanted to go to Julliard for the longest time when I was younger but became quickly discouraged due to the pretentious attitudes of the other string players, as well as my instructors. As I got older and started getting into more trouble with the law and in school, I started to feel more and more out of place amongst such a competitive, strict, and high browed musical environment. It wasn’t until much further down in my musical career that I realized I was so lucky to have had such a disciplined foundation to the world of music. I try to carry this discipline with me wherever I go when I work on musical projects.

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for and, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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