COURTESY ABYJANE PISBE AND HAZEL VEA
Photographs of graffiti, part of hip-hop culture, illustrate Lee Tonouchi's book "Hip-Hop Hawaii."
Hip-hop for the masses
An anthology edited by Lee Tonouchi explores Hawaii's hip-hop culture
A PIDGIN GUERILLA is at it again.
Lee Tonouchi, teacher-author-editor-playwright and champeen of all t'ings da kine, jumped at the chance to guest-edit the latest issue of Kapiolani Community College's creative-writing annual, Ka Nani. But because of his burgeoning interest in intelligently expressed rap lyrics, he rather secretly did a thematic issue called "Hip-Hop Hawai'i."
The result? A book already in its second printing, and the basis of the kind of lively dialogue that Tonouchi thrives on.
The man has made his reputation in both celebrating and defending our local creole language -- so why the interest in a way of expression originated by African Americans? Not surprisingly, it took a Hawaiian rap group to bring it home to him.
"It's when I got into Sudden Rush that I understood the core of hip-hop happening here," he said, sitting with a group of fellow contributors last week in the campus cafeteria. "I was also going to a poetry workshop at the time, and the teacher insisted that rap was not good poetry. But I thought, 'No way! -- this guy is wrong.' You cannot help but hear the innovation in the language. I also liked the social conscientiousness of people like Afrika Bambaataa and Public Enemy."
In his introduction to "Hip-Hop Hawai'i," Tonouchi admits those rap influences from the early 1980s are "mo' old skool" than his younger contributors, most of them past students of his creative-writing class at KCC. (He also teaches a class in pidgin literature at Hawaii Pacific University.)
But he realizes that rap and hip-hop are here to stay and continue to infuse the local culture. "At first, we treated hip-hop like a fad, like disco and '60s hippie music, that it would only last 10 years. But it's still around, this last 30 years. It has so much staying power." The confluence of hip-hop's language and attitude and Hawaii's pidgin and youth culture will be explored in a course taught by Tonouchi at HPU in the fall.
With the production help of students Ryan Okuno (a k a "Botokuno") and Lisa Mizuire, the booklet has already drawn one national accolade, first place for a special merit prize last fall in the American Scholastic Press Association's annual competition.
ONE FEATURE in "Hip-Hop Hawai'i" that tackles the issue head-on is Okuno's profile of local emcee Katana. As an Asian female from the islands, her struggle for credibility might be tough at times -- she hopes her debut album will drop sometime in the fall -- but it doesn't sway her belief in the all-encompassing power of rhythm and rhyme.
"Hip-hop here definitely has its own flavor," Katana said. "You would expect the rhymes would sound different than those that came originally from the projects in New York, but it's still genuine because it expresses our reality ... our adversity and pain."
Compared with other, larger cities around the world, Katana said, "hip-hop is definitely still underground in Hawaii. The break dancing and free-styling still reflects its original nonconformity." Because of its status, Katana admits that she has to travel abroad to the mainland and Japan "because I can't get gigs here, let alone exist.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The book's contributors, clockwise from left, are Ken G., Botokuno, Katana, Chris Mariano, Robert Phau, Lisa Mizuire, Lee Tonouchi and Iris Skitz.
"But, through publications like this, Lee recognizes the validity in what's being expressed," and also gives her some material to help put together a résumé. "Hip-Hop Hawai'i" also made for a powerful introduction for her to the influential rap act Public Enemy. PE headlined the Hawaii Hip-Hop Festival last August that was staged at the KCC campus. "I met them while they were getting dressed in the cafeteria, and (member) Professor Griff gave me some encouraging words. It was a definite highlight for me."
THE SEEMING dichotomy of hip-hop in Hawaii is expressed visually in the booklet through Robert Phan's photo illustration of a lei made of interlinked gold chains with orchids connected to them. Phan titled his artistic commentary on aloha-versus-conspicuous consumption "Hawai'i's Bling Bling." Other street-inspired work includes Ken G's (Kosada) skull-designed auto sound system and Iris "Skitz" Malang's disc jockey and break-dancer imagery in "Hawai'i's Beat."
Besides rap, the other most inspiring aspect of hip-hop is graffiti. Farrington High school graduates Abyjane Pisbe and Hazel Vea document the illegal activity of some of the island's more inspired "writers" in the photo feature "Graffiti Groupies."
Essays and stories fill out the remainder of the booklet. In "Formerly Known as the Turtle Master," Chris Mariano recollects his own youthful experiences in what he says is a break-dancing scene that is dying out.
And it wouldn't be a Tonouchi-edited anthology without a pidgin-written piece, and Dianna Chung comes through with "Local Braddah and Da Wannabe G.," about one beef ova' a girl between a guy from Kalihi an' one priv'ledge "50 Cent wannabe" during a restless night visit to Waikiki.
So while hip-hop hangs on in secret places throughout the island, whether on graffiti-covered walls or with groups of rap cyphers gathered in places such as Blaisdell Park, Tonouchi will continue to speak out for an always-evolving local language based on our beloved pidgin.
Just don't ask him when the next issue of Hybolics is coming out. He says he's working on it, gunnfunnit!
Book signing set for May 23 at KCC
Lee Tonouchi and the contributors will sign copies of "Hip-Hop Hawai'i" from 10 to 11 a.m. May 23 in the front lobby of Lama Library at Kapiolani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Road. The booklet also will be used as a textbook, along with other reading material, for Tonouchi's course, Anthropology 3880: Hip-Hop Hawai'i, at Hawaii Pacific University, starting Sept. 2 and running through Dec. 17. To register, visit the school's Web site at www.hpu.edu. And to contack da man hisself fo' mo' info li'dat, write 'um at firstname.lastname@example.org.