Raised in an immigrant household in North Carolina, George “G” Yamazawa was 17 years old when he decided to become a slam poet. Identifying as both Japanese and American, he often felt simultaneously at home and out of place.
This evening, G will perform an eclectic mix of slam poetry and hip-hop to conclude Asian Heritage Month. Focused on issues of Asian American identity and the importance of family and solidarity, his work promises to be empowering as well as accessible to all audiences.
“I like to translate difficult aspects of the human experience in ways that my immigrant parents would understand, that anyone, whether they’re old or young or educated, from whatever background or region from the United States, would understand,” Yamazawa said in an phone interview with the Orient.
Yamazawa’s work has garnered him recognition at the international level. He has been named National Poetry Slam Champion, Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist and co-founder of Sacrificial Poets, North Carolina’s pioneer youth poetry organization.
For Yamazawa, his interest in poetry began as a childhood passion that soon transformed into a medium of cultural exploration. Because his identity as an Asian American was felt primarily through his “Asian” appearance and a desire to assimilate, he said, it wasn’t until he pursued slam poetry that he was able to put words to those experiences.
“I think poetry taught me the importance of my culture and upbringing. Even though I grew up in the South, I also grew up in a Japanese home,” said Yamazawa. “It definitely shaped a huge part of my life. It’s everything…You ultimately learn how to code switch, and I think there are negative and positive qualities in that inherently.”
“You gain something from that, too,” he added. “At a young age I’ve learned how to focus on trying my best to communicate and harmonize with whoever’s in front of me.”
Yamazawa translates his concern with establishing connections into his poetry, which often bridges the gaps between complex identities through the lens of familial and cultural experience. Throughout his verse, Yamazawa emphasizes the importance of appreciation, regardless of identity.
“I want a lot of my work to come from a place of gratitude,” Yamazawa said. “Whether people’s relationships with their families are tumultuous or lovely, I hope it makes people simply reflect on their family … I think that family karma is that deepest form of karma and context for the way that you are in the world, and it’s something that I’m grateful to share.”
It was Benjamin Harris, director of the student center for multicultural life who suggested that the Asian Student Association (ASA) bring Yamazawa to campus as the final piece of programming for Asian Heritage Month for his dynamic, engaging message.
“When it comes to Asian American identity and Asian identity, many times students feel silenced. They don’t feel like people give them a voice when it comes to issues around race, culture and what that means,” said Harris.
“[Yamazawa’s] work is empowering, not just to the Asian community, but other minoritized groups as well,” he said. “Poetry is a great way that people can express that solidarity with other minoritized groups, but also to express a resilience and an artistic way of expressing resistance to many systems in our society that oppress people and silence people.”
Chareeda Rustanavibul ’18, the treasurer of ASA, echoed Harris’ sentiment. She expects Yamazawa’s message to be one that resonates with the entire audience, not just Asian Americans or other minorities.
“They’re all issues that people can relate to—there’s intersectionality,” she said. “Just being aware and educated is, in my opinion, very important. It’s why Asian Heritage Month is not only celebratory but also another way to educate and open people’s eyes.”
Yamazawa hopes to immerse audiences not only in his narrative, but in their own personal ones as well.
“People are really caught up and confused about what to do with their lives and how to best contribute to society without actually asking what makes them happy and what makes them who they are,” Yamazawa said. “It’s an honor for me to be at a place in society where someone could look up videos of my work and feel that it has the potency to be brought to their campus. It’s a huge honor and I don’t take it lightly at all.”