This Durham creative is diving headfirst into filmmaking and has another classic hip hop album on the horizon.
by David Menconi | Photography by Derrick Beasley, @brobeas
George “G.” Yamazawa has always been hard to pin down, perhaps because multitasking comes naturally to him. A 32-year-old Durham native, he first found himself onstage as a teenage poet, winning the Bull City Slam championship in 2009. Five years after that, he was winning national poetry competitions and taking his first steps as a hip-hop artist, releasing his first mixtape, “23” (his age at the time).
Nine years and multiple albums, singles and videos later, Yamazawa is expanding yet again, this time into filmmaking. His first onscreen work is Becoming Yamazuchi, a short documentary about his parents’ sushi restaurant in Durham. His parents immigrated to North Carolina from Japan, and Yamazawa worked at the restaurant growing up.
“Life has led me here, doing all these different things, and I feel like it’s where I’m supposed to be right now,” Yamazawa says.
Set to music from Yamazawa’s latest album, George, the film makes for a moving portrait of his family’s history. That history has sometimes been difficult, as the young man’s creative spirit clashed with his disciplinarian father’s impatience. It’s something Yamazawa has talked about in song, too, including the new album’s “You Would Too” — in which he raps of his father, “Papa’s hands was the heaviest.”
“Yeah, we’ve overcome a lot of family drama,” he says.
Yamazawa’s move from music videos into filmmaking seems like a natural evolution, and yet it might not have happened without the coronavirus pandemic. Before that shut down the live-performance industry for much of 2020 and 2021, he had been living an itinerant life on the road, touring and performing for two-thirds of the year. But the shutdown brought him home to Durham, where he wondered what was next.
“Performing is such a huge aspect of my conviction and passion,” he says. “I love writing, recording, creating — but I really love performing. Taking that away made me shift my thinking about how I define myself. One of the greatest aspects of the pandemic and that shift was this film. It expanded my sense of creativity outside poetry and music, where so much of my identity had been founded. Now I’m stepping into another field, which is scary but also great.”
Becoming Yamazuchi is playing the festival circuit now as Yamazawa works on finding distribution. It’s already earning acclaim, too, winning the Reel South Jury Award at last November’s New Orleans Film Festival.
“I am inspired and impressed by him on every level,” says Yamazawa’s fellow Durham artist Shirlette Ammons, who also does both poetry and music. “His film is a gorgeous merging of all the things that make him a jack of all creative trades. He’s a great storyteller.”
Meanwhile, Yamazawa is also launching his eponymous album, George, into the world. His sound is classic, old-school hip-hop, not too far removed from the sound that Little Brother launched out of Durham in the early 2000s. And at a time when so many records seem needlessly long, padded with unnecessary filler, it’s a short, sharp, sleek effort — nine songs in 31 minutes, not a wasted note or syllable anywhere.
“Part of that is the cultural element of being Japanese and therefore maniacal about details,” Yamazawa says. “I’m hard on myself, so my first thought about making short records is that I must be lazy: Ah, I’ll just close this out in nine, know what I mean? But I really want to be as intentional as possible, make it tight.”
At this point in his career, Yamazawa’s signature album remains 2017’s Shouts to Durham, especially the song “North Cack.” Filmed in rural Chatham County, the accompanying “North Cack” video shows Yamazawa and friends extolling the virtues of Southern living, starting with “Carolina barbecue sauce wit’ the slaw.” The video amassed more than a million YouTube views at a time when that was a significant milestone.
“‘Going viral’ is very different now versus six years ago,” Yamazawa says, noting that a video of one of his new songs picked up about the same number of views on the video platform TikTok in weeks rather than years. “Everybody’s going viral all the time now, and our interpretation of numbers is changing.”
Music and filmmaking are keeping Yamazawa busy enough that poetry has actually taken a backseat recently. In fact, most of what comes out of what he calls “the poetry side of my brain” lately are brief haikus rather than lengthy prose poems. But he figures that poetry will come back into focus again before too long, when the time is right.
“I’m at a place now where there’s a beautiful cohesion between different media, with haiku and poetry and recordings,” Yamazawa says. “Now I also view life more visually and outside genre. I have a pretty even balance around projects I’m excited about. The kicker is I’m open to anything else that may pull up — pottery, folding origami, whatever. I’m excited to get into it.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.