Zulu King Tone

Posted Jul 11 2007

I was connected to Tone through a mutual friend back in the states, who described him as a teacher and activist in the Japanese hip hop community (he heads up the local Zulu Nation chapter). During our initial meet up we wandered around Tokyo’s Shibuya district, sampling good Indian food, and sharing drinks at the Gaspanic bar. It quickly came apparent that hip hop aside, he had a lot of interesting insights and perspectives. We agreed to meet up again and do a formal interview. However, due to both of our schedules, we weren’t able to meet until the night before I left. We ended up with a group of folks so our interview turned into a discussion. I threw in some questions when I could, but my companions were so interested in Tone’s perspective that I sat back and did a lot of listening. It’s not everyday one meets a Brooklyn-born Latino/West Indian who’s made his home in Asia! Most of the questions were asked by myself, Ron, and Toni. Gotta give credit where credit’s due! I had a million more questions. Since Tone’s a teacher, DJ, activist, expatriate, and person of color, there were a number of directions that we could’ve went. Alas, time wasn’t on our side. Here are some highlights from our conversation. Hopefully, there will be more to come! At the end of this article check out responses from students at Oakland Unity High School.

R: How’d you end up here?

When I was younger I used to be into martial arts. It was the first opportunity I had to get out of the ‘hood, through my school and competing. Later, I moved to Los Angeles where was working for a private law enforcement firm. They were bought out and I was laid off. I was looking for a job and I hooked up with Nova, a big language program, who was hiring in L.A. I applied, got in, and within a year I moved to Japan. I go back home about once a year, but I’m not in a rush to go back. I did apply to work in New Orleans after the Katrina, but they got back to me and said something along the lines of their first string already being in place.

R: How long did it take to learn the language?

I’ve been here five years and I’m still learning a lot. It’s easy to get in the trap of hanging with your own, who speak your own language. However, if you devote yourself you can do it in about a year.

R: How is it as a foreign teacher in Japan?

I think you have to be clear that you are a teacher. You don’t want to just come out as a pet gaijen (foreign) monkey who gets trotted out to read some phrases or sing some songs. Many Americans don’t make it. It’s easier to make it in the U.S. I run my own classes, but I still don’t have the status of a real teacher, in terms of pay or respect, after five years. However, at this point, I have a lot of flexibility in how I teach and my curriculum.

D: Have there been any problems as a teacher due to you not being White?

Not really. I mean, in China there are places where they openly say that they only want English teachers who are White. In Japan, most of my problems have simply have had to do with being non-Japanese.

D: When I was looking to teach in Taiwan a few years ago I remember coming across some articles about there being a fear of Americans of color, particularly African Americans teaching "ghetto English."

R: Overall, how do the brothas get treated?

Of course there are stereotypes. They get their info from pop culture. You’ll get asked

"Do you play ball?"

"No, I box."

"But do you play ball?"

"A little."

"See, I told you!"

There haven’t been any major issues from locals. The little kids don’t care though. They touch all on you. They don’t mean anything. In some places they’ve never seen a Black person before.

However, I’ve had to check other foreigners such as Australians or whoever. They might tell the locals to look out for us so I’ve had to pull a few aside and let them know that wasn’t cool.

R: Why do Nigerians all hustle? (This was in reference to the number of Africans soliciting foreigners to visit "hostess clubs." There were also many selling everything from "hip hop" clothing to umbrellas, and even a Jamaican jerk chicken vendor.)

A lot of it has to do with the types of visas they receive and the relationships between the U.S., Japanese, and African governments. Americans get many more privileges. For example, a Nigerians may be doctor back home, but here they have no rights and have to hustle.

Nigerians come from an unstable country so they know how to hustle. They hit the ground running. They’re involved with brothels, cabarets, etc. as junior partners with the yakuza.

The yakuza have different levels. Everything is based on relationships. If a low level member does something wrong, the police go to the heads and say that the offender has three days to turn themselves in. Some guy takes responsibility and turns himself in. The higher ups are very strict with subordinates.

The seedy parts of town are pretty safe.

D: There’s too much money being made. You can’t scare off your customers!

You can basically leave your wallet out and it won’t be taken. You could practically leave your wallet at a bar and the bartender will put it behind the bar until you return. There’s a problem with pickpockets, but things are much safer than the U.S. You saw the Guardian Angels in Shibuya, but there isn’t a whole lot for them to do compared to the U.S.

D: What’s the relationship between Africans and African Americans like?

There’s a big gap. Africans don’t tend to like Americans. They think African Americans are spoiled. The more conscious ones are like "you have access to everything, you invented hip hop, yet you don’t own it. What’s wrong with you?" They’re quick to say "I ain’t no n*gg*, yet they try to emulate us. You’ll meet guys who’ll say they’re from New York and I’m like "so am I, what part are you from?" They say they’re from "Brooklyn" and I go, "so am I, what part?" Then they admit that they’re really from Africa. There’s a difference on how Africans and African Americans get treated.

R: A lady showed me magazines where the girls get their styles from, which were often based on black females…

Yeah, but don’t have their own style. They’re copying what they see. The spirit of hip hop is creativity. Growing up in New York, you might put your crease a little different, look for clothes all over, put them together and create your own fashion. It’s very structured here. You can buy the parts and they’re good at replicating. However, many Japanese struggle with thinking creatively. There’s a saying that the Japanese can take you from one to infinity, but not from zero to one. You can show them this wallet here and in ten years they will have totally improved it into something totally new. But ask them to invent something new and it’s often a struggle.

T: What’s up with Japanese and dreads?

There’s a strong relationship between Jamaica and Japan. Jamaica imports many cars and Japan imports Jamaican coffee. The dreads have gotten better over the years. They used to pay $800 to get some put in. I remember seeing a guy at the bus stop a few years ago and he wouldn’t even turn his head when he waved at his friend. One of his dreads fell to the front of his face and he took between his fingers as if it was the most delicate thing and put it back in place. If I paid $800 to get my hair done I would’ve been the same way!

D: What’s the Latino community like here?

Those from the U.S. generally got here through the military and decided to stay. However, most go back. Most of the Latinos in Japan have come directly from other countries…Cubans, Peruvians, and others. (Note: there are several Latin clubs in Tokyo alone and a sizable Brazilian population as well)

R: I thought that private gun ownership was illegal, yet we saw a real gun shop the other day…

It’s called air soft. They’re all replicas. You can get Desert Eagles, whatever you want. The gun laws are very strong here.

T: How do people feel about Bush?

Most people I’ve come across ask why can’t people see through this guy?

D: what’s going on with the Zulu Nation?

We’re mostly focused on grassroots stuff and activism. We recently helped bring over the 911 Truth Commission, and a guy named William Rodriguez who was a custodian in the sublevel when it happened. He felt an explosion come for sublevel. They noticed a guy coming to them and thought he was holding rags. As he got closer they saw that it was his skin hanging off. Then a second explosion came from up top. He happened to see an elevator come up, but it got stuck. People were yelling for help. Because of the fires the sprinklers were going off and the elevator started to fill with water. The people would’ve drowned. They were able to get them out and the Fire Department arrived. They were trying to set up a base on a higher floor and as they went up the stairs they kept hearing explosions, which was also said by members of the NYFD. The fire department told him to leave. He went outside and saw people looking up. He saw the building falling and he ran under a fire truck, which saved him as the rubble fell. He testified for the 9/11 Commission Report but his testimony was never included. Since then, he’s joined the 9/11 Truth Commission. Another interesting point that has to be raised is that Larry Silverstein, the owner of the World Trade Center who just renewed his insurance policy, which included terrorism. Plus, there was the planned demolition of building 7 on that same day. The Zulu Nation helped bring Mr. Rodriguez to Japan.

In a general sense, we’re about networking and helping promote their work worldwide.

One thing I have to say is that Bam (Afrika Bambaataa) is a real down-to-earth guy. I’ve been around a lot of celebrities but he’ll sit down and talk to regular folks around a little table like this.

D: How did you get linked up with them?

Well, there was this period that I was going through a rough time and I needed a job. I saw a flier for the Zulu Nation and a number that said to call and get an application so I called. I used to call and eventually filled out an application. I later found out that the guy I was talking on the phone with was Africa Bambaataa. I never did end up getting a job through them, but they were really supportive and just knowing that someone was out there looking out, helped me.

T: How do you feel about internet radio?

Everything is being moved towards charging fees.

T: The companies must hate it.

Naw, the majors love it, but they want to control it.

D: Earlier you talked about some educational projects that the Zulu Nation was working on. Can you elaborate?

We’re developing a "Hip Hop Home Stay Program." Hip hop is popular here and we want to get youth to visit the United States: the East Coast, West Coast, Philly, and other key cities to experience hip hop’s roots. We want to get them set up with families in safe communities and coordinate with local dance schools, DJ schools, art programs, etc. We want the kids to go to these programs to learn and experience it. We’re putting together packages for them currently to go to the Midwest and Australia. We want them to go to major cities and learn about hip hop and English. The government is all for these programs. It doesn’t cost them anything as the students pay for everything.

D. So is it mostly affluent students?

We’re working out deals with the travel agencies. We’re dealing in volume so that’ll help keep the price down.

D: Can you talk a little bit more about the Harley Davidson ride you’re working on?

We’re currently working on something called The Unity Ride. We will be riding from Tokyo to Okinawa. We’ll be making several stops, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and visit the Holocaust Museum. Okinawa has always played a special part to me. They’ve always been oppressed by the mainstream Japanese and Japan basically gave it the U.S, which Okinawans don’t like. We can relate.

Final thoughts

No matter how long you live here or how well you speak the language, you’ll always be an outsider, yet you can find your niche. It took me almost two years. I had the honeymoon phase, then the trouble in paradise, before I finally made it work for me.

There are many opportunities here as there is so much change in all of Asia. If you work hard and hustle you can make it happen. There are many changes in the laws as well. You used to have to have 50,000 yen to start your own business. Now you need 1 yen, although the total costs area about 5,000. Tt’s much more accessible now. I was able to register the Zulu Nation as a business, which opened up many opportunities. People here don’t like to deal one on one, they like for you to have a business behind you.

Japan is still so traditional. Once you get with a company, it’s for life. It’s hard to switch companies and the infrastructure doesn’t support change. It’s still based on the sempai/cohai system (seniority system). In your 30s if you switch companies it creates problems. You have to start all over again, yet people are supposed to defer to elders. You even see it on trains, although the youngsters don’t respect it. When companies lay people off it creates problems. Many who become unemployed start their own businesses, which helps explain the change in the laws.

It’s very expensive to live here, but it can be done. Most people live outside of the center city, although it’s a commute.

The public transportation is very efficient. It’s clean and on time. Its crowded, but reliable. It’s too much trouble to have a car. I live within the city, which is very convenient, although I do have a motorcycle. It’s safer and more practical. It’s safer than the U.S. In the U.S. drivers don’t care. They have big SUVs and don’t see you. In Japan drivers are used to people on bikes so they’re used to looking out for bikes.

In regards to one of your earlier questions about children, there are incentive programs to increase the birthrate (Japan’s population is shrinking and again). It’s the women. They want to have careers.


1. Roman B. said at June 12, 2008 11:11 pm:

The first thing that comes to mind is, I can't believe black people are accepted in suck a homogenous society. It's really great to know that there are some black people in Japan working. Shows us brothas that anything is possible if you can dream it. And I dream big and teaching in Japan is one of my dreams. And to see that a black man teaching in Japan and just being able to take in Japanese culture is just wild. I would love to do what Zulu King Tone does, I read about the Nova program but that's only part of it. What could be more exciting than living in a Foreign country and being around so much more than the average man.

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