elle teresa is redefining what it means to be a female rapper in japan
Using her femininity as a weapon, she's bringing a fresh perspective to a male-dominated world.
Photography Kodai Ikemitsu
This article originally appeared on i-D Japan
“I feel like Japanese female rappers are all like, ‘hey yo!’ or ‘screw you!’ Watching them makes me wonder, ’do we really need to utter such phrases?’ I'm a woman, can’t I just be a woman and use my womanhood as a weapon?” says rapper Elle Teresa.
We may be living in the era of #MeToo and Cardi B, but in Japan, which is ranked 114th in the world in terms of gender equality, not only it is difficult for female rappers to stay true to who they are, they can only draw attention by taking on hyper-male personas in both their lyrics and image.
When Elle talks about womanhood, it's nothing to do with the cuteness often projected on Japanese woman — what she means is more about self-affirming your femininity. When listening to the two mixtapes Elle has released so far - Ignorant Tape and PINK TRAP, the image that comes to mind is one of an ordinary girl who enjoys fashion and spends time with a dreamy boyfriend, yet is still able to identify their own brand of “cool." Hence ordinary, but strong.
Elle Teresa was born in Numazu City, Shizuoka prefecture in 1997. She was always confident, and her parents, who were both quite the dancers, often took her to the club. "I hated it when I was little; ‘I’m sleepy! Why should I come to a place like this?’ But when I was a junior high school student I went to the club with my friends. There was nothing else to do in Numazu and it was fun, meeting all these cool people I couldn’t find at school.” That was how she met Yuskey Carter, a prominent local rapper.
Yuskey, who works as a producer for Elle since her debut, was impressed by Elle from the beginning. "Although she was a junior high school student, she did not look like one. She had this sense of style which was rare around these parts. She was different from other kids," he says. Elle chuckles at Yuskey’s comments, saying "It was more flashy, rather than stylish.” Eventually, Elle appeared as a dancer in Yuskey's music video, and when she was spitting out KOHH's beats on set, Yuskey casually said “Why don’t you try rapping?" To Yuskey’s surprise, she wrote the lyrics to ten songs within a month, and above all, the songs were full of originality.
"I grew up in a family of dancers, so I started dancing from a young age, and found it difficult to start doing something new even if I wanted to. So I thought that Yuskey's suggestion was a good opportunity. I've always been good at writing anyway. I could write apology letters for my behavior at school effortlessly [laughs]. Also, I liked to read translations of Western music lyrics.” However, Elle did not listen to Japanese rap much back then, let alone having a female rapper she could consider a role model. "At that time, I liked Iggy Azalea, who is cute but cool at the same time. I never saw anyone quite like her in Japan, so I was quite in awe". For Elle, the ideal female image existed in the world of animation rather than reality, so title of her song "Make Up" was inspired by a signature phrase from Sailor Moon.
“Their catchphrase goes something like, ‘Moon Prism Power, Make Up!’ The characters in Sailor Moon are also pretty cute but strong, and I like that. I think that animation also influenced my sense of fashion and lyrics. I also wanted to be like Android 18 from Dragon Ball, so I grew my bangs for a year or so, but I changed my mind and cut it because I decided later than I want to be Bulma. However, when I'm playing "Elle Teresa," it does not always fit my ideal.”
"It’s just pure me. That’s why I say ‘I’m cool' in my rapping. I’m not that cute, nor sexy, but that's precisely why I have to acknowledge myself as I am. Not saying that it is brainwashing, but if I keep saying it, everyone would eventually also think that I'm 'cool.'"
In Japan's rap scene, her unique vibe quickly garnered attention, but in a musical genre that closely mirrors reality, she's encountered many frustrations and roadblocks. "The Hip hop and rap community is dominated by men, and due to that I’ve been through a lot. It’s usually the standard ‘because you’re a woman’ thing that makes me go like, ‘so what?’ I always talk about it with fellow female rappers like NENE. Not that I will become friends with just any female rappers — NENE’s about the only female rapper I’m cool with. And it’s not like I hate guys or anything — I love guys.[laughs]. But I dislike male-dominant society, so I’m doing my best to push for changes”.
You can listen to Elle Teresa's debut album, KAWAII BUBBLY LOVELY, here.
Text Ryo Isobe
Photography Kodai Ikemitsu
Styling Chie Ninomiya
Hair and Make-up Kyoko. Photography assistance Maho Yamaguchi
Styling assistance Yoshie Nunoda
Hair and Make-up assistance Akane Miyamoto.
ELLE TERESA WEARS TOP AND TROUSERS COACH. BRATOP, GRILLZ, NECKLACE AND EARRINGS MODEL’S OWN.