Listen to a few songs from Ritto, and you'll notice his trademark ad-lib: Yakkeh! It's a local word in Okinawa that's a cross between "bad" and "awesome," and he uses it almost as often as Gucci Mane said burrr. "I don't really say it that often in normal life," Ritto admits, "but people love it at concerts. It's like an Okinawan pride thing."
Talking to him on Skype is like watching one of his music videos: no matter how serious the subject matter gets, somehow everyone in the room ends up laughing. Take, for example, "126.96.36.199.," embedded below. Visually, it's a day in the sun with Ritto and his buddies as they hang out on the beach and play soccer with baseball bats. The beat, produced by Olive Oil, is ecstatic and just a little unhinged, sounding like a car alarm going off at a village festival. But lyrically, Ritto is railing at everyone from J-Pop groups like AKB48 to the mass media. He even throws in a shoutout to Taro Yamamoto, a former actor that, following the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011, lost his job after speaking out against nuclear reactors. "I kinda freaked out after I wrote that," Ritto admits. "I looked back at my lyrics, and I was like, 'Shit, can I say his name? Should we censor it?' But in the end, it felt right, so we kept it."
Another one of his tracks, "Miraininai," sums up the place he calls home: Once a kingdom, turned into a ghetto/ And now a resort. Okinawa is an archipelago about 500 miles south of mainland Japan; altogether, its hundreds of islands make up an area that's about one-twelfth the size of the state of Hawaii. Before Okinawa was annexed by Japan in the 19th century, it was a powerful trading kingdom in the Pacific, with people living there since the stone age. Today, it's a hub for tourists, and the poorest prefecture in Japan.
To most mainland Japanese, Okinawa is seen as a carefree island paradise, but life there is a life of fences. WWII changed everything: a quarter of its population died in a single battle—some due to U.S. gunfire, but many in forced suicides ordered by the Japanese military. Now, over 10 percent of the total land area is occupied by the US military, which is closed off to most Okinawans. Ritto knows what it is like to hear MV-22 Ospreys fly over an elementary school playground, or come home to news of a neighbor being sexually assaulted by U.S. military personnel. "It's something you're born into," he says. "Every rapper here in Okinawa has at least one song about that."
Ritto, who was named after the L.A. jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, started writing lyrics after hearing Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" in fifth grade. At 17, he started prowling around hip-hop clubs, looking for U.S. military personnel to battle. "Everyone else was rapping in English, but I don't speak any English at all, and they didn't know Japanese. But you can judge based on someone's flow, you know?"
Before debuting in 2006 and settling in with his label/crew Akazuchi, from whom he's released two LPs, Ritto spent a lot of time being angry. At Japanese "mainlanders," at the older generation of Okinawans, at America. The earthquake that devastated the Tohoku region in 2011 made him rethink things, though. "It's not just Okinawa—all of Japan has been struggling. My friend that used to live in New York told me that the U.S. military goes into the ghetto and pressures young black guys into signing up. They don't have any other choices. So then I realized, 'Damn, a lot of the military dudes, they've got it pretty bad too.'" He suddenly bursts into laughter, and adds, in English, "Fuckin' crazy, man!"
Later, he asks me a question of his own. "FADER is an American magazine, right?" I tell him it is. "Okay, make sure you get this," he says, pausing to pull out another cigarette. "Okinawa is not just a resort. I love it, but it's not paradise. It's hard sometimes. But we're not helpless." He smiles, and leans back in his chair. "We're out here, and we're surviving. We're strong. Make sure you tell them that." Yakkeh.