In the increasingly para-social relationships that fans form with musicians, character performance is becoming more and more important.
I first came across Yakuza in Baggen, a packed out, poorly lit, nightclub in the meatpacking district of Copenhagen. Amid the sea of gelled back hair, blazers and reserved Danish minimalism, her large gold hoop earrings and tie dye trousers stood out.
Yakuza’s style is far from her only distinctive feature though. She’s also a female rap artist, something, she tells me, quite rare in Denmark. “The US has had so many female rappers already, they’re embracing it… we haven’t had that revolution in Denmark yet” Adding weight to her claim is the misogyny she has experienced at her shows. In one incident last year, while opening for American artist NLE Choppa at the Stagebox venue in Copenhagen, a large group of men tried to derail her act by hurling sexist chants at her and holding up written slurs on their phones. The men also threw pieces of gum, and shoved videos of porn in her face while she tried to perform.
“It was absolutely awful… I don’t know why I continued; I think I was in shock”. An incident of such nature would throw any artist off kilter, leaving Yakuza prone to panic attacks. “It was a huge traumatic experience for me and affected me a lot more than I think I still even now realise.” Just three days afterwards, Yakuza performed the largest show of her career, Roskilde Festival 2022. When a group of men tried to derail that performance in the same manner, Yakuza addressed them on mic, and the men were escorted out of the arena to a chorus of boos.
The disrespect Yakuza encountered in her shows speaks to not only the prevalence of misogyny in the music industry, but also the way that Covid-19 lockdowns have shattered concert etiquette. “[Some of Gen-z] have not been socialised in the same way… they haven’t really developed a culture around going to a concert as they missed out on growing up doing so.”
Yakuza’s experiences are part of a litany of incidents where entitled fans have disrespected live performers. Notably, most of these involve female performers. Just earlier this year, pop singer Ava Max was slapped on stage, Bebe Rexha needed stitches after having a phone launched at her from the crowd, and Pink had the ashes of a fan’s mother thrown at her.
Misogynistic audiences are not the only obstacle levelled against Yakuza. Growing up working class in Copenhagen’s Nordvest neighbourhood with a chronically ill mother and absent father, Yakuza’s path to success has not always been a straightforward one. Having dropped out of the exclusive music school Sankt Annæ Gymnasium in her final year, Yakuza worked a number of low paying jobs until being scouted to sing on a major pop track, ‘Tog Det Som En Mand‘, with Danish pop star Clemens.
The wild success of the track propelled Yakuza to heights of notoriety no one had prepared her for, opening for award shows, airing on radio and TV… “It was like a constant high for someone who had never been high before”. While many popular artists have parents in the music industry who can prepare their children for such a sudden influx of attention, Yakuza was left unprepared, with no follow up track. “I was delusional, I thought being a good singer was enough.”
The odds stacked against Yakuza have led many to speculate on her name. “Ya Ku Za” represents the worst possible hand in the Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu. When I put this to her, and suggested it represented the odds stacked against her, she laughed. “Ku Za sounds like the Danish word Kusse”, a slang word for female genitalia, she tells me.
It’s this defiance of expectations and sense of humour that form part of the appeal of Yakuza. “I use humour a lot when I rap… it’s probably why I love it so much”. There is increasingly a performative, often comedic, requirement for success in the music industry that I feel few artists have tapped into as well as Yakuza. “When you write these bars you’re also deciding how to deliver them… it’s kind of like being a comedian, like playing a character”. In the increasingly para-social relationships that fans form with musicians, character performance is becoming more and more important.
It’s part of the reason Yakuza can flip from genre to genre with ease. “Labels want you to take a single direction and then keep to it… but I’m always bringing Yakuza to the new and different genres I’m doing… it’s still Yakuza”. As well as character, concepts are often at the forefront of Yakuza’s mind. The song ‘River Em Rundt,‘ existed as an idea for a music video before it was made into a song. The Kill Bill-esque, frankly cinematic music video depicts a fight scene in a supermarket whereby different customers attempt to purchase different elements of Yakuza’s character. “In creative industries people steal from each other… which is fine but you have to pay homage”.
Ultimately, Yakuza’s relationship with the industry is a complicated one. “You have to be tough, very tough… I’d probably dissuade my children from pursuing music”. However, artists like Yakuza might have tapped into a way of staying afloat in an ever changing, unforgiving scene: humour, concept and character.