Japan was a virtuoso from a very young age. Raised by a single mother in Houston who had an enormous amount of love and support for the arts, he found himself writing poetry, songs, and lyrics as early as elementary school. Being raised in a family that accepted who he was becoming, Japan was also able to explore his bisexuality—a term he didn’t learn until he was in junior high school.
His mom’s love and acceptance was all he knew, and Japan even used his writing to chronicle his feelings about her. These words are from his song Mama Said, written years earlier:
Because she pulled me aside, And put me up
on some game.
Don’t swallow your pride, Or let ’em dirty
Don’t let ’em push you aside, They should be
glad that you came!
My little beautiful boy, You put their
***** to shame.
After leaving the sheltered space of his private elementary school, Japan went to public school and had his first realization that people were not attracted to both genders. Up until this point, since most of his thoughts were only shared through his writing, he had no idea that his sexuality would be scrutinized and lead him to being ostracized by his peers.
“Music was a safe space and a tool that I used to protect, comfort, and defend myself. Music was a way of expression to remind me and others of how powerful I was.” —Japan
“This is when I turned to listening and making music as an outlet. Music was a safe space and a tool that I used to protect, comfort, and defend myself. Music was a way of expression to remind me and others of how powerful I was,” Japan says. “My motto became, ‘Always en route, never in doubt.’”
Using this outlet as fuel for the soundtrack of his life, Japan set out to ensure that creatives across the country would have a space where they could feel affirmed, welcomed, and appreciated. So, in 2016, he founded Pink Elephant Music Group.
Pink Elephant Music Group’s vision was to celebrate and amplify a community of people who often go underrepresented in hip-hop. Before the onset of hip-hop artists like Lil Nas X, Saucy Santana, and Janelle Monáe being celebrated in popular music, queerphobia was even more present in this genre of music than it is currently. Pink Elephant Music Group’s sole purpose was to create a platform for skilled talent who happened to be queer.
Through their platform, which was not focused solely on music, Pink Elephant Music Group gave creatives a voice to talk about the myriad issues affecting the communities in which artists intersect—including transgender murders, the HIV epidemic, and reproductive rights.
The history of Pink Elephant is one of drive and forward movement, all inspired by the fire that Japan had felt burning inside him for years as he found his outlet in music. It all started with a collaboration with Allgo, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, now led by visionary leader Kelle’ Martin. Allgo received a cultural-arts grant in 2016 to partner with Pink Elephant to produce a two-day music festival with 25 LGBTQ artists at the historic Victory Grille. The first two festivals were a huge success, bringing hundreds of queer people of color together in the same venue where the likes of Tina Turner, Bobby Blue Bland, and James Brown played. The combination of Allgo’s vision and Pink Elephant’s momentum was a winning combination.
Pink Elephant Music Group expanded in 2018 with Pink Elephant Radio. This online radio platform featured exclusive new music and in-depth interviews from LGBTQ artists in hip-hop.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on was highlighting talented LGBT artists,” says Japan. “It wasn’t just a place to play artists because they were LGBT; these artists were talented first, and they just happened to be LGBT. We set a standard of giving platforms to people who deserve one.”
A huge shift came a year later when Pink Elephant was invited to produce what would become the first—and only—LGBTQ hip-hop showcase at South by Southwest (SXSW). Founded over three decades ago, SXSW is the premier destination and prime platform for creatives across the globe. With a long history of rising talent getting their break on SXSW stages (including Janelle Monáe, Kid Cudi, and John Mayer), this was a huge opportunity and win for the LGBTQ community of hip-hop artists. In the first year alone, they had the amazing talents of Kidd Kenn, Bobby Lytes, and OMB Bloodbath to grace the stage, along with other talent from across the nation.
Austin was a major catalyst to the success of the brand, as the city lauds itself as “the live music capital of the world.” With the programming doing so well based in Austin, Japan found himself traveling to the city from Houston on at least a weekly basis to scope out venues, opportunities, and complete the radio show episodes. It was difficult to imagine expanding into any other cities beyond Austin, even though Houston was Japan’s home base.
“Houston was put on the mainstream map by Megan Thee Stallion and KenTheMan, along with other artists, but I was still hesitant to bring Pink Elephant here,” Japan explains. “COVID-19 did a lot for [developing] the range of Houston-based LGBT artists, though. COVID allowed people the space to make good music, but it kept people from developing a stage presence because there were minimal live-music opportunities.”
Fortunately, Japan’s creative mind and vision has inspired him to launch his latest performance venue right here in Houston, beginning this month. His “Pink Elephant Pop-Out” will be a monthly showcase created explicitly to give new queer hip-hop artists a platform to develop their talent post-pandemic.
Through this platform, Japan is hopeful that he will be able to co-curate, along with local performers, a space that is focused on bringing performances to life and nurturing prime talent across the nation. De’Wayne, Milli Bucks, and Steven Mayweather will be among the featured talent at the August 6 Pop-Out.
WHAT: Pink Elephant Pop-Out monthly hip-hop showcase
WHEN: August 6, 8 p.m. until midnight
WHERE: Crystal Nightclub, 6680 Southwest Frwy.