Gen Z Pop Icon Grace Aimi――Taking Her Global Standard Pop Songs from Okinawa to the World

Grace Aimi was born in the year 2000 to an American father and American-Okinawan biracial mother. She started the YouTube channel, Gracie & Gabe, with her younger brother; as they posted various covers, they began trending on social media—The channel has been garnering about 100K subscribers and over 10M total views.

In August 2020, she released “Eternal Sunshine,” which was produced by Chaki Zulu, who is the founder of one of the most renowned record labels in Japan YENTOWN, which houses artists from Awich, kZm, JNKMN, and MonyHorse.

She continues working in tandem with Chaki Zulu; in February 2021, she released her 2nd single, “Open,” and 3rd single, “My Eyes,” from UNIVERSAL MUSIC/+81 MUSIC. Subsequently, in March, she dropped “True Feelings” and she concurrently announced partnership with Capital Records US—an American record label signed to artists such as Katy Perry and Sam Smith—which generates expectations for her further achievements on a global scale.

The biracial and bilingual woman born in Okinawa, is starting her journey on the global stage as a pop singer sought-after by Gen Z, with her inborn euphonious voice and empowering messages that lead the values of next generations to a positive direction.

I want to express my thoughts and opinions like Amy Winehouse or Tyler, The Creator would.

――On your instagram, you’ve uploaded a picture of yourself singing when you were little. Have you been close to music since then?

Grace Aimi (from hereunder, Grace): My grandfather liked Johnny Cash, Elvis [Presley], Jazz and Oldies, so I was listening to those types of music a lot. Everyone in my family is into music, so in the house, different music was playing in different rooms.

――Which artists were you especially influenced by?

Grace: I would say artists who manifest their thoughts and opinions like Amy Winehouse and Tyler, The Creator.

――Were you also listening to Japanese music?

Grace: I was born in Okinawa, but from three to six years old, I moved back to the States; later, in my second year of elementary school, I came back to Japan and entered a Japanese school. So, I listened to almost all the popular songs by artists like BEGIN, HY, Ketsumeishi, and Shonan no Kaze. In high school, I went to Karaoke almost everyday, and always sang Golden Bomber’s song [laughs]. Nowadays, I listen to Kroi a lot.

――When was the first time you sang in front of people other than in Karaoke?

Grace: When I was in middle school, I was walking around American Village in Chatan, Okinawa, and saw a band playing a gig at a Jazz bar performing Amy Winehouse’s song. My brother who was there with me called out to them: “my sister can sing Amy’s songs, so let her join!” —and there I was suddenly on stage. I remember my knees shaking while I was singing.

――Were you already writing your own songs then?

Grace: I started writing songs when I was in high school. When I was writing a journal entry, I thought that if elaborate it a bit, it might turn into lyrics. I naturally came up with a melody when I was listening and randomly singing along to my favorite artist’s type beats that was on YouTube.

When I had my family listen to it, they were all like, “it’s great!” Since then, almost every day, I’ve been writing lyrics, and recording my ideas on voice memo. Also, both my older and younger brother can each play the guitar and ukulele, so we would often jam together.

I started the YouTube channel from doing sessions with my brother on the car ride home from school

――Your YouTube channel, Grace & Gabe, where you perform covers with your brother, Gabe, (with their two sisters and parents occasionally making an appearance in the video,) has been attracting wide attention. What made you start the channel?

Grace: We were doing sessions on the car ride home from school, and thought we should just start our own channel as an extension of it. For some reason, we found ourselves feeling comfortable singing and performing in the car.

――Now you have viewers from all over the world accessing to your channel, but how long did it take for you to actually start earning responses?

Grace: About a month later we started our channel, we uploaded our video performing Dai Hirai’s “Slow and Easy,”began In the meantime, our video covering BEGIN’s “Shimanchu Nu Takara” went viral (*earning over 3.33 million views.) Gratefully, when we came to Tokyo, we were accosted by our viewers, and I remember being elated thinking, “we have fans!?”

Grace: About a month later we started our channel, we uploaded our video performing Dai Hirai’s “Slow and Easy,”began In the meantime, our video covering BEGIN’s “Shimanchu Nu Takara” went viral (*earning over 3.33 million views.) Gratefully, when we came to Tokyo, we were accosted by our viewers, and I remember being elated thinking, “we have fans!?”

The cover of BEGIN’s “Shimanchu Nu Takara”

――You also sang Hibari Misora’s song.

Grace: That’s 100% influenced from my grandmother. I love Enka, and I try to listen to different genres of music. Half of the songs I sing are requested by fans, and the other half are my favorite songs.

――You were saying that your family influenced you with your taste in music, but how about the hip hop artists you hang out from Okinawa.

Grace: I would say my encounter with Awich was a game changer. Around 2008, I went to see her gig with my mom, and I was so blown away. Later, I found out that Awich was going to be the general director of the Uchinanchu Festival, which takes place once in five years, so I reached out with my mom to volunteer for the event saying, “let us know if there’s anything we can do to help!” I’m grateful to Awich as I got into hip hop because of her. Later, I got connected to other artists including OZworld through her; I usually contact Awich or OZworld when I need some advice on music.

――So Awich is like your older sister.

Grace: Yes indeed, she’s my family. At my first ever show, when I was looking anxious, she gassed me up and said, “This was your dream, right? Then believe in yourself and go for it!” She always gives me confidence, and I want to continue my music career feeling proud of Okinawa like the way she does.

Meeting Chaki through Awich, who is like a family member to me

――After debuting with the song, “Eternal Sunshine,” you’ve released “Open,” “My Eyes,” and “True Feelings.” All the songs are produced by Chaki Zulu—How did you begin working with him?

Grace: When I was in high school, I put my own lyrics and melody to Fkj & Masego’s “Tadow.” I had my mom listen to it as a favor, and her response was good. So then, I had Awich listen to it as well and she came back to me like, “this is awesome! I’ve sent it to Chaki” [laughs]. It was made half for fun, but Chaki called me and kindly said, “let’s work together!”

――What’s the songwriting process like with Chaki Zulu?

Grace: At times we work with songs I write, and at times we make a song together from scratch, but either way, we’re in the studio together, and Chaki would come up with riffs and bass lines, then later we would exchange our ideas for the melody.

――It’s different from a common relationship between a producer and a singer, where they usually work with the tracks they pick out of a wide range of their repertoire.

Grace: That’s right. There are times when I tell him a concise story, and he would propose beats bottling my idea, but there are also times when he brings his ideas and asks me, “what do you think?” As we exchange our ideas, we come up with something that makes us both go, “this is the one!”

――Is it similar to the feeling of doing sessions?

Grace: I would say yes. It’s like we’re communicating through music. There’s always a new inspiration, and regardless of genre, we create music along with our emotions that vary from moment to moment. Chaki has taught me more than just music; I feel like he teaches me about life as well.

Regardless of gender, I want to portray problems everyone has in a lighter manner

――When you write lyrics or melodies, do you find sources of inspiration in your daily life, or from fictions or imaginary stories?

Grace: I would say both. “True Feelings” was written when I was in high school, and I’d put out all my feelings that were built up back then. The song is about feeling lonely at times, even though you’re surrounded by people who you love and love you back. It’s therapeutic for me to vent out my real emotions into songs.

4th Single “True Feelings”

――On the contrary, what are the songs that are based on an imagination or a fantasy?

Grace: That would be “My Eyes.” This song was also written when I was in high school, and it’s completely a fiction. It sings about being two-timed or cheated on, and you know, this kind of songs tend to be negative. So, I’d decided to write it from a different perspective—and made it into a story of both the boy and the girl cheating on each other, but in the end, they get back together.

3rd Single “My Eyes”

――Where do you get inspirations to create fictional stories?

Grace: I love movies as well, and sometimes I would get ideas from my favorite films and videos. I make stories by imagining the main character’s feelings, and how I would take and react if I were in the character’s shoes. I’m like playing movies in my head when I’m writing songs.

Also, it hasn’t been announced yet, but I made a song together with Awich. The ideas of the song were born when I saw a documentary of a female killer. The female protagonist becomes a murderer from a lack of affection, and I thought that I could write an interesting song by conveying her emotions. I sent Awich the song immediately, and she replied, “nice!” By the way, her verse is insanely dope [laughs].

――I definitely got to hear it then [laughs]. When you write about something personal, which part of you is linked to the portrayal? There are various traits that determine who you are and your personality; for example, being a woman, raised in the Okinawa culture, biracial and bilingual.

Grace: As a woman, I think I write a lot of songs that other women can relate to. For example, feeling awkward with your guy friend all of a sudden, since he played a romantic song while driving [laughs].

Like that, I capture pieces of thoughts that any girl would go through in their daily lives, as well as my inner darkness and light, or conflicted feelings or struggles toward myself. I’m usually an extrovert, but I could think too hard and get depressed, so sometimes, I also write about ways to get myself out of my head.

――I can see how those real emotions are striking a chord with the listeners.

Grace: I think that not just women, but men also have hard times. For instance, men are expected to be strong or pay for meals. But really, it’s actually okay for them to be vulnerable and split the check.

In my case, instead of writing those things in a serious way, I want to dish out common problems that everyone has—regardless of gender—in a lighter manner. Everyone has problems to a greater or lesser degree, and nobody is perfect. Everyone has their own story, so instead of solely focusing on myself, I want to portray things that are relatable to anyone.

――Do you ever think about yourself a biracial or bilingual?

Grace: I sometimes do. Furthermore, I question like, “why does earth exist?” or “why do I exist?” But these are questions that can never be answered even if I think really hard, so I think it’s vital to accept yourself the way you are.

Because of the negative experiences, the positive experiences reflect even more beautifully. People tend to seek solutions to various problems or inner conflicts that arise in their daily lives, though, I don’t think there needs to be a definitive solution. I just think that it’s important to rather ease up on yourself than getting into deep thoughts.

――Have you always had such positive mindset and attitude since you were a kid?

Grace: Yes, I think it’s mostly because my parents brought me up like this. They taught me manners and how to communicate with people, and showed me the film, Laws of Attraction. We fight sometimes, but my family is my best friend and I love spending time together with them.

――Specifically, what kind of things did you learn from your parents?

Grace: [They’ve taught me that] my dreams will definitely come true if you take actions for others. Basically, they told me that I’m the greatest so I can do anything if I believe in myself. Actually, for this interview, I wanted to share the experience with my mom, so I had her come with me. We always share in excitement whenever something like this—getting interviewed at a record label’s office in Tokyo—happens in my musical journey [laughs].

――So would you say you want to believe in yourself and deliver the kind of message through music?

Grace: That’s right. But one thing I need to be clear is that I want everyone in the world to believe in themselves, too. I want them to spread pure love for others. When you look into the mirror, I’m sure you can think, “I’m the best!”—so, I believe anyone can do it.

――People can compare with others, feel jealous, and have a hard time affirming themselves.

Grace: It’s now an era of social media that we can witness successes happening all over the world through a single smartphone. And as we see them, we’re naturally inclined to think, “what am I doing?” or “is there something I’m missing?”

Yet, it’s not about focusing on your belief or something on a large scale; I think you simply need be honest to yourself. If you love yourself, you would be able to think, “I’m happy with my life, and I’m glad to be myself,” even when you see others succeeding. In other words, if you’re happy, you can give love to others. It’s like putting the puzzle together for leading a fulfilling life. For me, my biggest dream is to depict these things through music and help everyone thrive.

――You’ve tied partnership with Capitol Records in the US—It would be cool to see you deliver those messages seamlessly across boarders.

Grace: There’s no boarder in music, so I want to put myself out there without clinging to a specific country, race, or genre.

――Finally, tell us your vision for the future.

Grace: I’m so surprised how the path has been, so far, really smooth for me. I’m realizing that dreams come true if you say them out loud. This is because, when I was in high school, on the first page of my lyric notebook, I wrote down ten wishes; at the moment, four out of ten came true like, signing with a record label, getting noticed abroad, and making an EP. So, I want to make the rest of my dreams come true.

――Let me know when the other dreams come true.

Grace: Yes, I will for sure!

Grace Aimi
Born in the year 2000. From Okinawa; a biracial and bilingual. A Gen Z pop songstress with a powerful and mesmerizing singing voice that resonates in people’s hearts. She began her career from her YouTube channel called Gracie & Gabe, which she started with her younger brother. Her various covers, which she sings along the ukulele, have become trending on social media, and even before debuting, her channel garnered approximately 100K subscribers and over 10M total views. On August 31st, 2020, she released her debut single, “Eternal Sunshine”—produced by Chaki Zulu—under her real name, Grace Aimi. The song has charted on multiple hit and viral charts mainly on social media platforms. She receives offers from a slew of overseas media and artists. In February 2021, she released her second single, “Open,” and third single, “My Eyes”; in May, her latest single, “True Feelings,” was released from UNIVERSAL MUSIC/+81 MUSIC. She has concurrently announced partnership with Capitol Records US, and now gains increasing attention for her global expansion.

Photography Satoshi Ohmura
Text Analog Assasin
Translation Ai Kaneda

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Shuichi Aizawa

Born in Miyagi Prefecture. After editor of street culture magazine and catalogs, he joined INFAS Publications in 2018. After working in the editorial department of “STUDIO VOICE”, he currently belongs to the “TOKION” editorial dept. Currently, He enjoys parenting.