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What Buddhism taught poet G Yamazawa about using ‘gay’ as a slur

For poet and emcee G Yamazawa, there has always been power in being an “outsider.”

Yamazawa became the youngest-ever poet to win a National Poetry Slam Championship with the Beltway Poetry Slam team last year. Growing up Buddhist and Japanese-American in a mostly white and black community in North Carolina, Yamazawa, who is now 24, found an avenue of self-expression in rap and poetry — two forms that he said allowed him to explore his identity.

“My whole life has always kind of been from this outsider’s perspective. There’s power in that,” he said. “I think hip hop is all about individuality and exposing who you are, unapologetically … And all of my poetry was always about trying to understand who I am.”

Yamazawa began rapping at 12 and performing poetry in high school, but he rarely addressed his practice of Nichiren Buddhism in his work. His faith gave him “a very inherent understanding of the equality of all living beings and the sanctity of life,” he said. “[But] it’s something that I always kept quiet about because I never really had confidence in talking about my practice.”

His poem “Elementary” ties Buddhism to a childhood memory of using the word “gay” as a slur, one of the first times he realized how his words could impact others, he said. “Everything you say is really going to manifest in other people’s lives as well as your own,” he said.

In the poem, “I was finally ready to come out and say, this is who I am, this is why I believe the things that I believe — [it] was a beautiful moment to be able to confidently share that.”

Now, Yamazawa is working toward a full-time career in hip hop. He released a mixtape last year and will be releasing his debut EP in February 2016.

Read “Elementary” below, or watch Yamazawa perform the poem above.

Elementary

I was so young, that I don’t remember how old I was the first time I called someone gay. It must be elementary school. One day my dad was picking me up and right before pulling out of the parking lot, a girl waved at me, with the smile of a vine, despite being the orchard everyone picked on, she was still sweet, and loved to be alive. When he asked why I didn’t wave back I told him, because she’s gay. His stare was religious. Buddhism in his brow raised the question, What does that mean?

We all crack
under peer pressure.

But once you see
that their earthquakes
are coming from your faults
you realize how deep
trembles are felt,
beneath the surface,
where things are left,
and forgotten.

This was before poetry
became my world.
I noticed that words
have gravity.

I’ve seen them crush people,
from a first person perspective.
Felt a phrase fall
out my mouth like an atom bomb
forgetting the effects
radiate for years.
Loved a language
that hates people.
Crackin’ jokes, shatterin’ mirrors just ‘cause I wasn’t confident in my own reflection.

I hated myself
for the shape of my eyes
so I became a bully,
because we all wanna’ feel
like America
sometimes.
We all want straight spines
that stand for what we believe in
but it’s funny
how flags and people
have the same knack
for politely waving at the ones
they’ve forgotten.

Early as elementary school
my parents planted a seed,
the lotus of Buddhism
began to blossom in my brain.

We had a pond in the back yard,
and the flat water taught me of equality,
that life is the one thing we all share.

I was also taught how to pray.
I been memorizing mantras
and chanting sutras out loud
before the pledge of allegiance
ever touched my lips.

I was taught of cause and effect.
How it is the ultimate truth that everything relies on.
How a thought will turn to word
as quickly as fuel becomes fire
whether it’s for burning down a house
or keeping a lover warm,
the spark of an idea will always match
the fuming language we decide to pour out of our mouths.

But I forgot that the voice does the work of the Buddha
so why would I ever call someone gay before calling them beautiful?

Why would I not praise the person that drinks the same water as me?

Why could I lift my voice
just to put someone else down?

Us humans
have a habit of over-powering
and taking what doesn’t belong to us
but I pray
that we are making our way towards the moment
when our tongues are the only left for us to conquer
and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a poet
is that it’s not about what you have to say in your poem
it’s about what you have to say when your poem
is done.

Born in Durham, North Carolina, and raised by Japanese immigrants, George Masao Yamazawa Jr. is one of the top young spoken word artists in the country. At 24, “G” is the youngest poet to become a National Poetry Slam Champion, Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, and Southern Fried Champion. Winner of Kollaboration DC 2012 and 2013 Kundiman Fellow, G has been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, Bonnaroo Music Festival, TV One’s Verses and Flow, the Pentagon, and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

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