On the cover of her self-titled, self-released EP, 24-year-old Tigarah (born Yuko Takabatake) looks like a pop confection, blowing a bubble while clutching chopsticks. She raps and sings in both in Japanese and English so more people can understand her. But she also claims multicultural musical cred, utilizing baile funk-inspired beats and citing Baltimore club and grime as influences. Her song "The Game in Rio" (not her only political track) is an anti-globalization screed inspired by the sight of a one-armed beggar in Brazil.
"It's all cultures mixed together in one musical style," says Takabatake of her sound. "People can feel the new style. I think it's great to inspire people, and music is the place to put the message."
Tigarah's music–which, according to her website, touches on themes like "fake friends" and "defending your own style"–springs from her experiences at school. A teenager from a privileged background, she entered the political science program at Tokyo's Keio University seeking to make a difference in the world. But after meeting future politicians in class, she soured on the subject and turned toward music.
"About five years ago, I went to a house party and heard baile funk," she said. "I'd never heard of that kind of music, but I started listening to it and doing my own stuff. At the time, nobody knew about it in Japan. I thought, 'Maybe if I go to Brazil, I can do something.'"
In 2003, she moved to Rio to study abroad; at a nightclub, she handed Swiss-born DJ/producer Mr. D a demo tape. By the time Takabatake headed back to Tokyo a few months later, they had already laid down a number of tracks.
Despite the continental split, they've established their own Postal Service-like system. Mr. D, who lives in Venice, California, and runs his own studio, makes beats and emails them to Tigarah. After she strings together lyrics and selects a set of tracks, she flies to L.A. for a recording session.
Things began to move at light speed after the swift proliferation of her tunes on MySpace and her website (where they stream for free) led to media buzz. The duo spent this summer finishing up an album's worth of new material to shop around to labels.
If it all looks and sounds like the success story of a certain Sri Lankan-born singer, it should. At her first U.S. gigs in Southern California in April, Tigarah boasted a similar stage setup to M.I.A., with two backup dancers and Mr. D spinning beats in the background.
The big difference, Tigarah freely admits, is her unabashed pop sensibility. Tigarah is a tiger, but one as imagined by the Sanrio toy company. It remains to be seen whether audiences will see her as a poster child for baile funk's further globalization or a harbinger of its gentrification. Either way, Tigarah will keep striving to win people over. "I have to do something to make people feel better," she says, "so I chose music."