Singer and rapper BBY NABE performs on stage while reaching out to fans in the audience.

BBY NABE is living the dream

Writer Oscar Kim Bauman talks to the singer and rapper about how he turned a casual hobby to full-blown musical career

BBY NABE's music is a mix of genres, ranging from trap and hyperpop, to pop punk.

Courtesy of BBY NABE

BBY NABE is always doing something new. Since his first release in 2019, the Tokyo-based Japanese American musician has put out songs at a breakneck pace, releasing his debut full-length LP, now that UR gone, last September. This artist on the rise eschews genre labels, producing a heartfelt, energetic blend of trap, hyperpop, and pop punk, smoothly switching back and forth between sung and rapped vocals in both English and Japanese.

If switching things up seems to come naturally to BBY NABE, it’s because he’s lived a life in which adaptability is key. Born in New York City, he moved to Japan at the age of 12, bifurcating his 24 years on Earth. His music has a global bent, from his influences to his collaborators, making him a fixture in Tokyo’s diverse, close-knit international artists community.

Most recently, BBY NABE appeared on September’s Pokémon Music Collective EP, working on the song “LEVEL UP!” alongside producer Matt Cab and fellow singer-rapper Charlu. The collaborative EP’s tracklist sees BBY NABE appearing alongside such well-known acts as imase, ENHYPEN, and POLKADOT STINGRAY. Having already sparked major attention in the Japanese music scene, BBY NABE has set his sights on the global stage, and a stateside breakthrough—a coming home of sorts—may very well be next.

I spoke with BBY NABE to discuss his diverse musical stylings, Japanese American identity, and future ambitions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Singer and rapper BBY NABE, with blond hair and in a light purple sweatshirt, stands against a white background.

BBY NABE raps and sings in both English and Japanese.

Courtesy of BBY NABE

Oscar Kim Bauman: What’s the story behind your stage name?
BBY NABE: My last name is Watanabe, so I started off with just the stage name “Nabe.” It was kind of boring, but I was just getting started in music and didn’t really think anything of it. I was chilling with one of my really good friends who also does music, her name is sheidA. We were on the train, and we got into a little argument about something. She was like, “Oh my God, you’re such a baby, Nabe.” We were like, “Oh, that is fire. That’s a good name.” When we got off the train, I just changed all my social media and my Spotify page to BBY NABE.

OKB: How did you get started making music?
BN: After high school. I took a gap year because I couldn’t get into the university that I originally wanted. During that gap year, I was just at home a lot of the time or at cram school studying. I had a lot of time on my hands and didn’t really have people to hang out with, because everyone was either busy in university or was also doing a gap year.

The university that I was applying to, you could send in presentations to make a profile for yourself. They also allowed me to send in audio files and videos. So I wrote about why I wanted to get into this university in a rap, and then recorded it and sent it in. Then I actually got through. So I was like, “Wow, music is super fun.” I just started making music for fun, and then it kind of escalated into what I do now.

OKB: When did you realize that music could be more than a hobby?
BN: The turning point in my music career was when “Pink Sweet” went viral on TikTok. The amount of streams that I just got overnight was pretty crazy. When I looked at my bank account that month, I realized this was actually a career choice, not something I could just do as a hobby. I try not to think of the money, but at the same time, money is important for independent artists who don’t have funding from labels.

OKB: Your songs always have lyrics in both English and Japanese. Is there a reason you choose to use both?
BN: Another big part of why I started music was because I was on YouTube, just mindlessly scrolling through when I saw this rapper called Miyachi. He made a remix to the song “Bad and Bougee” by Migos, and it was shot in New York, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the Marcy Avenue subway station, which I always used to go to school. He was rapping in Japanese and English, and it just sounded super dope. I wanted to do what he was doing. So when I started music, I was trying to sound like Miyachi as much as possible.

There’s an international artists community in Tokyo, which is kind of my friend group here. Everybody makes music in both Japanese and English, and they kind of incorporate both in their songs. So I think there’s a niche for what I make.

OKB: Tell me a bit more about that community of international artists in Tokyo.
BN: A lot of the people speak more English than Japanese. I know this one group called STARKIDS. They’re really big in the hyperpop scene in Tokyo right now. They have two people who were raised in Hawaii and just came to Japan for university. It’s super mixed, it’s a very interesting group. I have a friend called sheidA, who I mentioned before, she was also born in New York. My parents and her parents knew each other from New York, they were really good friends, that’s how we became friends. There’s a bunch of other people who are Asian Americans who speak Japanese and English and use them both in their songs.

OKB: You incorporate influences from many different genres. There’s hip-hop, R&B, hyperpop, and pop-punk. You rap on some songs, you sing on some songs. What’s your musical approach?
BN: I don’t know, because I just make what I kind of feel like on that day. When I was growing up, I didn’t really listen to that much hip-hop, I wasn’t a hip-hop head, I was more like a mainstream pop music type of person. So I think pop has a lot of influence on my music. But I also do alternative genres. Throughout the years, a lot of my friends have introduced me to some really dope underground artists. It’s whatever kind of artist or genre that influences me at that moment, or what I'm feeling that day. Today, I might be feeling like making a super hardcore song. Tomorrow, I might make a ballad. It just kind of comes to me. I don’t think I associate with genre.

OKB: Who are some artists you look to for inspiration?
BN: In high school, I formed a band with a group of my friends, and we performed at our school festival. At that time, I was really, really into this group called ONE OK ROCK. I went to like all of their live shows in Tokyo, I listened to all of their songs, I was just a super fan. I asked the people in my band, “Do you want to do ONE OK ROCK songs?” Because we weren't making [our own] music at that time. So we performed a couple of ballads, “Heartache” and “Wherever You Are,” plus “The Beginning” and “Kanzen Kankaku Dreamer.” I watched [ONE OK ROCK vocalist] Taka, and was practicing how to sound more like him. I feel like his voice, his way of singing, his melodies, and his songs have a really big influence on my music as well, which is the rock influence. I also like this hip-hop artist from California, Global Dan. His music is super dope. He has a lot of pop melodies that are really catchy, but he also has a super cool flow. I got a lot of influence from his style in a bunch of my songs as well.

OKB: You worked on a song, “LEVEL UP!,” that was a part of the Pokémon Music Collective EP, alongside some pretty big names. How did that collaboration come to be?
BN: I had made a song with the producer, Matt Cab, which remixed “Cherry” [by Spitz], which is a famous J-pop song. That remix went viral on Japanese TikTok, so we were trying to release it. But Universal, Spitz’s label, were like, “No, you can’t use it, copyright.” But me and Matt already made a full version with another artist called Charlu. This combination of having Matt on the beat, then me and Charlu, rapping and singing was super dope. We wanted to do another project in the future.

Then Matt got an offer from Pokémon to make a song for the new project. Matt hit me and Charlu up, and he was like, “Yo, are you guys down for this? We got a second chance to have this collaboration. We can make it happen.” I was like, “Yes, of course. Let’s do it.” So we got into the studio. He showed us a couple of samples that he took from the Pokémon games and made a beat. Then we just hopped on it. I didn’t know when it was going to be released. Then I looked at the EP, and who was on it, a bunch of really big artists like imase, who’s a really big artist in Japan, and and ENHYPEN, the K-pop group. This is such a dope project, and I’m so honored to be on it.

OKB: What are your goals? What’s next for you?
BN: I just want to work with a bunch of different artists and producers. Hopefully, in the future, I can work with more people outside of Japan. Because right now, I think I’m more in the Japanese scene. If any event organizers or promoters in America want me to come, I would be so down to go and perform.

OKB: For those who aren’t familiar with your music, how would you describe the BBY NABE vibe? What’s your elevator pitch?
BN: If you like kawaii cool shit, then I got some.

Published on March 19, 2024

Words by Oscar Kim Bauman

Oscar Kim Bauman is a multimedia journalist, freelance arts and culture writer, and recovering emo kid from and based in New York City. You can follow him @oscarkimbauman on most social media, read his portfolio on his personal website, or subscribe to his Substack.