World music band Brown Rice Family promotes global solidarity and healthy living: one concert, T-shirt and bar of soap at a time.
In the basement bar below the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, past the bamboo cane furniture and paintings of swaying palm trees, Brown Rice Family is rehearsing “Souljah,” a Bob Marley-inspired call to arms laced with hip-hop and Afrobeat. The rhythm is infectious; men playing a game of pool nearby stop to listen, and one of them drums along to the beat.
This year’s champion of WNYC’s Battle of the Boroughs, Brown Rice Family is a world music band with a multicultural line-up and an unusual message: healthy living and global solidarity, one concert, T-shirt and bar of soap at a time.
The band was founded six years ago by Yuichi Iida, 31, a drummer from Japan. He was studying sonic arts at the City College of New York when he met singer Joe Jang. The two classmates started hanging out together and discovered a mutual passion for music and healthy living. Iida’s mother was a piano teacher for Yamaha, he began playing the Daiko drum at the age of 6 and he had always been interested in traditional Japanese cooking. Jang’s father was a Christian minister and he had grown up surrounded with church music.
Fascinated by their online research into organic farming, Iida and Jang decided to form a band and company to promote organic produce. They named it after brown rice, one of the healthiest whole grains in the world. “Humans can survive just eating brown rice, because brown rice gives you all [the] nutrition to live,” Iida explained. (Or maybe not. Hanna Campos of the Harvard School of Public Health told NPR in May that people need more than a rice diet to survive.)
Jang and Iida parted company three years ago after Jang lost interest in performing. Iida believes their split was partially fuelled by his friend learning more about Japan’s invasion of the Korean peninsula during World War II. “Our grandfathers’, grandmothers’ generation, they had a bad history. That’s true,” Iida says. “But we cannot stick to it.” Jang disagreed and quit the band to become a spiritual teacher. He lives with his family in Hawaii.
Brown Rice Family now has eight members, who hail from all over the world — including Japan, Jamaica, Haiti, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States — and its music incorporates elements of rock, reggae, hip-hop, jazz and Afrobeat. It’s an eclectic mix of sounds that reflects a diverse group of musicians.
Lenworth Maxwell, 34, (better known as Sticky Rice) is from Jamaica and joined Brown Rice Family five years ago. He found out about the band while he was a student at City College and started going to their gigs, occasionally slipping backstage. One night, when the band was performing at the Shrine club in Harlem, Maxwell suddenly found himself on stage. “I was [in] the audience just jamming”, he said, when Jang invited him up, introducing him to the crowd as “Sticky Rice.” The name stuck and so did he. “It was kind of impromptu,” Maxwell says.
Maxwell is now one of the band’s lead singers and dancers. “In Jamaica, music is omnipresent,” he says. Growing up, “I really appreciated music and I loved to dance.” By day he works as a supplemental instructor of social sciences at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, but he relishes the opportunity to cut loose and perform with the band.
He and Okai, a Haitian-American vocalist from Brooklyn, penned the lyrics for “Souljah” and write most of the group’s songs. The rest of the band takes care of the music. “We build as we go, taking a workshop approach,” he says.
Band mate Kazuya ‘Caz’ Ishijima, 32, says this freeform collaboration is a more organic way to create music. Combined with Brown Rice’s range of influences, it produces what the group calls “world roots music.” “It’s just a chemistry between many different nationalities and types of music,” Ishijima says.
The band’s simmering pot of styles also represents Brown Rice’s belief in global cooperation, a message the band members are keen to share through their range of organic products, too. Fans can buy Brown Rice T-shirts and sweatshirts, made from organic cotton, and Brown Rice soap (made with real rice bran).
The Brown Rice Family soap range began as handmade gifts for guests at Jang’s wedding. “We didn’t know that much about soap at the time,” Iida says. “We just bought [a] book, followed [the] recipe and made it. But people really liked it.” One guest ordered 100 bars for her own wedding. “We never expect people to appreciate like this!” Iida says, laughing.
Brown Rice experimented with European and Japanese soap recipes and tried the results out on friends. Saponified shea butter isn’t great for the skin, Iida says, and hemp oil soap is too soft.
The band finally settled on green tea. Iida grew up in Shizuoka and “If you’re from Shizuoka you see green tea everywhere,” he says. Brown Rice Family sources its tea from a small, organic farm in Shizuoka because Iida approves of the farm’s environmentally friendly methods. “I wanted to help what they [were] doing and help carry that concept to Brooklyn,” he says.
Making soap is very much a hands-on experience for the band. Mixing oils takes up to seven hours, and a new batch is ready in about six weeks. Brown Rice sells its soap in stores and at street fairs and has gone through nearly 500 bars in the past three months.
It’s all part of a “good circle,” Iida says, in which fans can support Brown Rice and have the satisfaction of championing organic farmers at the same time, helping to foster a healthier, happier society.
Maxwell agrees. “We strongly believe that the healthy way is the most civilized way,” he says.
Brown Rice’s organic message is also influenced by Rastafari. As a boy, Maxwell’s mother took him to Rasta festivals and his grandfather was deeply involved in the movement. “I was exposed to the drumming and the words of Rastafari,” he says. He was impressed by their tolerance and emphasis on sustainable living and is now a Rasta himself.
So is Iida, who was introduced to Rastafari by the drum master of a Jamaican troupe he played with. He considers Rastafari more a way of life than a religion, but is interested in the Ital diet.
The band often sells cooked brown rice at gigs — Iida’s wife is a caterer — and hopes it can convince audiences, especially children, to eat healthily. “We want to make kids think organic living is really cool,” Iida says.
“It’s sometimes easier to play music and give people a message, instead of just talking to them,” Ishijima says.
Tomoko Okamoto, 35, heard about Brown Rice through Seven Bites Foods, which she co-owns with Iida’s wife. “I think they have originality,” she says. Brown Rice Family’s music cannot be categorized and that’s why she likes it. Okamoto is also impressed by the band’s organic message and sincerity. “They’re not just saying that,” she says. “They really believe in that. Positive energy means organic living.”
“I think they really represent what is Brooklyn right now,” she added.
Brown Rice have played for crowds of around 12,000 at the Brooklyn Museum and JerkFest, Conn., as well as smaller gigs to a few hundred people at the Greene Space, Manhattan. Their first, self-produced album, ‘Brown Rice Family Station’, was released in December 2011: the video for the title track has been viewed 74,000 times on YouTube, while the album itself has sold a thousand copies.
“We have different elements, like spices,” Iida says. “If you blend it you can make it [a] band for everybody.”
“It doesn’t matter what genres you listen to in your life,” he added. “Once you come to a Brown Rice show, you can groove to it.”
Brown Rice Family will be performing at Free Candy in Brooklyn on Dec. 13 from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.