Rapping former Marine assists anti-base movement on Okinawa
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A small but passionate protest movement in Okinawa has been fighting for decades to see a reduced military footprint within the tiny southern Japanese island prefecture.
In recent months it has received support from an unlikely individual: a former U.S. Marine who was arrested outside Camp Schwab in December while protesting the relocation of Marine Corps air operations on the island.
Miles Thomas, 43, is a hip-hop artist and member of Veterans for Peace, a nonprofit group that aims to “inform the public of the true causes of war and the enormous costs of war, with an obligation to heal the wounds of war.”
Thomas, an emcee in Kansas City, Mo., who goes by the stage name Megaciph, says he is dedicated to the removal of U.S. military bases from Okinawa.
In January, he released a music video, “Nuchi Du Takara,” or “All Life is a Treasure,” which shines a light on Okinawa’s protest movement. Thomas came of age in the Marine Corps while stationed on Okinawa in the mid-1990s.
Videos of him performing the song have been used on Okinawan protest group websites, and he hopes his music will inspire others to take a stand against global militarization.
“It’s a simple matter of human rights over humiliation, hence the daily demonstrations and colorful cloth placements,” Thomas raps on the track. “For all the noise and harassment and Ospreys crashing, the illegal land grab’s an American embarrassment …”
“It’s completely a part of my life and my responsibility to help the people of Okinawa in any way I can and to stand in solidarity with them and get all of the bases off Okinawa and the rest of the planet, too,” he said. “The reaction has been stellar; the Okinawan response has been incredible. I’m happy I made the song.”
Shaped by the Marines Thomas got into “socially conscious hip-hop” like Public Enemy, N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest while growing up in New York City. At 15, he moved to Atlanta, where he said poor academics led him to the Marines.
In 1992, Thomas arrived at boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., where he said he witnessed the gang beating of a recruit.
“It’s a time in my life that I wouldn’t take back; it made me who I am, but it was some of the worst times of my life as well,” he said.
“It was horribly racist — that started in boot camp — very sexist and very dehumanizing,” he added. “They essentially strip us of our humanity … I wasn’t the same person after boot camp.”
The former mortarman deployed twice, first to Guantanamo Bay and later to Camp Schwab, accented by stops in North Carolina.
He was on Okinawa in 1995 when two Marines and a Navy corpsman gang raped a 12-year-old local girl. The high-profile incident sent shock waves across the island, and the effects of it are still felt today.
“I didn’t know what those protesters were doing,” he said of the 1995 backlash. “We were never told.”
Thomas learned the art of making hip-hop music from a fellow Marine in his company during his first stint in North Carolina. He turned his anger into raps about guns and death. He was also given his first nickname, Ciph, which stands for “Crushing Individuals Playing Hard.”
Thomas said he was kicked out of the Marines in 1996, a few months shy of completing his four-year enlistment, after failing a urine test for cannabis. He was bumped down from lance corporal to private and received an “other than honorable” discharge.
“I’m happy I got kicked out because it had totally desensitized me,” he said. “I was over it.”
Thomas continued to crank out violent rap music after his discharge. He said he sold drugs, got into trouble with the law, pushed his friends away and was homeless at one point.
“I found myself walking home from jail — well, to a friend’s house because I didn’t have a home,” he said. “I decided right then and there that I had to change.”
The next day he started tai chi and later transformed himself into Megaciph, a bigger version and a better person than the old Ciph. Megaciph stands for Mental Energies Gather and Circulate in Positive Harmony.
“The darkness that I was embracing was because of the trauma I had experienced in the Marine Corps,” he said.
Thomas went back to school. He got his bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in music management from Georgia State University in 2006, then a master’s degree in nonprofit management from the New School University in 2010. He got married, traveled around Europe and had children.
Thomas said he then dedicated himself to activism and making the world a better place by focusing on human rights and self-empowerment.
He has released four albums since 2006, including his debut, “Graduate Program.” In 2014, he joined Veterans for Peace, a St. Louis nonprofit made up of active-duty servicemembers and veterans dedicated to peace and the abolition of war. He donated the proceeds from his album “CIVIL.I.AM” to the group.
When Thomas learned that a VFP delegation would travel to Okinawa in 2017, he immediately had the idea to write a song.
Thomas said he supports the protesters because he views militarization and the environmental impacts of bases in general as directly related to his children’s future and the safety of the planet. He views silence on issues as a form of complacency.
“The environmental destruction that the bases do as a whole is offensive to me,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that makes me sad.”
During his recent trip to Okinawa, Thomas returned to the streets he had walked as a much younger man.
“Seeing it from a different side was very eye-opening for me,” he said. “I feel a lot of personal guilt for the madness I took part in, in Okinawa. It sounds selfish but being able to help is healing for me.”
Thomas was arrested in December 2017 for resisting police after blocking a column of Marine armored vehicles as they tried to leave Camp Schwab.
“I believe empowerment comes from self-realization,” he said. “If people did more introspection and spent more time looking inward and healing what’s going on inside, in our world as a whole, I think it’d be a much better place.”
Looking ahead Thomas said he remains dedicated to VFP and his message of peace. He said his anti-base video is destined to evoke a passionate response from people on all sides of the issue.
“The perception of Veterans for Peace is like a radical leftist, like on the verge of terrorist, organization,” he said. “But we’re very patriotic. A patriot is supposed to question their government and make you follow the rule of law, and challenge those laws that are corrupt and need to be changed.”
Okinawa’s protest leaders appreciated Thomas and VFP’s contribution to their efforts.
“It is valuable to have veterans that participate in peace and anti-war activities based on their experience,” said Takashi Kishimoto, a deputy secretary-general of Okinawa Peace Activity Center, one of the island’s most prominent protest groups. Kishimoto introduced Thomas when he performed his song at a protest. He also read a Japanese translation of the song.
“It is reassuring that these people are opposing the bases in Okinawa with us,” he said. “I am extremely happy that he sang about the feelings of the Okinawan people.”
Thomas has been performing “Nuchi Du Takara” in the U.S. and passing out anti-base literature. He hopes to return to Okinawa and continue his work.
“The military and war cannot bring about peace,” he said. “We worked for the war machine and we know it’s wrong. Change the world from inside yourself, from inside your home, and with your purchasing power. People’s purchasing power can change the world.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.
Excerpt from “Nuchi du Takara” by Megaciph
Verse:Long before America was born, this became the Ryukyu nation Predating by more than 400 years imperialist Japanese annexation Then U.S. offensives came to fight and kill and this island was taken In the Battle of Okinawa away from the country of the rising sun Now busting big guns is still done often makes civilians anxious The situation’s simply one of ethnic oppression, let’s just face it For the seven generations coming, their views and imaginations And all the lives unnecessarily taken opposing these occupations
Chorus:Nuchi du takara, nuchi du takara No new Futenma; Henoko Bay feeds us Nuchi du takara, nuchi du takara Any means you measure Okinawans are together Nuchi du takara, nuchi du takara All life is a treasure; all life is precious Nuchi du takara, nuchi du takara Shut the bases down forever …