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At 13, Drummer Yoyoka Soma Speaks the Universal Language of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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a young Japanese girl with a short haircut in a white sweatshirt smiles while seated at a drum kit in front of a purple acoustic panel in a home studio
Yoyoka Soma plays drums in a practice studio at her family's home in Oakland on Feb. 9, 2023. The 7th grader grew up in Japan but moved to the Bay Area with her family in 2022. She's been internet famous since her drumming videos went viral in 2018. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When drummer Yoyoka Soma first rocketed into internet stardom in 2018, millions swarmed to her videos, proclaiming her the next big star in rock ‘n’ roll. Soma, then an elementary school student living in Hokkaido, Japan, seemed to already possess musical sensibilities some adults spend their whole lives training for.

Watching her was hypnotic: Music seemed to take over her entire body. Each hit of the cymbal appeared to electrify her limbs, powering the next succession of passionate and coordinated movements. Her expressions bounced from playful to focused, but never strained. It looked impossibly easy for her — even at age 7.

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For as long as she can remember, drums have provided the musician an oasis from stress, frustration and unease. “If I have nerves, I sit at the drums and it’s gone,” says Soma, now 13, in a recent interview at her current home in Oakland. “I don’t know why but …they disappear once I sit at my drum set.”

Soma has lived in the Bay Area with her family — father Akifumi, mother Rie and younger brother Shido — since late 2022. Last fall, the Soma family decided to move to the states so that Soma could explore and grow more freely as a musician, uninhibited by their native Japan’s school system, which she describes as more traditional. Soma is currently in seventh grade at Oakland School for the Arts, where she is learning jazz and blues drum techniques that push her beyond her proclivity for the rock genre. When recalling music classes in Japan, Soma remembers their limitations.

A family of four people, Japanese immigrants, smile for a portrait outside in front of trees: a teenage girl, her father, her younger brother and her mother
Yoyoka Soma (left) poses for a photo with her dad Akifumi, mom Rie and younger brother Shido near their home in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge)

“It’s totally different because my Japanese school was not an arts school,” says Soma. “Class was very traditional: there was just the recorder, singing, piano and harmonica. I like those but there was no choice. So I couldn’t play the drums.”

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Discouraged at school, Soma would pour herself into the drums at home — an instrument she’d been learning since she was one. Her parents, also musicians, were supportive and often held jam sessions where they’d play along to their favorite songs together — eventually forming their family band, KANEAIYOYOKA.

When Akifumi and Rie began uploading her solo cover videos to YouTube in 2015, she steadily amassed an audience. In 2018, that audience exploded following a viral cover of the 1969 Led Zeppelin track “Good Times Bad Times.” In it, a younger Soma sports a short bowl cut, crinkling her nose and smiling as she plays to the song’s energetic and varied tempos. Over the next couple of years, her covers of other American rock staples like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” gained massive views and earned her two guest appearances on The Ellen Show in 2019.

But in recent conversations, the online attention and acclaim she received during that period don’t really come up. Lately, Soma is fully occupied with school, practice, gigs and filming videos and live streams for her subscribers. During the week, she begins most mornings first sleeping through her 6:30 a.m. alarm before trudging to the kitchen for breakfast and heading out for school. From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., she works through a packed schedule of English, music, social studies, math and life science courses before heading home for individual drum practice, dinner and more practice with family. “I’m so tired every day, most recently,” she says.

While her music classes in Japan felt a bit sterile and restricted, Soma says her current music courses are full of energy and chaos — sometimes to a fault. There is constant noise and a rowdiness that Soma has had trouble adjusting to. “My friends are so loud, [specifically] the boys,” she says. “I don’t like it — that part. But I have new experiences every day and I can learn [techniques] outside of rock music.”

As she navigates this new setting, her greatest challenge is following along and understanding the material in English during her other classes. “Everyday, [I think]: ‘What are you talking about, teacher?’” says Soma. “My friends are so kind, like speaking a bit slowly. But in class, I don’t know! It’s the most difficult thing.”

a young Japanese girl plays the drums while smiling
Yoyoka Soma says the language barrier has been difficult since moving to the U.S. — but music helps bridge the gaps. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In her alone time, she often retreats to nature or returns to her drum set at home to clear her head. These long school days, crammed with confusing lectures and new concepts taught in a language she has not yet grasped, are often overwhelming. In a recurring dream, she attends a school where the language barrier she currently struggles with is nonexistent.

“Everyone speaks different languages, but I hear Japanese,” says Soma. “I like that dream. All the time. Every day, I go to that dream.”

While Soma grapples with language obstacles, music and art allow her to fill in those gaps of understanding with others. During jam sessions with her classmates and other Bay Area artists, there is sometimes a moment of silent magic: where the groove and rhythm sync up between musicians and they’re able to improvise something unique to their musical connection. These sessions also act as keys that unlock new landscapes of sounds, genres and histories — allowing for an exchange of ideas and emotions without having to speak a word.

Since moving to the East Bay, Soma has jammed with Oakland singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito, whose soulful songs that combine blues, roots rock and country have inspired her to learn more about genre-blending music. Her friends at school have introduced her to an array of hip-hop and rap, where the art of sampling and revamping older songs and beats is generative and full of possibility. Music has offered her a new way of expanding her relationships, not only with new friends and fellow musicians, but with Oakland and herself.

a four-person Japanese family sit in a home music studio practicing instruments and smiling
Yoyoka Soma and her family practice for their band, Kaneaiyoyoka, at their home in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Moving forward, Soma doesn’t have many long term plans sketched out. She wants to eventually make albums, have more jam sessions and perform at more events. But she also wants to read books, drink chocolate milk with her schoolmates, run around outside with her brother Shido and visit the Oakland Zoo. The pressure of being held in such high regard — and on a very public scale — isn’t really at the forefront of her mind. Soma, for all her talent and gifts, is still a young teen adjusting to completely new surroundings. In this current stage of life, of uncertainty and adaptation, she is inspired by the everyday: By moments of spontaneity that she translates through her rebellious, spirited playing.

“Any creation of mine can be music. It should be natural until I die,” says Soma. “If I can give some courage or confidence to people, I want to be that person. I want to [give] back.”

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Yoyoka Soma will perform at Notes & Words, an annual benefit concert for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, on March 25. Tickets and information here.

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