Japan-based rapper and singer Chanmina is the next featured guest in Billboard Japan’s Women In Music interview series. Billboard Japan launched its WIM initiative last year, highlighting various trailblazing women in the music industry in a string of projects including this series. The initiative follows the established example of Billboard’s Women in Music event that has honored artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work since 2007.
Chanmina, who performed at Billboard Japan’s Women In Music vol. 0 event at Billboard Live Tokyo on March 3, is a trilingual artist who first came into the spotlight through a rap competition for high school students. Seven years since being lauded as a “high school girl rapper,” she has long cast off that label and continues to grow as a global artist transcending the boundaries of J-pop music. Here, she talks about the subtleties of being fluent in three languages, standing on the shoulders of her predecessors and more.
You started learning piano, ballet, dancing, and singing at an early age. Were there any women you looked up to growing up?
My mother, who was a professional ballet dancer, was my ideal when I was little. I admired the way she would do her hair up and wear stage makeup when she left for work, and the jewelry she bought with her own earnings. My father was also work-minded, but my mother didn’t rely on him [for income]. She found what she was good at, drew out her own strengths, and connected them to her work with conviction. I think I was impressed by that attitude even as a child. When I was a little older, I discovered Avril Lavigne and became a fan; I still love her and listen to her music a lot when I need to gather up some courage. I’m inspired by the way she shines doing what she wants to do, and it’s the same feeling I had for my mother.
So you’ve been able to maintain your own style and beliefs based on respect for women like your mother and Avril Lavigne.
I’ve always been the type of person who can’t listen to what my mind is trying to tell me. I’d push myself too hard when I needed a break, and end up damaging my health. But through music, when I’m writing poetry in a notebook, I try to face the prickly parts of my mind by asking myself things like, “What am I feeling right now?” and “What do I want and what don’t I need?” Writing poetry might be close to therapy for me.
I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven or eight years old. I couldn’t concentrate on my classes at school and began writing down what I was feeling. It become a habit, and when I made my debut and many people heard my songs, some said they could relate. When that happened, although I’d never given it much thought before, I realized that there were people who empathized with me, even though all I was doing was expressing how I felt. That made me want to write about what I really feel even more, rather than accommodate what people wanted me to write. So from there I made a conscious effort to think about the act of writing poetry, which I’d been doing without much thought until then, and realized once again that for me this was a daily routine, a form of therapy, and something like life itself.
You use three different languages, Japanese, English, and Korean. If writing lyrics is therapeutic for you, do you find that your thoughts also change depending on the language you use?
I’m sort of lacking in each of those languages, and feel that I become just barely whole when I use all three. Each language has its own nuances, and I wish I could speak using all three. That finally gets me up to full power. When I talk in my sleep or think in my head, I always mix up the three languages. The Japanese I learned from my father is a masculine way of speaking, the Korean I learned from my mother is feminine, and the English I learned from television and dramas is a frank way of speaking. The way I’m thinking is probably slightly different in each, but they all exist within me.
That’s really interesting, and it shows how subtle and important words are to you. Freestyle rapping is a field where you battle it out with your vocabulary, and you were often referred to as a high school girl rapper because you first attracted attention for your skill as a teen. How did you feel about that at the time?
I strongly resented being called a high school girl rapper and being compared to my opponents, other female rappers, in areas other than rapping. We were insulted by being compared to each other for our looks, like who’s cuter or sexier, and our accomplishments were considered irrelevant. But I made it a rule not to argue with those voices on social media, and to respond with my music. That’s how songs like “Bijin” (“Beautiful Woman”), “Princess,” and “Doctor” were created. If I hadn’t been able to sublimate my resentment and hang-ups into music like that, I think I would have given up on more things in my life.
You must have been in the minority just for being a woman in the Japanese hip-hop community. Did you ever feel inconvenienced in that respect?
Fortunately, other than what I just mentioned, there weren’t any situations where I felt negatively about being a woman. I was never ignored in the scene, and I think I got a lot of attention because I was a minority in the hip-hop community, so I think I was lucky in some ways. And if I get married or get pregnant and have children in the future, the content of my lyrics and what I can express may expand.
The thing is, though, the reason I’m able to feel this way is because women have fought (to achieve it) in the past. So I’m grateful for that, and we also have to keep fighting, while also being careful not to rest on our laurels and discriminate against men.
When did you realize that you’re now standing where women of the past fought and paved the way?
I think going to different countries and meeting different people were a big part of it. Living in Japan, there’s still a sense that women are supposed to do the housework, and there are people who say stuff like, “You make money by showing some skin and pandering to people,” so there’s no way I can say discrimination against women doesn’t exist here, but there are countries in the world where the situation is much worse. I’m sort of surrounded by open-minded people who don’t have biased views about gender, and I’ve been able to come this far without thinking much about matters of gender imbalance. That’s the result of women facing those problems in the past in Japan, and men and women gradually coming to terms with each other. I just want everyone to be equal, so I want to continue tackling problems while also recognizing the improvements that have been made. As an artist, I want to keep my feet on the ground and make music about what I’m feeling as a 24-year-old woman living today.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan
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