Everyone has moments where they have to choose between two paths that will lead to drastically different lives. For Mina Otomonai, it came during her second year of high school when she strongly considered moving to South Korea to pursue a career in music. Her friends convinced her to stay in Japan.
“I probably would have ended up being a K-pop idol,” the 20-year-old tells The Japan Times. “It’s hard to make a career as a solo act in Korea.”
Instead, she stayed and adopted the moniker Chanmina. Her break came during a rap battle, her energetic style landing her a deal with a major label in 2016. Since then, she has managed to balance spitfire vocals and pop melodies to become one of the most prominent women in Japanese hip-hop and one of the few rappers to go mainstream.
With her latest single, “I’m a Pop,” out on Feb. 27, Chanmina has set her sights on overseas success. Featuring four songs that range from icy trap-inspired bangers (the title track) to warmer-clime trop-house vibes (“Sober”), she raps in Japanese and English, but also splashes in Korean, a new side to her vocal arsenal. It’s a nod to her background as her father is Japanese and her mother is South Korean.
“Doing this song, in Japanese and Korean … that is really the biggest challenge I’ve had so far,” Chanmina says, with a tattoo on her left forearm that’s half Japanese flag, half South Korean flag to remind her how important both heritages are. “There has been a lot of collaboration between Japanese and Korean artists recently, but in my case, I’m one artist doing both at the same time.”
Born in South Korea, she traveled frequently while growing up owing to her mother’s work as a professional ballerina. She initially followed in those steps.
“My ballet lessons used to be on Fridays,” she recalls. “They started at 3:30 p.m. and went to 4 p.m., but at 5 p.m. there was a hip-hop class at the same studio,” she says. “I saw one of my classmates who was taking the hip-hop class and I was like … ‘What’s this?!’ The next week, I switched to the hip-hop class.”
She also discovered the track “Haru Haru” by K-pop act Bigbang at a time in her life when she was being bullied at school for not being fluent in Japanese. Chanmina says, given her ballet background, the uptempo nature of the song spiked with hip-hop elements — her initial brush with the style — came as a shock.
“Actually, my first show ever was Bigbang at Budokan, I think. I was just looking up in awe,” she says with a laugh.
It’s an important influence, as what has separated Chanmina’s rise over the last few years in Japan has been finding a way to graft pop hooks onto abrasive rap numbers in the style of Bigbang and other K-pop acts. Cuts like “Chocolate” or the recent ballad-esque “Pain is Beauty” highlight this ability well.
“On (‘Pain is Beauty’), there is a high note. That was a challenge. I did a lot of practicing for that. I couldn’t believe I wrote such a high melody for myself. I wrote it, I sang it and I died … it almost killed me,” she says.
The songs on “I’m a Pop” flaunt this skill for sticky passages, but the title number is a reminder that a big part of Chanmina’s appeal lies in her balance between pop and hip-hop.
“This is J-pop, and this is J-hip-hop,” she says using her right and left hand respectively before placing an index finger between them, letting it sway. “This is me.”
Chanmina’s breakout moment came on 2016’s “Bazooka!!! Kokosei Rap Senshuken,” a televised rap battle between high school students. Despite going out in the second round, her rope-a-dope delivery made her a standout. It also defined early numbers and appearances with Japanese rappers far away from the mainstream spotlight. She’s not afraid to move in off-putting directions.
“I mean, my debut single was called ‘Fxxker‘ — that took some courage to put out,” she says of a song boasting a chorus of said profanity shouted out repeatedly. Chanmina also views last year’s “Doctor,” a topsy-turvy creation about the ills of social media sonically pirouetting from Atlanta rumblings to theater dramatics, as a risk, as it was her first release from Warner Music Japan after joining following a stint at Victor Entertainment. The reason for the label change, after some playful exchanges with staff: Warner could help her achieve her international dreams better.
Chanmina seems unsettled by the nature of the internet in 2019, saying she is burned out on how people constantly comment on one another online and how often sites can feature hundreds of people going after one person. Has she ever stared down a Twitter mob?
“Of course!! Whenever I put out a new song, people will attack me,” she says. “In the ‘Pain is Beauty’ video I’m riding a motorcycle and not wearing a helmet. People said, ‘What if children see this, what if they do that!” She lets out an annoyed sigh before giving the middle finger to the table to express how the situation makes her feel.
But the web also has allowed her to connect with people all over the world. While she ignores most comments, she does get a lot of direct messages on Instagram, and often checks out what they say. “‘I broke up with my boyfriend’ or ‘I love you,’ or ‘My queen!’ Something like that,” Chanmina says. “I do feel it.”
She might not be a fan of YouTube comments, but scroll down below the videos and you’ll see words left by people all over the world, including many in English blown away by her skills. It’s all very K-pop in its fandom — some people even seem shocked that she isn’t part of South Korea’s music industry given her swagger (which might explain Chanmina’s decision to get trilingual on her new release) — but done by a solo artist who might not have gotten the chance to shine if she had jumped over to Seoul.
Chanmina hasn’t forgotten about that, though.
“I’ve always wanted to work in Korea,” she says. “That’s the first thing I want to accomplish, to make a career in Korea.” But she hopes to go even further, and has plans to go global. She reveals that her dream gig would be anything in New York, a city she has only experienced through episodes of the HBO show “Sex and the City.”
“But I want to have a solid foundation in Japan. It was, after all, the first country to acknowledge me as an artist. So I always want to treat the Japanese audience well,” Chanmina says. “But like I said earlier, I want to go out into the world.”
The single “I’m a Pop” by Chanmina will be released on Feb. 27 via Warner Music Japan. For more information, visit: chanmina.com.