Music

South Korea-born rapper Moment Joon details immigrant experience in Japan on debut album

by James Hadfield

Contributing writer

When you want something, sometimes you just have to go ahead and take it.

On his formidable debut album, “Passport & Garcon,” South Korea-born rapper Moment Joon lays claim to his present home in suburban Osaka with unusual specificity. When he reps his eponymous neighborhood on the track “Iguchidou,” he even gives his apartment number, telling listeners: “If you’ve got a problem with me, come and talk.”

The invitation — delivered, like nearly all his lyrics, in Japanese — is sincere. But there’s also a sense of a spot being staked out. It’s a declaration that the self-styled “immigrant rapper,” real name Kim Beom Joon, isn’t going anywhere.

“You may hate it, but this is our home,” he declares on “Home / Chon,” the album’s incandescent centerpiece, which takes part of its title from a Japanese slur used against Koreans.

“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” the 29-year-old tells The Japan Times. “This is my country now. I have no other choice.”

“I think claiming ourselves as immigrants — not foreigners — can be a great benefit to this country, and society as a whole,” he adds.

It’s a distinction that Japanese officialdom has often been reluctant to accept. Japan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was telling: When the country closed its borders to foreign nationals from much of the world, it didn’t bother to distinguish between visitors and those who actually live here.

“Immigration isn’t a buzzword for Japanese society, or for the hip-hop scene,” says Kim, “but I felt it’s a vitally important topic for Japan now, which is why I decided to try rapping about it.”

Moment Joon didn’t emerge fully formed. Kim first started rapping in his native Korean while he was studying at high school in Seoul. (He also lived briefly in Los Angeles while growing up, and speaks fluent English.)

When he moved to Osaka as a college student in 2010, he was encouraged by members of his university music circle to try writing lyrics in Japanese.

“One of the constraints with Japanese is that you often have to change the word order to create rhymes,” he says. “I already had a feel for that from writing lyrics in Korean, so it wasn’t so much a question of modeling my flow on any particular Japanese rappers: It felt more like a continuation of this hobby I’d had as a high school student, only in a different language.”

Tracks uploaded to YouTube drew attention beyond the confines of the university campus, but he had to put his fledgling career on hold to return to South Korea for compulsory two-year military service.

On returning to Japan in 2014, Kim made a brash bid to recapture people’s attention with “Fight Club (Control Remix).” Riding the beat from Big Sean’s “Control” — best remembered for a career-making guest verse by Kendrick Lamar — he took Japan’s hip-hop scene to task for its complacency, name-checking nearly a dozen MCs in the process.

“I’m a small guy, and I didn’t have a particularly tough upbringing,” he says. “It was my way of not being defeated by all these rappers who were using their masculinity, their strength or their tough backgrounds as a weapon — and a hip-hop scene that saw those things as cool — by going on the offensive and saying: ‘No, I’m cool too.’”

Though he came to see the track as “pretty reactionary,” it helped him realize what he really did — and didn’t — want to do. He recalls how mixing with a more culturally and ethnically diverse crowd, and dating a woman who was also non-Japanese, informed his thinking.

“I’d hear people from completely different backgrounds tell me that they’d experienced things I thought were unique to me,” Kim says. “When I considered what we had in common, I realized it was this idea of being immigrants.”

Another influence came from the late rapper ECD (real name Yoshinori Ishida), a foundational figure in Japanese hip-hop whose uncompromising ethos and politics saw him marginalized within the scene he’d helped create.

The pair only met once, when Ishida — who was on hiatus at the time — came to watch Kim perform at a small club in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Only after the veteran MC died from cancer in 2018 did Kim learn from a close friend that the gig was what inspired him to start rapping again.

He pays tribute to ECD on “Teno Hira,” the cautiously optimistic closing track of “Passport & Garcon,” but admits to having complex feelings about his legacy.

“To be blunt, I don’t really like his style of rapping,” he says. “But the topics he addressed, and the way he operated — always talking about how you can’t live apart from society — is something I want to do myself.”

Putting down roots: Self-styled 'immigrant rapper' Moment Joon lays claim to Osaka as home.  | YASUHIRO OHARA
Putting down roots: Self-styled ‘immigrant rapper’ Moment Joon lays claim to Osaka as home. | YASUHIRO OHARA

First heard on 2018’s “Immigration” EP, this renewed focus finds its full expression on “Passport & Garcon.”

Created with producer Sota “Noah” Furugen, the album is a rich and multi-layered work, told with a narrative and thematic sweep that demands to be heard in its entirety. Switching between different voices, and sometimes languages, Kim documents a range of situations and emotions: microaggressions and overt racism, depression, displacement and hope for a better future.

There are specifics that will resonate with many people who’ve chosen to leave the country of their birth, whether it’s a humiliating experience at airport immigration on “KIX / Limo,” or reverse culture shock on “Seoul Doesn’t Know You.”

On “Kimuchi de Binta,” he regurgitates many of the racial stereotypes he’s heard in the course of living in Japan, with references to eating dog meat, North Korean sleeper agents and the Illuminati. (“That one came out really quickly,” he says.)

“Home / Chon” is where it all boils over, though, with an explosive reaction to the slights and putdowns: to being asked if he’s paying his taxes and being told to “go home” when he’s already there.

“If ‘Chon’ was the only track you listened to on the album, you’d probably come away thinking that I absolutely hated Japan — you’d expect Japanese people to be taking a swing at me in the street,” Kim says. “But the songs leading up to it show that there’s a reason for that anger.”

Far from a litany of complaints, the album as a whole shows a deep attachment to Japan, and an earnest belief that it can do better. Kim says he gets that from his mother, a devout Catholic. Though not religious himself, he absorbed some of her faith, as a counterweight to the skepticism he learned from his journalist father.

The tension between these two forces is palpable throughout the album. He often switches viewpoints in the course of a track, turning a seemingly clear-cut sentiment on its head. On “Losing My Love,” his disillusionment with the Japanese hip-hop scene is thrown into relief by a guest verse from Hunger, of Sendai hip-hop crew Gagle, that exposes the naivety of his complaints.

“I made an effort to show various perspectives, so people wouldn’t just interpret things in one way,” he says.

Just don’t call it “conscious hip-hop,” the oft-mocked genre tag for artists who place politics and social awareness at the center of their work.

“It’s not just about getting a single message across, it’s about exploring a way of life and showing it from various angles,” he says of his approach. “So when people call me a ‘conscious rapper’ or say I have a ‘strong message,’ I tell them I’m not trying to get a message across, I’m exploring themes.”

The album’s release in mid-March was overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak, and though it earned some enthusiastic reviews, it hasn’t really received the attention it deserves.

Although Kim has expressed frustration about this, it’s not out of a sense of being denied his big chance. Rather, it’s that the world he’d worked so hard to depict — and the conversation he’d hoped to start about it — has already changed beyond recognition.

“I want to do something quickly in response to this altered world, to experience it and express it,” he says. “So the frustration I feel now is about when I’m going to be able to start creating again.”

For more information, follow Moment Joon on Twitter: @MOMENT_JOON

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner