December 23 2020
Moment Joon’s playlist reflects upon his fears, inspirations, resilience and vulnerability – a series of stories and analyses from one of the most essential voices in contemporary Japanese hip hop.
Moment Joon had an extraordinary 2020. His breakout record Passport & Garcon, a document of Joon’s own experiences and struggles as an immigrant in Japan, deservingly earned widespread acclaim. As much an interrogation of Joon’s emotions and inner processes as it was a searching exploration of problems at the core of modern Japanese society, Passport & Garcon gave a voice to thousands – not only within Japan’s immigrant communities, but to victims of discrimination and exclusion the world over.
Coming to the end of a year in which Joon’s music has earned him extensive attention across Japanese hiphop media, we asked him to curate a short playlist for the Glow. He chose the theme “songs that made the ‘most political rapper’ in Japan”, and penned a series of thoughtful reflections about five tracks that summarise some of the inspirations and experiences that drive him and his music:
“If I had a penny for every time I heard someone call my music ‘political’, I’d have enough money to buy the whole of Japan by now. Some even call me ‘the most political rapper’ in Japan. Well, considering the fact that I write my lyrics in Japanese (which is not my native language, or even my 2nd language – it’s my 3rd) and that I don’t release music often in this age of streaming services, being called ‘the most-whatever’ must be an accomplishment for any independent artist.
Yet I still don’t like that word – ‘political’. Don’t get me wrong, my music certainly has strong political elements that my contemporaries unfortunately lack. I take pride in the fact that the stories in my songs can start real conversations about immigration, discrimination, democracy and hip hop in Japan. But I have a problem with the fact that opinion-holders, critics or gatekeepers of Japanese hip hop try to box my artistry into that single word.
I sing about my fear; my story as an immigrant who tries to re-enter Japan and gets belittled by Japanese immigration officers. I’m ambitious when I sing about my younger self looking out at Osaka Castle from the window of an airport limousine bus, and dreaming of riding a legit limousine one day. I’m arrogant when I reveal my real address in a song and tell the whole world to come and face me if they have a problem (and, in the songs that follow, I face the consequences of this arrogance).
I sing about how I’m hurt by the hypocrisy of the Japanese hip hop community; about depression and how I destroy myself with unhealthy habits and suicidal thoughts; about trying to find home back in Korea but ending up as an outsider between two different countries and cultures. I sing about my guilt; the guilt which comes from the fact that I keep making music only because I don’t want to let down the people who love me – and yet I find myself believing none of the stuff I say in my songs. I sing about the hope that I find in the younger generation in Japan and the responsibility that I wish to take for them.
I tell my listeners that what makes Japan beautiful is not her money or power, but themselves - ordinary citizens who live on this island. Tell me, what’s the logic behind labelling all these different themes and messages ‘political’?
I was never political. My time in Japan has made me scared, ambitious, arrogant, hurt, lost, depressed, hopeful and self-esteemed, and has led me to share my experiences with the world. In short, I just did what my soul told me.
So that’s what I’m going to talk about - my soul, and the songs that made it. I know many readers probably haven’t heard my name, and I understand there’s no reason why you should be interested in the songs I introduce here, let alone my own body of work.
But, if this ‘most political rapper in Japan’, who claims he isn’t political, intrigues you somehow, I hope you can take a look at these songs - and hopefully, my own songs.
People barely ask about the meaning of my name these days - in most cases they just skip that part and jump right into juicier topics. But this generic noun – ‘moment’ – does have a meaning behind it.
Throughout my whole life, I’ve always been a very, very nostalgic person. So much so that when I was nine years old, I missed being seven. I developed a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the past, which made me dread the idea of the future. Trying my best not to think about the future meant denying myself any kind of chance of becoming what I wanted to be, but I was more or less fine with not becoming anything.
Until, that was, I wanted to become a rapper. When that teenage fever caught me and made me love something so deeply for the first time in my life, I found myself conflicted. Should I march forward to the future to become a rapper? Or should I stay in this world of nostalgia and keep hoping that none of the things I love in my life change over time?
This song from the legendary Korean hip hop group Drunken Tiger, answered my conundrum. In ‘The Quarter of my Life’, legendary MC Tiger JK raps about finding himself in a quarter-life crisis. JK looks into a mirror and finds a kid staring back at him with a surprised look on his face.
It seems like he’s sad about the fact that time has passed so quickly. He’s ready to be full-on nostalgic – but instead embraces his present self which, thanks to past strife, has become gracious and humble. Now, he’s equipped with the knowledge that the tomorrow he’s going to face will turn into the past so quickly that it’ll make him sad again, but he will continue walking this road as the master of his own story.
In the hook he sings: ‘Tell me your story / Where you came from and how you came here / Tell me the story of the story of your story / How you are gonna get to where you want to go / Asking, listening and walking.’
After Tiger JK’s phenomenal verses, his own father’s voice greets us with a narration. He tells us what most of us think about time: the past is beautiful but it’s gone, so it’s dead; the future is not here and we can’t see it with our eyes; and the present is slipping away and we can’t hold on to it. But JK’s father, who was a prominent music critic in his time, said something that the young me definitely wanted to hear: ‘No need to worry. Time is eternal. This very moment you sing and rap with your full heart is eternal too. You know whatI mean?’
Thanks to this song, I gave myself the name ‘Moment’, because it helped me understand that eternity is not eternal, but a moment is. Even to this day, when I’m so scared of the future and all the uncertainties that come with it, or when I’m so desperate to go back to a past time or space, I remind myself of the meaning behind my own name.
Every moment I remember or forgot, wasted or lived is indeed eternal, and I don’t have to worry. All I need to do is to live with a full heart. Tiger JK and his father taught me this, and I’ll remember it, forever.
I’ve been compared to Kendrick so many times, at some point I’ve realized people don’t mean it as a compliment. Rather, it’s a label that says ‘Oh, so you make some difficult music, am I right?’ or ‘I guess it’s great but I’ll never listen to it’. I bet they haven’t even listened to a full Kendrick album in their lives, just like they are wilfully ignoring the real content of my music.
But indeed, Kendrick has influenced me heavily (hell, I even wrote my thesis about his music). However, it’s not his crazy rap skills or the way he constructs an album that influenced me. What got me is Kendrick’s courage.
On ‘Real’, Kendrick depicts two individuals who are close to him, a woman and a man who love riches, power, control and respect from their close circles. Kendrick points out their love isn't worth anything unless they love themselves. ‘til this point, it sounds like a standard ‘love yourself’ music, or so-called ‘conscious rap’, as critics like to label.
The twist is that Kendrick doesn’t stop at talking about other people and their lack of self-love, but he goes on and applies the same idea to himself, only to reveal that he also has problems. He asks, ‘Should I hate... all the money, respect, power in my will / Or hate the fact none of that shit make me real’. He is absolutely broken - questioning everything he loved and believed in the past but, at the same time, he doesn’t know which direction in which he should proceed.
Then, Kendrick’s parents appear through voicemail. They tell their son that what makes us real is responsibility and God. They tell him to learn from his mistakes and to tell his story to those that are just like him.
‘Conscious rap’ has often been used to describe Kendrick’s music (and mine too). What most people imagine when they hear the word is an artist who ‘knows everything’ or is ‘wise beyond their years’, and who preaches their ideas to those who are not enlightened. This is a shallow understanding of Kendrick’s work. Kendrick sounds wise but he also breaks down when he realizes he is just as lost as those he criticizes. It’s not his intelligence that moves us, but his vulnerability.
This requires a great deal of courage. Who doesn't want to sound like those smart people at TED Talks that are ready to teach people a lesson or two? But instead Kendrick chose a hard task - to play a character of his younger self who made all kinds of mistakes, went to dark places and eventually found himself lost. And he delivers the final message not through his own voice, but through those of the very people who taught him that lesson. No posturing, no self-aggrandizing – true courage, showing his real self.
When I performed at TBS Radio Tokyo in October, a veteran rapper and a prominent culture critic Utamaru praised my music, saying that he loves the fact that I don’t only criticize others in Japanese society but use the ‘same sword’ to break down myself.
I’m flattered, but it’s not as if I feel comfortable doing it. I’m still scared. I’m an immigrant who gets stereotyped on every occasion, who makes hip hop music which, to this day, values masculinity and shuns vulnerability. Nevertheless, I chose to open up myself in my music, thanks to the discipline Kendrick taught me.
‘We all serve something in our lives’. I don’t remember where I first heard this, but I remember I struggled to figure out ‘what do I serve in my life?’ Is it God? I’m a Catholic, I guess – in that, when I see an ambulance on the street, I make a cross with my hand. I also doubt God’s existence, but my old Muslim friend once told me to keep doubting because that’s what God has planned for me. Sometimes I definitely feel like God exists, especially when I cry for someone else’s pain or suffering – it makes me feel like my ability to empathise and love is surely given by God.
Other times I feel there's nothing for us humans on this earth apart from each other, who are ugly and selfish.Maybe that’s why so many of us serve money. Among hatred, injustice and struggles we face just be existing, we want to buy our own kingdom where we don’t get bothered by them. I want that life. Yet I also serve money because I want to have stability and safety in my life. But at what cost?
BIG K.R.I.T. gives his own answer in ‘Bury Me In Gold’. In the first verse he describes why he wants gold. ‘Cause the (gold) chains ain’t the chains they chained us up with’. He chases gold because, like so many people, he also believes that money can free us from injustice, unfairness and the dangers life throws at us.All those golden things he raps about - gold rollie, gold laces, gold grills - give us the impression that gold might make us free.
But the second verse tells a different story. It paints an individual who was raised in a social environment that worships gold. Soon he gets possessed by the desire for gold and starts a life of crime. But the lifestyle of chasing gold gives him nothing. He betrays his fellow men, yet still gets his freedom taken away – and, all the while, the injustice of racial and judicial discrimination in America is still unchallenged.
All that is left after chasing gold is the emptiness and the fear that our souls may never be saved. Can gold buy us salvation? K.R.I.T sings: ‘Bury me in gold / Just in case the boat man doesn’t know me and claims that I owe / Just in case I’m forsaken and I have to pay for my soul’.
Many years ago, in the pursuit of gold, I hurt many people who didn’t deserve it. I know why I chased money and why I hurt those people – it was out of fear. Fear of abandonment, uncertainty and belittlement -things I thought I could prevent by having money. When my worst nightmare became real, money couldn’t save me from the guilt, which still haunts me to this day. I thought that if I served money it would serve me back. It never did. It still doesn’t.
Little has changed in the sense that I’m still vulnerable, weak and full of fear. I still want to buy my own safe kingdom. But K.R.I.T tells me that the chase of gold will always end up with ‘gold cuffs’, that we will lose ourselves, hurt others, and be derailed from walking the right path. I feel K.R.I.T’s pain, his desire to be at peace with himself. I feel God.
It’s not my intention to push any religious agenda to you since I don’t even know where I stand on this matter. But even if you don’t feel God from listening to this song, I guarantee you that this song will make you want to search for something more valuable in life than money. Sounds phony, right? But before you dismiss this song, answer me this; What do you serve in your life?
‘The address of our loneliness is Japan'’ was the title of my essay published by Iwanami Shoten, that told the story of me and others like me, whose loneliness stays invisible to rest of Japanese society. Through language barriers, miscommunication, categorization and discrimination - my loneliness was born in Japan.But among millions of Japanese songs about loneliness, no single song spoke to me. Rather, they made me realize that my loneliness is not profitable, that loneliness should be futsū [general or ordinary] if you want to be comforted.
Don't get me wrong, I still love hundreds of Japanese songs and artists. They are my teachers, companions, friends, lovers and enemies and make me pour my heart out every time I listen to them. But when it comes to loneliness, I still haven't found a voice that speaks to my heart. That is the primary reason why I can't stop making music - to use my voice for those who might feel abandoned by Japanese music. If I give up, who will sing for them? But still, my voice is so small in an ocean of songs that are not interested in the disenfranchised, powerless and voiceless communities of Japan.
KIRINJI’s ‘Alien’ might be the only exception because it speaks to me and my loneliness. But I have to mind you, it’s only because I read the whole lyrics through the lens of my own interpretation. Because the word ‘alien’ doesn’t only mean ‘extra-terrestrial’ but ‘foreign’ too; from the first time I listened to this song, I heard a story of two foreigners who live on this island. A story of lovers who can’t be together. A story I wish I didn’t know so well.
In 2016, Japanese immigration office rejected the extension of my visa. It was so sudden and unexpected, I couldn’t believe it really happened. When the immigration office gave me only 6 days to pack up and leave the country, everything became more than real. The law didn’t provide me any ways to protest or reapply. It was clear. They wanted me out.
The ground that I was standing on suddenly disappeared, and I learned that my life on this island is like a sandcastle that the system can destroy at any time. I remember trying not to panic and downplay the whole situation to calm my girlfriend at the time. But I finally broke down a day before I was supposed to leave. Sitting on the floor next to a giant carrier full of luggage, I remember begging her not to cry when I was the one who couldn’t stop crying.
‘Please don’t cry, darling’, ‘See, the moon is shining above us’, ‘The moonlight is touching the foreheads of us / Who can’t sleep in this long, long night’, ‘Please dance with me, darling / The last dance’, ‘Before the dark news come to this town with the sunrise’.
After several months of exile, I miraculously came back to Japan. But my life in Japan had fundamentally changed, since now I knew that everything I had or loved on this island could be taken away at any time. Yet I still love Japan, and I keep dreaming of living here, by telling my story in Japanese. It seemed utterly impossible before I heard ‘Alien’, but every time I cry over this song, I know it can be done. There is a way my loneliness can exist in Japan. My story will be heard by Japan, in Japanese.
I know, I know - plugging my own song does look cheap. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that ‘Teno Hira’ truly shaped my soul. I know it’s my own creation, but somehow it’s turned into something that even I don’t fully understand. Many people have claimed this song as their anthem, or an anthem for Japan – to know why, you just have to look at Japan in 2020.
If you’ve lived long enough in Japan, at some point you realise that the zeitgeist of Japanese society is not ‘change’. It might be ‘tradition’, ‘harmony’ (albeit a little bit too forcefully) or ‘tranquillity’ (again, can be a bit too forceful), but definitely not ‘change’. If you visit big cities like Tokyo or Osaka you wouldn’t get the impression that Japan is declining, but it is a reality to many that remember how things were decades ago. There is a feeling that nothing truly new will come out of Japan, and that no meaningful change (cultural, social, political) is possible.
Some people can’t accept that, worldwide in 2020, K-Pop is more popular than J-pop. They go to the bookstore to buy kenkan shoseki [anti-Korea books] or kenchu shoseki [anti-Chinese books]. Many just accept shoshika [declining birth-rate] as an unfixable fate instead of doing something. Trying something new seems utterly pointless, so the whole culture prefers to dwell in nostalgia for a time when Japan was vibrant, or rearrange familiar tropes and clichés that won’t offend anyone.
The younger generation, who don’t even have memories of Japan’s so-called ‘glorious era’, have stopped hoping or dreaming. Many of them are fine with slaving themselves to work - giving up on dating, marriage and having a family of their own – and the money they earn is just enough to provide them a small kingdom of hobbies or entertainment. People don’t even question why things are like this, let alone imagine something different. I guess this is what being futsū [ordinary] means. While these attitudes are not unique to Japan, it doesn’t make the hopelessness that people feel any less true.
Yet, this is only one side of Japan. There are also people fighting for change. Young people from immigrant communities, that are fed up with discrimination and mis-categorisation, have never stopped searching for ways to tell their stories. Chinese, Brazilian, Korean - you name it - mixed race people who’ve been called hafu (half) their whole lives are ready to tell you that they are 100% Japanese, and proud of the other side of their heritage.
Women are fighting for their freedom and dignity, against a Japan that ridicules *ito shiori *(#MeToo) on a national scale and belittles those who wish to wear something other than high-heels in the workplace (#KuToo). Ainu (indigenous people in Hokkaido) and Okinawans, who have both suffered greatly at the hands of Japanese imperialism, have never stopped fighting for justice, as well as Buraku people who have been subject to a class system that originated in feudal times (!).
The problem is that each of these fights for change has been categorized as something ‘weird’ or ‘un-Japanese’ to most of the population. Because the authorities in Japan have been so successful in their attempt to give the word ‘change’ a bad rep, the general public have forgotten that they have the cultural and political power to cause change. When the government decided to raise the tax, it wasn’t even a subject of public debate, but rather an ‘edict’ that people should follow. When the PM and his political party used the government budget to have a semi-political rally for themselves, the general public remained mostly silent. When the government failed to provide adequate first response and enough PCR tests regarding COVID-19, again, people remained mostly silent – even when they were feeling unsafe. Don’t get me wrong, they were fucking pissed off about all these incidents - Japanese citizens are not the homogeneous, group-thinking sheep that some extremists like to label them. But they know that demanding change is pointless. They’ve seen what happened to those who fight for it. So what’s the point?
I’ve been living in Japan since I was 19 and this is my 10th year. My entire adult life is rooted in Japan. There was a time I wished I had spent my adolescence in Japan so that I could’ve gained a deeper understanding of the country - to blend in, to assimilate. But because I was thrown into Japanese society without that knowledge, I could see Japan with honest, naked eyes. And I’m thankful for it. Because I can never agree with the statement ‘Japan can’t change’. I can’t agree with ojisan [old men] with money and power when they say: ‘This is the Japanese way’. Japan has always been changing - I’m living proof. Ten years ago, everyone around me told me this career was impossible. They encouraged me to walk a familiar path - play the gaijin role that has been allotted to me. I was told that no one will ever listen to my story because it’s too ‘niche’.
Yet I’m still standing. The thousands of faces I’ve seen on the stage listening to my song (even when I make grammar mistakes) and singing along with me were not an illusion. I owe everything to those people. They’ve made a change by putting me here. I can’t afford to be cynical. I have to believe - I have to hope.
That’s why I made ‘Teno Hira’. When I felt like I was turning into this ‘hope machine’ and feeling so alone, I was desperate to feel the connection between me and the people living in Japan with me. And the first timeI performed this song on the stage, singing ‘Until the moment you raise your hand from somewhere in this island’, ‘Alone and sacred, but I’ll keep on singing’, ‘Please, show me your palm’, I saw an ocean of hands waving at me. If you ever visit Japan, I hope you meet these people. The real people. They are the reason why I love Japan, and why it is my country. ‘It’s not Tokyo Skytree what makes Japan beautiful. It’s you’.”