Rising teen rapper ‘Milli’ provokes as she pushes Thai hip-hop forward

Photo: Ngamsin Sukontaros
Photo: Ngamsin Sukontaros

In her chart-topping February breakout video Pak Khon (Calm Down), Danupha “Minnie” Kanateerakul, aka Milli, disses her friends for being boy-crazy gossips who spread fake rumors at school. It was a departure from hip-hop mainstays of romance and flexing. 

On her next single Sud Pang (On Fleek), she further broke from Thai female rap orthodoxy by embracing broader beauty standards and inclusivity, singing in four of Thailand’s regional dialects, as well as a style associated with transgender counterculture.

That’s Milli the rapper forging new ground in commercial Thai hip-hop, a male-dominated industry fixed on flexes about wealth, personal hardship, and heterosexual hearts.

Then there’s Milli the sharp-tongued lyricist whose verses at times cross the line for listeners. “You seem high on birth control pills, Just go back to sleep,” “You are a miss or a bitch, only chasing boys,” and “Nasty habit, always gossiping, faking it all for that ass-licking boy.” 

While many praised it for capturing their own peer relationships, her lyrics were criticized as sexist and misogynist.

“I have to accept that I can’t 100% please everybody. That’s ideal but we can’t reach that,” the 17-year-old rapper said, “I can’t control their ears and that’s the diversity within a society. I understand them but I have a mass audience.” 

Both versions of Milli may be expected of a 17-year-old singer in the spotlight for pushing up against the walls of an industry that’s gone from obscurity to commercial dominance. In the two-plus decades since Thai hip-hop arrived in the kingdom, its mainstream form has been going harder, with more explicit content and lyrics, while still avoiding big risks. But Milli goes even further.

“In my small circle, vulgar words can mean the opposite. I’m complimenting someone as a ‘slut,’ as it means ‘pretty,’ like ‘you’re dressed like a slut today,’” Milli said. “But people higher-class people think I’m reviling [other women]. I’m a disgusting bitch, but my circle commonly uses vulgar words as a compliment.”

Dueling Identities

Born in Bangkok to open-minded parents – a tour guide and teacher – helped Milli grow up vocal and fearless. Her mother is from the south, and shared with Milli a skin tone darker than that idealized by commercial beauty standards. While her career takes off, Milli is still a student, now studying music at Assumption University. 

“When I was younger, boys liked to say to me, ‘If your skin was lighter, I’d chase after you and ask you out,’” she said. “And I clapped back, ‘Who asked you to chase after me?’ I think it’s unfair because beauty comes in many forms.”

On Sud Pang, she celebrates her beauty in a self-empowering anthem with a video musing on school fantasies – becoming a drum major, diva, beauty contestant, cheerleader – unobtainable to those who don’t look a certain way.

What I am, an amazingly beautiful girleverything on face, snatch af,” and “Standard beauty? I don’t give a shit.

She hopes the song’s message, in which she sings in regional dialects to send the message that beauty isn’t concentrated in the capital, will reach more young women.

“I watched tons of people’s reactions to my first song, and I could see that they really feel my music and lyrics, because of how they shined within while singing along,” she said. “I want to cheer them up with this song. I wasn’t born fierce and confident, and used to be insecure.”

But as a commercial artist, there are limits. The massive anti-government protests gripping the nation would seem like a tasty topic for a counterculture brand, but it’s also something other artists have been arrested for.

While Milli is not afraid to criticize the government and her label will not restrict her from doing it, her work is screened so she doesn’t end up like a fellow rapper her manager recently had to bail out of jail.

She’s reaching new professional horizons nonetheless. CEO Sean Miyashiro of 88rising, a pan-Asian music company in Los Angeles, is eyeing her for an upcoming project, something her music label says it’s currently in talks about. It’s a moment Milli says she’s dreamed of, as she wants to record in English because of the overwhelming reactions her videos have gotten internationally.

“I saw every reaction to videos for my songs, and I saw them smash their keyboard although they don’t really understand what I’m singing,” she said, noting that all her videos now have English subtitles. “What is amazing about music is that the attitude put into it can be perceived without language as a barrier.”

Photo: Ngamsin Sukontaros
Photo: Ngamsin Sukontaros

On the rise

Since she was signed, Milli has appeared at a number of festivals. Although she debuted the same year the coronavirus hit, it didn’t stop her from reaching her biggest show yet this month at Asia Song Festival in South Korea, where she was the only Thai singer on stage and appeared alongside other big-name musicians from across Asia.

She brings to the stage her penchant for being dramatic – she says it started at birth – and larger-than-life and entertaining persona. One way she adds a spicy twist and naughty taste is by rapping in Kathoey-culture (transgender) jargon called “Luu language,” which involves adding the word ‘Luu’ in front of specific Thai words before reversing it to create a new word with the same meaning. 

In Sud Pang, she says the word “Luay Sui” instead of “suay,” or beautiful. 

She also remixes verses with funny quotes from viral clips and catchphrases from her own songs into what’s become her signature style. Her verse “morning, morning, better not say” in the same song is a catch phrase lifted from a sexy net idol clip that once went viral.

Milli’s mainstream popularity is not surprising, given how she is well-loved by the gay community and those who love its culture, which are little represented in hip-hop or rap.

But it’s also led to accusations of appropriation.

When she said “Kathoey isn’t a gender; it’s a lifestyle” in a February interview, it drew a backlash for trading in stereotypes by a progressive LGBT group who said she was exploiting the culture to boost her brand.

She brushes the criticism off.

“While some groups of ladyboys like me, some trash talk me,” she said, saying its a matter of opinions and reactions that are as diverse as musical tastes.

For now she’s continuing to write and perform. Audiences may one day hear a song about cockroaches soon on the radio, as the young artist complained her house is so full of them she wants to make a roach diss track.

“I called them Minnie’s house cockroach because they are so sturdy and stubborn. Have you seen cockroaches eating cockroaches? That’s it,” she said.

Milli’s music is available on major music streaming services including YouTube, Apple Music, and Spotify. Her next appearance is at “Chiang Mai Phase 2” festival concert on November 21-22 in Chiang Mai. Check her out on Twitter and Instagram.

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