“Understand one thing – I didn’t ride an elephant!” Barely a minute into her Coachella debut, rapper MILLI had already set the record straight on one of the most prevalent stereotypes about her native Thailand. But she wasn’t done. In a barrage of breathless bars, she dropped sly digs at corruption and underdevelopment via pointed observations about light poles and Thailand’s “vintage” trains before concluding with a shot at its leaders: “The country is good, people is good, our food is good but the government is bood” – or rotten.
MILLI ended her four-song set on a high note with the festival-exclusive track ‘Mango Sticky Rice’ – and that extremely viral moment when she ate from a bowl of the iconic Thai dessert onstage. With that flourish, the 19-year-old rapper born Danupha Khanatheerakul became the first Thai artist to perform solo at Coachella, taking the main stage alongside heavyweights such as Hikaru Utada, Rich Brian and Jackson Wang as part of 88rising’s ‘Head In The Clouds Forever’ showcase. How did it happen?
“I [had] collaborated with 88rising on a few different projects before,” MILLI tells NME over a Zoom call in May. “One day, they got in touch with me, asking if I’d be interested in performing as part of their set at this year’s Coachella. As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘Hold up, are they pranking me right now?’” the perky artist recalls with a laugh, pretending to pull her hair out in disbelief. “Even after they’d reassured me that they weren’t, I was still hesitant because I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on such a huge stage.”
MILLI’s shock is perfectly understandable: Having burst onto the scene with her debut single ‘Pak Gon’ in early 2020, right before the pandemic hit, she had hardly had any chance to perform to live audiences, let alone one of such a massive scale. As she puts it: “I felt like [Coachella] is way out of my league given how inexperienced I am as an artist. I’m a fan of Doja Cat and to think that I’d basically be performing at the same festival as her was just absurd. Like, come on, I’m nobody!
“Realising what a rare and unique opportunity I was being given, though, I said yes. I mean, I had to! Who knows when an opportunity like this would come along again. Plus, how cool would it be to be able to tell my future children that their mummy once performed at Coachella?”
Given the way MILLI commanded the stage with all the swag and finesse of a seasoned pro, no-one would have thought that this self-described rookie only had her start in the industry a few years ago. How did she prepare herself leading up to the now iconic performance?
“I went in with the mindset of just doing my absolute best. There were a lot of rehearsals leading up to the show and even though they told me that I didn’t need to show up to all of them, I did it anyway because I wanted to make sure that there was no room for errors,” she explains. “When I walked off that stage, I even told one of my team members that I’m happy with how the show went. I regretted nothing even though I knew that there were things that I could have done better.”
“I’m a fan of Doja Cat and to think that I’d basically be performing at the same festival as her was just absurd”
On social media, her fans seemed to be equally elated. Memes filled the Thai social media sphere. The hashtag #khanonieomamuang (“mango sticky rice”) quickly became a trending topic among Twitter users. In the 24 hours following the performance, sales of the dessert reportedly more than tripled, prompting Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to consider registering mango sticky rice as a UNESCO cultural heritage item – less than a year after he brought defamation charges against MILLI over her comments on his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Politicians touted the “soft power” of her performance – and of mango sticky rice – but the phrase and the implications of her Coachella set had never crossed MILLI’s mind. “The idea for the song came up during one of our online meetings with 88rising. They wanted us to make a track that represents Thailand so we settled on mango sticky rice, which is my favourite dessert. Sticky rice also symbolises the bond between me and my family because we always stick together,” she explains.
“When I pitched the idea of eating it during my performance, they thought I was joking at first. Then they were like, ‘It’s your own show, you do you.’”
MILLI further confides to NME that she feels a little uneasy being thrusted into the role of cultural ambassador. “When you look at Thailand travel brochures, it’s always either giant statues, temples or floating markets. I’m not here to represent the conventional ‘Thainess’; I’m here to represent who I am as a Thai person,” she asserts. “There are other aspects of Thai culture that often get overlooked and I want to make sure that my music reflects the essence of that.”
That mission informs MILLI’s next single, which she aired in her performance on Coachella’s second weekend. “It’s based on these community aerobics dance sessions you see everywhere in Thailand. The beats people dance to are pretty much a genre of its own,” she explains.
“Even though it’s inspired by the most ordinary thing ever, there’s a message of self-love behind it. I want to encourage women who have been hurt in their relationships to shake off the sadness and start taking care of themselves.”
MILLI also reveals that the single will be included on her debut album along with the 2022 track ‘17 mins’ and last year’s ‘Not Yet.’ “I’m still putting the finishing touches on my album, but I hope that it will come out by the end of this year. I’m saying it now so that it’s out there in the universe as a sort of promise to my fans and a pressure for myself.”
“There are other aspects of Thai culture that often get overlooked and I want to make sure that my music reflects the essence of that”
So, what’s next for the rapper who showcased her country and culture at one of the biggest music festivals in the world? Well, for one, she’s going back to school. MILLI is finally heading back to Assumption University in Bangkok for her first on-site classes in two years to pursue a degree in music.
“I was just thinking this morning why I’m feeling so tired all of the sudden. It’s because I’m going back to school!” she rolls her eyes. “When I was in the US, I was super chill. Yeah, I was there to perform at the festival and all, but that was the only thing I needed to focus all my attention and energy on. When I came back to Thailand, there’s a lot of things to think about.”
It’s a sharp reminder that MILLI, rising rap star, is ultimately still a teenager facing an “overwhelming” upswing in her career. But, she points out, she’s got lots of love and support in her corner, from her family, friends and record label YUPP! – not to mention her thousands of fans, whether they be day-ones from ‘Pak Gon’ or Coachella converts. “I’m sure I’ll do just fine.”
MILLI’s latest single ‘17 mins’ featuring mints is out now, with new music on the way