Campus & Community

Pop star on one continent, college student on another

Kazuma Mitchell on stage singing.

Kazuma Mitchell performing at a festival in Shenzhen, China.

Photo courtesy of Kazuma Mitchell

5 min read

Model and musician Kazuma Mitchell managed to (mostly) avoid the spotlight while at Harvard

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

Every two weeks or so, somebody would stop Kazuma Mitchell ’24 and ask for a photo.

“They were mostly Chinese tourists visiting Harvard for the day,” he said. 

While Mitchell appears to most on campus as an ordinary college student, these passersby recognized him from his life on another continent as a music star. A former member of the boy band Intersection, the soft-spoken solo artist built a successful career in Japan before his breakthrough in China on the “American Idol”-style reality TV show “Chuang 2021.”

“I want to keep building my brand in China, slowly expand across Asia, and find different companies to support me in different countries,” said Mitchell, who recently appeared in GQ China and modeled for a Valentino campaign in the country. “I want to work toward the U.S. market as well, but it’s a hard market to just barge into.” 

Despite the early professional success, Mitchell, 23, said he was shocked to gain admittance to Harvard College. He set aside the bustling performance career and attended his first classes in fall 2019, making fast friends with other first-years in the Yard.

“He told me like a month in, ‘I’m really famous abroad,’” recalled friend and former housemate Chris Wang ’23. “I thought that was really funny.” 

Concentrating in economics was an act of pure pragmatism, Mitchell said. But earning a music secondary left a little room for pursuing personal interests in theory and experimentation.

Concentrating in economics was an act of pure pragmatism, Mitchell said. But earning a music secondary left a little room for pursuing personal interests in theory and experimentation. The course “Storytelling With Sounds,” led by composer and Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music Hans Tutschku, was a highlight. 

“It was basically a class where we recorded sounds from everyday life, and then used those sounds to create abstract music,” Mitchell said. 

According to Tutschku, Mitchell’s strong musical foundation and cross-cultural background helped him succeed in a course designed to challenge convention. “What they learn is to listen differently,” Tutschku explained. “They learn to listen to the world differently, listen to sounds differently, and accept or use sounds in a different way.” 

Mitchell was born in New York City and picked up his first musical instrument — the flute — after watching Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” 

“I really loved that movie, and I wanted to be the prince,” he recalled. 

At age 8, Mitchell moved with his family to Tokyo, where he and a younger sister were enrolled in public schools. “Up until that point, I didn’t really know any Japanese,” said Mitchell, who often appears under the name Kaz. “After a year, though, I kind of picked it up and now Japanese is basically my native language as well as English.”

He was just 13 when he joined up with Intersection, a four-boy power pop ensemble featuring a blend of Japanese and Western elements. 

“All of us were mixed — half Japanese and half something else — and all of us spoke English,” said Mitchell, who has a white American father and Japanese mother. 

It took about four years of rehearsals until Intersection was ready. Mitchell had just graduated from high school, in 2019, when the group debuted with an album of English-language songs. Their first music video, “Starting Over,” played up their youth, with the bandmates rollicking about one of Japan’s many “cat islands,” where feline residents outnumber people. 

Mitchell also appeared during a gap year on the popular Japanese reality series “Is She the Wolf?” The reality dating show, familiar to U.S. audiences from subsequent seasons that stream on Netflix, features five men and five women, with a single foil planted among the latter.

Spurred by the pandemic, Mitchell took a break during the 2020-21 academic year to appear on “Chiang 2021” and record a solo EP titled “Code Love.” The six-song collection is far more eclectic than anything Mitchell released with Intersection. He collaborated with Japanese actress and singer Hikari Mitsushima on “Drown,” a track featuring lush layers of acoustics, electronics, and bilingual vocals. Also noteworthy is “Summer Is Over,” an R&B-infused duet with 2023 Harvard grad Mai Anna that has serious lo-fi allure. 

Resuming coursework in Cambridge left him feeling divided, Mitchell said. “I couldn’t really communicate with my company in Japan. I couldn’t really make the most of my connections.”

Last year he signed a three-year contract with Beijing-based Longtao Entertainment. To make the most of this opportunity, he opted to spend his final semester studying abroad in China, bolstering his Mandarin skills by day while spending nights performing, attending industry events, and working on new music, including a pop-driven single due out any day.

But he retains fond memories of Harvard, where everyday life was closer to normal. “He’s more introverted than people would expect,” Wang observed. “He deals with being a celebrity when he’s out and about in China, but I think in college he appreciated alone time.”

Until somebody would recognize the pop star on campus again. “There were a couple of times where my photo got taken in the Science Center,” Mitchell said. “I had to issue a statement on Weibo — the Chinese social media site — and be like, ‘Hey, if you want to take my photo, just talk to me. Don’t take it without me knowing.’”

Wang, who speaks Mandarin, eventually resolved to protect his reserved friend from the most aggressive intrusions. “I got really good at telling people to back off,” he said. “I’d always step in front of the camera and ruin their picture.”