K-pop & Political Activism in Korea

As 2016 left us in political turmoil in America, on the other side of the world there was also another political frenzy going on at the same time when President Park Geun-hye was impeached. And while I don’t have a strong interest in Korean politics, I was impressed with the fact that the Korean people were able to push out the president through non-violent protesting and campaigning– because this seems like something that has been impossible for us to do in America.

I don’t know a lot about the protests– how frequent they were and how hard it was to actually get the president impeached, but another interesting component of these political rally is the role that K-pop has had in them.

According to the media, the impeachment of the president was due to the revelation that she was inappropriately confiding into a personal friend, Choi Soon-sil, who received special benefits and was privy to confidential information. That confidant’s daughter was the recipient of many privileges at the prestigious Ewha Women’s College– it was only after the further governmental investigation of the university’s preferential treatment did Park’s corrupt behavior come to light.

It all started with the Ewha students protesting for their college president’s resignation after creating a new majors program. As police were called into action, the students started to sing the SNSD pop hit “Into the New World.”

As the protest for Park’s resignation grew, so did the influence of K-pop as a tool to bring protestors together. Below is a video from a rally where organizers remixed the famous theme song of the reality TV survival idol show “Produce 101” to protest the president in power. **Both of these videos were featured by Asian Junkie, a humorous (and crass) K-pop commentary blog, a while back.**

This protest culture is something that seems to permeate in Korean youth. One of the most popular dramas in Korea is the “Answer Me” series, which picks a certain period of time in the recent past and depicts love and family life of a group of friends. The most recent and most popular installment, “Answer Me 1988”, featured the eldest daughter and a student at Seoul National University, Bora, protesting with her fellow classmates against her parents wishes. Based on real-life occurrences, the student protests in the 1980’s were a theme throughout the show: it was college student protesters that helped bring down the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan and eventually lead to democratic elections after a decade of political abuse.

The fact that this part of history was depicted in such a popular drama speaks to the concern and attention that South Koreans pay to their politics. It’s refreshing and different from the passivity that everyday Americans seem to have about our current political climate. However, the impeachment of Park was pretty much agreed upon by all Korean citizens– there is no polarity over that topic like there would be between conservatives and liberals about the removal of Trump. However, if organizers are frustrated, perhaps someone should remix Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” to insult Donald Trump at the next Women’s March.

Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) 2017: Part 1

This year, I was very lucky to see the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival: a showing of Asian Americans in films every day for two weeks at the Philadelphia Arts Initiative. Though I wish I was able to go to multiple nights of the festival, I was able to see two interesting films that night: the short, “Monday” directed by Dinh Thai and the feature film, “Cardinal X” directed by Angie Wong.

Just as a disclaimer, I have never truly understood the form of a movie review. I have always approached movie reviews with the expectation that it will inform me whether or not I should see the movie. However, unless the critic is vehemently panning the film, there is usually no clear direction for reader and usually, the plot has been spoiled. So in this little blog post, I will try to avoid these two things.

First of all, I would recommend getting to the Philadelphia Arts Initiative an hour to half an hour early to purchase your tickets. You don’t want your plans to be ruined if the show sells out (as it did on closing night for me.) The Philadelphia Arts Initiative can be a little difficult to spot, due to the industrial neighborhood, but this is what the space looks like from the outside:

Inside, there is a small reception area and a standard, small art gallery. That night, they were offering virtual reality headsets that showcased 2 short movies where the viewer was able to watch the film from all angles. I’m sure that you wouldn’t be able to see everything without watching those films at least twice.

Every night of the PAAFF has a theme, and that night’s was: Asian Americans doing drugs.

The short film “Monday” is a story about an Asian American drug dealer named Kwan who navigates his diverse clientele by acting in different ways to best fit whatever his customer views him to be.

The ease in which Kwan interacts with witty rapport that metamorphoses depending on the ethnicity of his customers was fascinating to watch. The pop culture references used by the characters reminded me of the punchlines in rap and gave the conversations a unique rhythm with lighthearted insults peppered. As the film starts to open Kwan’s deeper wounds, the film loses this dynamism as he wrestles with the contradiction of his appearance as a model minority Asian American with his dangerous, drug-riddled lifestyle.

While this is the structure of the film, director Dinh Thai’s attention to detail is what makes the movie become even more whole-bodied: Kwan’s customers are interesting and unique themselves: Nina, the Latina girl Kwan delivers Chinese barbecue pork to seems to be much scarier than any of her heavily tattooed male relatives and Andre, the African American weed customer is seen lighting a blunt while wearing baby blue medical scrubs. In addition, the daytime shots of Kwan’s deliveries seem to be shot in bright clear light that add for beautiful shots of his journey through different L.A. neighborhoods.

And while this is the strength of Thai’s film: his ability make bold characters that break stereotypes that haven’t been seen on the screen before, it seems like a bit of step-back when the film tries to deal with more emotional issues.

For example, a scene with Kwan’s cousin who berates his dangerous lifestyle is awkward and over-seasoned with swears– though it does convey the expectations of an Asian family and the stress that comes along with it. And while Kwan is able to break the stereotype of being the typical “Asian American” with his job, his persistent worry for his white love interest, Emma and the idea that he will probably do anything for her seems to be falling into that caricature of an emasculated Asian man.

However, I am not an Asian American man, and Thai did note that parts of Kwan’s story is autobiographical– perhaps this is how his experiences have been, and I don’t really want to discredit that. Anyways, the quality of the dialogue discussing racial stereotypes, affirmative action and the legalization of pot as well as the cinematography of the short film makes up for the somewhat vague execution of Kwan’s love life.

In other interviews, Thai has talked about making the film into a TV series, which I would be excited to see. After all, we’ve got the rest of Kwan’s week after this– it’s only Monday.

Dinh Thai’s “Monday” is now available to view on HBO GO.

Asian American Rappers in Asia…but What About America?

Earlier this summer, a show called “The Rap of China” (R!CH) aired its first season– like its name suggests, it’s a survival show where Chinese rappers battle each other to win the most audience votes and praise from established hip-hop artists.

I started watching the show because it was pretty much a copy of its widely popular Korean predecessor, “Show Me the Money”, of which I am a fan. R!CH almost plagiarizes SMTM, including the same systemic judging procedures, 60-second audition/cypher/battle/performance format, and even the producers’ jewel encrusted microphones. In addition, one of the producers was Kris Wu, formerly of EXO. I thought he was a surprising choice as a producer because idol members are notoriously criticized on SMTM for not having serious rap skills and Wu hadn’t particularly “proved” himself to be a successful rap solo artist (unlike Zico, also a producer on SMTM.) After the episode aired, netizens voiced similar thoughts by creating a buzzword out of Wu’s harsh criticism of the contestants: “有freestyle吗?”

When I was watching, one of the contestants, “Hip Hop Man” piqued my interest. Hip Hop Man obscures his identity by wearing all black and a mask, but that doesn’t stop everyone knowing exactly who he is after he starts to rap during his audition. Multiple audience members gasp and point at him right before he opens his mouth, immediately grabbing everyone’s attention. Not knowing much about Chinese rap, I assumed that he was some sort of celebrity (I didn’t even know the other producers, MC Hot Dog and Wilber Pan.)

However, my impression was unfounded when Hip Hop Man started rapping in English– it was obvious that he was Chinese-American and better at rapping than his fellow contestants (perhaps I’m biased as an Asian American myself.)

Asian-Americans trying to make it into Asian rap is common on SMTM as well– this is especially because they’re succeeding. Korean-Americans that are prominent in today’s Korean rap and R&B scene include Jay Park, Dok2 (both producers of multiple SMTM seasons), Yoon Mirae, Jessi, Joon Park of g.o.d and more. There are even more Korean-American SMTM contestants: Flowsik, Snacky Chan, Junoflo, Killagramz, etc. Korean-American SMTM contestants have been signed to Korean recording companies after the show as well– Junoflo to Feel Ghood Records and Killagramz to Cycadelic Records. This participation is encouraged: recent seasons have hosted NYC and LA auditions in order to recruit American contestants.

Like the Korean-American contestants on SMTM, Hip Hop Man also struggled with the language barrier and eventually was eliminated for using too much English in his lyrics, despite his skill.

I was surprised that so many Chinese members of the audience knew who Hip Hop Man was because he was Chinese American, but didn’t think much of it because I didn’t know anything about him– he literally was masking away his identity.

Who is Hip Hop Man? He’s actually an American rapper named MC Jin, who after a YouTube search, seemed to be a battle rapper who was featured on a few TV shows in the early 2000s.

It wasn’t until last weekend when I watched “Bad Rap“, a documentary about Asian-American rappers, did I learn more about MC Jin’s track record in the music industry. Two rappers in the film, Awkwafina & Dumbfoundead cite MC Jin as an inspiration when they were growing up as a role model in the hip-hop industry.

He was the first Asian American rapper to be signed to a major American record label: Ruff Ryders, also home to DMC. He debuted with the single “Learn Chinese” in 2004.

I had never even heard of this song and was frankly in disbelief that something that played into so many racial stereotypes was MC Jin’s first shot at the mainstream. It also seems like it was the only shot he got, since his two singles (the other called “Senorita”) did not do well commercially and he was later dropped from his label. However, MC Jin has continued to try and stay relevant. With his recent appearance on R!CH and multiple public American appearances, it seems like he might be trying to make a comeback in both countries.

It’s interesting to see the milestones and back-steps that Asian American artists have taken in the music industry, even if we’re looking at rap exclusively. Though not a traditional “success” as an American recording artist, let’s acknowledge MC Jin for his accomplishments as an Asian American rapper and as a source of inspiration for those who are inspired and will come after him. While “Bad Rap” paints a continuous uphill struggle for Asian American rappers in the mainstream entertainment market, there are changes occurring in the industry.

Earlier this year, Jay Park signed a deal with American hip-hop label Roc Nation and he notes: “This is a win for Asian Americans.”

It should be noted that Jay Park was presumably able to get this deal with Roc Nation due to his demonstrated success as a K-pop artist that can sell multi-platinum records. This requirement for Asian-American artists to “prove themselves” in Asia seems to be a route that many Asian American artists seem to be taking: Wang Lee Hom, Wanting, Eric Nam, Sam Kim, Roy Kim, among others.

And it might be the way to go– Even though MC Jin has been active for almost 2 decades, it’s his Chinese rap videos that have the most views on Youtube.

^ I have no idea what he’s saying.

The emergence of these hip-hop focused shows reflects how China’s music audience might be developing a taste for rap, just like how it has become extremely popular in Korea in recent years. Korean rapper, Keith Ape, reached American music charts with his song “It G Ma.” This phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed– the New York Times recently published an article about Higher Brothers, a rap duo in China. They’re actually managed by the same company, 88Rising, as Rich Chigga. And even though 88Rising is an Asian-American music focused media group, they seem to be realizing that trans-national artists are paving the way to mainstream prominence.


bonus: my favorite clips from SMTM over the years.

Flowsik wins against Donutman in a diss battle.

Junoflo passing his 60 second audition, his second time on the show.

Woodie GoChild imitates Hash Swan & Killagramz in a diss battle.