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Rap connection

Korean rappers define their own experience

Korean rapper Jonathan Park (left), aka DumbFounDead, says black rappers used to make derogatory ethnic remarks about him and other Asian hip-hop artists, but now he feels accepted.
Korean rapper Jonathan Park (left), aka DumbFounDead, says black rappers used to make derogatory ethnic remarks about him and other Asian hip-hop artists, but now he feels accepted.Read more

LOS ANGELES - Crammed into a room on the third floor of a church, rapper DumbFounDead spits freestyle rhymes with six other emcees as a small group of 20-somethings bob their heads to the music.

It's not the music that makes the scene notable; it's the rappers. DumbFounDead, whose real name is Jonathan Park, is one of two Korean-Americans present. The others include three blacks and two Hispanics.

Park is part of a thriving Korean rap scene in the city's vast Koreatown, where concerts and impromptu rap battle sessions are held in churches and cafes, and aspiring lyricists swap songs and jabs on MySpace.

The music is allowing young Korean rappers to build bridges with blacks half a generation after thousands of Korean businesses were torched in one of the country's worst race riots. In doing so, these young Koreans with hip-hop style are defining their own Korean-American experience in a way their parents couldn't.

DumbFounDead, 21, said blacks used to snicker "Bruce Lee" or "Jackie Chan" references when he began rapping at 14. But he's earned acceptance with his talent and by reaching out.

"It comes down to relations between blacks and Korean people," said Park, considered one of Los Angeles' best young rappers of any race. "I couldn't even be an emcee without having good relations with black people. They started hip-hop."

Los Angeles County has nearly 200,000 Koreans, more than anywhere else in the country, most of whom live in Koreatown. While most Korean rappers are too young to remember much from the race riot, they feel its effects.

"The riots definitely have a big impact on the K-town rap scene," said Brian Kim, or Oddsequence, 26, who is part of the group Yello Belly Bastids. "Those race relations still affect how I'm seen when I'm chilling in South Central."

The violence that exploded April 29, 1992, left 55 dead, more than 2,300 injured and about 2,500 Korean businesses destroyed, mostly in South Central and Koreatown. The acquittal of several white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King lit the fuse.

Under the surface, however, were years of cultural clashes and misunderstandings between blacks and Korean shop owners. Many blacks saw Korean grocers, many of whom spoke little English, as opportunists who took money out of poor neighborhoods but disrespected customers by not talking much to them or looking them in the eye - cultural norms for Korean business owners.

Such frustrations reached a boiling point a year before the riot when black teen Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a Korean grocer in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. Ice Cube's 1991 song "Black Korea" expressed the frustration many blacks felt.

"So pay respect to the black fist / Or we'll burn your store right down to a crisp," goes the song, which turned out to be tragically prophetic.

The riot was so traumatic for the Korean community that even today many parents don't allow their children to listen to rap, or "black music."

But there was no keeping the vibes away from young Koreans' ears, especially in a city that has produced many of the country's best rappers.

"Many friends were like, 'forget rap music,' after the riots," said Sonny Kang, 31, a Korean actor who stood guard outside Korean stores during the rioting. "Then when Dr. Dre dropped 'The Chronic' album in the summer of '92, it was like, 'Wow, this album is so good we can forgive anybody.' "

By the late 1990s, a handful of Korean-American rappers had achieved commercial success, mostly rapping in Korean and selling their music in Korea.

The first Asian Hip Hop Summit, inaugurated on the 10th anniversary of the riot, was created as a way for Koreans to reach out to blacks and Hispanics and solidify the growing Korean rap movement.

There still is prejudice toward blacks in older Korean generations, said Kublai Kwon, who founded the summit. "But with all the Koreans doing hip-hop, I don't sense any prejudice," he said.

Black and Korean rappers are cautious when reflecting about how much rap music can improve race relations in Los Angeles. Rap music, they say, is a world of its own.

Open Mike Eagle, 26, is a member of the group Thirsty Fish, which includes DumbFounDead.

"When we leave here, we go back to our own families," Eagle, who is black, said during the recent church session. Pausing and reflecting, he added, "But we do take this experience with us into the world."

The riots and race relations are among many themes Korean rappers explore. Like artists the world over, they make music to recount personal experience.

For some, that means broken homes or pressure from their parents to be a doctor or engineer, acceptable careers in a community where education is paramount. For others, it means violence, gang life or illegal immigration, also very much a part of Koreatown.

DumbFounDead is an example. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade and moved out on his own by 18 because his parents had separated.

Mixed into Korean rap lyrics is vocabulary to express questions of identity felt by many young Koreans living in America.

"FOBs" are Koreans "fresh off the boat," while children born here to Korean parents are called "bananas" because they are "yellow on the outside and white on the inside."

In one song, American-born Doc Whisperer, who is Peter Yoo, 26, and Korea-born Viruss44, or Sean Rhee, 26, who moved here when he was 14, rap about feeling alienated.

"I've been through a whole lot of insecure years / Cause I'm the first in my family to be born here / Raised in California, I crawled in Eight Zero ['80] / And when growing up I couldn't recall an Asian hero," Yoo rapped at a recent "Ghetto Musik" concert, which included dozens of Korean rappers and dancers.

In the crowd was 15-year-old Keith Smith and three of his friends, all of whom are black.

"I just came to check out my Korean homies," said Smith, who would later lose a freestyle contest against DumbFounDead. "This is some good stuff." *