I came pretty close to a different career trajectory that had a decent chance of landing me in a similar position within the same industry. There was really only one graduate program that I was interested in for my field, so I applied to that program only, with the very real back-up plan of saving money by living at home while working part-time and going to the local community college part-time to get the actual papers to back-up my years of music experience. As it turned out, that little school in New Haven said yes, and so the rest is history. But music has always played a huge role in my life…
…and yet somehow, I am the most uncool about it.
Until I was a teenager, my music consumption consisted of basically pre-1980 Broadway musicals, the local classical radio station, and the Beach Boys. When my mom finally got sick of listening to the same Broadway musical cast recordings ad nauseum and insisted that we listen to the radio in the car sometimes, we added 1970s-1990s soft rock to the mix, which made me sure that I was pretty cool now that I was listening to Celine Dion. High school and the early days of Napster added a bunch of god-awful anime music into the mix, along with a smattering of actually good but totally scattershot J-pop. And then, college finally brought me high-speed internet and being on a network where you could do that thing where you listen to other people’s iTunes libraries. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
I do have a memory of watching some video about Korean music as a child. I can’t remember if it was at Korean culture camp or something we were watching at home. But it featured a pansori singer, and I remember thinking, “Oh wow… that sounds like screeching cats…” because it was so foreign to me and truthfully, I just couldn’t handle how metal it was. (I am the person whose ears were shocked – shocked – the first time that I listened to Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a teen.) But I filed it away as something that wasn’t really interesting to me.
I wouldn’t encounter Korean music outside of the requisite drummers until years later when I was working on a show with the marvelous Jen Shyu. She was doing her Solo Rites: Seven Breaths piece, which featured pansori singing. It was the first time I’d seen pansori live, and I loved it. The combination of storytelling and vocal power and expression was everything that I love.
I’ve since casually browsed through youtube to expose myself to more pansori and traditional singing, especially as it exists within contemporary culture. An incredibly talented but also accessible performer I’ve fallen in love with is Song Sohee, who specializes in minyo, traditional Korean folk songs, where I find much of what I love aurally about pansori, where incredibly strong technique also has an exhilarating sort of raw edge.
Song Sohee -자진 뱃노래 (Jajin Boating Song)
But because I can’t like normal things, my other main interest is the cultural exchange between Asian and Black cultures. Hip-hop has found a home in Korea and Japan, and when I wanted to explore more about Korean hip-hop, the first thing that I looked up was U.S./Korean collaborations. The one that drew me in most was a track by Joey Bada$$ and Korean Canadian artist Tablo.
Tablo + Joey Bada$$ – Hood [lyrics on Genius]
This led me to seek out more of both Tablo and Joey Bada$$. The latter released his second studio album just the year, but Tablo’s career has much more backstory to it. While he’s done solo work, Tablo is mainly part of the group Epik High. I could happily link all of their songs, but for starters, here’s one of the group’s most recent tracks, a super fun diss track to the world that features a number of notable guest artists.
Epik High – Born Hater [lyrics on Genius]
And another version where you can turn on the closed captions for English subtitles
They’ve done songs that are more on the “alt” than “hip-hop” side of things.
The group has been around since 2001, and they’ve definitely evolved over the years. I’ve loved both the new and old music that I’ve found so far, though!
(The music video for this one just gives me the giggles because of peak #relatable.)
Of course, Korean America rappers are also a thing. On that front, I’m more of a Dumbfoundead than Jay Park type. Particularly topical with the Hawaii Five-O casting/compensation dust-up showing that people aren’t going to be quiet about the issue of how Asians have been fit (or, as is more often the cast, not) into U.S. culture…
Dumbfoundead – Safe (cw: Caitlyn Jenner deadnaming, brief mention not dwelt upon)
There are also Korean American collabs with Korean artists.
Dumbfoundead (ft. Dok2, Simon Dominic, Tiger JK) – Hyung [lyrics on Genius]
I have found some artists that I enjoy who you’d call “K-pop,” even though they’re not necessarily who comes to people’s minds when you mention “K-pop” around these parts. But naturally, there’s a lot going on outside of the girl and boy groups (who just aren’t so much my thing, personally).
I stumbled upon the adorable brother and sister folk-pop duo Akdong Musician a.k.a. AKMU.
Akdong Musician – 얼음들 Melted
And thanks to technology knowing me better than I know myself, I ended up inadvertently coming full circle by semi-randomly youtube stumbling upon this fun little number that consists of part of Akdong Musician and features Bobby, who was featured in Epik High’s “Born Hater.”
Hi Suhyun (ft. Bobby) – 나는 달라 (I’m Different)
It’s also been fascinating to me to following the growth of the Broadway musical industry/culture in South Korea. One of my favorite personal discoveries so far as been Hong Kwang-ho, who is a big musical star in Korea but has also been seen in the West End revival of Miss Saigon. It was a bit of luck that a friend who was talking about the Death Note musical – yes, based on the manga, and yes, featuring music by Frank Wildhorn, of Scarlet Pimpernel and Jekyll & Hyde fame – happened to link an old video of Hong performing “Hurricane.”
I’ll leave it to you to get stuck in that youtube rabbit hole.
And that’s just a random smattering of my Korean musical explorations. If you have any recommendations, particularly in the hip-hop realm, please let me know! Let’s all listen more!