Ice Cube’s "Black Korea": Racially-Charged Rap

By Anthony Choe

 

Every time I want to go get a fucking brew
I gotta go down to the store with the two
Oriental one-penny-counting motherfuckers;
They make a nigger mad enough to cause a little ruckus.
Thinking every brother in the world’s out to take,
So they watch every damn move that I make.
They hope I don’t pull out a Gat, try to rob
Their funky little store but, bitch, I got a job.

So don’t follow me up and down your market
Or your little chop suey ass will be a target
Of a nationwide boycott.
Juice with the people, that’s what the boy got.
So pay respect to the black fist
Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.
And then we’ll see ya…
‘Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea.

----"Black Korea" by Ice Cube, from the 1991 album, Death Certificate.

 

Ice Cube is a self-proclaimed voice of the street. Using rap as his medium, he purports to represent "life as it is" in the projects, ghettos, and "hoods." In 1989, his explicit accusations of police racism and brutality in the song "Fuck tha Police" ( when he was a member of N.W.A.) were later corroborated by the evidence captured on the videotape of the Rodney King incident. Reacting to the death of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins at the hands of a Korean grocer, Soon Ja Du, in 1991, Ice Cube attempts to expose the alleged bigotry of Korean merchants in the ghetto through the same medium: explicit rap. "Black Korea" is his portrayal of the conflict between blacks and Koreans in the ghetto, his iteration of the black voice crying out against Korean misconduct.

The incident that well illustrates the frustrations of many blacks is the death of Latasha Harlins at the Koran-owned Empire Liquor Market/Deli in Los Angeles. On March 16, 1991, Latasha entered the store, ostensibly to purchase a bottle of orange juice. She placed the bottle in her backpack and approached the counter, apparently prepared to pay for it. According to a security camera videotape, Soon Ja Du, the 51-year-old female proprietor, accused Latasha of stealing the orange juice by grabbing her backpack. Latsha retaliated by striking Mrs. Du repeatedly. As Latasha walked away from the counter, Mrs. Du fired a .38 caliber pistol, killing the girl. Demonstrators demanded the permanent closure of the store, hanging banners across the front entrance that said: "Closed for Murder & Disrespect of Black People." Later, some individuals scribbled across is: "Burn this mother down!"

Ice Cube’s threat to "burn your store right down to a crisp" is a clear reflection of the sentiment held by some in the black community. Because it accurately portrays attitudes, "Black Korea" is a legitimate manifestation of the voice it claims to represent. If Ice Cube feels that Korean merchants are nothing but "Oriental one-penny-counting motherfuckers," then his role as a unadulterated voice demands that he say so. If he feels that Soon Ja Du failed to "pay respect to the black fist" in shooting Latasha Harlins, then he must express his feelings, and he does.

However, the message that Ice Cube conveys in "Black Korea" is not completely accurate, even in his own estimation. He admits that the song contains generalizations made for greater impact: "’Black Korea’ is my observation on the situation of how some Korean businesses treat black customers," he explains. "… I can understand how some people hear my records on the wrong level. I mean, rap is more of a bragging thing. You don’t make rap records that say, ‘Yo, I’m mad, so I’m gonna bring financial pressure on you.’" His motive is to elicit a response from the black community, not to terrorize all Korean grocers. In his attempt to heighten black awareness, however, Ice Cube unnecessarily detracts from the Korean Community. His lyrics are not only degrading, but they project as general truths what he admits are isolated incidents. Rather than fostering knowledge and concern, they incite undue anger and suspicion.

Ice Cube’s misrepresentation is not inert, for her is not merely a party in the transmission of street knowledge to the general populace. He is a critical factor in determining the content of the message itself. Ice Cube himself claims, "Black people don’t really have a media they can rely on, so when we have these viewpoints we want to get across, we have to put them on these rap records… I put it into a rap form so kids can understand what’s going on, ‘cause I don’t know a lot of kids who watch the news." He holds in his grasp the power of information or, more accurately, the privilege of information. As an entertainer, Ice Cube reserves his right to artistic license, but as an informer, he must communicate information as accurately as possible.

The failure of communication can easily lead to needless misunderstandings. Far from being money-grubbing entrepreneurs eager to exploit any opportunity for profit, Korean merchants are often financially distressed themselves. They buy stores in the ghetto, not to take advantage of blacks, but because the low-priced land is often all that they can afford. Korean merchants are also willing to work the long hours and take the risk inherent in operating a store in an environment of an above-average incident of crime and violence. They are often accused of intentionally not hiring black members of the community, but the fact is, some do not hire at all; they can often afford only to employ their own family members in order to remain financially solvent. If Korean merchants are "Oriental one-penny-counting motherfuckers," then they are so only in order to survive in the ghetto, not to spite black customers. The image of parsimonious Korean merchants that Ice Cube creates fails to convey any of this to the black community.

Merchants such as Soon Ja Du thus face a dilemma. They must observe their customers carefully to discern whether or not they are shoplifting, yet they must respect their customers in order to develop a loyal clientele. The merchant’s discretion (or lack thereof) determines the nature of his or her interaction with customers. Mrs. Du’s actions were clearly inexcusable. She should never have used her gun to resolve the altercation with Latasha Harlins. However, to claim that Du was motivated mainly by prejudice is entirely unjustifiable. Certainly, in such instances of senselessly wasted life, it is tempting to strictly categorize behavioral motivations in order to make sense of the chaos, but nevertheless, the incident should not be viewed as an example of the cold, cynical brutality of Korean merchants against blacks. Instead, it should be regarded on an individual basis, as one merchant against one customer. To label it racism unnecessarily endangers relations between blacks and Koreans. Unfortunately, Ice Cube mistakenly uses the indiscretion of some Koreans to substantiate the belief that every Korean imagines "every brother in the world’s out to take." It is one thing to complain of mistreatment, but to claim that it results solely from racism transcends reason and becomes mere speculation and accusation.

While racism cannot be ignored, its constant emphasis leads to a dangerous series of misdirected emotions. Latasha’s death and Ice Cube’s song have brought publicity to the issue of the Black-Korean conflict, yet they have not led to its rectification. Poor relations between Korean merchants and blacks, in effect, have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Customers and merchants alike have become hypersensitive to one another’s actions, placing the blame on racial bias rather than individual differences. Referring to the merchants’ backsides certainly does not help the situation.

A press release by a coalition of black and Korean community leaders, including the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, beseeches all to recognize the importance of mutual harmony:

…the tragic loss of a young girl’s life reflects the worst type of violence perpetrated upon a consumer by a merchant. At the same time, we are deeply concerned that this terrible incidence of violence does not aggravate the relationship between African-Americans and Korean-Americans in our communities. The death of Latasha Harlins challenges us to come together as a multicultural community and acknowledge the often painful process of learning to live together with people different from ourselves …

 

Ice Cube, though he has the admirable intention of ameliorating the plight of blacks in the ghetto, impairs the process of reconciliation because he fails to present a balanced image of the present conflict. What he creates instead is an atmosphere of mutual fear and distrust. What is necessary is not for the Korean community to "pay respect to the black fist," or vice versa. Instead, a Korean hand, extended and ready to embrace, must respect and be respected by a black hand, also ready to embrace.

Webmaster's note - all the footnotes got lost in the formatting. There were references in the original published article. Here are the sources:

  1. George Ramos and John H. Lee, "Demonstrators Demand that Korean Market Never Reopen," Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1991, p. B1.
  2. Peter Orr, "Why You Love to Hate Ice Cube," Reflex, vol. 23, 1992, p. 45.
  3. Ibid., p. 41.
  4. Larry Aubry, "Learning from the Death of a Teenager," L. A. Sentinel, April 4, 1991, p. A6.

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