Poongmul, Hip-Hop, and Politics

Interview with Jamez Chang

by Abigail Baker '98

On Saturday, November 9, 1996, various student groups at Harvard sponsored a performance by Jamez Chang entitled "Fusion of Korean Folk Music & Hip Hop: 'Yellow Music for Hard Times.'" Jamez (pronounced Jame-EZ) is a 23 year-old Korean-American musical artist who combines various types of traditional Korean music with politically and socially-inspired raps in order to spread awareness of racial, cultural, and social issues as well as of Korean folk music. After Jamez performed for a diverse audience of students, Yisei had the privilege of interviewing him about his life, his music, and his message.

Jamez was born in 1972 and grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Currently, he lives in Flushing, New York. He graduated from Bard College in 1994 with a degree in Sociology and Multicultural Ethnic Studies. At Bard, his senior thesis, entitled "Round Realism," focused "on the possibilities of using two different cultural forms to promote racial harmony and understanding" between the African-American and Korean-American communities in the wake of the L.A. riots. The combination of a live concert and a thirty-page paper presented two methods - both in practice and in theory - of implementing Jamez's music as a cultural bridge between the two communities.

Jamez's music is definitely a fusion of two kinds of music. The accompaniment of most of his songs consists of many elements of Korean folk traditions while the lead vocal is often a combination of lyrics and melody that are representative of modern hip-hop and rap. Yisei asked Jamez to describe this type of music, to explain how he puts together such different types of music, and to speak about his life, his influences, his goals, and his message.

Yisei: "Fusion of Korean Folk and Hip Hop: Yellow Music for Hard Times..." Can you describe this type of music in more detail? How does it work?

Jamez: The fusion aspect is very tricky because I don't want to end up doing the chop suey fusion, arbitrary mixing of elements. What I had to do before I even touched Korean music was to live it, study it. Living hip hop is understanding the mentality of inner city life. Living Korean folk music is becoming a member of the troupe, listening to music for years, studying the music and doing research. So that's what I did to prepare myself for the actual mixing. I collected Korean folk music; the two types that I usually mix are poongmul - Korean drumming, [and] although it may not be too apparent in the music, a lot of the spirit and beats are reconstructed to a hip-hop beat - and shinawi. So, poongmul, shinawi, and some minyo, which are Korean folk songs. And also pansori. Poongmul is the beat of Korean music. Basic beat combines work and play, success in everyday life. Shinawi was the music of shamans and shamanism, so it's rooted in that religion, it reverberates in the culture. The other form, minyo - basically, that's the music of the people, like your basic arirang, sseurisseurirang, stuff like that. And then the last element is pansori, which is the Korean oral tradition. A large part of Korean oral tradition - to make an analogy to black oral tradition - is to see how hip-hop evolved, how rap evolved, so I wanted to make similar representations in Korean music because it's all around and I said, "What's oral music?" and it was pansori, and some of that same element as hip-hop is it makes fun of the ruling class, [satirizes] them. Part of the improvisational free style in pansori is it appeals to certain audiences while having hidden signifiers that make fun of that same audience. Hip-hop is that in many ways. Many similarities. I just saw that as a form of resistance. Many scholars see hip-hop as a form of resistance, although we don't want to dramatize rap either, but I also read up on how pansori was seen as oral resistance.

Yisei: So you have a really political message in what you say.

Jamez: Yeah. I think that there aren't many, to be honest, other artists who do fusion, who explicitly have a political message. A lot of composers do that, and it's all good and fine, but that political element is missing; they're apolitical. I just think of Fred Ho and he does put in his politics there. He's one of my influences, actually.

Yisei: Who and what else were your influences? I know you mentioned Malcolm X [at your concert].

Jamez: Malcolm X, a little bit of Mao, Bob Marley, KRX, Nas, and Bob Dylan a little bit. You know, when P.E. - Public Enemy - broke out, it blew up and everyone was into them, I was into them. They were some of the first people to put pop criticism into music explicitly.

Yisei: When did you start exploring this kind of music? What gave you the idea to fuse it together?

Jamez: At a very deep level, I think music is a way of communicating. It's a language. You can speak through music sometimes if you can't articulate it in words. I've always felt that living as an "other" - whatever, a Korean, an Asian - in this country, you lose something. A piece of you dies, [is] not connected fundamentally to roots and there's that longing. How can I express that longing in any other way? Also, since I don't know the language too well and since music is a language, I figured that that's where you learn Korean, or the ethos of being Korean, the culture in Korean music. The language is the music. You don't have to learn ABCs or hangul. Learning music is a big part of that, so when I was on the post years of teenagehood - could be 19, could be 18 - that's when I discovered that I could learn the language through music. That's how I'll communicate. That's how I'll learn the culture, so I actually, like:

I am Indiana Jones Chang
Searching for my lost nail
Buried under rock and rolling like a stone
I never gather moss, manos
Just the right amount to make a statement
My letters ain't written
Instead they're spoken
Culture is my excavation site, you see
My strategy be giving voice to Koreans

So, I liken myself to an archaeologist.

Yisei: Do your parents like that?

Jamez: They don't like me in this field, but...

Yisei: Do they want you to be a doctor?

Jamez: No, they want me to be a capitalist ... but we won't go there.

Yisei: Who's your audience? Are you mainly speaking to Korean-Americans or Black Americans or Asian-Americans, Asians, ... ?

Jamez: I have three audiences. One, young Korean kids from 15 to 18. Some of my best poems use humor or deals with issues that they have or are immersed in, like studies, [getting into] college, SAT scores, dealing with their parents, so that's one set of songs that address them. Another is politically conscious or intellectual rap and that's geared towards the college crowd, songs like "FDR [Boulevard]" or "Encomienda Blues." And then the other side when I do a capella, when I do freestyle on the mike, some of my other songs are geared towards the hip-hop community, so ... three audiences.

Yisei: Very multiracial?

Jamez: Yes. My best response has been from the Black community. Even though they don't attend the shows the most.

Yisei: [On a radio interview for 1480 AM in New York,] you mentioned the phrase "inspirate your fate" and you said it yesterday [at the concert] and I was just wondering what that means.

Jamez: It's sort of a self-help phrase that I concocted. We often have to motivate ourselves and motivate others, inspire them, inspire their past. So what's the past? Your past is your fate. You can't be fatalistic. We have to think that we can control our own destiny, so let's inspirate our fate, let's inspirate the thoughts and actions that can lead us to our dreams, our goals. When I say "inspirate your fate," it's being positive.

Yisei: How do you feel about Western influence on Korean pop?

Jamez: You can smile at a lot of it. Easy to do that. It's easier to just make a joke out of it, but I think it's pretty serious because it's linked to power relationships. Why are they imitating what's popular in the West? It's not as if you're getting in the record stores in Seoul all this range of world music or all this range of Korean music. You have more Seotaeji records than you have poongmul in Korean record shops. Why is that? I don't even think it's by choice. A lot of people, they aren't given choices. The market is structured so that you have this influx of exports and it's unequal. They just flood the Korean market with products and these products have to be cultural products, and so obviously if there's a 15 to 1 ratio of products, the 15 will outweigh the 1. That's what happens, so you have not much of a choice of what cultures to buy because it's so dominated by capitalists, dominated by the West. So I think there's not a lot of choice in the matter. Music is so relative. If I grew up in this village and listened to only pansori every single day of my life, you know what I'd be listening to today? I'd be listening to pansori because it would be so natural, but now kids in Korea and here have to take these fucking day camps to learn poongmul or go to school to learn poongmul. That's so unnatural. It should be every day of their entire life but because of Western hegemony, they realize that culture is the key to owning your soul. If you own your soul then you leave your mind up to those who would manipulate it. And so that avenue is what I want to start at, with poongmul as the departure. Start at culture. Once you can convince someone that they should be proud of their own music, then you can elevate the level of discussion to economics and politics and the military and sexism.

Yisei: How do you see your music as fitting into that? You do have Western influences in your music, too.

Jamez: The Western influences are a hybrid form of hip-hop. A lot of people think my music is just Asian hip-hop and that's what I actually classify it as. Some people say it's Korean fusion of hip-hop. If I'm speaking to an audience, IÕd say it's Asian hip-hop, and so obviously there's a very Western influence, but the Western influence, it's not like Vivaldi and it's not like Motown or anything like that or some of that black tradition of music that I borrow. But that's the language and there's many ways that I contradict myself in that I have to be able to communicate with people who haven't even been [exposed to] Korean music. How are they going to relate? It's going to be such a surprise. It's going to be very hard to relate, so I use this language that's accessible.

Yisei: What are your personal goals, in general and for your music? Where do you plan on taking it?

Jamez: I think that it's a realistic goal to come out with recorded material, so I think I'll be coming out with a CD in a year, get 10 strong songs. Then I'll probably go on the road or whatever, maybe go on an indie label.

Yisei: Here or in Korea?

Jamez: I don't think Korea. I think the States, I think that's the first step.

Yisei: You mentioned "revolution" in your concert last night. What is that? What kind of revolution are you talking about?

Jamez: Bob Marley says, "Emancipate yourself from inner slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds." A lot of it - half of it, at least - is personal, spiritual almost. Revolution is the decolonizing of our minds. That is to say, purging ourselves of influences, in many ways. It's like cerebral hygiene. You've got to stand guard at your mind and weed out some of the environment and then fill it with something that nurtures your mind. It's a revolution because you were taught to just absorb everything, take everything in, not be critical of it. I think a revolution of the mind and yourself - a transformation of yourself is important. But then, the other type of revolution I'm talking about is fundamental redistribution of wealth. Food distributed to the rich.

Yisei: Do you have a particular message?

Jamez: In our search for identity, we can be bewildered. A good concept is the desire for culture. Historically, the desire for culture has been really one-sided, has been predominant Western desire for the "other," meaning the "other" like going to China and exploiting China. Going to Latin America and exploiting Latin [America]. Going to Africa. Desire for their culture, appropriating their culture. If we [Koreans] are going to take on a culture, we have issues around us. Even though I harken back to traditional Korean folk music, some of the issues I deal with are centered in the now. So, my message to Koreans all around is: look around you. Keep a journal. Write in it every day and write down what you see. That really helps you to reflect upon the action. I think that that's the first step to understanding yourself. To Korean parents, I say: you work your asses off to send your kids to Harvard. I mean, it could be Hunter College too. Either way, give yourselves credit - good - but never live through your children.

Yisei: During yesterday's concert, you made the following comment: "Those of you know what arirang is, all you Korean-Americans should know," and then you said that Asiaphiles should know as well. What do you mean by that?

Jamez: Oh...

You hear no see no speak no evil
But you sense intentions
You're good inside
Got a heart of gold inside
The wallet you won't mention
And it's the wallet that lets you wear your learning on your sleeve
You tasted Mickie D's but now you're eating Sara Lee ... Lee
Or was it Park or Kim or something like Ho?
I guess it doesn't really matter just as long as you know
It wasn't apple pie you had when you went to the grove
Or the Cantonese or the Mandarin 'cause oranges flow
Just like a butterfly, you exotify from below
Like an entomologist, you study my home
It gets much worse when you understand the reason they would connote
The status of a nation to the flutter of robes
Picture a nation
Passive and alone
Now picture elation
Meaning conquering the unknown
You put the two together and you've got Viet Nam
Don't want to be a victim of the name of the man
It goes back to a hundred fifty years right here
Five thousand fifty years if you don't care to count the blood, sweat, and tears
You wanna learn Tai Chi in a year

This fetishism is getting very problematic. I say "establish the sign" to a lot of people, "establish the sign" meaning have a deep appreciation for cultures that are not yours and once that appreciation is there, establishing the sign means you bow. And then I think that there would be parity, there would be an equal footing and then people could go to the table and talk, but I think it's self-explanatory, I think people know that.

Yisei: So it's an exploitation thing?


I'm sick of theoretical treatises
Of elitists
Who don't need us
But will read us
When their motorcycle teeters
To the right to the left of the intersect of blackened desire
They change their tires
Since Daddy had to fly
To the West to the far to the brim
To the NITs and Pacific Rim
To Singapore, country ride
My handlebar's kind of wide

I was reading this Bruce Cummings article. He even said that he was in the Peace Corps or working with the Peace Corps and even the Peace Corps when they went to Korea, they went to the fucking brothels and they went to the bars and they went to the houses of prostitution and ... mad exploitation. That legacy, and that living legacy now makes anyone skeptical and I think that you have to live with that kind of edge. But I'm not saying that either white people or these communities canÕt ever understand or can't work with them - not at all. It's about building vision. You have to respect, do your homework, almost. Not strictly through understanding. Then we'd have all these solving relations workshops and [building solid] relations in a day. Nothing like that. You build your own shit, of course, but you need to understand how the social and historical synopsis works. It's not just about being nice to black folk or bowing to the Asian folk or anything like that. It's about understanding.

Yisei: Maybe living the culture a little?

Jamez: That too, but I think, that's a personal level too. I think you also have to understand power, you have to understand history and exploitation.

Yisei: Any last words?

Jamez: Yeah. Spinnin' the loom of the Maya.

Yisei would like to thank Jamez for his time and his willingness to share his music and his words with the Harvard community. For more information about Jamez's music, please contact an Yisei staff member.

Back to the Table of Contents