Why I Want No Part of the Korean Wave

      February 13, 2007 12:12

      Here are some things I've been told over the years. "Thank you for having publicized the excellence of Korean culture far and wide." "You're a real patriot." "Things Korean are things global. Stop imitating American music and make something Korean on your own."

      Of course, I said each time, "Yes, I do my best." Sometimes, I felt a glow, as if I had really all of a sudden become a patriot. Sometimes, I felt pressure to make things Korean, so I put a bit of samulnori, the drum-intense traditional Korean music, into my music. I grew up swearing allegiance to the national flag every day, after all; perhaps I wanted to play the patriot myself.

      But for some time now I have found it hard to suppress a sense of unease. I am, in fact, not a man who is making products that can be called Korean culture. Actually, I am making African-American music. I started liking it when I was seven and I have been engrossed in it all my life. It has become my job and I have even had some success in America, its birthplace.

      Strictly speaking, I am not a patriot but a traitor. When I started working as a composer in America, I concealed my Korean identity as much as I could. With hip-hop being a kind of indigenous music of African Americans, people believe that other ethnic groups can't play it as well, so on all my demo CDs I put just my initials J.Y.P. rather than J.Y. Park.

      I've heard many times that Asian composers can't succeed in America. Shareholders in our company refused to spend money on things that seemed to have small chances of success. So I had to start working in America by just renting a room and a garage from an acquaintance.

      But I managed to sell my work to top American singers, a first for an Asian composer. I found recognition as a composer with three songs in the top 10 Billboard Charts. Now I've launched the debut of a Korean singer called Min in America in cooperation with Lil Jon.

      In this process, there was no Korea. Korea exists neither in my music nor in the hearts of the Americans who recognized me. They just liked my music and bought it.

      Is this the Korean Wave? Am I a patriot? I became confused. Is the duet by Korean singer Rain and American singer Omarion really Korean music? If Min succeeds in America, could we say the Korean Wave has now swept the U.S.? Or will I be derided as a singer who imitates American singers and a composer who imitates American music?

      I know too well that the maxim "things Korean are things global" is significant in terms of cultural diversity. But if this maxim were imposed on all pop musicians, it would work only as an obstacle. I believe that if we do well whatever we like doing, we can go global, whether what we do is Korean or not. I don't think that Indian chefs can only succeed if they stick to curry. Anybody can be a world-renown French cook if they absorb themselves in the French cooking all their life.

      Culture and Tourism Minister Kim Myung-gon has once said that the Korean Wave is a medium to publicize Korean culture far and wide. I’m not sure if my African-American music comes under the category of Korean culture as defined by the minister. It’s fine if people abroad use the term "Korean Wave." But should we label our own pop culture that way? Should it really be for us to draw on it as a source of pride or dignity?

      My Korean roots are irrevocable. I just think I am contributing more to making friends with foreigners than to publicizing our country's culture. That's why I don't like being called a figurehead of the Korean Wave.

      By singer and producer Park Jin-young

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