May I Have Your Att’n Please?: How TigerJK Fights for Racial Acceptance in Korea

January 4, 2010

Whilst checking out the new posts on, my mind was challenged by the most recent article concerning TigerJK’s current struggles with the media pertaining to his son, Jordan.

For those of you who are not aware, TigerJK is probably South Korea’s most influential artist and the reigning king of hip-hop in that peninsular region.  His name has also made breakway into the States via collaborations with big namers Rakim, Rakka, and friendships forged with Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Missy Elliot to name a few.

But TigerJK is more than just an entertainer.  Reading up on his history and how he introduced the art of rap to Korea back in the early 90’s proves that he is more than just an emcee.  He has, whether he is aware of it or not, singlehandedly did much to clean up the ugly racism that was rampant in that homogenous society.

To be fair, much of this racism came from the lack of education on the part of the Korean.  They were not educated on how African Americans had to fight for their equal rights in the Civil Rights Movement, and thus mistakenly attributed their poor working conditions and housing settings to assumptions that blacks were “slackers” and “unprincipled.”  Koreans were simply not educated on the matters of apartheid in the States and how this affected and shaped the lifestyles and oppression felt by the African American people.

What does this have to do with TigerJK, you ask?  Many things.  For one, he grew up amidst the LA Riot Acts in 1992, an event that greatly shaped his worldview and eventually led him to rap.  

A nutshelled-version of the LA scene during this time is as follows: Korean immigrants in LA largely turned to the shopowning business even though many of them had had a decent education in Korea.  Because of the language barrier, they had to turn to more “humble” means of living.  Many of their shops were located close to the black neighborhoods, as buying buildings in such spaces were cheaper.  Because of this, and because they were unaware of the struggles of the African American society, they saw their African American patrons as “undisciplined” and “uneducated.”  On the other hand, African Americans were also unaware that in Korean society, it was often tradition for the shopowner to follow around their patrons in case the patron might have any questions or might require service.  Because of this, they resented the way Korean shopowners followed them around the store, thinking that this was because of a lack of trust and an assumption that they would shoplift. 

The lack of understanding between these two cultures intensified until, in 1992, a Korean shopowner shot an African American girl in the back in his store, thinking that she was shoplifting.  Outrage instantaneously spread like wildfire through the African American community.  TigerJK witnessed firsthand this tension and outrage during his years of adolescence in LA.   He had wrestled with stereotypes lodged against him through his middle school and high school years (because he was Asian, he was told, he could be smart, but not cool.  Never cool) and, during the riots, came across Ice Cube’s Black Korea.  Black Korea, strangely enough, would be the song that buoyed his future.

Ice Cube’s rap was an aggressive rant against Koreans, labeling them as “oriental one-penny countin motherfuckers.”  For TigerJK, who had grown up fighting off every stereotype thrown his way (he was famous for brawling to the extent that the leader of Criminal Minded Kings, an LA-based black gang, invited him to join), this posed to be the breaking straw.  Although he was aware that he might be razed, he went to an open mic rapping event in downtown LA and, in the midst of the “go back to China!”s and “ching-chong”s, presented a Korean rap so efficiently that silence descended upon the room and those in the audience could only gape up at him.

Not long after, he formed the rap group Drunken Tiger with DJ Jhig and DJ Shine (both of the latter have left the group to attend to their personal affairs).  Rap was still relatively kept underground in Korea (despite the efforts of some pioneers, such as Seo Taiji) and Drunken Tiger managed to knock down that wall between the underground and the popular stage, bringing their music to the heights of mainstream music.  Along the way, they had too many battles to recount–the criticisms they received for “trying to act black” and incorporating African American and mixed race artists into their works.  Most famously, there were the falsified drug charges against TigerJK in 2000 planted by the government in an effort to silence him and purge Korea of the music of Drunken Tiger.  In spite of these toils, however, Drunken Tiger has remained and still remains one of the best-loved and most respected Korean music groups of all time.

TigerJK, recently wedded to the half-African American half-Korean musician Tasha, showcased his son Jordan onstage on the first day of 2010.

From this act came a sorry reminder of how far Korea must still go to quell racism in their country.  Bloggers turned to their keyboards and bashed out racist insults against Jordan and Tasha, some going as far to use the N word in relation to them.  As TigerJK wrote on his Twitter, people “would say anytihing behind the walls of matrix to say things that would get em attention.” 

This mudslinging at a small child who has done nothing to offend is a sad example of cowardice and ignorance blown full-tilt, a sorry reminder that the color of one’s skin is still considered the basis of hate.  If anything, there is a personal sense to me that some Koreans are unaware what they owe TigerJK and Tasha for driving the country towards racial tolerance and tolerance for the second & third generations growing up in the States.   They used music not as a passive and merely entertaining medium, but as an active medium.  Whether they know it or not, their music has shaped a lot of the social and political demographics in homogenous Korea.  Whether they know it or not, their works, which were born and shaped from previous oppression, flourishes and teaches through such oppression.  Their words are effective because they don’t preach — they simply tell their story — and those receptive enough to heed to it can take so much more from it.  By simply Being, they make this world a better place — a trait that is more difficult to emulate than it sounds.

In a world that cheers on its progressiveness, in a society such as Korea that is business-oriented, scenes such as this show large flaws that we have neglected.  Our technology has evolved a stupendous amount over the last 10 years but can the same be said for our racial tolerance?  Korea’s industry and world-wide exports have grown immensely over time but has this larger contact with the rest of the world shaped any of its political-correctness?  Perhaps in a way it is good that 2010 started off with this setback — rather than hide the problem, what better way to cure it more quickly (hopefully) with its exposure? 

On a final note, this is not just Korea’s problem.  It is a universal problem.  Korea’s smallness of size and homogenous society may give the illusion that they are more prone to racial intolerance; however, this may not be completely true.  Judging from certain areas in the States, racism runs rampant in such places (regions of Indiana where the Ku Klux Klan once ran rampant and various towns in Alabama and Tennessee are a testament to this).  The difference is, countries like America are large enough to mask such areas, whereas Korea’s land is so small with more incoming population than it can contain that such problems are brought straight up to the surface.  Let it be the goal of 2010, for the sake of a progressively interracial universe, to neither jeer at or ignore diversity but to celebrate it, and to learn to know people for who they are rather than the color of their skin whether you live in America or Kazahkstan or Ethiopia.  It is a mindset we should have mastered long ago but have sadly left untamed. 

As for TigerJK, Jordan, and Tasha, I wish them an excellent Year of the Tiger 2010 with many blessings coming their way.


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