This month we bring you an interview with Korean-American indie musician, Jung Su Park, who performs under the moniker JUNGSU.
JUNGSU is a young artist with an interest in conveying meaningful messages within the hip-hop genre. He is very self-aware and reflective and has previously detailed his difficulties integrating when he first moved to America, his attempts to hold onto his cultural identity, and discovering a passion in hip-hop music. He became a rapper and musician who is ready to take on new challenges and a person who embraces both Korean and American cultures.
As JUNGSU comes to the end of his studies, he is considering participating in auditions and being cast on Korean reality programmes like Show Me The Money (SMTM). We caught up with JUNGSU before the release of his first music video, to learn more about his story and motivations for pursuing music.
What it was that attracted you to rapping, specifically? Did you always know that you wanted to both sing and rap on tracks?
Fun Fact: I was first introduced to rap when my 8th grade math teacher assigned us a project to memorize the digits of Pi (π). My friend and I thought the process could be made more fun and easy if we incorporated the digits as the lyrics of a rap. We chose “Lose Yourself by Eminem” as our instrumental and actually performed it live during the lunch break for the entertainment of our peers. What started as an academic joke became a passion as I gradually became attracted to the versatility of rap. It is a little more fast-paced than singing; rapping holds more word capacity and allows me to share a more detailed story. Having a striking tone, rapping makes it easier to add various emotions to it, such as confidence, joy, and even anger and sadness. My interest grew when I attempted to mix both styles of singing and rapping in my songs. I’ve grown up singing all my life at church and in the shower, but “singing-rapping” gave me a unique sense of euphoria that I couldn’t find in just doing one or the other by itself.
You mentioned that you watch shows like ‘Show Me The Money’ and that many rappers choose topics that are almost like an outsider’s perspective of what a rapper considers important (wealth, status, material possessions). Do you think that places like Korea will break that mould anytime soon? And how can you see other styles of rap becoming more popular or evolving?
To be quite honest, I don’t think Korea or any other developed country will completely break the mould of materialism anytime soon due to the system that has been there for decades. Not trying to get all political here, but the social structure of capitalism has left the inevitable cultural mark of having money as the most obvious indicator of “success” and “status.” Money ended up constructing divisive distinctions such as the “rich” and the “poor” which sadly often translates to “more important” or “less important.” Hence, money became the most appealing topic for rappers to rap about and even listeners to listen to, because we all somehow want to be and feel important. And that’s where I think it all went wrong. The human nature of desire for purpose in life, or more bluntly, “wanting to be important” is not necessarily wrong or egotistical. The problem is deriving individual “worth” from monetary value. Your value is simply inherent and once you embrace that fact within yourself and others, beautiful things will naturally start to happen out of love.
Did you feel that being able to use both English and Korean improved the quality of the songs you made?
I consider being bilingual a blessing because it opens up a brand new medium to reach out to different groups of people, to those I never imagined I could reach. I am able to share the same message around the world and I am not limited to just Korean speakers. I can switch languages to capture a specific expression. Sometimes using one language over the other is necessary to give a more fitting description. Alongside these benefits, I had a lot of fun while translating my Korean lyrics to English and vice versa.
What do you think of shows like SMTM overall – the calibre of contestants etc. Do you see such shows as a good opportunity or are they too scripted/competitive for high quality music to be made?
I think shows like SMTM are great marketing and networking tools for artists to get their names out there. Such shows can definitely open doors for good music from rookies and potential collaborations. However, the shows can be too scripted as they focus on gathering as many views as possible. This means the show producers will have heavy biases toward rappers who are already well-established (years of experience, signed to a label, connections to people in the music industry, etc). Therefore, it inevitably becomes harder for fresh faces to get screen time although they are extremely skilled. I hope to see the shows have a more neutral approach in giving chances to the contestants. Then the audience will determine who it is that convinces them.
How do you weigh up the pros and cons around auditioning to progress in your music? Are you considering this as an option as a result of the difficulties of being independent?
I decided to audition to explore the benefits of marketing my music and networking with other artists/producers, not necessarily to sign a deal with a label. Also, I personally don’t think being independent is too difficult once the artist becomes “well-established” in the industry. And one of the surest paths to becoming well-established in the Korean Hip-Hop scene as of right now seems to be having audition show appearances on TV. That’s how I weighed the pros of entering as a contestant.
As you already have an awareness of some of the drawbacks of scripting, do you have a strategy on how to deal with that? To go against a pre-defined narrative or be mentally prepared to be edited unfairly? How will you compete with people who have been building their skills in the underground scene and having to go against your usual style if being asked to perform ‘diss’ raps?
My strategy to “deal with scripting” is to just be me. I am not going to change who I am or my music to fit into the ideal model for TV. I’ll focus on delivering my art, personality, and story for what they are – nothing more and nothing less. If the result is being edited unfairly (less screen time or twisted narratives that reflect poorly on me), I’ll just have to endure in the same way that I have been enduring struggles my whole life: I’ll take some moments to pray, read some Bible verses, then continue living according to the convictions I mentioned earlier. I believe that if I’m consistent with what I share through music in my personal life, then the truth will reveal itself in some way or another.
As for performing diss raps, I will do it confidently in a way that is “rebuking”, not “demeaning.” Many of the diss raps previously showcased in SMTM are based on an “I’m better than you” superiority complex. The rappers appeal to that idea by once again distinguishing themselves through the common elements of mainstream rap. Things like claiming to have more money, more fame, and even accusing the other person as having an ugly-looking face and body-image. As a rapper who disagrees with the idea that any person is “better” than another in general, I am definitely staying away from that approach to “diss raps.” My approach will be to cleverly point out what I think can be changed about their music. I would essentially be going against the “pre-defined narrative” throughout the whole show, so I would keep doing that in the diss round too.
When you write music, such as for your song ‘Ocean Waves’, you address feelings that you had at the time. Who do you visualise yourself ‘talking to’ when you are performing the lyrics? Is it yourself, the people closest to you, or even strangers around you?
I visualize having a conversation with a stranger with an open heart to listen and share. Although I am essentially rapping about my own experiences, I look to ask questions that can lead to self-reflection. I want to know my listeners’ stories, too. I also want to relate to and emphasize with them. I want to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, being a part of their experiences as they become a part of mine. It is my dream to relieve suffering and magnify joy among others and myself through my work. It’s beautiful and rewarding to know that our experiences can be felt together even as strangers through the power of music.
JUNGSU’S own description about ‘Ocean Waves’:
I talk about my own feeling of hopelessness in “Ocean Waves” when I deemed that the given circumstance of hardship seemed so out of my control and daunting as if it would never end. I hated myself for acting like it was all fine and putting up a front to people around me to seem happy when I was actually not. In Verse 1, I talk about my limited ability (feeling like I can’t do anything about my life) and my limited perspective (being trapped and seeing the world only through my feelings of sadness. I then transition to shed light on what I hold onto during these times of trial in verse 2 which is representative of my faith in something bigger than myself. A source of hope, an anchor of firm foundation, a soothing voice that I can hold onto when I’m broken and lost.
You like listening to Korean rappers BewhY and pH-1, but do you also listen to music from artists who might not be as well-known as them?
Yes, I’ve been listening to an independent artist based in New Zealand named CASS. She produced, wrote, and mixed her debut album GENESIS in her bedroom during a year out of college and I resonate with her desire to help listeners “rediscover hope.” I also admire her stylistic mixture of singing and rapping, digesting different genres from pop to EDM. As much as I love Korean music, I diversify my listening choices to enjoy and observe other unique styles that ooze out from different cultures and backgrounds. I also see the value of supporting lesser-known artists as a listener myself.
What do you see as the most important factor in gaining personal satisfaction with your music – do you hope to reach a certain number of listeners, be able to perform somewhere specifically or have a particular music platform that you’d like to feature on?
I think that I will gain the most personal satisfaction once I tangibly start to notice individuals and communities “change” through my music. That change can include an improved sense of self-esteem and a renewed mindset toward pursuing their dreams and spreading love.
It’s a large goal that won’t be fulfilled overnight, but as long as I stay true to being transparent and genuine through my lyrics, I believe my songs will eventually be able to capture the attention of listeners and that they will be challenged to at least check out and reflect upon the value of the different views I offer. Essentially, I see myself working toward this large goal by firstly being consistent with the lyrics based on my personal life. I’d have to make sure my actions and words are not compromising the values that I have shaped for years for the sake of “success.” As I become a more respectable person, I believe I will naturally become a more respectable musician.
I am not striving for a certain size of following, however, I hope to reach the level where my music is well-respected for its artistic and cultural value even to a brand new listener who just happened to hear my songs. A particular music platform I envision thriving in is the Korean or Korean-American hip-hop scene in Seoul and/or Los Angeles as I switch from Korean and English like I mentioned before. I took 5 years of Spanish, so maybe I’ll add that into my list.
How far do you plan ahead in terms of your music? It must be challenging trying to balance studies with it? Do you set yourself goals throughout the year or take things as they come?
Not too far in terms of planning for the future. My immediate plan for my music is to release a hot summer single called “Summer Vacay” in early August and the next step after that is to move back to Korea and get ready for Show Me the Money season 9 or other audition shows after I graduate from UCLA in December 2019. Balancing studies and music have always imposed the challenge of prioritizing. I am studying economics, a field seemingly irrelevant to my pursuit of music. However, I’ve always had the pressure to achieve excellence even in the classroom because I wanted to be a good steward of the responsibilities that I’m currently given: one of them being a student and the other obviously being true to my music. So, I am the type to take things as they come while giving my best toward fulfilling my vision. After I give my all and the door opens for me to be self-sustainable through music, I will gladly take the opportunity and be a good steward at being a full-time musician. If not, I will continue following the path laid out for me even if that means taking a “part-time job” and making music after a long day. I set my mind on something I want to achieve, work towards it, and leave the results up to God while believing that something beautiful will happen through me.
How ready do you feel about moving back to Korea? You’ve spent a number of years away from Korea and described feeling the barriers initially when you were staying away from home. However, you implied that you had changed and come to accept some American ideals. Some of your ways of thinking now might not be as acceptable when you return to Korea.
I feel ready, although there won’t ever be a time where anyone will feel completely ready for anything. I say that I feel ready because I’m simply thrilled at the adventures ahead of post-undergrad life. I had the privilege of going back to my home country after 12 years as a foreign exchange student at Yonsei University last summer. Throughout the two months I was there, I felt right at home and I was able to cast my vision. As for my American side not being accepted in Korea, I am okay with that because I view this as another opportunity to bring up something new to meditate on. I personally believe that every culture brings something that I can learn from as well as something to throw out. Hopefully some of the American ideals I bring with me will be things to learn from rather than something to throw out, no matter the initial response in Korea.
Featured image and in-article images source: © JUNGSU. 11.09.2019. All rights reserved. Images were provided by the artist for the purposes of this interview. No reproduction is permitted.
© Interview with JUNGSU. 01.09.2019. Inspire Me Korea.