Arts & Entertainment

Koreatown's Dumbfoundead: A rising star in a genre of transition

Korean American rap artist, Dumbfoundead performs at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., on March 26.
Korean American rap artist, Dumbfoundead performs at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., on March 26.
Lauren Rock for NPR
Korean American rap artist, Dumbfoundead performs at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., on March 26.
Dumbfoundead shows friends, Daniel Lee and Kristen Kim and tour bus driver, John Hamer a funny video on the new app, Vine.
Lauren Rock for NPR
Korean American rap artist, Dumbfoundead performs at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., on March 26.
Korean American rap artist, Dumbfoundead performs at the Howard Theatre.
Lauren Rock for NPR

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This story is part of a series from Code Switch — NPR's new team covering race, ethnicity and culture — about America's demographic shift from a mostly-white country to a truly multiracial one, and the other cultural transitions we'll see as a result.

Say "rapper" and many people often envision a scowling, surly guy who prowls the stage jabbing a finger at his audience. Jay-Z with his Scary Mask on. Ice Cube snarling.

Jonathan Park is different. He's an energetic 27 year-old with a sapling waist and an impish grin topped by a sketchy mustache that still hasn't come into its own. And his work tends to be like him—playful, cheeky and smart.

Park's known onstage as Dumbfoundead—or Dumb, for short. It's a high school handle that came from the glazed expression friends say he wore in class. Put Dumbfoundead in YouTube's search bar and you get scores of videos. Like "24KTOWN," where he ponders the responsibility of repping his Koreatown neighborhood. 

Dumb was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and moved to Koreatown when he was three years old. "I was only three when she brought me to the States. My sister only one crossing borders wasn't safe. What she did was very brave, I think about it every day, from Argentina to Mexico City and finally L.A.," he raps in on of his songs.

"I grew up around Latinos and stuff, and even though I grew up in Koreatown, I was never involved in like the Koreatown ... I was more from just the area. I hung out with Latino kids and black kids. And the first time I went to South Central, my friend took me there, and I got really addicted to Project Blowed and every Thursday I would go," he said to KCET. Project Blowed is a Leimert Park freestyle open-mic workshop.

As hip-hop has spread beyond its African-American origins to become a global phenomenon, Asian artists have become prominent in several aspects of the genre. South Korean b-boys (a.k.a. "breakdancers," but that term has gone out of fashion) have won the world's largest b-boying competition, "Battle of the Year," five out of the last ten years. (In that same time, an American team has finished in the top three only once.)

But as Dumb explains, Asian-Americans aren't nearly as prominent on the mic.

Video: Listen to Dumbfoundead's 24KTOWN on the Old Boy Jon album. Warning: Some explicit language and visuals.

"Asians DJ-ing," he sighs. "The back bone of hip-hop. We're on the back burner, behind the scenes."

Dumb believes Asian rappers didn't step to the mic in large numbers initially because they hadn't figured out they could broaden the genre with their own cultural spin. They pictured rap as African-American, and hesitated to break that mold:

"I think a lot of Asian rappers when they were first coming up, they were specifically trying to cling on to black culture. But it's really about understanding all cultures, because that's the route that hip hop went."

Cultural critic Oliver Wang is an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State University, Long Beach, and a music reviewer for NPR. He's studied hip hop and its relation to Asian communities for 20 years, and believes Dumb's observations about Asians' place in the genre are on target:

"I think (he) makes an excellent point in the ways Asian-Americans have become involved and have become prominent as DJs and b-boys." Wang agrees "But it's really as rappers that they face the limitation of being less visible."

And, Wang says, it's a Catch-22: until the commercial gatekeepers who distribute rap understand that Asian rappers are worth promoting, there will be fewer for aspiring Asians to see and be inspired by.

Dumb has been very visible, partly because he is one of a very few Asian-Americans who are succeeding as rappers. Oliver Wang says this is partly because Dumb is very good at what he does, and partly because he is so prolific: "On his YouTube channel, I feel like he's dropping a new song every 2-3 months or so."

Go to YouTube, and you'll catch Dumb rapping about everything from the ode to his K-town neighborhood to dropping his gold-digger girlfriend.

Dumb's variety of subject matter has earned him a devoted following of Asian fans, both here and abroad — but it's also widened to be embraced by people of other ethnicities and cultures as well.

That was evident last month, when he played the Howard Theater, in Washington DC, the crowd was multiracial. And multigenerational. (Some older people really had come to see Dumb, because they were fans or curious. Others had escorted their teen children and were patiently waiting until the concert was over so they could go home to something more understandable. Luther Vandross, maybe, or D'Angelo.)

Kyra Williams and her friend Kayla Washington are both 17 and African-American. Kayla says her favorite song is about Huell Howser, the folksy Los Angeles KCET host who died late last year.

"His flow is really good and it's a tribute song. And he talks about, it's like real stuff that happened in his life and friends that he's lost. And I think that's really interesting and that's really - it's really real," Kyra said.

As critic Oliver Wang noted, being Asian-American in a genre that's considered the natural province of black and brown artists might get Dumb into the room, but he can only stay there if he's good:

"In a way, he has to be sort of extra good to win people over and get beyond their skepticism. I definitely don't think anybody's going to be giving him a pass because he's an Asian."

And Dumb doesn't want them to. "How are you supposed to know if you're getting dope or not?" he shrugs. "If everybody is, like, 'I'ma support you because you're Asian...'" he trails off, clearly irritated. "Ya gotta have some kind of criticism, you know what I mean?"

His next show in Los Angeles in on May 4 at the El Rey Theatre.