Too Korean for America, Too American for Korea—An Interview With DumbfoundeadBy Donna-Claire Chesman | Posted December 12, 2017
Dumbfoundead panders to no one. From his rap name to his redefining what it means to be a Korean American artist, nothing can silence his commanding personality. Born Jonathan Park, Dumb has been rapping and releasing music for over ten years within the hotbed of talent that is the Los Angeles hip-hop scene. In that time he has established himself as both an underground legend and prolific battle rapper.
Dummy, as friends and fans adoringly refer to him, has also been around the world and back. In May 2017, he released his Korean-distributed debut, Foreigner. Now stateside, he’s preparing for the Wednesday (December 13) release of Rocket Man EP, named after Donald Trump’s nickname for Kim Jong Un. Somewhere between these two projects, Dumb confronts and reconciles his Korean identity, his American identity, and what it means to live in a country with an overt anti-immigrant sentiment.
“Obviously, with this anti-immigrant sentiment in the states, I went [to Korea] only to find out that I was a foreigner in my own country, too,” he explains to me over the phone. “That’s when I discovered that I was more American than Korean.”
Maybe something of an anti-culture shock, Dumbfoundead’s inherent Americanness allows him to be a necessary voice for his community. “I’ve seen so many Korean kids or other Asian kids, or other immigrant kids in the Midwest cities that feel like outsiders in their own communities,” he recalls. “When I come into town they’re like, ‘Damn, bro, I’ve never seen a Korean cat on stage killing it with confidence. Thanks for coming to my city.’”
Dumbfoundead may not regard himself as overly political, but Rocket Man stands as a fresh approach to this country’s political tensions. For Dummy, the banger is more effective than the lyrical tirade. The project is a moment of release, a way to cut through the onslaught of rhetoric and uncertainty. Most importantly, the EP breaks from the traditional immigrant narrative.
“A lot of the immigrant stories you hear are these coming-out-of-the-ashes kinds of stories, but I wanted to show the turnt-up immigrant, the ignorant immigrant who is trying to figure shit out and living with American vices,” he tells me.
Dumbfoundead and I spoke at length about his Korean American identity, bringing to light the true immigrant experience, the incredible value of the banger, and his newest EP, Rocket Man.
The manuscript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rocket Man is a play on the nickname Trump gave Kim Jong Un. Did you go into this EP knowing you wanted to take that political angle?
I’m a big fan of shit that’s funny, and when I heard that, before thinking too deep into it, I thought [the nickname] was fucking funny. Taking something that’s such a serious and dangerous situation, and he just creates this name. In the current state of the world, someone with their finger on a button to destroy shit, and he’s just making a joke—it just stuck with me. When I was working on the project, I kind of saw the music in the same way. You have the ways we talk about certain things, whether they’re serious or dark, and then there’s that element of being turnt up behind it.
You gave this material a political twist, but you’re not letting off eight-minute lyrical tirades. Can a quality banger be just as political?
I think if anything, [a banger] has more of an impact. When I listen to music, I don’t want to listen to music just the same way I’m gonna read an article. I’d rather it have a different feel. Sometimes when I hear ten-minute tracks talking about situations, I don’t like it. It’s like when I have to explain a song. I don’t like making a song and having to explain a song.
A couple of projects ago I had this song called “Safe,” talking about the whitewashing of Hollywood. Right after that song came out, I got all of these interview opportunities where people wanted me to talk about the song. I didn’t like that because I felt like my song was already my statement in the conversation. Once I started explaining it, I felt like the specialness of the song and the different messages people got started changing. Before, it had an impact because they could come up with their own meaning.
It’s more about capturing the energy of the times, too. Just because you’re talking about everything that’s going on with bars doesn’t mean you’re capturing the energy that’s going on with the time.
Like a release, right?
Yeah, and I also don’t wanna sound like I’m smarter than I actually am. I’m not the dude who’s up on everything politically. I wanna speak on people just like me, you know? I wanna speak on just the right amount of shit that people are seeing, but also the emotions that people are automatically getting from a situation.
How does this EP continue or redefine what you were doing on Foreigner?
Foreigner was a little bit more about me being a foreigner out in my motherland of Korea. It was about figuring out where I belong. Obviously, with this anti-immigrant sentiment in the states, I went over there only to find out that I was a foreigner in my own country, too. That’s when I discovered that I was more American than Korean. I was like, ‘Oh, shit! I’m American as fuck.’ That was me testing the waters out there, trying to get familiar with my people, but I was thinking it was just going to be open arms.
With this project, Rocket Man, it’s like everything that I’m experiencing here in America as a Korean. That means sometimes you’re looked at as kind of villainous. When I turn on the TV, and every other day there’s some other shit about North Korea, which is generally like ‘Korea,’ too. Seeing that, I just wanted Rocket Man to turn it into this cartoon-y character that the news had turned it into. With “P.A.A.C.,” it’s about that energy and how everybody feels right now: like they’ve gotta protect something. Everybody from the alt-right to immigrants, everybody’s on this ‘Oh, we have to protect everything we stand for.’
“P.A.A.C.” feels like a mission statement, not just for yourself, but for all time.
More than just putting stuff in there lyrics-wise, I wanted to put in each line as something you might see on a protest sign, like each phrase as its own sign instead of just going so deep with reasons and initiatives.
Given that sense of American-ness, because I feel this a bit being first-generation Russian, what does it mean for you to be an immigrant in this country right now?
Exactly, right! You’re Russian so we probably go through the same shit turning on the news. [Laughs] For me, it’s weird, because I never felt that way growing up. I’m from Koreatown, Los Angeles and it’s like 50% Mexican, 50% Korean, you know? My environment has made me who I am as very confident as a Korean American. When I’ve toured around the country in the last ten years plus, I’ve seen so many Korean kids or other Asian kids, or other immigrant kids in the Midwest cities that feel like outsiders in their own communities. When I come into town they’re like, ‘Damn, bro, I’ve never seen a Korean cat on stage killing it with confidence. Thanks for coming to my city.’ I’ve never really been in their shoes like that because, in my community, we’re not a minority.
It’s so weird to me, now, that when I turn on the news, the president has created this army of anti-immigrant motherfuckers. It’s sad that it’s worked to some level, where there’s this unity of anti-immigrant, alt-right type cats—which tells me it’s always been there.
What has touring taught you about you Korean identity? Does it help combat what you see on the news?
Oh, 100%. Touring has taught me that there are so many people out there that feel voiceless. Going through the Midwest and meeting the only Asian guy in these small towns, they feel voiceless. They don’t have any heroes, but obviously, things have changed with television, film, and music. We’re getting key figures that are giving voices to people of color in all entertainment. I’ve seen that change, but I’ve seen it from the beginning where there were no voices. So I know how important it is when each new person of color comes into TV and film.
Is there one artist that you saw yourself in?
Not one artist in particular. I grew up in the Los Angeles hip-hop scene, so a lot of my peers are now successful musicians. I came up when Flying Lotus was an intern at Stones Throw Records, and TOKiMONSTA was still DJing clubs, and we were all doing shows together. It’s amazing to see everyone killing it now.
Specific Asian American figures in TV and film have really inspired me a lot, from David Choe to Eddie Huang. A lot of these cats gave a new voice to Asians. We had Asians in film before that were like Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan, and they were Asian but they didn’t really speak to me as an Asian kid growing up in the inner city. Eddie Huang and David Choe are cats that grew up in the inner city and were hip-hop heads.
On the project, you indicate you didn’t ask to be this voice (“Every Last Drop”), but I can tell you love it. How has this responsibility changed you?
It’s changed me a lot, considering every day for the last five-plus years I get constant messages about how I got people through some shit. Not just Asians, but that specifically means a lot. For every artist, you have this moment that it becomes bigger than hip-hop. You have this moment where you’re making art and somehow reaching these people. That moment is when you have this clarity where you realize what you’re doing is important, not just spitting bars. I had that moment quite a while ago, and that’s why I don’t shy away from talking about my culture.
I went through identity issues back in the day and didn’t wanna say anything about being Asian. A lot of young artists go through that and I guarantee you that will change for them as they get older. It’s something that you gotta learn and experience: you as your identity. Not everybody is going to fuck with you. There’s going to be a moment where you realize who you are and what you look like is going to be a factor in some big moment in your life.
I love that perspective.
I’ve seen it, you know? I was a young Asian kid in LA, back at fifteen years old just killing shit. I didn’t even think there was going to be a problem because everybody accepted me and thought I was doing dope shit. Of course, years later there was that moment and it always stuck with me.
Pivoting back to the EP, Jay Park, who recently signed with JAY-Z, is the only featured guest. Why Jay?
Jay’s a good friend of mine, and he’s been one of the guys to help me do a lot of stuff back in Korea. I fully respect Jay’s story, too. He’s American, born in Seattle. This dude goes to Korea when he’s a teenager, he’s part of a big K-Pop group, a scandal happens, he moves back to Seattle and works at his parents shop for a bit. He goes back to Korea and fucking kills it, and now he’s one of the biggest artists there and one of the leaders of the independent music renaissance that’s happened there in the last five years. Now he’s become one of the Asian American pioneers, as one of the dudes signed to a major label. I think it was only appropriate that I feature him, and I respect him a lot.
You were quoted as saying that the EP is not just about the “triumphant immigrant,” so what other aspects of the immigrant experience are you bringing to light?
When I was young and my parents were figuring out this immigrant thing in America, they weren’t always winning. They went through shit. My dad had gambling problems, he was battling alcoholism. My mom was this lonely housewife, they went through a divorce when I was young. My house was not a pleasant place to grow up in, you know? I think everybody has this idea… A lot of the immigrant stories you hear are these coming-out-of-the-ashes kinds of stories, but I wanted to show the turnt-up immigrant, the ignorant immigrant who is trying to figure shit out and living with American vices.
I’m usually most curious how an artist wants their fans to feel after they release new music, but I’m more interested in how you feel having finished the project.
I feel good. For me, this is like my sixth, seventh solo project. I’ve been in this for a minute, and I’ve always known that this game is about longevity. More than just being relevant, it’s about how long can you even make music? How long can you keep that passion burning, or have something to say? That’s something that I feel blessed over, that I’m still inspired to make stuff or get in front of the camera and shoot a music video. To still have all this energy after all these years, damn. I feel happier than ever, I feel more inspired, and it’s some of the best music I’ve been putting out.