The Polarity of Being an Asian-American Rap Artist

In Korea, Sam “Junoflo” Park is considered a “gyopo.” In America, he’s an Asian. At once, he’s from everywhere and nowhere.
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Junoflo, 2019

Soju-filled patrons clamoring for pictures and autographs crowded Sam “Junoflo” Park when I spotted him at a Koreatown bar in 2016. Later that night, we briefly spoke when I caught him alone by the patio. Three years after our quick exchange, we picked up our conversation where we left off.

Born and raised in Fullerton, California, Junoflo, 26, started writing raps in his freshman year of college at the University of California, San Diego. The late Japanese producer Nujabes served as inspiration. “Whenever I heard his music, it just made me think about my life—what was and what could be,” he tells me over the phone. “It made me wanna write and illustrate with words the same way his beats painted pictures in my head.”

While in high school, Junoflo’s experience with rapping was limited to freestyling in his friend’s Honda Civic. Rather than continuing to spit off-the-cuff rhymes in the back of a Target parking lot, he began writing and recording songs in his college dorm room. 

“I didn’t even have a laptop, so I asked my roommate David, ‘Yo, you got a MacBook, right? Can I use your GarageBand real quick?’” Junoflo recalls. “I used the iPhone headphones with the little mic and taped it to a coke can.”

Creating makeshift studios with soda cans and scotch tape initially put things into motion, but it was an old hobby unrelated to music that played an integral role in his growth as an artist. “I always took photos when I was in high school—that’s when Facebook was hot, and everyone wanted a new profile picture,” he says, laughing. “There was one point when all the profile pictures that my friends had were photos that I took of them.” Thankfully, his $800 Canon DSLR camera wasn’t used exclusively to shoot free photos of his homies.

Junoflo landed a photography gig for a hip-hop booking agency in San Diego and received free admission to countless shows. He often stuck out like a sore thumb amongst a rabid crowd: no phone out, no dancing, no rapping along.

“I would observe everything [rappers] did and listen to every word they said. I wanted to learn what captivates people and what makes someone a good performer,” he elaborates. “Method Man, Common, Black Thought—these were artists I saw live and was like, ‘Holy shit.’ That’s the energy I want to give people, so when they listen to my music, it can take them back to the energy they felt when I performed it.”

By moonlighting as a hip-hop concert photographer, the benefits were twofold: Junoflo could immerse himself in energy that heightened both his fandom and artistry, and internalize the nuances that, from his perspective, make or break live performances.

After releasing The Dreamer mixtape in 2011—it picked up some traction overseas on Bandcamp—and meeting his current DJ, DWOO (Daniel Woo), Junoflo began attending open mics and performing at small venues, gradually forcing himself out of his comfort zone as an introvert.

Junoflo graduated from UCSD in 2014. His parents subsequently poached him to work at their clothing store in downtown Los Angeles. The pressure of working with family—especially first-generation Korean immigrants—was exacerbated by his arduous hours. He ate in his car during lunch breaks, listening to music, and writing lyrics. The few hours he had to himself after going home, he spent doing much of the same. All the while, Junoflo was plotting a Hail Mary.

“I was saving up money to live in LA by myself for one year with no job and no help from anybody, surviving eating ramen [noodles] and spam,” he says. “It was tough because [the day I quit] was the same day that my boss came up to me to talk about a promotion. Fortunately, I have parents that gave me a shot. They said, ‘OK, if this is what you want to do, then try it. If it doesn’t work, you need to come back and work for the company.’”

Just a few months into his yearlong sabbatical, Junoflo was tagged by a friend in a Facebook post about a Korean hip-hop reality show called Show Me the Money. He submitted a short freestyle, and the network reached out for an interview before the first round of auditions.

“I never wrote a Korean rhyme in my life until then,” he admits. “I studied for a month straight. All I did was listen to Korean music, watch Korean movies and dramas, and I had a little notebook of Korean vocab words.”

Koreans have a flair for the dramatic and Show Me the Money is no exception. As one of the biggest shows in South Korea, contestants are pitted against each other for a grueling nine elimination rounds; picture a Survivor-esque version of American Idol with a hip-hop twist. As a full-bred California native, Junoflo admits it was difficult to maintain his individuality while navigating Korean cultural dynamics in the entertainment sphere. Community-oriented values often err towards conformity and respect often equates to submissiveness.

At one point, the network tried to lock Junoflo into an artist contract by promising him a spot in the semi-finals and offering a small cash bonus as an incentive to sign it within 24 hours. He refused.

Junoflo was ultimately eliminated in the third round, but he built a substantial following as a debonair lyricist with an infectious West Coast bounce and explosive stage presence. Shortly after returning home to Fullerton in late 2016, he performed at a small nightclub called Bound, where an older gentleman quietly watched his soundcheck before disappearing midway. He happened to be the owner of the club as well as the best friend of the godfather of Korean hip-hop, Tiger JK (founder of record label Feel Ghood Music).

“[The owner of Bound] hit [Tiger JK] up and was like, ‘Yo, I found a younger you,’” Junoflo explains. “[Feel Ghood Music] reached out and then [Tiger JK] came to LA. I picked him up at the airport, and we just talked. He was a down to earth dude.” A few months later, Junoflo signed a contract and booked a one-way flight to Korea, but acclimating to the motherland presented its challenges.

There’s a slang term for Koreans who migrate from the states, often spoken with a hint of vitriol: gyopo. It’s a derogatory label that manifests in side-eyes and murmurs, looming overhead amongst a sea of ostensibly familiar faces.

“It was tough,” Junoflo says about adjusting to a new lifestyle. “I wasn’t that good at speaking Korean, I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t confident. That’s why I tried to study every day, and because I studied every day, I’d be in my room during most of my free time.” 

When I ask how this disconnect bled into his creative process, his frustration is palpable.

“As any creator, we do what we do because we enjoy it. We have fun and we’re good at it, and because we enjoy it, we get better. As I learned to make music in Korean, it was fun because it was a challenge, but, it was fucking stressful. Every time I made a song, it felt like homework. I would open up all my books, to make sure the grammar’s right, and I would have to make sure the words I’m using are correct.”—Sam “Junoflo” Park

Despite this glaring disconnect, Juno understood it came with the territory. Finally, in January 2019, all of those hours spent studying in isolation paid off: the release of his debut, STATUES. The album opens with “Icarus,” a record showcasing newfound confidence with a torrent of Korean rhymes. Throughout STATUES, Junoflo effortlessly pivots between funky boom bap, melodic crooning, and aggressive lyricism.

Junoflo speaks highly of the creative freedom and familial atmosphere of Feel Ghood Music. His three years with their team—Tiger JK, Yoon Mi-rae, and Bizzy—were instrumental to his growth as a writer, artist, and human being. But when his contract expired earlier this year, he opted-out.

“There were times when they didn’t understand things I wanted to do, and I didn’t understand things they wanted me to do,” he clarifies. “It wasn’t bad energy, but there were lots of middlemen, some doubt, and an uncertain direction for both myself and the label.”

He continues: “Once my contract was up, I thought maybe it’s time for me to explore my artistry on my own. I believe that if you can’t do this for yourself, then a company can’t do it for you either. But I’m thankful for everything they did for me. They helped me build a foundation, and that’s not an easy task for an aspiring artist in Korea—or anywhere.”

Since his departure from the label, Junoflo has begun recalibrating his recording career. He hopes to harness once again the purity of creating art solely for the sake of doing so. Language barriers, culture shock, and industry politics have all taken their toll over the past few years.

“I feel like a nomad. LA will always be home for me, but I haven’t lived there for a while now,” he admits. “In Korea, I’m a gyopo. In the states, I’m an Asian. I’m not included anywhere, and I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that, especially in entertainment. ”

As Junoflo recounts his awe-inspiring journey, he seems to be continually searching for the right words or sentiment; wandering through his mind as he does this new grey area of uncertainty. His future as an artist, however, is anything but uncertain: he hasn’t stopped working, and the momentum continues to roll.

“I feel like the moment I rest is the moment I fall behind,” he says.

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