Fresh on the Beat: the struggles of a Korean-American indie musician

Jung Su Park (JUNGSU) (Photo: Private)

In this personal essay, Jung Su Park writes for NOVAsia about his personal journey from Korean immigrant to Korean-American indie musician.

The acronym FOB, “fresh off the boat,” has followed me around since 2006. I was known as the immigrant who hadn’t yet given up the Korean culture and language. Even as a kid, I thought staying true to one’s motherland was an obvious norm even after moving to a different country. But I looked around to see my peers assimilating to their new environments quicker than I expected.

I would see my Korean friends, who immigrated around the same time as I did, switch their preference in movies, TV shows, and video games from Korean to American, speak only in English to their siblings, and cut  their previous mannerisms like greeting Korean adults with a bow. Wanting to maintain my Korean heritage, I took a different approach, holding on to my actions, words, and life choices I picked up before coming to the States, and so I was labeled FOB.

But being slapped with a label often thought derogatory to Asians was the least of my worries. Cultural and language barriers made it hard for me to communicate with peers, form friendships, and understand my classes at school . I felt like my Korean self was no longer relevant in my new American life. I felt obsolete.

Thirteen years later, having spent more than half of my life in Los Angeles away from my original “home,” I learned to navigate through the difficulties of my once-daunting life as an immigrant.

The initial struggles that drove me crazy and made me feel like a useless individual no longer trouble me..  And I grew to like the American ideal of respecting individuality and freedom of expression, as opposed to the Korean tendency to conform and be afraid of difference.

Discovering passion and purpose

But a huge piece of my heart still reaches out to “my” people and my nation of South Korea. There are many ways individuals can give back to and have a positive influence on their originating communities. I discovered mine through the power of music, an immense sense of encouragement that helped me during the battle of my personal fears. 

After a long day of classes and work, in the midst of strained friendships, under pressure of pondering how to shape my future, I tuned into songs like “Christ” by pH-1, “My Star” by BewhY and truly resonated with their bravery to shed light on real issues of loneliness and uncertainty that many people face. As these artists have encouraged me through their craft, I was inspired to uplift others with words and melodies of my own, harmoniously blending together to spread a worthy message of hope and actually do something about the change I want to see in my home country.

However, reaching this dream wouldn’t happen overnight simply through naive ambitions. I would have to put in work, sitting down in my dorm room and jamming out to beats available on YouTube. Continue writing lyrics, record on my phone, replay the songs and repeat the process even if it often made me cringe. The long hours required to produce quality tracks and improve my skills were definitely challenges I needed to overcome. Although I knew getting to where I wanted would not be easy, I kept carving out time to refine my newfound love for hip hop in between classes and before I went to bed. The fire was just starting to ignite.

Hip-hop with its heavy drum and bass came off wrenching to my parents’ ears, who were raised on acoustic instruments of Korean ballads in the ‘80s. The idea of their son pursuing a career in the arts was overwhelming, especially when the first things that pop in their mind are flashy cars and twerking strippers.

Outlasting adversity

Just when I began to burn even brighter with passion toward rap, I faced certain discouraging factors that made me lukewarm. One of the greatest challenges especially in light of my identity as a Korean-American college student was receiving full affirmation and support from family and friends. The biggest factor to this challenge was that I was pursuing something that is totally different from the expectation of my parents and from what my peers are pursuing themselves.

My parents were worried about the “darkness” of music industry that would take advantage of me commercially. Furthermore, they preferred that I find a job with a stable source of income essential to paying the bills and eventually establishing a family. Differences in musical taste also played a factor in their disapproval. Hip-hop with its heavy drum and bass came off wrenching to my parents’ ears, who were raised on acoustic instruments of Korean ballads in the ‘80s. The idea of their son pursuing a career in the arts was overwhelming, especially when the first things that pop in their mind are flashy cars and twerking strippers.

In the case of my friends, they were generally supportive by spurring me to “follow my heart” and “dream big.”  However, I always felt that we lacked a sense of true connection. There was a specific structure of necessary steps laid out for my friends’ career aspirations whether they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers: finish undergrad with a certain GPA, get some experience through volunteering and internships, apply to grad school, pass the professional license test, and so on. The path of becoming a rapper was based on no certain equation or process and I couldn’t develop a sense of relatability with my friends in our respective priorities. While my friends encouraged me to keep going, I didn’t have a cohort of like-minded dreamers with whom I can walk the road together.

Eventually I let these pressures from communicating my musical passions with friends, family, and the American society as a peer, son, and a FOB, respectively, beat me down to the point where I wouldn’t even admit to myself that I wanted to pursue music full-time. It was somehow embarrassing to share during conversations that I wanted to be a musician and I would always brush off the fear by saying that rapping is a simple hobby or pastime. Even before I’d put up such a front, many instantly assumed my passion for rapping was just something I did for fun. I eventually started suppressing my musical desires and believing the lie that I was indeed rapping for the heck of it, nothing more.

The common misconception was that pursuing music is unrealistic given my current status as a college student. I felt as if I couldn’t study and rap at the same time. I felt as if I couldn’t reach excellence in both academics and music.  I also started comparing my friends’ responses to already-established rappers’ music and mine. In my eyes, feedback on my music seemed tepid while that on famous artists’ music seemed electric.

My aim is not to victimize myself and accuse those around me for extreme hostility against me. They did not actually do anything to impose toxicity within me. The battle was all in my head as I became overly sensitive to their reactions during conversations. I am indeed aware that family and friends want the best for me without any malicious intent. I simply express that I felt like an outsider whose passions weren’t fully heard or understood.

Not letting down any longer

I finally decided to confront these inner battles and try completely removing them from my life when I started working on my first studio EP this fall. The project would be called [Tear Therapy] to symbolize the process of healing from repressed rollercoaster emotions that confronted me during my pursuit of music and life in general. Having openly shared the tears I shed and my resolution to move on towards joy, my parents and my friends’ reactions changed as they saw the true heart behind my work.

I started to receive invitations to perform at school club and church events held around my local area of Los Angeles. Organizations like Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) welcomed me to join its wonderful cause of raising funds for rescuing a North Korean refugee by performing at their annual benefit concert. Campus fellowship groups from UC Irvine and UC Riverside asked if I could perform at their cafe nights help send college students to different countries over the world to mission trips.

Along the way, I had my first encore request from an electrified crowd and met other amazing performers such as V3 Dance Group and Manuka, opening up possible collaborations with like-minded singers, rappers, and dancers. I didn’t feel rejected anymore as my friends and even people who I never personally met shouted along to my lyrics and had a good time. I didn’t feel alone anymore as I found a community of creative people to explore this journey together. On the car ride back home after the live performances, I’d feel a rush of emotions: gratitude for the gift of life and determination to not waste any second of it. I realized that all the moments of hardship were not in vain as this sense of accomplishment and euphoria.

JUNGSU performing for the benefit of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).

However, I still struggle to claim victory over the lies that plague my head although I got to a better state of mind. I newly developed this peculiar fear and insecurity of appearing narcissistic and “needy” when I share my art. Especially as an indie artist just starting out, I’ve felt so helpless and dependent on others in regard to my work as I seem to always ask for their view, like, share, stream, subscription, etc.  I knew in my head that attention and approval of the audience determine the definition of “success” in the entertainment industry by nature, but this head knowledge did not keep me away from the excessive, stressful concern of self-image: first, as a human being, then as a musical artist. In my self-critical eyes, I was an “independent” artist who was always “dependent” on others’ actions to promote a selfish agenda of taking my art to the next level.

Having experienced the ups and downs of the journey pursuing music as a Korean-American indie artist in Los Angeles, I gained much self-awareness. There is no doubt in the realness of the pain when we cope with unwanted thoughts that creep up in uncomfortable situations. However, I look back with gratitude as I recognize that those difficult moments built me to become the strong person I am today. From this firsthand takeaway of bouncing back with optimism, I aspire to continue spreading hope to my audience that their surroundings don’t determine their identity and worth. I want to convey to the listeners that they are not alone no matter how isolated they feel in whatever they are going through. I wish my unique story portrayed in my music can help you and me navigate through the immense “mountains” and “waves” that block our path.

We are bound to feel like strangers, oddly out of place whenever we venture into the unknown. That is what I felt when I was labeled a “FOB” all those years ago, and that’s how I still feel. The difference is that now I own the label. I am no longer “fresh off the boat,” an immigrant struggling to adapt, but a rapper and a musician who is “fresh on the beat.”

Obviously, it is daunting to take on completely new challenges. It may take time before we are ready to commit, but we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by distracting voices. Only then can we achieve what no one never imagined we could.

Jung Su Park is a third-year economics student at UCLA. He returned to his home country South Korea for the first time in 12 years when he studied abroad at Yonsei International Summer School in 2018. He makes music under the moniker JUNGSU, embracing both Korean and American cultures as integral parts of his identity, and aims to provide a unifying sense of belonging to those who may feel out of place. 

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This article was written by a NOVAsia contributor.

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This article was written by a NOVAsia contributor. Do you want to become a contributing writer to NOVAsia? Send us an email at novasiamag@gmail.com

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