Putting the K in Hip-Hop: South Korea’s Jay Park

In this photo taken on March 29, 2023, Korean-American entertainer Jay Park reacts during an interview in Seoul. (AFP)
In this photo taken on March 29, 2023, Korean-American entertainer Jay Park reacts during an interview in Seoul. (AFP)
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Putting the K in Hip-Hop: South Korea’s Jay Park

In this photo taken on March 29, 2023, Korean-American entertainer Jay Park reacts during an interview in Seoul. (AFP)
In this photo taken on March 29, 2023, Korean-American entertainer Jay Park reacts during an interview in Seoul. (AFP)

K-pop idol. Used tire salesman. Hip-hop mogul. The course of true success has never run smoothly, but Korean-American entertainer Jay Park has had an unusually bumpy ride to stardom.

The 36-year-old is now one of South Korea's most recognizable entertainers: he's founded two of the country's largest hip-hop labels, released a string of hits and was the first Asian-American to sign with Jay-Z's Roc Nation.

But this success was hard fought, he told AFP in an exclusive interview, with his first shot at fame -- debuting as the leader of a K-pop band -- imploding in a scandal that led him to flee Seoul for his native Seattle.

"I faced a lot of backlash," Park told AFP, adding he was once "kind of blacklisted from the industry".

The problem started with a few throwaway comments posted online by Park -- then in his late teens -- criticizing the intense idol training regime, the K-pop industry and South Korea itself.

A Korean media frenzy ensued, with the fallout forcing Park to quit 2PM, a seven-member boy band under major label JYP Entertainment.

He moved back to Seattle and worked at a used tire shop, but he kept his musical dreams alive, eventually posting a cover of "Nothin' on You" -- a B.O.B and Bruno Mars song -- on his YouTube channel.

"I just wanted to show my fans that I'm doing well, and also I wanted to show people what type of music I'm into, what type of artist I am. So I just put up a cover and it just kind of blew up," he said.

Racking up more than two million views in a day, the song catapulted him back into the music industry and marked "a new start" for Park.

It also allowed him to recalibrate his musical style and shift from pop to rap -- a move that would eventually help transform South Korea's nascent hip-hop scene.

It was not a calculated decision or grand plan, he said, but an attempt to move past restrictive labels.

"If I say I'm a rapper, then I can only rap. But I like to rap, I like to dance, I like to sing," he said, adding that he would be "always grateful to the hip-hop culture" for helping him relaunch his career.

Struggle for survival

Park's story is unusual: it is rare for a K-pop failure to go on to have a successful musical career after leaving one of the big agencies around which the industry is structured.

"It didn't happen overnight. Obviously, it took a lot of work," Park told AFP of his musical comeback.

Hundreds of thousands of aspiring K-pop stars go through the grueling idol training system, notorious for high stress and long hours, analysts say.

Only 60 percent of trainees make it to "debut", industry figures show, and almost all of those that do are signed to big agencies like BTS's HYBE, or its major rival SM Entertainment.

Without that backing, "the chances for survival are really low", said music critic Kim Do-heon.

"There are so many groups that disband," he said.

After Park quit 2PM, he was left to navigate the industry on his own, and has spoken of his struggles with, for example, finding musicians willing to be featured on his first solo album.

But even when the industry odds are stacked against you, Park said, it is still possible to succeed with the right mindset.

"There is a limit to what agencies can do for you, and it seems that grit and determination are what can fill in," he said.

Change the industry

Now Park is trying to change the industry -- or his small segment of it -- for the better.

He has already founded two of South Korea's most prominent hip-hop labels. And now his career has come full circle with his establishment of a third label aimed at producing a boy band.

But he's doing it his way: rather than the exacting training and obsessive levels of control pioneered by the major agencies, Park says he believes real relationships and "freestyling together" are the key to success.

His new trainees will have Park as a mentor -- something he says he longed for when he started in the industry at 18.

"I'm not bitter over anything. I don't hate anybody. I don't dislike anybody. I don't have time for that. I don't have time for thinking about stuff in the past," he said.

"I can't change the past, so what I can change is the future, so that's what I work on."



Movie Review: ‘Tuesday,’ with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Is Strange, Emotional and Fiercely Original

 This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)
This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)
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Movie Review: ‘Tuesday,’ with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Is Strange, Emotional and Fiercely Original

 This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)
This image released by A24 shows Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from "Tuesday." (Kevin Baker/A24 via AP)

Death has taken many forms in cinema. It’s been Bengt Ekerot. Ian McKellen. John Cleese. Even Brad Pitt with blonde highlights. But in “Tuesday,” filmmaker Daina O. Pusić's bold, fantastical and affecting debut, death looks like a lot like a macaw that's seen better days.

Covered in a thick layer of grime and oil with patches of feathers missing, “Tuesday’s” Death can be as big as a room or as small as an ear canal. Its booming, gravelly voice (that of actor Arinzé Kene) sounds ancient and otherworldly. And it all adds up to something profoundly unsettling. Not exactly a comforting welcome into the afterlife, or whatever comes next.

“Tuesday,” expanding nationwide Friday, is about death, and acceptance, between a mother and her dying daughter. But this is no Hallmark affair fitting for a sympathy card. It is prickly, wry, somewhat unsentimental, a bit gritty and awfully painful at times. Or maybe it’s just uniquely British. And you may just find yourself in a puddle of your own tears as a result.

Now, in terms of cinematic emotional blackmail, a parent coming to terms with a child’s imminent death is pretty much in the red zone. That sort of setup could produce involuntary tears from an audience regardless of the level of talent involved. Thankfully for us, there is immense creativity and vision both in front of and behind the camera, including not just the writer-director but the special effects experts responsible for Death as well as the haunting and innovative sound design.

Lola Petticrew plays the titular Tuesday, a teen with a “Breathless” pixie cut, a love of jokes and rap music and a terminal illness that has bound her to an oxygen tank and the use of a wheelchair. Her mother, Zora (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has entirely disconnected from the situation. She tiptoes around the house waiting for the nurse, Billie (a lovely Leah Harvey), to do the caretaking. She stays out all day, pawning household items for cash to pay for the care, ignoring Tuesday’s calls and occasionally falling asleep on park benches. At home, she doesn’t want to talk to Tuesday about anything real — the death, her job, their precarious financial position — it’s all been deeply repressed and compartmentalized and is making everyone crazy.

The day we meet Zora and Tuesday is the day Death arrives. Billie has left Tuesday on the patio for just a minute to start a bath. All of a sudden, the girl who was just joking around is having an episode, gasping for air, when the macaw lands by her side. Death is actually the first character introduced, in an unnerving series of deaths setting an ominous tone that will loom throughout. Some are ready to go, begging for relief. Some are just scared. And all have the same outcome once he’s put his wing around them.

Tuesday, however, decides to tell a joke. This disarms Death (who bursts out laughing) and suddenly they’re in conversation together. She gives him a bath, puts on some music and asks a favor: She’d like to say goodbye to her mom first. Death obliges.

Of course, the story both is and isn’t that simple. “Tuesday” becomes some strange combination of body horror, fairy tale, domestic drama and apocalypse thriller. It is weird and transfixing — never predictable and never boring. Louis-Dreyfus is both chilling and deeply empathetic as this woman who has been paralyzed by grief even before it’s happened. She seems to be preparing for her own death in a way, unable and unwilling to process a life without her daughter who, at this point, doesn’t even realize that her mother still loves her. Petticrew holds her own, going head-to-head with Louis-Dreyfus at her cruelest, exhibiting a wisdom beyond her years and fitting of a person who’s had to grow up and face death far too early.

“Tuesday” is ultimately a cathartic affair, whether death is top of mind at the moment or not. And it announces the arrival of a daring filmmaker worth following.