Humanitarianism Through Hip Hop – Robb Lee (NEH Magazine)

I had heard a lot about him, so it was nice to finally meet and sit down with influential and relevant hip hop artist Robb Lee. A version of the following article was published in April’s “The Anniversary Issue” of NEH Magazine. I will include the youtube video for “One Korea” at the bottom.

Robb Lee is a Seoul based Korean American hip hop artist and an outspoken activist. He is gaining a reputation as someone on the cutting edge of bringing social awareness to the human rights issues in North Korea through his video One Korea. This song is an outcry of animosity towards the North Korean regime for the extremely unethical treatment of their people. More than that, it urges the young people of South Korea to pay attention, a call to arms to take action and realize that the civilian victims up north are not your enemies. Instead, consider them your brothers and sisters who have been forced into horrific oppression.

This gyopo was born on the west coast of the United States to two Korean immigrants. As many rebellious teenagers do, he spent his later teens bouncing between divorced households in Los Angeles and Seattle. The Emerald City is where he started on his path in hip hop. He ran with a crew that were into import cars and racing, Fast and Furious style. As half the group talked shop, the other half expressed frustrations and feelings through freestyling.

Upon returning to L.A., Robb hooked up with some established underground DJ’s with skills in production and running events and he started writing his lyrics and recording. His hard work landed him a spot on the One in the Chamber mixtape – considered to be his first successful endeavor and something he is still proud of to this day. A track on this mixtape contains the first verse of what is now One Korea.

Robb has always been interested in politics and activism. Like most west coast kids, he grew up on gangsta rap by artists like Dr. Dre, Tupac and Snoop Dogg; but after the death of Tupac, he became more interested in socially conscious hip hop like Dead Prez, Rage Against the Machine and Immortal Technique. During this time he also began reading Asian American history. As early as the age of seventeen, Robb was informed on the situation in North Korea. This awareness presented itself in the form anger and frustration directed toward the people in South for not seeming to care.

Shortly after the release of One in the Chamber, Robb put hip hop down for while and worked several professional jobs in Los Angeles. The down economy in the United States resulted in some serious soul searching and bewilderment towards the future soon took over. Taking advice from his father, Robb moved to Japan to work with an organization focused on helping people in need through providing English lessons and other forms of social activism. It was during his stay in Japan that he decided it was time to experience Korea. Wanting to learn more of the language and culture, a sadness had set in that he was so close to Korea yet hadn’t spent any time there as an adult.

Shortly after moving to Korea he met Roger Wong Won who was interested in producing his music and the two have been at it ever since. After a five year hiatus, the ability, skill and ambition that Robb experienced while working with Roger convinced him to pick up hip hop once again. Living in Seoul and being so physically close to the hot button issues that fueled his music in the past, Robb decided to focus his work on North Korea and human rights issues.

Robb always knew that he would revisit One Korea. The previous rough draft provided a jumping point, but the time had come to polish it up and make it a complete song. He came up with the hook and added a middle verse. Once it was recorded, he and Roger decided that powerful images would lend to the message of the song and a video was created.

The purpose of One Korea is to motivate people to take action, “I really wanted the song to influence Korean people,” Robb says, “especially young people who like hip hop, which is why I had my lyrics translated into Korean. I wanted Koreans to understand what I am getting across.”

That main message is a call to get involved, to wake up and realize the severity of this situation and to do something about it, “If anyone is going to take this burden on, it’s has to be the South Koreans,” Robb contests, “especially the younger generation. Foreigners definitely are the ones who are doing the activism, but foreigners can’t effect change in this country by themselves. They can influence Koreans to do it, which is what I’m trying to do with this song.”

I asked Robb why he thinks people in South Korea are not as active as they should be, “I think South Koreans are very apathetic to the situation, and I don’t think that’s entirely their fault. They’ve been conditioned to be indifferent to the situation. Coming from the perspective of a Korean American, born in America, I look at Korea as one country, one people. But South Korean people are born in to this culture of separation, and this idea that North Koreans are the enemy. What I want to emphasize with my music is to separate the North Korean people from their government. But I don’t think the South Korean people see it like that, and it’s a problem.

I also asked his thoughts on a solution, if it exists, “I think that it’s one of the most difficult socio-political situations, if not the most difficult, in the world. There’s nothing like North Korea in the world. I mean, what’s happening in Egypt, in Libya, it’s all inspiring stuff. I wish that could happen in North Korea. The thing is, the Egyptian people have the internet, they have access to cell phones and communication with the outside world. They have the ability to organize and they know what’s going on. For North Koreans, it’s not as easy.”

“In terms of how it’s going to happen, I can’t answer that,” Robb admits, “But if enough South Korean people cared about this issue, showed a genuine outrage and took it seriously as far as the urgency, as if your own family member was dieing, if they looked at it like that, there is definitely a way for it to change.”

Robb will putting out a six or seven song EP with Roger Wong Won in the near future. Most of the subject matter will be relevant to Korean culture, politically and socially. The video for his track Hey Ma, a collaboration with reggae artist JoshRoy which will be released soon. You can also expect more videos following the same formula as One Korea, supplementing spliced video clips with political lyrics.

You can keep track of Robb Lee at http://www.wongwonproductions.com/

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on May 3, 2011.

2 Responses to “Humanitarianism Through Hip Hop – Robb Lee (NEH Magazine)”

  1. Great Film/Song,
    thought you might like my machinima film
    its a hip hop life

    best wishes
    elf ~

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