Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead has been branching out. This year he started his own label, BORN CTZN, releasing music that appeals to both his fans in America and his new fans in South Korea. Unfortunately, with his latest EP, Rocket Man, he hit a roadblock. Thanks to its provocative title, which references the nickname Donald Trump gave to North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un, Dumbfoundead's new video for "Rocket Man" has been banned in South Korea.
Born Jonathan Park, the 31-year-old L.A.-based Dumbfoundead made a name for himself as a battle rapper before recording music that tackles subjects like coming into hip-hop culture as an outsider and into America as an immigrant. He's never been one to shy away from touchy subjects. Just last year he addressed the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with his astonishing video for "Safe," tackling the rampant whitewashing in Hollywood movies.
At the end of 2016, he dropped "Banned In the Motherland," which seems prophetic now considering what's happened with the video for "Rocket Man." As he explained in the press release for the video, "In Korea, musicians have to submit videos to the Censorship Bureau one week in advance in order to get them approved, and usually pretty much everything gets through." But on the day the video was set to release worldwide, he woke up to the news that the video had been banned in Korea.
It's pretty obvious that the current political climate is tense, with South and North Korea on high military alert. In general, though, censorship is a thorny issue in Korea. "Censorship can be tough on certain things," he tells me over email. "Weed is extremely illegal in Korea, you can spend almost half a year in jail if you're caught with it. It's crazy because some things like sex got lenient, but there's also an unspoken culture in Korea with prostitution and stuff. Nobody talks about it, but a few years ago, it was provocative for girls to wear short dresses or smoke cigarettes."
Politically speaking, Korea is still very much a conservative country, which is perhaps why the "Rocket Man" video got banned. "I don't feel like there's much freedom of speech in South Korea," he says. "You've got be careful about everything you say. It's very nationalistic. As soon as you criticize the country or government in any way, you can get in trouble. There's also a mandatory 2-year military service for men before you're 27 years old. If you criticize that or you don't fulfill that duty, you could be banned from the country."
Dumbfoundead also explains that management often tells artists exactly how to answer questions. "You can't just speak your mind," he says. "Rocket Man," outside of its name, isn't really a political track and the EP has made its way to streaming services and digital marketplaces in the country (Spotify is not yet in South Korea, however Apple Music is), but the video remains banned.
Through it all, he is still unsure what the Censorship Bureau hopes to accomplish in banning the video. "I was pretty confused by the ban, I really didn't think people would know about the 'Rocket Man' reference, or care about it," he says. As someone who has had the chance to see how Trump is perceived in both America and Korea, Dumbfoundead thinks it's hard to pinpoint sentiment about the President, saying, "When I was over there, I got the impression that some people in South Korea are for Trump, because he's so aggressive to North Korea."
During a recent trip to the country, during which he filmed the "Rocket Man" video, Trump was on his state visit. "I saw some of the craziest signs that people were holding... the craziest said 'President Trump, go after North Korea. We are not afraid to die.'" It's an unsettling time, with some hoping for peace and other thirsty for conflict. However, the Censorship Bureau maintains that the video wasn't banned for the political references, but because of drinking alcohol in the video.
Downing shot after shot of Soju, a potent and wildly popular Korean spirit that ranges from around 16% to as high as 50%, it's true that Dumbfounded doesn't really stop drinking in the "Rocket Man" video. Still, he is certain that isn't really the case for the video's ban.
"When the video got banned, the Censorship Bureau said something about being for the 'drinking'... but that's bullshit," he says. "I don't know what the deal is. Some of the past music videos that have been banned by other musicians had very specific references to weed or the government. Either way, I never got a good answer on why. But it's kind of tight to be able to push those boundaries with my music."
As for why he chose the provocative name for the song and EP? "I initially just thought the whole 'Rocket Man' thing was funny, like it was a dad joke that [Donald] Trump just poked fun at this guy who had his fingers on a nuclear weapon," he tells me. "The fact that he did that was ridiculously crazy, and just funny to me. I knew that I had to call this project Rocket Man. With me being of Korean descent, watching television everyday, I can't help feeling a personal connection to the whole situation."
Listen to the Rocket Man EP below.