Asian American studies students, faculty, as well as hip-hop and rap fans gathered in Humanities Gateway last Tuesday, May 20, as LA-based rapper Jonathan Park, better known by his stage name Dumbfoundead and his new alias, Parker, gave a special artist talk to Professor Christine Balance’s Asian American studies class from 3:30-4:50 p.m.
Organized by the UC Irvine Department of Asian American studies, “An Artist Talk” featured Dumbfoundead in a Q&A session facilitated by Balance as a part of her undergraduate course, “Asian Americans in the Media.” The lecture hall was filled to maximum capacity with some forced to stand in aisles and at the doors as dozens of both students enrolled in the AsianAm55 course and outside students and faculty attended the talk.
During the one and a half hour talk, Dumbfoundead discussed his childhood and how his upbringing brought him into the rap scene. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to South Korean parents, Dumbfoundead’s immigrant story is an unusual and dangerous one. In the late 80s, Dumbfoundead’s family was temporarily separated as his father immigrated to Los Angeles for work. As a result his mother was forced to make the dangerous journey across the border through Mexico with her two children.
Balance showed Dumbfoundead’s 2011 music video for one of his more popular songs, “Are We There Yet,” in which he condenses his whole life story in a few minutes of music and lyrics.
“Now I was only three when she brought me to the States/ My sister was only one, crossing the borders wasn’t safe/ What she did was very brave, I think about it everyday/ From Argentina to Mexico, and finally LA,” Dumbfoundead raps in his video.
Growing up in Koreatown and MacArthur Park, Dumbfoundead found himself submerged in hip hop culture at a young age. After trying out break-dancing, or bboying (“I sucked”) and then experimenting with graffiti art (“I got arrested one time”), he finally found his place in rapping and MCing at the age of 14.
“I was the class clown in school and always running my mouth, so I fit right in,” Dumbfoundead said.
He started attending cyphers and joining battles in the community, and soon he earned the name Dumbfoundead –– “maybe it’s because it was around the time I started smoking weed, but someone told me I always looked dazed and dumbfounded, and it stuck.”
Dumbfoundead found himself struggling to adapt to battling at first, as going head-to-head against other rappers in a freestyling competition requires a lot of aggression and interruption in order to participate. Audience members were given a dose of this competitive scene with a YouTube video of one of Dumbfoundead’s most famous battles through Grind Time against a rapper named Tantrum. According to Dumbfoundead the video became popular because it was a case where both competitors were Asian, a rare occurrence in a Black and Latino-dominated underground community.
“I do get a lot of Jackie Chan jokes,” Dumbfoundead said on being Asian in a non-Asian community. “But when I go into cyphers I hear the slurs all the time –– and it shows how little people know about Asian culture.”
“Regardless, I don’t mind the racism because whether I’m whack or tight, I know everyone is going to listen to me because I’m Asian.”
The last 20 minutes were open to the audience for questions. One student commented on the fact that Dumbfoundead dropped out of high school –– after which he went from one odd job to another to pay his rent –– and asked whether his parents supported his decision.
“Fuck no,” Dumbfoundead laughed. “A lot of Asian parents like mine don’t respect the arts and music because they don’t think it makes money. Maybe once they see more Asians in the media, then they might support their kids.”
Dumbfoundead was asked to give advice to Asian-American youth who also want to pursue careers in entertainment.
“Get out of your comfort zone,” he said, after which he critiqued the Asian American community for creating their own “comfort zone” rather than attempting to break into mainstream culture. “It’s important to hang outside of your ethnic group. How else are we going to make our mark?”
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