On a Tuesday night in April, Korean-American rapper Isaac “Tastysac” Lee stepped onto a platform at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza wearing a black cap, hoodie and faded jeans. The rapper drew his mic to his mouth and nodded along to the opening beat of his first song. He took a deep breath and looked in front of him.
The 21-year-old sophomore saw artists, market vendors, and undergraduates who had gathered for the annual East Asian Night Market on campus. The smell of yakisoba stir-fried noodles, oden savory fish cakes and okonomi fries sprinkled with bonito flakes filled the air.
As a crowd of 200 looked on, Lee started to perform Korean rap. He has become an evangelist of sorts for Korean pop music, forming the Association of Korean Artists (AKA) in February. The organization now has 23 members, including rappers, vocalists and management, and they have performed in many campus venues during the academic year.
“I wish that Korean hip-hop can be spread out and become respected in American culture because it is too good not to be,” Lee said.
When Lee arrived on campus, he was surprised to learn that UC Berkeley only had one club that featured contemporary Korean music. It was called “Ra-on,” and it was a Korean rock music club. But Lee, who has a background in classical and jazz music, didn’t want to perform rock and roll. He wanted to rap some beats.
As Lee walked to class, earphones playing songs by “Beenzino,” “E-Sens” or “Swings,” — some of his favorite Korean rappers — he wrestled with the disappointment of not belonging to a campus music community that fit his tastes. And Lee had many Korean-American friends who felt the same. He decided to bring them together in a club of his own.
Lee designed AKA so its members could pursue any genre of music they wanted — giving them the freedom he found lacking in Ra-on.
Lee is hoping that the rise in popularity of Korean pop music will lure more people to listen to AKA performers. Korean music has recently become a worldwide phenomenon. In 2012, Korean pop artist Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first song on YouTube to receive over one billion views. This April, Korean boy band BTS’s album “Map Of The Soul: PERSONA” hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, a record chart ranking the 200 most popular music albums in America.
Rapper 22-year-old Jeremiah Kim was one of nine people to show up to AKA’s first meeting in February. He was surprised how quickly he meshed with Lee. Lee played Kim the beats he produced himself — full of trap drums, trumpet and violin samples. Lee and Kim, nodding their heads to the beat, started “spitting bars,” creating lyrics to the original songs they would perform on stage.
“We were almost tearing up at the end of practice,” Kim said. “We didn’t start with anything. We didn’t know each other, but we all loved music and we loved to perform and wanted to be on stage. We were so happy — everyone wanted the same thing and contributed.”
Listen to “Bye Home” by AKA rapper “Jjacy,” also known as Justin Ahn. The beat is produced by Harry Song.
Live performances didn’t always play out as well as rehearsals did. Cindy Park, an AKA vocalist, said a false fire alarm sounded during one of AKA’s first concerts. Lee quickly called for an early intermission and rallied AKA members together in a circle, keeping group members calm and focused on their next act. Lee gave his fellow members pats on the back. He knew he had to appear confident through the chaos, he said.
The audience of 50 awaited. There was no room for paralysis. The group performed what they had practiced for.
This upcoming fall semester at UC Berkeley, Lee hopes to bring more attention to AKA. He thinks honing in on modern Korean music is crucial. It’s a way to stay unique.
After all, students on campus engage in musical clubs that fulfill many different niches already. “EGO” performs Korean folk percussion with traditional instruments such as the barrel drum. “Laya” performs music from southern India that involves vocalizations to a melody, rhythm, and constant, droning sound. “Celli” performs cello music with genres ranging from classical to pop. The list goes on.
Listen to “Snake,” written by Lee:
Lee wants AKA members to do more street performances on and near campus in August. More importantly, however, Lee thinks the future of AKA’s popularity is online. He has uploaded many of AKA’s recordings to platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Soundcloud. He plans to upload videos for YouTube as well.
“Taking responsibility and being a leader is so stressful and hard, but it always always gives you back something,” Lee said. “It gives you back pride and a feeling of achievement. I love that feeling. I love it.”