Dumbfoundead never expected to talk this much about race. Growing up in Koreatown and MacArthur Park, Jonathan Park’s closest friends were Latino and African-African. Occasionally the Korean-American rapper got called “Chino,” but mostly as a playful term of endearment, not a racial slur.
Sometime over the last several years, long-simmering racial tensions manifested themselves in the Black Lives Matter protests and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. In addition to convincing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to diversify its voting ranks, the latter inspired one of the most poignant songs of 2016, Dumbfoundead’s “Safe” — the hip-hop equivalent of the “Parents” episode from Master of None.
“I’m a huge fan of [Oscars host] Chris Rock and expected him to speak for every person of color in the industry, but he kind of threw Asians under the bus with some tasteless jokes. That really fucked me up,” Park says at a coffee shop a few blocks from his K-town home.
If you didn’t know better, his tattoos and earring might tempt you to describe him as looking like the star of a Justin Lin movie — but that’s part of the problem. Other than Lin, Fresh Off the Boat and Aziz Ansari, Asian-American actors have mostly been ignored by Hollywood or, worse, given roles that embody crude stereotypes (see Ken Jeong in The Hangover).
“I don’t like to front like I’m a crazy activist,” Park demurs, changing the subject. “I’m just a rapper and I like sharing my thoughts.”
Released this spring, the video for “Safe” upends stereotypes of Asians as a “model minority” through withering satire. Superimposing his own face onto characters from Pirates of the Caribbean, Napoleon Dynamite and Titanic, Park makes the absence of Asian faces on the big screen seem glaringly obvious. The opening bars say it all: “The other night I watched the Oscars/And the roster of the only yellow men were all statues.”
With more than 1.5 million views, the clip sparked discussion in quarters that had previously ignored Park’s music, solidifying his spot as the most prominent Asian-American rapper since Far East Movement (whose Transparent Agency manages him). The Project Blowed alumnus has become the closest rap cognate to his friend, chef Roy Choi, whose cooking artfully fuses ingredients emblematic of L.A.’s diversity.
Dumbfoundead has become more than the best Asian rapper in L.A. He might speak specifically to the Asian-American experience, but his sharp, battle rap–honed punch lines, nimble cadences and narrative strength give him an appeal that cuts across ethnic lines.
His latest album, last month’s We Might Die, seamlessly shifts from turn-up party songs, to familial history chronicles, to pimp raps with Too $hort. Its cover depicts Dumbfoundead shadowed by the Grim Reaper, whose head is down, staring at his phone. The slightly darker tone stemmed from a bout of soul-searching and substance abuse that Park had gone through over the previous few years.
In the future, he plans to act more, and to write films. He mentions that his next album is already underway; it will find him striving to increase his appeal among his already substantial Asian fan base.
“With shows like Atlanta and Insecure, we’re seeing millennial writers and actors of color talk to their communities but also retain that outsider sensibility that allows them to joke about it,” Park says. “Most of the stories in the Asian community haven’t been told in the right way. I’m an insider and outsider among Asian people, and I think that’s when you can really make fun of your own people — and do it in the right way — a smart way where everybody will get it.”