Story By: Emma Kalka / Photos By: Alecia Janeiro, Clayton Jones, Steve Smith
Decades after dictatorship, musicians still fight for the freedom of expression
Music has always played a role in sociopolitical movements around the world, inspiring and uniting people. From songs protesting the Vietnam War to Irish rebel music, it’s always been there pushing movements forward.
South Korea is no different. Protest music and socially conscious music has a distinct history in the country, starting with folk singers in the 60s and 70s, leading to the protest song movement in the 80s and onward to today, with many artists performing every weekend at the impeachment protests in Gwanghwamun.
And along the way, the government has stepped in to try and silence them.
In the 70s, many songs were banned for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Up until the mid-90s, artists would have to submit their work to the government for approval before it could be released. Even after the laws were changed, musicians still reported backlash for putting out music with anything that could be perceived as an anti-government message.
Now that news reports have confirmed the existence of a presidential blacklist of artists who have spoken out against the government, many are starting to draw parallels between President Park Geun-hye and her policies today and those of her father, the late Park Chung-hee, back in the 70s.
However, despite everything, Korean musicians have continued to fight and use their music to speak out. Whether it was snuffing the censorship board and illegally distributing music on cassette tapes, uploading a diss track or performing at a protest, artists have continued to rebel.
The dark days of censorship and protest
The long battle between music and the government exploded in the 1970s. At that time Park Chung-hee was in power and after changing the Constitution, he went after musicians and popular culture, banning many songs from being played or distributed in Korea.
Guitarist and singer Shin Dae-chul of Sinawe said his father, legendary singer Shin Joong-hyun, faced the brunt of the government’s campaign. After refusing to write a song glorifying Park, every single song he released was banned by the government in retribution. One called “Beautiful Woman,” was banned for decadence as it told the story of seeing a beautiful woman on the street and constantly looking at her. Another called “Lie,” was banned because it was thought the song was about the government. In reality, it was about two lovers telling each other not to lie.
“There were actually no standards. Just whatever they feel when they see the words – if it’s aggressive or violent – or they feel that the lyrics symbolize that [the singers] are attacking the government, then they just, they can’t publish it,” he said.
“If you go to a Muslim country, there are limits because of religious reasons. But in our case, it has nothing to do with culture or tradition. Nothing. Park’s regime just didn’t want to see some things. They tried to control everyone,” he added.
After Park’s assassination in 1979, things didn’t get much better, though there was improvement. There was a new military dictator – Chun Doo-hwan – and many songs that were previously banned were now permissible. But censorship ran rampant throughout the entertainment industry.
Shin recalled having a man run up to him with scissors while on stage, declaring his band would have to cut their long hair before they could perform on TV. They ended up performing with their hair covered. After writing and recording Sinawe’s first album in 1986, he had to send it to the government censorship board for approval before it could be released.
It came back covered in notes about what he would have to change before it could be deemed acceptable.
The decade was also marked by violent, sometimes deadly protests calling for democracy. Police would throw tear gas at protesters. Protesters would throw Molotov cocktails. People were beaten or tortured while being interrogated by police. Some died. Most of the protesters were young college students.
“You can’t imagine our 80s protests. It was like a battle scene,” Shin said. “We were living in a dictatorship… So when we had protests in the 1980s, that was against the dictatorship. We were looking forward to having a real democratic society… It was a battle. It was violent.”
However, from the ashes that quite literally filled Jongro during protests rose the protest song movement, or norae undong, which created a new genre in the music scene – minjung gayo, which translates to “song of the people” in English.
The songs were simple and direct in order to make them easier for the masses to learn. They were mostly written by noraepae – protest song clubs usually based at Korean universities – and then distributed by word of mouth or sometimes through illegal cassette tapes, according to the unpublished paper “The Song of the Multitude: Diversity of Styles in Modern Korean Protest Music” by Kim Pil-ho.
Singer Lee Sung-soo from band Harry Big Button was a member of such a group at Korea University in the late 80s. He said they were heavy, dark songs. Fighting songs.
“We were chanting on the streets and singing protest songs. It makes us show more anger against the government,” he said. “Very determined. Very emotional in the lyrics… very direct.”
Minjung gayo became so popular that in early 1990, after the Constitution had been changed and democracy won, the second album by Nochatsa, a professional protest song group, was the longest running No. 1 on Korean charts.
Once the dust had settled and Korea began to embrace democracy after a decade of protests, things began to look better for the music community.
“After the 1990s, we changed our Constitution and everything was free,” recalled Shin Dae-chul. “And even musicians could express their feelings and emotions through music and we actually thought we were living in a democratic society. Everything looked cool and fine.”
Freer, but not completely free
South Korea had become a democracy. Censorship laws were loosened in 1996, but still fairly strict in terms of broadcasting. While artists could now release whatever they wanted without government permission, anything deemed too violent or sexually explicit or that contained curse words was banned from TV and radio.
However, even with this new freedom, some members of the music scene felt there were still repercussions. Jundoy, lead singer of punk band Lazybone, said that there used to be some sort of retaliation if a band or musician released a song that the government didn’t approve of.
“If someone releases something that is bad to the government, there is payback. There used to be payback. Like no opportunity or they don’t ask you to come on their show,” he said.
And as media and investigators dug deeper into the current corruption scandal surrounding President Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, signs of the government once again meddling with the freedom of expression came to light.
News broke of a blacklist containing the names of 10,000 artists, musicians and other cultural figures who had at one point spoken out against the government, essentially blocking them from receiving government funding. Many in the cultural field rely on this funding to be able to create and produce.
Beyond that, in January 2014 the government passed the Public Culture and Arts Industrial Development Act, which required all individuals and companies operating in the arts and culture fields to register with a government agency. They would also have to report on their work each year to this agency. Whoever refused to register would not be able to work or perform in public.
Singer Shin Dae-chul felt suspicious about the law when it came out in 2014, however his suspicions grew even more when he heard that the blacklist was supposedly started around the same time, although so far there has been no reported connection between the two. He said he refused to register.
“I was suspicious about this law before, but now I can [see] everything in one big picture. With the blacklist and this law legislated at the same time, they had a big plan. Park’s administration had a huge plan. So this law should be gone,” he said.
Despite the potential backlash, artists have continued to talk about tough topics in their music. Lee from Harry Big Button said it is something that he as a rock musician has never worried about.
“I’m a person who could speak my opinions and express myself completely compared to just an ordinary kind of person in any kind of circumstances. That’s what artists do,” he said. He added that he believes the lowered visibility of musicians who carry political or social messages in their music today is not so much because of fear, but because the public isn’t interested.
“Most people only listen to music on the charts – music charts. The kind of song that contains messages never went onto the charts. So that’s why people don’t know about other musicians that take part in that kind of issue,” he said.
Shin believes that many artists are actually still afraid of a backlash, though more so from fans than the government.
“Actually, lots of artists and musicians, they are afraid of speaking their own opinions in public because they might lose fans who have different opinions. A lot of them are really careful about what they say,” he said. “But I think this is the time that we have to raise our voices and also act.”
Local band Phonebooth is one such group that has continually released songs that take on social issues. They started with the song “Time is Over” off their first album “The Way to Live On” in 2008, which talks about military service and the inequality and corruption that allows those born into privilege to avoid service.
Most recently, they tackled such topics as Sewol, the unfair dismissal of workers, loneliness and unfair work conditions on their last EP and current “Civitas Project.”
“There are many social problems that exist and there are people that are saddened by them, and most importantly, we are human beings with a conscience and dignity, so we cannot tolerate or overlook them,” said bassist Park Han, who writes most of the music for the band.
Park continued that as social animals, they cannot ignore the environment around them and how they are affected by it, which is why they as a band tend to talk about social issues through their music. Frontman Hong Kwang-sun added that it is important, but they shouldn’t go beyond the stories that they live.
Han Kyung-rok, bassist for rock band Crying Nut, said that the band has had some songs buried in the past even before they came out due to their bitter satire on society. But that hasn’t stopped them.
“The way we overcome [it] is not depending on broadcasting too much, saying whatever we want to say and enjoying our life. If it works, we are lucky. If it doesn’t, we just do what we have to do. Music,” he said.
Filling the streets with music
As musicians and citizens took to the streets to protest strongman Park Chung-hee and the following dictators in the 70s and 80s, recently millions of Koreans took to the streets to protest Park’s daughter, President Park Geun-hye.
Even though Park was impeached by the National Assembly on December 9, the protests continue with organizers saying they won’t stop until she steps down voluntarily or the Constitution Court upholds the impeachment.
Unlike the previous protests, these have been largely peaceful as rumors spread that Park Geun-hye could institute martial law should they get too violent, according to Shin Dae-chul.
However, much like the democracy protests, music has played a part.
Many well-known musicians – young and old – have taken part, through performances or just participating. Jundoy from Lazybone said individual members have attended. Both Phonebooth and Harry Big Button have performed, as have many others such as Crying Nut, Bulhandang Crew, Jerry.K, Street Guns, Yang Hee-eun, Lee Seung-hwan and more.
“Musicians are Korean citizens and it is natural that we took part in the protests as performers. I think we musicians also have the right to make a voice loudly against something wrong or unjust by the government,” said Han of Crying Nut.
“The role of music in protest is a peaceful bridge of revolution. In this protest, men and women of all ages attended and music lit the candle brighter, bonded us together and soothed our exhausted shoulders.”
Even Shin Dae-chul took to the stage, performing his father’s famous song “아름다운 강산.” He said he was inspired to perform after seeing a group of Park Geun-hye supporters called Park Samho singing the song at a counter-rally on TV. The sight infuriated him.
“That was the song my father made against the government… and that dictator’s daughter’s supporters are singing that song, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I suggested to the protest organizers (via Facebook post) if you contact me, I can play. I can show what this song is really about and what it really sounds like.”
For rapper Jerry.K, performing in front of the crowds was an amazing experience.
“Other than during an election or on social media, this was one of the few times where I can express a political opinion. Also, it has historical importance so I wanted to join at any time and just add to the number of protesters,” he said.
He believes that musicians are not obligated to speak out more than ordinary citizens. The function of an artist is to convert feelings and thoughts faced in daily life into an artistic form, he said, so if an artist is not inspired to express sociopolitical opinions, then there is no need.
“However, if you voice your opinion about a political issue as a sense of duty as if it is the sole purpose of an artist, I don’t think it is a good influence for people socially and aesthetically,” he said. “However, if you don’t express it even if you had plenty of inspiration and interest but due to other matters, it looks like [you are] a coward.”
Park from Phonebooth said that because so many social ills were being protested at the candlelight rallies, it was natural for them as a band to perform.
“I think our songs and our stories are necessary for this society and its people,” he said.
“Just as people are participating and making their voices heard, we also wanted our voices to be heard,” chimed in band guitarist Lee Tae-woo. “When there was a special Sewol performance, I especially wanted to play ‘Flowers on the Waves’ [the band’s Sewol tribute song].”
Music for the people
For ordinary citizens, the recent protests would not have been the same without music. Student Suh Hee-seung said that he believes music is to protests as mortar is to a brick house – when the protesters sang together in Gwanghwamun, it brought a sense of unity.
“The power to connect people who have never seen each other before through music, this unique power of musicians and music was evident throughout the protests,” he said.
He continued that music reflects the identity of a generation and age and that musicians are to record the sentiments of that group or time and communicate those feelings and ideas. Although it may have varied, music has always been about communication. Music can communicate to the masses the message it hopes to convey, he said.
“You can understand the problems of a society by reading a book, but you can’t feel it; music can make you feel it,” he said.
“In times of disparity, music has brought the Korean people together, helping them formulate a voice. The influence of music dealing with political topics will now grow in Korea, now that the people understand its potential.”
Not all songs were written specifically for the protests; however, they still brought people together. Another participant, Young H.K. Pae who is an education program director at the Asia Institute, said a number were just popular songs by well-known artists such as Girls’ Generation, Lee Seung-hwan, and Deulgukhwa.
But one that stood out to her specifically was a performance of “아침이슬” by folk singer Yang Hee-eun. It was originally released in 1971 and became popular among student protesters at the time. However, as with many songs at the time, it was later banned.
“After four decades, she sang the same song at the protest with over one million protesters. I am sure that it was probably [lead to a] fullness of the heart for her,” she said.
Pae was struck by the contrast between the current protests and those in the 80s. She was caught in the middle of a demonstration in 1987 in Busan which left her with terrifying images of police brutality and violence. The candlelight vigils in Gwanghwamun, on the other hand, had more of a festival feel with music, food trucks, and candles.
“I absolutely felt positive energy among over a million protesters and felt that our future is bright. And absolutely I was proud of being Korean at that moment,” she said.
For another student protester, Shin Woo-jin, while he prefers minjung gayo to other forms of protest music due to its unique history, music at the rallies didn’t affect him personally, though he admitted it had a positive affect overall.
“I think musicians releasing songs related to this movement and protest have helped people gather together and participate in the protests more joyfully,” he said.
He added that he felt it is important to have more music in Korea that covers a variety of topics, as many songs are illiberal in their topics. “I want more songs with diverse topics apart from love songs.”
Seeing the involvement of musicians at the protests gave hope to Seoul resident Jo Young-hoon, who said that music helps people relate to one another more easily. It represents their lives and could be a good way to express the current issue.
“I appreciate musicians who have beliefs and talk about it in public. In the end, your lyrics are about what you believe in your life, whether it’s about love or politics,” he said. “It is important to talk about their thoughts and to share. It can be controversial, but it can change or gather public opinions.”
But there is still a ways to go, according to Shin Dae-chul.
“I want to play music freely, but these circumstances don’t allow me to. So I want to make everything right. Change it so that I can play music absolutely freely. Until then, I’m going to work on it,” he said.
“Currently in Korea we are facing things that we thought were in our past. They were gone long ago. But Park Geun-hye’s government recalled all our past memories. It’s time to raise musicians’ voices.”