The Forgotten Festival That Introduced LA To The Future Godfather Of Korean Hip-Hop
Fire and smoke cast over the city skies. The scene seemed apocalyptic: broken cars and stores, men with rifles on rooftops. Police and National Guard soldiers in riot gear and holding guns became lasting images of that moment in history.
This is the fifth story in a series of articles looking at the surprising history of K-pop, pegged to the release of K-Pop Dreaming, the new podcast series from LAist Studios.
It was 1992 and a Southern California jury had just acquitted four officers in the brutal beating of motorcyclist Rodney King. The verdict sparked one of the most violent uprisings in Los Angeles history.
By the time it was over, more than 60 people were killed and more than 2,300 were injured. An estimated $1 billion worth of property was destroyed.
The brunt of that destruction was to Korean-owned businesses, with about 2,200 damaged.
A year before that verdict, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a Korean store owner at a liquor store in South L.A. Her killing — and other clashes at the time — underscored years of simmering racial tensions, particularly in Black neighborhoods where residents felt disrespected by business owners.
When so many Korean-owned businesses were targeted a year later, many people saw a direct connection to those tensions. That reality put a lot of focus on conflict between the Black and Korean communities.
Los Angeles radio DJ Nnamdi Moweta remembers that time all so clearly.
“It was a very scary time in the city,” he said.
Almost a decade before the uprising, Moweta had applied for a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to explore the origins of hip-hop music and its ties to music from Africa. The project he pitched became Roots of Rap, a radio show in the ‘80s that featured early hip-hop and African music, on-air interviews and even in-person events.
With West Coast hip-hop in its infancy, Moweta says back then it was easy to land interviews with stars. He once interviewed Eazy E at a nightclub in Sunset Boulevard.
“At that time nobody took hip-hop serious, really,” he said. “And then watch[ing] them morph from just ordinary street hustlers into moguls today … it was quite an interesting time.”
A Korean rapper on the Roots of Rap stage
By the time of the L.A. Uprising, West Coast hip-hop was leading rap charts. That year, Moweta was tasked with putting together a musical lineup for one of the stages at the annual African Marketplace and Cultural Faire in South Los Angeles. Initially, Moweta planned to fill his Roots of Rap stage with rappers across the African diaspora.
But the L.A. Uprising in April and May of 1992 gave him another idea: He would use the event to also promote racial harmony in a city reeling from racial tensions.
The festival featured 300 booths selling everything from African style clothing to vendors cooking up ethnic dishes like Trinidadian roasted goat and Moroccan couscous. A mix of Caribbean music, R&B, and rap played from the venue’s five stages.
And Moweta also invited a Korean rapper onstage. The rapper was an up-and-comer named Tiger JK — someone who, years after the festival, would become known as the "Godfather of Korean Hip-Hop."
“I felt it was very important at that time to showcase Tiger JK, to calm down the situation, to let people know that, look, this music that came from our community here is going way outside this community, and it's gonna make an impact overseas,” Moweta said.
Tiger JK was the only rapper of Korean descent on the lineup that night. Moweta remembers the faces in the audience during the Korean American rapper’s performance. The 18-year-old busted out hip-hop style dance moves with taekwondo as he rapped on stage.
“They were just shocked,” Moweta said. “I think the dance moves [are] what blew the audience away too. Like, 'Who's this Korean kid giving us all these moves?'”
Tiger JK remarks in a 2000 issue of Spin Magazine that the audience had their mouths agape after hearing him switch his rap from English to Korean.
“I knew that if I put my heart into it, they would get the message that Koreans can do it, too,” TIger JK told the publication.
Listen to the episode
How Moweta met Tiger JK
Years before the festival, Moweta had met a Korean music writer who was living in Koreatown with his teenage son, a high school student in L.A.
The man told Moweta about his son’s love for hip-hop and his aspirations to become a rapper, and asked Moweta for tips. That man was Tiger JK’s father. And Moweta, in response, introduced Tiger JK to an L.A. hip-hop group called the Soul Brothers.
“Mind you, there was tension at that time in the city. Bringing these three black guys from the hood to work with your son. [They] didn't scare you and [they] didn't scare your son … that was still what blew me away with [Tiger] JK’s family.”
According to Moweta, the Soul Brothers worked with Tiger JK on perfecting hip-hop dancing.
After the rap performance at the African Marketplace and Cultural Faire, Moweta brought Tiger JK to his radio show for an interview to talk about hip-hop. That interview ended up on Tiger JK’s 1995 debut album Enter the Tiger.
From there, Tiger JK flew out to South Korea and helped establish the Korean hip-hop music scene. In 1998, he established Drunken Tiger with producer DJ Shine, which became one of the first pure hip-hop groups to find commercial success within South Korea.
With his rap group, Tiger JK helped bring the once underground genre to the mainstream despite facing a censor-heavy music industry. RM, one of the members of the world-famous K-pop group BTS, even pays homage to Drunken Tiger on a featured verse he helped pen for the rap group.
And throughout his career, the Korean American rapper has spoken out against racism against Black people and Korean people, offering both sides to understand each other’s histories. He’s called out systemic racism in various interviews throughout the years in both the United States and in South Korea. In 2021, he released the song, “Love Peace” to bring attention to the rise of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.
And the seed of intention, Tiger JK has said, was planted in him during the L.A. Uprising. The events of 1992 prompted him to use his music and rap to become a mediator for both the Black and Korean communities.
Bridging the Black and Korean Communities
The Roots of Rap stage organized by Moweta was one of many efforts by community members in L.A. to bring the Korean and African communities together after violence in 1992.
Black ministers taught seminars on African American history for Korean American community members, while Korean churches sponsored trips for Black Americans to visit South Korea.
And in June of the same year, the Wilshire Ebell Theater hosted a “Korean and African Friendship Concert” featuring spirituals written by Black composers and vocal solos from Korean singers.
As for Moweta, he is still spreading the sound of African music across the diaspora on Radio Afrodicia on KPFK. He feels happy that hip-hop is global, with different countries altering the medium to the tune of their own beat, while keeping the impact of the genre’s socially conscious messaging.
“Music has always been a weapon to build bridges and pull people together.”
Listen to all of LAist Studios’ new podcast, K-Pop Dreaming. Host Vivian Yoon follows the rise of K-pop through the perspective of the Korean American diaspora in Los Angeles.
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