US hip hop performers film video in DPRK

UPDATE 4 (2014-1-8): You can see the video here:

UPDATE 3 (2014-1-7): The Guardian offers additional information on the rap video trip here:

Pacman and Peso have granted the Guardian an exclusive preview of the video – as well as their first interview about an adventure in the world’s most despotic regime.

The genesis of their music video was a random encounter earlier this year with Ramsey Aburdene, a 25-year-old Washington-based investment banker who liked their music and became their manager. Aburdene had a friend who used to be in the military and specialises in getting people into Pyongyang, so they hatched the plan to shoot a rap video there.

No one involved in the trip could easily articulate why exactly North Korea was an appropriate backdrop for the music video. But they still managed to raise $10,400 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

Interviewed recently in Aburdene’s bedroom in a shared house in Mount Pleasant, Pacman, 19, and Peso, 20, recounted their surreal, eye-opening experiences in North Korea.

They managed to film their rap video inside Pyongyang’s faltering metro, beside the demilitarized zone bordering South Korea, on a rice farm and in front of various North Korean monuments, not least the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, an ornate mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, the so-called founder and eternal president of the country, and his son, Kim Jong-il.

Before arriving in North Korea, the group took part in a tour through Asian countries including China, Hong Kong and Mongolia. But it almost began in disaster in Beijing, when the rap entourage, which included some of Aburdene’s university friends, decided to hire motorcycles.

Peso, whose real name is Dontray Ennis, collided with a car near Tiananmen Square and, aware that he was not insured, fled. An angry crowd apprehended Pacman, whose real name is Anthony Bobb. “I was like, man, we ain’t going to North Korea. I’m gonna get locked up in Beijing,” Pacman recalls. “This shit gonna be on the news.”

After some ad-hoc diplomacy and a visit to a car repair shop, the group was let free, but missed their flight to Hong Kong, arriving late for the next leg of the journey – hosted by their main financial backer.

James Passin, a 41-year-old hedge fund manager who has poured millions of dollars in Mongolia, and also has business interests in North Korea, donated $5,100 to their Kickstarter campaign.

Described in BusinessWeek as ‘The American Who Bought Mongolia’, Passin was keen to be involved in the project. “He actually wanted to be in the North Korea video, but then his advisors told him it was probably better not to be,” Aburdene said.

Instead, Passin invited the rapping tour to Hong Kong, where he happened to be hosting his investor conference – and birthday celebration – in the Grand Hyatt hotel. Later, Passin flew the group to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. It was Peso’s favourite stop on the whole tour, not least because of the generous hospitality of their host. “The moment we arrived we got chauffeur rides to the hotel,” he said. “I had lobster with some fries while I was sipping on Sprite,” said Pacman.

Returning briefly to Beijing, the group picked up some tailored silk suits in preparation for North Korea. But by then the situation in Pyongyang had changed.

It was the end of November, and Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran, had been detained in North Korea. The State Department strongly discouraged American citizens against visiting North Korea, the first warning of its kind since Pyongyang began allowing tourists into the country in 1995.

Pacman and Peso were being compared to Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star who has developed unlikely friendship with Kim Jong-un. Unlike Rodman, who is currently in Pyongyang accompanied by a fleet of former basketball players, the DC rappers did not have the blessing of Kim Jong-un, or indeed anyone else from North Korean officialdom.

Instead, they had always planned to travel beneath the radar, shooting their video under the cover of a sightseeing tour. With the five-day trip just hours away, the entourage began to realise that an interview with the BBC was probably not the best way to maintain a low-profile. Shortly before boarding, they read a Gawker article mentioning how, despite the State Department advice, “a much-publicized trip by two DC rappers, Pacman and Peso, is going ahead as planned.”

“All the buzz we were getting, I thought we were gonna get hemmed up, captured,” said Pacman. His rapping partner agreed: “I was like: uh-oh. Are we gonna make it?” They put their worries behind them and flew to Pyongyang regardless.

When the aircraft doors opened, they walked out to the sound of snapping cameras. “As soon as I seen cameras, I started being myself,” said Peso. “I started flipping my jacket open, smoking my cigarette in front of the cameras, turn[ing] round to make sure they got the suit.”

Despite the the flurry of attention from Associated Press journalists at the airport, the rappers succeeded in going largely unnoticed in North Korea.

Each day, Pacman and Peso hopped on a tourist bus, which ferried them to approved locations across the country in the company of government-sanctioned tour guides. So as not to attract attention, they used a small, Canon camera to shoot video, filming segments surreptitiously whenever their minders were looking the other way. Microphones, headphones, or amplified music were out of the question. Instead, they improvised. “We were just spitting the voice that was in our head,” Peso said. “It was just work, work, work, non-stop.”

They were not helped by the sub-zero temperatures and snow. There was rarely heating in any of the buildings and the silk suits provided little comfort. “One of the North Koreans, he gave me his coat,” Pacman said. “I asked him if he wanted it back, and he was like, ‘Nah, just keep it for the rest of the night.’”

Memories such as that left both young men with a positive experience of North Korea. They still speak about their recollections in dreamy monologues. “The old ladies looked like they were carrying the heaviest things. The army people walking down the street had guns,” said Pacman. “You see a whole bunch of rice fields. People was riding bikes. The little kids was walking down the street by themselves, they must have been in first grade. But everybody waved.”

One month on, both Pacman and Peso say they still feel energised by their journey to North Korea. They look and sound more animated than before they departed, when the anxiety was showing on their faces. “No-one has made a music video in North Korea before. Or even thought about it,” Peso said proudly. Pacman said his rapping had improved since their return. “It sounds stronger, the words are coming faster, quicker,” he said.

Smiling, he remembers the elation he felt when they departed Pyongyang. “The first thing I thought was: we made it out,” he said. “We beat the odds.”

UPDATE 2 (2013-12-1): According to the Associated Press:

The two rappers said their trip shied away from politics.

“I mean we did not go there to be political. We just go down there to shoot our video and that about the reason why we went, not political,” said Pacman – whose real name is Anthony Bobb.

The duo from the Washington area spoke to reporters at an airport in Beijing upon their return from a five-day trip to North Korea.

“Nobody shot a video in North Korea, let alone thought of it. Nobody even thought of making a video in North Korea. You know what I’m saying?” said Peso, whose real name is Dontray Ennis.

More in The Guardian.

UPDATE 1 (2013-11-8): According to the Guardian:

Pacman and Peso have never traveled much beyond the poor suburb of Washington DC where they live. But after a successful internet fundraising drive, the unsigned hip-hop duo will next Saturday embark on a trip, to shoot a video they hope will jumpstart their career, with an unlikely destination – North Korea.

After raising $10,400 from their  Kickstarter campaign, the pair will first fly to China and then on to Pyongyang, where they plan to film songs such as “God Bless Amerika” on a party bus.

Neither of them have flown on an airplane. They say they only recently discovered that North Korea was a foreign country.

Comparisons are inevitably being made with Dennis Rodman, the former basketball player whose visits to North Korea resulted in an unlikely friendship with the country’s dynastic leader, Kim Jong-un. But Pacman, 19, and Peso, 20, unsigned artists in search of a record deal to lift them out of poverty, are on the cusp of a very different kind of trip.

The story of the rap duo’s adventure could only be forged in a place like Washington, a deeply divided city where separated communities only occasionally overlap. A few months ago, Pacman was walking through his neighbourhood, Congress Heights, when he came across a group of twentysomethings shooting a music video. He struck up a friendship with one of the group, a white, 24-year-old investment banker named Ramsey Aburdene, who has since been managing the pair in his spare time.

Aburdene, from DC’s affluent north-west quadrant, had an acquaintance who happened to be an expert on North Korea. Mike Bassett, 34, is a former Iraq war veteran who was lived for seven years in South Korea, four of them with the US army.

A self-described pacifist, Bassett has become a fixer for people interested in traveling to Pyongyang. A Master’s student at American University, he has coordinated several cultural exchanges and traveled extensively in the country since restrictions were eased in 2010.

He has arranged the two rappers’ flights and visas, and laid the necessary groundwork for their tour. Bassett insists North Korea is misunderstood in the eyes of the west, and says Pacman and Peso will be treated with courtesy. Still, he has felt it necessary to provide the young rappers with some cultural advice, and instructed them to amend some of their lyrics.

An entourage consisting of Pacman, Peso, Bassett and Aburdene, plus other friends, departs next Saturday. At their leaving party in Washington on Thursday, in a bar near Aburdene’s house, Peso and Pacman provided well-wishers with an introduction to their debut mixtape.

Once or twice, the crowd broke out into chants of “North Korea”. But no-one really seemed to know exactly why the pair were traveling to the autocratic state, least of all Pacman and Peso. “I’m a thrill-seeker, I don’t fear nothing,” said Pacman, a smiley, baby-faced teenager whose real name is Anthony Bobb. “I like an action movie. I can’t sit and watch a drama flick – it takes too long.”

Pacman said people keep telling him not to go; his aunt tried to talk him out of the trip and his mum told to him to watch his back. “Me personally, I don’t pay too much to politics, so I can’t say what is right. Then again, who is to say what is right and what is wrong?”

His serious-looking partner Peso, from Landover, said: “I’m excited – the only thing I’m not excited about is the plane.” He added: “We’re changing the game. Nobody has shot a video in North Korea like we’re about to do.”

Asked if he was worried for his safety, Peso, whose real name is Dontray Ennis, replied: “You don’t think this is a dangerous place to be living at right now? There’s your answer, then.”

The idea that Pacman and Peso are just as likely to be subject to arbitrary detention, arrest and mistreatment in the streets around their home as Pyongyang has become a theme in the promotion surrounding their trip. It was the thrust of a piece profiling the pair in the Washington Post, which helped them easily surpass their fundraising goal of $6,000. The 4,000-word feature gave the pair huge exposure in the city, not least because the reporter interviewing them, Monica Hesse, was stopped and searched by police in the process.

“We’re not trying to be political heroes or anything like that,” said Aburdene. “We understand there is terrible stuff going on in North Korea, but there is terrible stuff going on here that people aren’t straight up about.”

Both Pacman and Peso have spent time in jail for minor offences. There is no doubt their day-to-day lives are not comparable to that of of the predominantly white community that is fast gentrifying America’s capital.

Aburdene said that he trusts Bassett when it comes to protecting the party’s safety in North Korea. He is not worried they will be detained, but is concerned their footage might get confiscated and said he realised they may need to tread carefully. “Even if it’s not a standard, crazy, party-like thing, I’ll enjoy the anthropological side,” he said.

But beneath the bravado, there appears to be at least a hint of anxiety on the part of the two young rappers.

At one point during a pre-show interview, Peso seemed only half-joking when he talked about the pair maybe being killed in North Korea. “If we don’t die, it will probably be a big life-changer,” he said.

He looked a little uncertain, before adding: “Can I ask you a question? What do you think is going to happen when we go over there?

ORIGINAL POST (2013-9-18): US hip hop performers to film video in DPRK. According to the Washington Post:

A few weeks ago, a Kickstarter project was posted on the Internet featuring two young men who went by the names of Pacman and Peso. The duo and their producer were using the crowdsourcing site to raise money for a creative endeavor; they wanted to make a music video. A rap music video. They wanted to do it on a karaoke party bus. They needed only $6,000, a fairly modest sum, considering that this estimate also included lodging and two overseas flights. The video, you see, was going to be filmed in Pyongyang.

North Korea.

Rappers Pacman, 19, and Peso, 20, are raising $6,000 to make a music video. They want to do it on a karaoke party bus in Pyongyang, North Korea. Here, they spend time in the District and Maryland, making music and spending time with family and friends.

“This trip will be a fantastic opportunity for Pacman and Peso to meet young, dynamic people and significantly broaden their horizons,” read the proposal, which was posted Aug. 30, “in addition to jump starting their musical careers.” The title was straightforward and surreal: “Pacman & Peso Make a Music Video in North Korea.”

So, yes, it sounds weird. Two African American youths from Southeast D.C. and Prince George’s County have paired with a white part-time producer from Northwest D.C., and they all want to go to North Korea because they see it as their best shot at a better future. Call Christopher Guest. Call Dave Chappelle. Someone is pulling your chain.

Unless, of course, it’s real. Unless it’s complicated. Unless it’s a whimsical windmill-tilt of a heartbreak.

“My goal was to rap,” says Peso, 20, whose real name is Dontray Ennis. If it wasn’t that, it was football. “But other than that, it was either doing wrong in the streets, or getting locked up.”

“This is my only option now,” he says of North Korea. “If it was to work.”

Read more here.

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