After public passion was raised by an alleged misogynistic crime at Seoul’s Isu Station, rapper San E’s controversial take on the issue has further stirred the evolving debate in Korea. Often viewed as a typical sexist hip-hop artist, San E’s rap “Feminist” in response to the incident on Nov.13 has revealed just how conflicted many Koreans are on gender equality.
Public debate was sparked by allegations that three men had started a violent row with two women at the station because they were not wearing make-up and had short hair.
San E’s rap, released on Nov. 15, has raised a storm of questions over whether his message is truly feminist or terribly misogynistic. San E’s lyrics combine his characteristic profanities with provocative lines such as “Sister why mad? Blame system, not men”. They also dismiss concerns over the gender wage gap and Confucian patriarchy, as well as criticizing the #MeToo movement.
Many have denounced the rap as hate speech because of its provocative tone and crude dismissal of feminist issues.
Another rapper, Jerry-K, quickly answered “Feminist” with a rap titled “No You Are Not” on Nov. 16. The battle then ran to another round of raps between San E and female rapper, Sleeq. Eventually, San E made a statement on Nov.19 explaining that he had not rapped as himself in “Feminist” but had taken the ironic persona of a patriarchal character. However, commentators have cast doubt over his claims.
“The recent controversy regarding San E’s raps show a long-awaited counter-attack on so-called ‘compassionate patriarchs’ such as San E – who have traditionally had double standards toward women – finally becoming visible in popular culture,” said Professor Kim Hye-Ryung of HOKMA College of General Education, who specializes in protestant ethics.
Professor Kim dismissed San E’s claim that “Feminist” was ironic, observing that his rap and comments online, all share what she called a misinformed and patriarchal perspective that dismisses the injustices suffered by women.
Likewise, music critic Kim Do-heon pointed out that San E’s response to Jerry-K only made sense if he was the speaker in the original rap.
“If San E truly wanted to criticize the type of people who speak of equality but then promote hatred, as he said in his statement, he should have welcomed Jerry-K’s answer rap,” Kim said. While San E has sparked hot debate on feminism, Kim added that the context of hip-hop as a musical genre should also be understood.
“Korean hip hop artists have transplanted the features of American hip-hop, without any consideration of the Korean context, using female-oriented hate speech without deliberate consideration,” he explained.
Kim warned that hate speech is spreading in Korea because twenty-somethings do not understand the issues behind conflicts such as the Isu Station incident. He added that artists and audiences should be better equipped to judge whether a rap’s message is justified, or merely misguided hate speech.
Worryingly, aggressive language is not only found in San E’s lyrics, but also in online discussions about them, where neologisms that combine sexual words with profanities are commonly used. Many young netizens have taken to both criticize and support San E’s rap.
An Ju-yi, sophomore in the Department of English Language and Literature, called for more empathy in discussions on vulnerable groups.
An said that she sometimes uses Everytime, to express her opinions, even though she does not always agree with the comments posted there.
“Even though I have mixed feelings about the aggressive language used on Everytime, I use it to explore others’ opinions and adjust my own thoughts through dialogue,” she said.
Ultimately, the San E controversy can be viewed with a grain of optimism for the longterm. Once Koreans’ discussion on feminism ripens into a more balanced debate, we may see more balanced approaches to the issue emerging in popular culture.