By Kevin Ko, 15, Wilson HS (Hacienda Heights)
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The crowd went wild when Kevin performed at a concert put on by the 4C The Power program.
 Photos courtesy of Erich Chen Photography

Rap has always been my favorite kind of music. I listen to it all the time—in my room and at school. I even rap along to my favorite songs every morning in the shower. At first I was so impressed by how Eminem flowed his words to his beats. Then later I grew to appreciate how rappers like Tupac wrote songs that were autobiographical. In the song “Changes,” Tupac rapped about racial issues, gangs, drugs and violence. Lines like, “Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares/ One less hungry mouth on the welfare,” opened my eyes and made me respect the artists who had gone through hard times.

But I live in Hacienda Heights, a suburb about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles that doesn’t have these problems. Since I hadn’t experienced the same things as my favorite artists, I always felt like I was a poser for being a rap fan. Sometimes I even turned down the volume when listening to my favorite hip-hop songs in front of African Americans. I don’t know why, I just did it.

Last November, my doubts about being a legit rap fan started to change. A group called 4C The Power, which tries to help kids reach their potential through creativity and the arts, offered to put on a concert to raise money for the school. The concert would feature the Gamblerz Crew (b-boy dancers) from South Korea, Kaba Modern from America’s Best Dance Crew and many other artists including rapper IZ. I thought that they weren’t genuine because they’re mostly Asian. When IZ introduced himself by saying: “Ya know, like I been through a lot of stuff and y’all just gotta know,” he came across like an actor trying to sound hard.

The day before the concert, these artists led free performing arts workshops after school for the students. I took the hip-hop class, which was led by IZ and Jedi, a producer. They told us that there was going to be a showcase after the workshop and that every class had to perform. We had people from the school’s dance team in the class, so we decided to do a hip-hop dance routine and I would rap afterward. I was really scared, but IZ and Jedi gave me advice and motivation. They told me that a true rapper never gives up and steps up to every challenge.

As people filled the auditorium, I knew that this performance was going to be different than my shower raps. The crowd clapped and screamed a lot of “woos” during the spoken word, DJ and acoustic performances, which made me feel a lot more pressure.

I wanted to be taken seriously

Even though I had rapped along to my favorite song, “Changes,” so many times, I still kept thinking that I would forget the words. But what worried me the most was that the crowd wouldn’t respect me.

The hip-hop dance routine was good. After they finished, the DJ played his own instrumental hip-hop beats that I’d rap on top of. I stood there and looked at the crowd and let the beat flow through my ears.

Bass. Snare. Bass, bass, snare. Bass. Snare. Bass, bass, snare.

“I see no changes. Wake up in the mornin’ and I ask myself/ Is life worth living should I blast myself?” I rapped with confidence. When I was performing I wanted to look like a rapper, so I walked all over the stage and moved my hands with the beat. I was so into the moment that I forgot I was a Korean Catholic altar boy and just thought of myself as a rapper.

After I finished, the crowd went nuts. In front of the audience, Diann from 4C told me that she was going to give me a month to write my own verse and then I would perform in one of their upcoming shows. Everyone cheered and chanted “Ke-vin, Ke-vin” as I walked off stage with a huge smile on my face.

Before I got to my seat, Jedi pulled me aside, took the composition notebook that I had been given by 4C, and wrote “Kevin’s rhymes” on the cover. He told me that any time I had a thought, an inspiration or just needed to vent, I should write that in this book and make it into a rhyme. But I kept thinking to myself, “Suburban Korean teenagers can’t write raps.”

I would perform two verses to a song by the hip-hop group Far East Movement. Since Far East Movement would be at the concert, which was at 4C’s new office in Hacienda Heights, Diann and I thought it would be cool to rap one of their songs. The first verse would be from the song “Blue Collar Blues” and I would write my own new second verse.

A couple days later, I finished my homework one night and turned on the instrumental to “Blue Collar Blues.” I was scared to write what I was thinking. How would people take it that I’m rapping about having late nights finishing my AP homework?

What made gangsta rap so powerful was that they were rapping about what they actually went through. For me, I just had to be as passionate about what I’ve gone through, even if my experiences weren’t as serious.

“I got church, sports and ASB/ My grades aren’t anywhere near where they should be.”

I didn’t like the flow at all. My words didn’t seem fast enough for the beat. But I still stuck with it because I got my message across. I spent about three hours during the next two days writing lines. When I started writing, I used a pen (like Eminem in 8 Mile) because I thought it was more “rapper-like.” But after I scratched out half a page of lines, I switched to pencil.

I practiced for hours

The night before the show, I stayed up until 2 a.m. rapping in my room. At first, I sat down at my desk and memorized the lyrics. After I had the lyrics down, I pretended my stapler was a microphone and tried out different motions with my hands that would make me look more “rapper-like” on stage. I forgot lines, stuttered and even dropped the stapler twice. I would always mess up when I began thinking too much. So I realized that I would have to let the lyrics flow without thinking.

When I arrived at the show, I saw the concert poster with my name right below Far East Movement’s name. For a brief moment, I forgot my nervousness. My name was on a concert poster? I wanted to squeal louder than a teenage girl at a Jonas Brothers concert.

But soon the doubt was back. Suddenly, IZ came in because he would be performing, too.

“Just remember, it’s only you up there,” he told me to settle my nerves. “Nobody else controls you. As long as you think you’re the best one out there, you’re going to be the best one out there.”

I took the stage. I received a huge ovation, mostly because a lot of my friends had come. I was happy to see my friends, but they also made me more nervous. Soon the DJ played the “Blue Collar Blues” instrumental. The melody kicked in first, then the snare, then the bass. Then I started rapping:

Trying to live my life as clean as I can
In the end, the drug free person is the bigger man
Instead of getting high,
I’d rather write rhymes,
Put temptation aside man, I’ll be just fine.

Far East Movement came out as soon as they heard their instrumental. I pointed right to them and smiled and they cheered right back. Did Far East Movement just cheer for me? HECK YEAH THEY DID!

I saw my friends and heard them cheer me on. Artists like AJ Rafael and Vudoo Soul popped their heads out from backstage to watch me perform. And it made me really happy when I looked to my right and saw IZ smiling and clapping along with the beat.

After my performance, the crowd went nuts, mostly because they were my friends (I think). I didn’t see my family while I performed, but they told me after that they were in the back. This meant a lot to me because my dad always said rappers were losers who didn’t study. And my mom told me to stop listening to rap and didn’t want me to perform because she thought I would end up joining a gang and doing drugs. But my parents told me I was great and that they were really proud of me.

One of the members of Far East Movement told me that I was going to go places, which inspired me.

I’ve performed twice since then. And although I forgot some words one of the times, I feel lucky that I’ve had these opportunities. I get chills when I perform in front of a crowd that I can’t get anywhere else.

Now I know the true beauty of hip-hop is that it’s open to anyone. Hip-hop artists are judged by how good their flow is, not by what they look like or what race they are.

Watch a YouTube video of Kevin’s performance of the Far East Movement’s "Blue Collar Blues."