She is a fusion person. She sings what she calls fusion music,
part of a Korean wave of song, film and TV soap opera that has
gained wide popularity across Asia.
Her name is Insooni, born Kim In-Soon, the daughter of a Korean
mother and an African-American father who served in the U.S. military.
Her mother raised her alone, sending her to an international school
to help avoid the social stigma that can befall mixed-race children
here. Now 50 with a daughter of her own, she has been singing
and dancing since she was 21.
publicity sheet calls her "South Korea's acclaimed R&B
diva." Insooni has performed in Carnegie Hall, her latest
song "Goose Dreams" is on YouTube. But her growing audience,
beyond her home country, is across Southeast Asia, where the music
that combines an American sound with Korean lyrics and sometimes
Korean instrumentation is very much in vogue.
Insooni met over a Korean lunch with our group of editors and
producers. She was joined by two filmmakers. Byun Young-jo, 40,
comes out of South Korea's politically active generation that
helped push the country to democracy in the late 1980s. Her best
known works are three films on the Korean "comfort women,"
the sex-slaves for Japanese troops during World War II and the
Japanese occupation of Korea. Ryu Mi-rye, 36, is a journalist
and documentarian, who recently has focused on films dealing with
the mentally and physically handicapped.
In our conversation, all three reflected on some of the major
impulses running through Korean culture -- its new reach and popularity
through the rest of Asia, the post-Korean War influence of American
culture, the artistic freedoms that came with democracy, particularly
in the last decade, and how increasingly artists relate to their
audiences through technology, especially in Korea, where 38 million
of the country's almost 50 million people use wireless mobile
As Insooni said, in the 1950s and into the '60s, the only modern
music young Koreans heard were the sounds blaring from the radios
of U.S. Military bases in and around Seoul. Here, as almost everywhere,
Hollywood has captured a large chunk of the movie-going audiences.
The struggle for local filmmakers to get a foothold against the
Hollywood colossus, Byun warned, could be set back as the recently
concluded free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea
may wipe out local content laws requiring Korean movie theaters
to carry a certain number of Korean films.
A highly educated population with an easy comfort level with
technology produces its own challenges for artists, Byun said.
"Artists are influenced by comments on the Internet. Many
artists don't care about newspaper critics, but they do care about
critiques on the net. Korea is a high-speed country. You can't
just get by. You will get passed by by your competitors. There
is a high level of tension and pressure for artists here."
She added that Korea is often a test market for U.S. films, sometimes
being released nearly simultaneously in both countries.
"Though Korea is a high speed country, it moves faster in
culture than in anything else. I travel to foreign countries,
and you don't see people adapting as fast to the avant-garde,
as fast as the Korean people."
Asked about the popularity of American culture despite polls
showing mass disapproval of Bush administration policies, Byun
"Isn't that a worldwide trend? It is an international and
worldwide trend of hating the Bush administration and waiting
for the next election. But the entire world enjoys American culture."
To Insooni I put the question, based on all of three days here,
that Koreans seemed to love to sing and sing well. She smiled
and lit up as the interpreter put the question to her.
"Korea is full of power, lots of energy. All Koreans need
to find a little moment when they can put all their energy and
power together to make a big event."
She cited as an example, on the eve of the 2002 World Cup, hundreds
of thousands gathering in front of Seoul City Hall and singing
songs in one voice. Singing and music have been an important element
in Korean history, she added. Koreans sing at all important events,
and they have songs for all settings and events -- farmers working
in rice paddies, hikers in the mountains, at funerals.
"Life lies in Korean song and music," Insooni added.
"Lots of Koreans sing so well that I feel threatened as
Though she said it with a laugh and smile, it's hard to imagine
an American or British pop singer of equal stature harboring,
much less giving voice to such sentiments.