N.Korea - unlikely springboard for US rap duo
Anthony Bobb (L) and Dontray Ennis, whose rap names are Pacman and Peso respectively, improvise lyrics at the Washington home of their music producer Ramsey Aburdene, on November 12, 2013
The dreadlocked duo -- who have never been on a plane before, let alone out of the United States -- are setting off this weekend for the capital Pyongyang.
Their plan: to make what might be the first hip hop video ever filmed in Asia's last hardline communist state.
"You've got to do something different," said Pacman, real name Anthony Bobb, lounging on a sofa in the bedroom-slash-recording studio of their music producer's Washington row house.
"That's why North Korea -- ain't nobody ever did it before," he told AFP.
To which Peso, the rap name of Dontray Ennis, added: "Everybody needs a career."
Not yet household names in hip hop, Pacman and Peso are nevertheless following in the high-profile footsteps of Google's chairman Eric Schmidt and basketball star Dennis Rodman.
Schmidt, 58, popped into North Korea in January to better understand the country -- with its severe food shortages, dismal human rights record and worrying nuclear program.
The flamboyant Rodman, 52, followed suit in April and September, promoting basketball diplomacy while partying with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, 30, who he declared him "friend for life.
Pacman, 19, and Peso, 20, probably won't shake hands with Kim. Nor do they claim to be experts in the mysterious inner workings of a repressive state where the Cold War still simmers.
What they do expect in North Korea is "a different feel, a different scene, a different everything," said Pacman, as one of the duo's tracks, "Levels Remix" played in the background.
At the heart of this project is Ramsey Aburdene, 24, a bank loan officer by day and hip hop producer by night, who grew up in the affluent and mainly white Northwest part of Washington.
He was out shooting a video with another artist in the poorer, majority African-American district of Anacostia when Pacman, who hails from the neighborhood, came over and started freestyling -- improvising rap lyrics.
"That same day he came up to the studio and ever since then it's been go, go, go," with Peso, from suburban Landover, Maryland joining soon after, laying down and mixing tracks at Aburdene's place for their Soundcloud account (https://soundcloud.com/fhtmg) and a just-released mix tape.
Aburdene had been anticipating his own trip to China this year when a friend, Michael Bassett, a North Korea expert and graduate student at American University in Washington, suggested going to Pyongyang with Pacman and Peso in tow.
That in turn led to a Kickstarter.com campaign in August that eventually raised $10,000 in pledges -- including a hefty contribution from a sympathetic Wall Street hedge fund manager -- to cover travel expenses.
That should be enough to pay for about five days in North Korea, as well as stops in Beijing and Mongolia's capital Ulan Bator -- with club gigs in both places -- plus a stopover in Hong Kong.
"Serendipity has brought about a rare opportunity for the duo to join a one-of-a-kind trip to North Korea where they will be able to shoot a music video that will showcase their talent and create a buzz for themselves," their Kickstarter page says.
Bassett, a former US soldier who was posted to the Korean demilitarized zone and who has been to North Korea four times already, told AFP the authorities in Pyongyang know about Pacman and Peso's plans and approved them.
"It's showing people that it's possible to do things like this right now," said Bassett, who will accompany Pacman, Peso and Aburdene as they go around the country and try to mingle with local folk.
Looking at the big picture, Bassett said that if a couple of inner-city rappers can connect with North Koreans, then "maybe it's time for (international) policy-makers to do it, too."
Ask for comment, a US State Department spokesperson told AFP: "The State Department does not vet US citizens’ private travel to North Korea."
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