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[Herald Interview] Rapper BewhY: ‘I want to compete with US hip-hop artists, be the best’

Rapper with stateside dreams on ambitious journey after bursting out of fame bubble

“The reason for my US tour? I want to compete with hip-hop musicians in the US in the future,” said BewhY in his dimly lit studio when asked about his six-stop US tour in November last year. He was more than serious, sitting with his hands firmly clutched together and a determined look on his face. 

And surprisingly, it didn’t sound so cocky when he added, “And in the distant future, I know I will be the best.”

The dream of stateside success has been bubbling inside the ambitious 25-year-old rapper since he rose to stardom as the winner of the fifth season of Korea’s top rap competition “Show Me the Money” in 2016. Following his sold-out Seoul concert in October, BewhY, whose real name is Lee Byung-yoon, embarked on his first-ever solo US tour with dates in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington and New York. And the rapper recalled the language barrier-breaking tour as greatly satisfying despite a series of snags along the way -- he had trouble with his visa and caught a bad cold during the tour. 

(BewhY`s Instagram)
(BewhY`s Instagram)

After seeing his signature spitfire rap style and pulsating sound bring people of different backgrounds to their feet, Lee realized that language wasn’t a requirement for his talent.

But Lee doesn’t plan to neglect English, as he believes it could become another weapon.

“I think learning English is very important, as I want them to know that I rap in Korean not because I don’t speak English, but because I value our language despite knowing how to speak in English. I just want to show them how great Korean sounds,” he said, adding that he has been receiving private English lessons since he returned from the tour.

Refuting the idea that his tour was a way of “making inroads into the US market,” Lee said he has just taken a baby step toward a bigger dream.

“I want to show US hip-hop musicians how amazing we Korean rappers are, rather than just following in their footsteps. I will work hard until I can finally compete with them without the title of ‘Korean rapper.’” 

BewhY with fans in L.A. on Nov. 1 last year. (Dejavu Group)
BewhY with fans in L.A. on Nov. 1 last year. (Dejavu Group)

‘Gucci’ and haters

When Lee suddenly became one of Korea’s most in-demand musicians, he was unable to go outside unrecognized. His music blazed everywhere. The media made a fairy tale out of the superstar’s success story, depicting him as an aberration in the rap game here due to his devotion to Christianity and his music praising Jesus.

However, his success soon came to a halt with the release of “9ucci Bank,” a booming track about luxury brand Gucci, from his 13-track “The Blind Star” album in September last year.

Ostensibly, the song sounded like the rapper is an egotistical Gucci-lover bragging about his lavish life. But Lee revealed that the song was actually a reflection on his old self when he was consumed with materialism. 

(BewhY`s Instagram)
(BewhY`s Instagram)

“I just got so arrogant after ‘Show Me the Money,’ which made me bigger than I’d thought. I took performing for granted, and I splurged on luxuries. I was a VIP customer in several luxury shops, and once bought a Givenchy coat worth 8 million won ($7,540) and never wore it again,” he said.

“One day, I looked back at my life and realized I was chasing after fleeting things. And I wanted to put that message in music.”

As a reference to his blinded self, Lee intentionally appeared in head-to-toe Gucci both onstage and in the song’s accompanying music video. Why Gucci? Lee shared a story of how he resolved to empty a Gucci store one day after noticing a store employee looking him up and down when he was a struggling artist.

The public, however, said that his music had become polluted. The viral photos of the Gucci-covered rapper were mocked. Other purported Christians said he had betrayed the faith.

Lee was greatly disappointed.

He didn’t expect his intentions would be taken wrongly. In the rapper’s latest album, the “blind star” eventually turns back to Christianity, the foundation of his music, and recovers his faith in “My Star,” the last track of the album.

“That was the time I received the most malicious comments in my life. My Gucci wear was once featured in a famous streetwear blog -- Hypebeast -- and some even said I betrayed my own country, that I was a shame. It was absurd. I just couldn’t understand why people didn‘t see my real intention. It was such an annoying situation,” he said.

Asked if his outfit for the interview -- a casual black jacket and black pants -- were also from the brand, the rapper immediately shook his head and said, “Oh no. I don’t wear Gucci as my daily wear. It’s too much for me as well.” 

BewhY (Dejavu Group)
BewhY (Dejavu Group)

Dreaming of glory again

Eventually the legacy of “Show Me the Money” faded, leaving Lee with nothing but passion for music itself. And Lee learned how to thank his loyal fans from the bottom of his heart, as he repeated “Thank you” over and over again to fans during a previous solo concert. He also regained the strength to reclaim his past glory.

In his next album, the already confident rapper plans to talk about “being the hero” of one’s life in order to influence those who lack self-confidence. When people are not heroes of their own lives, they start comparing themselves to others and try to find out their setbacks, just like his haters, Lee said.

“The new song will be a nice fit for those who are the heroes of their own lives. I love myself so much, and I hope people can love themselves as well,” he said.

The next question was, will he continue the faith-based rhymes that made him stick out in the Korean hip-hop scene? “I’ll just do whatever I want,” he answered.

Lee, often called “Jesus Swagger,” spit lyrics inspired by biblical verses and his belief in God in hits such as “Forever,” “The Time Goes On” and “Day Day.” In his latest album, he initially tried to take religion out of it as many had complained about his approach. But, as a devout Christian at heart, he ended up returning to Jesus.

He also revealed that he had felt increased pressure for being a Christian rapper.

“It’s true that I have been extra cautious for being a Christian. Look at people who criticized me for wearing Gucci. In their minds, Christians shouldn’t wear Gucci or love spending money, and that I should leave God for buying luxuries. But the fact is, God didn’t say any of those things. To be honest, I spend a very proportional amount from what I earn. We Christians are just ordinary people striving to resemble Jesus,” he said.

Wrapping up the long interview, Lee once again made sure that it is known he is a man of confidence, passion and faith.

“When I look at my own performances, they are just jaw-dropping. I still don’t think any other rappers can surpass my performance, and it’s all God’s work. And this year, I will be the best again,” he said.

By Hong Dam-young (