Tablo delves into identity at Asian Images

May 11, 2011, 2:03 a.m.

Korean hip-hop star and Stanford graduate Tablo spoke Tuesday evening at the annual Asian Images event in his first public appearance in over a year.

Daniel Seonwoong Lee ’01 M.A. ’02, also known as Tablo, the front man for Korean hip-hop group Epik High, addressed a variety of topics with an intimate gathering of students in Cubberley Auditorium.

Christopher Sung ’12 moderated the discussion, and questions from audience members for Lee were received via text message. Sung opened the discussion by asking Lee about identifying with multiple cultures; Lee has lived in Korea, Canada and the U.S.

“I never really thought of myself as Asian until I was put into a position where I had to,” he said. “Learning to deal with being Asian was learning to deal with being different.”

Lee also addressed issues of parental pressure, discussing his parents’ initial disappointment in his chosen career path.

“When I told [my parents] I wanted to do music, they actually thought I was insane,” Lee said.

“The dilemma between doing what they wanted and following my passion…wasn’t a dilemma at all,” he added. “If you seriously consider giving up your passion, it probably means you aren’t passionate enough. If you have a passion you just go.”

Sung proceeded to ask Lee a series of difficult questions, including his attitude towards the influence of academics on entering a creative industry. Lee graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature in just three and a half years.

“How Stanford affects careers is different for everyone,” he said. “It’s dependent on whether you’re applying your time on what you envision or hope your future to be. If you’re spending all of your time on academics…that’s all you’re going to get out of Stanford or any college.”

“I spent a lot of time doing things that no one asked me to do,” he added, like performing his music on campus and in clubs in San Francisco.

Instead of focusing on his music career, Lee spoke about his college roommate, who spent much of his time at Stanford photographing landscapes and was recently featured in a “100 most creative people” list.

“I wish I could tell you he was in [the magazine] for photography, but he’s actually working at Google,” Lee said.

Lee’s roommate helped to create Google Streetview.

“He merged his ‘inside time’ at Stanford, with his major in computer science or whatever, and his outside hobby to create something new,” Lee said. “That’s a remarkable example of what you can do.”

Lee also answered two “darker” questions, as Sung called them: battling depression and dealing with recent attacks by Internet communities on his Stanford credentials, which affected his family in Korea. He first acknowledged the campus phenomenon known as the Stanford Duck Syndrome.

“When I was here, we didn’t have that term,” he said. “I think it describes pretty much what I went through, too…I went through depression at Stanford but not because of Stanford, and I was treated at Stanford medical center. It wasn’t something that was blocking my life entirely, but maybe that’s because I was open to seeking help and speaking to people about it.”

Lee then turned to the attempts by netizens last summer to defame him and his family over the validity of his Stanford degree, before becoming visibly upset by the memories.

“It’s not exactly a South Korean problem; it’s an Internet problem,” he said. “The Internet doesn’t have borders.”

“My stress was never about whether or not people believe what people were saying about my credentials; it was never about being recognized,” Lee said. “It doesn’t change my past, what I’ve learned or what I’ve accomplished. My stress had everything to do with the fact that my family was being attacked. It never went beyond that for me.”

Lee remained in good spirits throughout his discussion, pausing only to note his nervousness and to joke occasionally with Sung. When asked if Lee had any imparting wisdom for students, he wasn’t sure how to answer.

“How do I give advice? Success is overrated. Friendship is underrated. And the best movies are R-rated,” he joked.

The Asian Images event was hosted by the Stanford Asian American Students’ Association as part of an annual series that brings prominent members of Asian Pacific Islander cultures to discuss identity and life in the public eye with Stanford students.

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