In late February, Jonathan Park sat down to watch the Oscars. But when he looked at the stage, he noticed that "the only yellow men were all statues."
So he wrote a song about it.
Park, better known as by his rap moniker Dumbfoundead, called his song "Safe," a reference to Asian Americans being considered a model minority and "safe" to push around.
But the real draw of the song is the video, with Dumbfoundead’s face superimposed over the faces of white actors in “Titanic,” “Pulp Fiction” and other iconic movies. Less than a week after its release, the video has nearly half a million views. That’s not surprising, because it’s hilarious:
Note that this video contains vulgarities:
Well, maybe not the ending — that part is funny too, but also a bit too real. The track itself is one of his best, though, and for the most part, I think the work speaks for itself.
But I wanted to know more.
So I sat down with Dumbfoundead and asked him about the story behind the song. We ended up talking about the time he was in a room full of famous actors, why he doesn’t mind that #StarringJohnCho beat him to the punch, and the meaning of some of the most popular and controversial lines of the track.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
So, the "Safe" video has been getting a lot of response.
Dumbfoundead: It’s weird; it’s turned out to be one of the biggest songs of my career.
Is that weird to you? You've been making music for more than a decade.
No, it’s cool. I’m very proud of this one. I’ve done all types of songs from ratchet joints to things with a message, storytelling stuff. This has obviously reached out to a lot of people in the community and it’s the right timing for the conversation. I was out and about this weekend and I had Asian cats come up to me and say, “Thank you for the song.”
I'm curious about the process of writing the song. You said you wrote the lyrics a week after the Oscars broadcast.
“Safe" came from the Academy Awards, where they were talking about the Oscars being so white, but I felt like Asian and Latinos and different people of color weren’t added to the conversation. And that was because of Chris Rock’s monologue. I was excited because I'm a huge Chris Rock fan. I was, like, he's about to go in. And he did, but I kinda feel like he threw Asian Americans under the bus. It's all like super stereotypical stuff, and it still gets a huge roar of laughter constantly.
You're talking about the joke where Chris Rock brought those three Asian kids up on stage and then made a joke about Asian child labor.
Yeah. If that joke was a funny, tasteful joke, I'd have been cool with it. But it was just kinda wack, and super stereotypical. I just don't appreciate that kind of stuff. It's just not funny at all. I notice that when I battle rap I hear the best of the best Asian jokes. But then when I hear the wack ones … it’s just really corny. You can tell when they don't know the culture that well.
I can't believe we're analyzing the quality of Asian jokes here.
I hear all types of ethnic jokes from different battlers. People hit the Middle Eastern dudes with Middle Eastern stuff; we put that all on the table. But specifically with these Asian jokes, they still get a crazy amount of response. It's the same [stuff] all the time. That's why I just felt like we became this punching bag. The “safe” race to make fun of.
With the superimposing of your face over white movie characters, it kinda reminds me of the "Starring John Cho" meme. Did that inspire you or was the timing a coincidence?
You know what's so funny, we were working on this already and the #StarringJohnCho meme came out. Part of me was, on a creative side, like, “aw damn, we're late on this.” But then [the creative staff] was, like, this is actually going to help our video. And we're all trying to get the same message across, you know? Actually, the guy behind the #StarringJohnCho campaign helped to push this as well.
So I want to talk about the song "Safe" itself. Do you have a favorite line in the song?
My favorite line in there is one that no one's brought up to me. It's actually “ODB up at the Grammys on the mic / Like “Wu-Tang is for the children!”
That’s my favorite, but nobody caught it. Maybe the rap heads did. That's referring to the  Grammys where [Ol’ Dirty Bastard] interrupted Diddy getting his award. … He felt like Wu-Tang should have won.
… But that’s pretty old now. So a lot of the younger cats wouldn’t have picked that up. Even me, that’s before my time.
What does that line mean in the context of the song?
The line before it is “I guess I gotta play the villain / ODB up on the mic before the Grammys like Wu-Tang is for the children!” That's just like disrupting what's going on, you gotta kinda go in there and say these things, and interrupt it and say how you really feel. And “I guess I gotta play the villain” – cats don't like to be that person. They look at that dude as the enemy or the villain.
What about this line: "I ain't never heard of none of y'all fools / I can do whatever every one of y'all do?"
That's really just, like, looking at all types of actors on TV and, of course, we see a lot of white actors. And I think just felt, like, I could play that role; I can be that dude. … I have been acting this last two or three years, and I kind of experienced that. I remember sitting in an audition room for this one Asian role and I was in this room with the top Asian actors in the world. For this one role. Sun Kang from “Fast and Furious,” [Ki Hong Lee] from “Maze Runner,” Justin Chon, all these Asian actors that people might not know but are the ones in everything. And I'm the new dude, but I’m in the room already with the top Asian actors who are in a lot of stuff. I just feel like, man, that's tough.
You mean that these guys have paid their dues, they've been in the game forever, and you just hop in and you're already on the same level. And you realize that after all their work, they haven't gotten that far.
It's the shortage of those cats and maybe also the lack of respect they may be getting. Or the opportunities they're given.
I want to ask about the part just after the ODB line: "Bruce Jenner is woman / OJ was acquitted / Kim K is a hero / The sky is the limit, any minute now / They gonna let an Asian brotha' get a lead role"
Yeah, I got in trouble for some of that, actually.
Did you? OK, break those lines down for me.
I think the biggest line I got in trouble for is the “Bruce Jenner is a woman” one. The trans community took that in a wrong way, and I got nothing but love for the trans community. When I said “Bruce Jenner” instead of “Caitlyn Jenner,” that’s why they were mad about that. Because obviously she wants to identify as Caitlyn Jenner. So me saying “Bruce Jenner” sounds like I’m trying to take that away or something. But that whole line is just really about America. It’s not about those specific individuals. It’s the possibilities of doing stuff, being in America. Kim [Kardashian] is a hero to so many people. … If somebody wants to identify as somebody else, then you can do that … that’s just America. … And following “the sky is the limit,” all those things that happen … anything is possible.
And if those things can happen, then how come an Asian brother can’t get a lead role? That's what I meant. And I didn’t really think so deep into it as I was writing, honestly. It was just kind of, like, you’re writing raps and want to have the flow of it too, and kind of leave it more vague. I didn’t think I was going to do a follow-up and explain lines like this. [Laughs]
So what was the response to that line?
I saw a few comments referring to that line. I didn’t mean to offend the trans community. I had no idea me saying “Bruce Jenner” would offend. I didn’t know that identifying with the new name was a huge deal, because I’m just not familiar with that. But now I know.
I'm assuming you'll be performing this track live in the future. Are you going to change the line?
No. … Because I’m not trying to offend anybody, you know? It’s like with any form of art. Things are going to offend people. Anyone can take anything how they want. There’s mad white people offended by this whole song, you know what I mean? I go on YouTube and … I see the craziest comments. There’s crazy racist comments on there.
What kind of things are people saying?
Everybody’s saying “stop complaining,” that sorta thing. Saying, “What do you mean there’s no Asian films? There’s Bollywood and martial arts films.” Just not understanding the point. So I’ve seen a lot of that … the comment section is where you really see the true colors of people, I feel like they really go off on there.
There's one more line I want to ask about. I think this is an L.A. thing that some people who don't live here might not get, but what about "never saw this side of Chino"?
Yeah, "Chino" is just, growing up in Los Angeles, with a huge Latino community. It was what they would call Asians. Like, "Hey, Chino!" It's a derogatory term; it means Chinese. A lot of Latinos, when they see Asians …. I remember when I was growing up they'd call me "Chino." They weren't specifying "Coreano." It's a common term to point out an Asian person in Los Angeles. And I grew up with mad Latino homies, and instead of taking it in a derogatory way, I just kinda ran with it, like, "I'm the Chino of this block."
My nickname was "Chino" for a while among my friends. But we're all homies. Obviously, you can take it the wrong way, but I embraced it at the time. So "people never saw this side of Chino," that was more of an L.A. reference.
And "never messed with anybody else that's not the Jonathan that we know," it all goes back to us being "safe," the "model minority." Sometimes people have these assumptions that we're just chill, timid, tame.
What effect are you hoping the video will have?
I know this video has spread to a lot of people in the industry. Agents and managers and stuff. … I think a lot of people are all for [what I'm advocating]. It's just they're trying to make it work. It's a scary thing for these industries to sacrifice a system that's kind of been working financially. So for someone to kind of be bold about it and shake things up, it's kind of revolutionary. I just hope that this gets somebody inside the industry to be, like, "Yo, let's start making some changes."
What about people outside the industry?
Yeah, people outside the industry too.
Because there's a line where you say, "What you talkin' 'bout there ain't no space / Guess I gotta go and make more space."
Exactly. The video in itself is really exactly what I'm talking about. I wrote the song, put myself in the video and that's what needs to happen. We can't wait. If you wait it's gonna take forever.
You just have to write these stories. I have also tons of actor friends who are writing scripts because they know. They have been in it for a long time. They know that the perfect role isn't going to come for them. They're going to have to write themselves in.
And the video in itself, that's what it is. I wrote myself into a music video.
Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.
MORE FROM MUSIC