Korean businesses in Baltimore occupy mostly black neighborhoods, including Sandtown-Winchester and the Station North area. During the Baltimore Uprising, many of these stores faced damage, and NPR was quick to point to the tensions between black Americans and Asians, stemming from the perception that Korean store owners profit off the black community where they own businesses but do not reside. This narrative that has been acknowledged since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a year after Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, was shot unlawfully by liquor-store owner Soon Ja Du. Locally, in 1993, the robbery and death of Joel Lee, a Korean-American student at then-Towson State University, sparked protest from the Korean community when the accused was acquitted by an almost entirely African-American jury.
Michelle Lee, a senior accountant at MICA, brought the idea of organizing a traditional Korean performance as a reaction to the Baltimore Uprising to Ben Stone, the executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment District, back in May. Stone, concerned that the event might seem too "separatist," suggested having a joint performance with Bmore Than Dance, a group of Baltimore club dancers who regularly perform at the Ynot Lot. The event "Bmore Seoul to Soul" was organized in just a few weeks in order to keep it relevant to the uprising.
Lee believes that the second "Seoul to Soul" event on Sept. 13 will benefit from the extra preparation time and funding that the project has received from MICA's Office of Community Engagement and the Baltimore National Heritage Area.
The performance attempts to relieve tensions between Korean and black communities in Baltimore and specifically Station North by showcasing both traditional Korean dance teams and black Baltimore club music dancers.
Stone acknowledges the "potential" for tension between Korean store owners and black residents in Station North. However, Stone and Lee also noticed moments of camaraderie between some members of each community.
"During the uprising, there were so many cases where black residents looked out for Korean business owners, and vice versa," he says. "Korean business owners had safe havens for people to bring in children that were trying to get home from school."
Lee recalls one store owner on North Avenue telling her that his black neighbors helped him when his business was damaged. The owner told her that he didn't recognize any of the faces of the people who damaged his store, and thought they weren't from the neighborhood.
"I don't think it's a bad relationship," she says. "It's not really tension between real residents of the area."
The name "Seoul to Soul" feels a bit like an overused pun, and yet it draws unexpected connections between Korean and black culture.
The September event features the Bmore Than Dance group, senior dancers from Dance and Bmore, a new addition to the lineup, and five Korean traditional teams of the Maryland Korean Traditional Culture Association. The Korean performances include different dances and instruments such as samulnori, a genre of traditional percussions, and gayageum, a Korean string instrument that is a rare sighting for even Korean natives. The performers always wear some kind of hanbok, traditional clothing that is symbolic of Korean heritage.
Korean dance and music is so grounded in tradition that experiencing it in a lot in Station North alongside Baltimore club dance can be somewhat jarring. Even in Korea, one would normally have to go to a museum or a palace to see these performances. But the juxtaposition in Station North legitimizes Baltimore club music and hip-hop as a tradition that is just as important to the black population of the city as hanbok is to a Korean.
"I think that's important for our future generation, for our American immigration history, staying open to others and creating a new form of culture," Lee says.
Bmore Seoul to Soul encourages collaboration between the Korean and Baltimore club dancers, a "fusion style of art." During the inaugural concert, the dancers from the Han Pan Korean American Cultural Center and Bmore Than Dance had an impromptu joint performance. For September, all five of the Korean groups and Bmore Than Dance are considering performing together. Lamar Robinson, an MC and singer for the event, is practicing one soul song and one K-pop boy-band number, SHINee's 'Ring Ding Dong'—not to be confused with the song by Dr. Dre.
The senior dancers of Dance and Bmore, part of Station North's Artists Within program, are residents of the J. Van Story Branch Senior Apartments, a building in Station North with mostly Korean and black senior residents.
"In that building, we have a disconnect, largely based on language, between Korean citizens and African-American citizens who don't really interact with each other," Stone says.
Stone feels that having the seniors perform at the event would help bridge the gap between the residents of the building. At Seoul to Soul, the seniors will perform jazz, contemporary dance, original music, live vocals, and spoken word.
The language barrier, especially for people such as the senior citizens of the J. Van Story building, can't be overlooked. Bmore Seoul to Soul is a dance performance, where you can "cut through the language barrier."
"These will be very different performances, in terms of outfits, costumes, music," Stone says, "but at the end of the day, it's still just people performing."
Bmore Seoul to Soul takes place at the Ynot Lot on Sept. 13, 3:30-5:30 p.m. For more information visit stationnorth.org.