Arts, Culture & Media

DC rappers take their show on the road, hoping to be discovered in North Korea

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Washington DC rappers Pacman and Peso.

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YouTube screengrab

Anthony Bobb and Dontray Ennis have never been on an airplane. The farthest either of them has been from the Washington, DC, area is a recent trip to New York City.

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But on Nov. 16, the pair of DC rappers plans to board a flight to Beijing, en route to their final destination — North Korea.

It’s not exactly a top tourist destination.

But Bobb and Ennis, who go by the names Pacman and Peso, are psyched about the adventure. Before the idea for the trip, they’d never heard much about North Korea — its totalitarian leadership, its human rights abuses, its nuclear threats.

But you can't believe everything you hear, Peso says.

“You won't know until you witness first-hand,” he says. “That's what we want to do instead of keep being fed what we hear on TV.”

How a pair of young rappers, 19 and 20 years old, from DC's toughest neighborhoods ended up booking a trip to North Korea is the story of what happens when a whim becomes reality. It goes something like this:

Pacman and Peso had been recording some songs with Ramsey Aburdene, a 25-year-old guy who works in commercial lending. He messes around with music producing in his spare time, and the pair started recording with him.

Aburdene also has a wanderlust and has traveled all over the world. Recently, he booked a trip to China to visit some friends. Then another friend suggested he include North Korea in his itinerary, and he thought, why not?

“We're like ‘we're going to North Korea! Everybody's going!’ So I started this whole North Korea thing,” Aburdene says.   

Being a savvy promoter, he invited Pacman and Peso to go along.

“I'm thinkin' he playin',” Peso says, “but the whole time, he dead serious.”

Sure, Aburdene says, it’s kind of a ridiculous idea. But he also knows hitching a project to the North Korea train is a surefire way to create some serious buzz. Think of the eyes on Dennis Rodman after he visited his new best friend — North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

Aburdene and his crew launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to get the idea off the ground, and it netted more than $10,000. That was $4,000 more than they asked for. 

So now they’re off to Pyongyang, with tourist visas in hand. Aburdene says some people have told him it's a sketchy idea.

“They say you shouldn't go to North Korea; North Korea is bad,” he says. “My dad is Palestinian, so you always hear negativity about that. I'm not saying you're wrong here, but who's to say? I'm not going to take your word for it.” 

Another member of the party is a former US army sergeant, Mike Bassett, who served in Korea and lived on the peninsula for seven years. He’s organized several “cultural exchange” trips to North Korea in the past, and he coordinated the logistics for this one.

At a recent send-off party for Pacman and Peso, Bassett said he knows they’ll face some restrictions in Pyongyang — they can only use cameras with short lenses for one thing, and they can’t take photos of the military. But he says he knows they’ll be able to interact with regular North Koreans.

“We’re going to be doing high-fives and fist bumps and singing together and doing karaoke and exchanging stories about each other’s lives,” Bassett says. “That is cultural exchange.”

During the trip, Pacman and Peso will also hit Hong Kong and Mongolia, where, if all goes well, they’ll shoot a music video in the capital city of Ulan Bator. The guys say the prospect of visiting these countries, especially North Korea, doesn’t faze them. They say the only thing that’s making them nervous is the plane ride.

“Look at where we at now,” says Pacman. “It can't feel no better.” 

“It's feeling like it's all gonna happen,” Peso says. “They say working hard pays off, so we ain't working hard for nothing.”

Ideally, their trip halfway around the world will get them discovered. But even if their music goes nowhere, Pacman and Peso will still be the DC rappers who flew to North Korea to shoot a music video. And that has to count for something.

UPDATE: Thursday, January 9, 2014.

Peso and Pacman have done it.

Following the DC-based hip-hoppers Kickstarter campaign, they traveled to Pyongyang and made their music video.

It's called "Escape to North Korea," and it's pretty good. It shows the two of them in scenes around Pyongyang — in front of massive Communist monuments, on public transit, bundling up in the snow. The scenes are all pretty quick, like they didn't want to attract too much attention.

In an email, Pacman says North Korea was cool. "It wasn't like people said it would be," he wrote. "Everyone showed us love."

Peso says he feels the same. "I couldn't live there, though," he says. "It's too different."

Maybe so. Check out the video below and let us know what you think in the comments.