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It is easy to be swept up in despair – sometimes it is the only reaction possible – when faced with the enormous weight of hatred criss-crossing across groups online and offline in India right now. Most of it is actively nurtured and bred by rightwing Hindutva forces which are virtually indistinguishable from Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the Union and states. The ecosystem of vitriol is strong. Colleagues who keep a watch on such expressions, especially against Muslims, often speak publicly of the toll it takes on their health.
And yet, India’s online space is not unique in this behaviour, utilised as it has been for hatred with extreme finesse. If we look at what many believe is one of the very first instances where the internet was used to trash on a chosen subject, the truth of our condition may present itself clearer.
That chosen subject, in the early 2010s, was a Korean rapper.
The India where Twitter users cheer bulldozers as they ram into houses of ‘riot accused’ minorities appears very far from Korea’s merry music world. Yet, Tablo, the Korean rapper in question, would find a lot in common with those being bashed regularly and with singular purpose. A new podcast – ‘Authentic’ by Vice News and iHeartRadio and hosted by Dexter Thomas Jr. analyses Tablo’s unique story and the social conditions that gave birth to it.
Although a part of every Korean’s life at one point, the story was relatively unreported worldwide when it was shaping up, until this investigative effort took it apart. Thomas tells The Wire that its resonances with present day politics are visceral.
Tablo, whose real name is Daniel Lee, is the 41-year-old frontman of a three-person band called Epik High. The band is credited with mainstreaming hip-hop in South Korea in the early aughts, a time when the country had a distinctly different musical culture. Korea, is now a country which is now synonymous with cultural capital the way only the US was at one point. The seeds of this was sown by the likes of Tablo, who in his music mixed concerns of Korean youth (at a time when the country was struggling with a faltering economy) with broader personal concerns.
Tablo was and is, simply put, a big deal.
He enjoys global acclaim and his band recently toured North America to sold out shows. Fans of Korean music in India are also bound to be familiar with him, with his influence on present-day artistes. His English-Korean rap is sonorous and his Twitter persona is that of an eclectic uncle who does not take himself seriously. He also, publicly, speaks a lot about his experiences in bringing up his daughter.
Tablo’s parents, though Korean, brought him up in various places, with many years in Canada and the US, the podcast says. In the 1980s and 90s, the goal of every Korean parent was to thrust their children into a layer of elite society from which it would be hard to fall. One sure way of doing this was to give them a foreign education and remind them of their very exacting expectations. Tablo’s parents, for instance, told him that if he was not going to be a doctor or a lawyer, he had to be “an academic with a Nobel prize” – a humble demand that is likely to be something Indians can relate to.
Tablo knew submitting to his parents was a given. But by the time he entered respectable Stanford University, he had also developed a taste for hip-hop music. Blasphemously, he wanted a career in it, he tells the podcast.
With his dreams in wait, Tablo rushed through two literature degrees – a Bachelors and a Masters – from Stanford in just over three years. He then returned to South Korea and with quite a bit of struggle, his music career took off.
On TV, where Tablo’s ready wit made him a weekly fixture, the Stanford degrees were a recurring aspect. Hosts brought it up and audiences ate up the fact that a person could straddle the duality of being a rap star with a degree from a great college.
In 2010, while Tablo tasted the fruits of celebrity – his music was popular and he had married a top actor, Kang Hyejung – an internet forum on Korea’s homegrown Google alternative, Naver, began a campaign claiming that he couldn’t possibly have earned a double degree from Stanford in record time.
“In the US, how would it matter if a rapper had a degree or not? No one would care, but there, they did,” Dexter Thomas Jr. who hosted the podcast and spoke extensively to Tablo and others in it, tells The Wire. And care they did.
Within months, what was easily dismissed speculation by a section of internet lurkers – all anonymous – snowballed so much, it made mainstream news. The movement called itself ‘Tajinyo’, a portmanteau of “타블로에게 진실을 요구합니다” – Korean for ‘We Demand the Truth from Tablo’. Romanised versions also spell the movement as ‘Taijinyo’.
The internet campaign ballooned. Fuelled simply by speculation of internet strangers, hundreds of thousands of people were absolutely convinced that Tablo was faking his degree. Others pointed to incidental lapses in his TV show appearances, claiming that the English literature degree-holder could not actually speak English – an aspirational base for Koreans that Indians too want to reach.
Pretty quickly, internet warriors claimed that Tablo’s family were all faking their degrees, that his brother also didn’t go to Brown or Columbia, nor did his sister go to Cornell, or his father to Seoul National University. They claimed, the podcast notes, that almost every aspect of the Lees’ public lives was fake, constructed with collaboration from others through the payment of grand bribes.
Whatever it was, it was absolutely not the fruit of Tablo’s and his family’s labour.
But Tablo did indeed have two degrees from Stanford. He did speak good English, rapping and writing in the language. But Korean television companies were loath to bring back a figure surrounding whose credentials there was so much sudden hatred. When things got dire and he was dropped from TV shows and made a villain of the times, Tablo struck a deal with a news outlet to visit Stanford and have the journalists verify that he did indeed go there. They did.
But it did not help. Online, new theories sprung by the second.
Tablo shared whatever certificates he had of his time in Stanford. Those became household items, splashed every day across TVs and newspapers. But they didn’t help either.
Growing to 200,000, the members of Tajinyo turned investigators and reached out to people who could have been his batchmates in college. One such batchmate tells the podcast that he was tracked down and his certificate was a complete match with Tablo’s. Tajinyo members who had paid him $10,000 for a copy of the certificate were undeterred that their ‘forgery’ claim was defeated. They instead published a new post focusing on the fact that the batchmate had said that he did not personally know Tablo – a line which hardly establishes that Tablo did not go to a university, one which has thousands of students.
Entirely convinced by their need to prove somehow that Tablo was lying, Tajinyo members would not be stopped by the truth. Online, they repeatedly posted that they wanted ‘justice.’ Tablo was getting death threats, daily.
Members of rightwing Hindutva who are vocal on social media may see their ancestors in such people. The claim that Muslims spit on open food as a form of ‘jihad’ is enough – there is no space for the truth that they do not, in fact, spit on open food. A mere suspicion of transporting cow meat brings mobs out of houses to lynch Dalit and Muslim people, irrespective of the status of the meat.
What begets this hatred? What makes raring Muslim-haters out of people? Dhirendra K. Jha, in his book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva says it is very much local concerns that breed the average Hindutva army man and woman. These, then get subsumed into a larger brouhaha led by a social force as powerful as the Bharatiya Janata Party.
It was similar in Korea. Thomas cites QAnon to illustrate how fringe elements are made mainstream by the internet. He says that projecting frustration onto a third party rather than the system which pushes you into your situation is an essential element of fascism. Mismanagement, corruption, unemployment and misery are forgotten if only we are given a visible body to unleash our stifled energies upon.
Tablo discovered this too. The music he was making was personal and rare and it earned him a soft spot in young Koreans’ minds. Tajinyo’s grudge against him was also personal. The podcast makes the point that they hated Tablo because they did not have a Stanford degree, or the ability to be a cool rapper.
Wracked by their own poverty, and the unfair struggle involved in securing the life of the 1%, they found it easy to disregard that the root of all this was the absence of a robust education-to-employment system in Korea. That if things had been tiptop, then, honestly, a Stanford degree wouldn’t even be a thing worth faking.
But then Tablo was everywhere, with TV’s bringing up his degree absolutely every time he appeared on a show. It reminded people of their failings. Suddenly, Tablo was the marker of all they did wrong. If only they could make him the villain then maybe they would not have done as much wrong.
To illustrate the atmosphere that gives birth to such anger, the podcast travels through Korea’s unique brushes with corruption at the time. A popular art curator was discovered to have faked her Yale degree. Even now, one of the political issues on the boil in Korea has to do with relatives of a politician getting an easy entry into medical school.
The podcast also highlights another reason why Tablo was an easy target. As a Canadian American, he did not have to enlist in the military – something otherwise mandatory for all Korean men between the ages of 18 to 30. Military enlistment has been blamed with cutting men off career paths. That Tablo didn’t have to enlist was another perceived mark of him giving the laws of their land a miss.
But just because their predicament was human, did not mean that their crime was kind.
As Tajinyo worked non-stop to vilify Tablo, he was being accosted on the streets and even by doctors in hospitals. In the absence of relevant tidbits, new things would be dug up and connected to the falsehood claim, relatives who were out of touch were quoted and video clips were edited to present Tablo as a hack. A person who was once variety television’s darling was cornered entirely, with little avenue to practice his profession in.
Tablo was perhaps the first to discover that online hatred could put a cork on a livelihood. That hatred manifests in a very literal and economic way is evident from how Munawar Faruqi was stopped from ever performing in a standup show based on a BJP members’ allegation that he overheard him making disparaging remarks against Hindu deities. Latest campaigns against Muslims have systematically worked to shut them off economic spaces in Karnataka.
The journalists of the podcast spend some time and effort trying to interview one of the key figures in Tajinyo, a faceless presence called ‘What Becomes’. They discover that he lives in Chicago, in community housing meant for the middle-and-low-income elderly. He could not be brought into the police’s net because he is a Korean American, and thus outside the Korean legal system. The irony in this man leading a movement focused on how another man was escaping Korean systemic trappings is stark.
His anonymity, and that of the others’, is similar to the thousands who work behind the scenes of hashtag campaigns attempting to rid India of Muslims, journalists and activists. In a manner, the Tajinyo movement acts as the unwitting blueprint to all online smear efforts.
“Tablo was one of the first people to experience what the future was going to look like,” the podcast observes.
Interconnected as culture and politics is in Korea – members of the country’s biggest musical act were also anointed as diplomatic envoys – Thomas tells The Wire that, significantly, no politician attempted to ride the Tajinyo wave of that time. This is a clear point of departure from India’s current hatred ecosystem, which can be said to have subsumed even police and media.
Tajinyo’s machinations fell broadly under the topic of culture but it is clear that what they wanted was a form of political control over who got to be successful. The RSS and Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini, too, claims to this day to be ‘cultural’ organisations.
Parts of Tablo’s story are incredible simply because of the organic nature of the group, and the unified vindictiveness of a people for whom his public image was crime. Thomas speaks of an Instagram Live session in which Tablo said that the reason he revisited this awful time in his life for the podcast was because online culture had worsened and that, “This could be you.”
“I was listening to that and even though Tablo probably meant “you could be a victim of such a campaign,” I thought it would be equally relevant if he had said, “you could be the one on the other side, maligning someone”,” says Thomas.
Hatred is banal. Any one of us could be pursuing it. But the path from fringe to mainstream is a relatively short one, as the podcast, Tablo’s life and India’s reality shows.
BJP, RSS, and all political Hindutva forces need very much for those who are lowest on Hindutva’s ladder think of themselves as heroes. A hero’s story needs a villain. In India today, this villain’s effigy is sold ready-made by the BJP-RSS political tour de force.
There is no comparing the fear under which Muslims and other minorities live in India today with a single man’s sufferings in a faraway country. But the only similarity is that there were and are no victors.
So enormous was Tajinyo’s influence that it eventually forced Korea’s police to investigate Tablo. It was one of the country’s first cyber crime probes.
The police cleared him after an exhaustive investigation. Tablo sued some of the members of the group for defamation. Eight were convicted.
By then, Tablo’s brother had lost a job after his employers could not handle the pressure. Ties between Tablo and his family ruptured. He had found it difficult to go on.
Tablo’s father had been ill and was wracked by the ordeal. Tajinyo at one point even found out and publicised where the elder Lee had lived when he was young – a sort of orphanage that even his family hadn’t known of, possibly because there was shame associated with such acute poverty. Just as the Tajinyo circus was drawing to a close, Tablo’s father passed away.
“This killed him and I don’t even know what this is,” Tablo says in the podcast.