AMP, a collective of three hip hop artists James Han, Samuel Ock, and Chung Lee, is among the most well-known Korean Christian hip hop artists today.
Their beginnings stem from Youtube videos of "Never Change," and "See You in Heaven," songs created out of a collaboration between the three artists. The videos received explosive grassroots support. In four months since the initial upload, "Never Change" received over 100,000 views, and today, the video has over 1.5 million views. The three artists, who saw that they had similar desires and callings, decided to form the collaborative, "AMP," in 2010.
Since then, AMP has been invited to perform in various venues and occasions, from church events, college campuses, music festivals, and even an Irish pub. The group has since released three albums as a collaborative, and James Han and Sam Ock have also released albums individually. "Tower Ivory," is Han's debut LP, released in early June, and Ock's latest album, "Grey," was released in January. AMP now also runs the label, Good Fruit Co., which manages the three artists.
AMP, as a Christian collaborative, is passionate about worshipping God through their music, but another passion they have is that for the next generation.
"We want this platform and medium to exist beyond us," said Lee, "and we want to mentor and guide the next generation on how to apply the theological truths of the gospel to the arts, and to have the knowledge and understanding to live it out in their daily lives."
"We want to pass on what the Lord has imparted to us over the years to the next generation, and to engage in discipleship through the arts," Lee added.
AMP shared memorable parts of their five-year journey, and their thoughts on what it means to be an Asian American Christian hip-hop group today.
Q: Of all of the performances that you've been able to participate in, which ones stand out the most in your memory?
Ock: For me, two shows stand out. One is when we performed in JAMA in 2012, and the other is a show we did in Korea; it was at Oceans Conference. And the reason is that, one, AMP was in front of a large audience, but more than that, a big bulk of the audience was comprised of youth. And the thing that made an impression on me was realizing that AMP had a great impact on the youth. I was helping one of my church friends out at his father's Taekwondo Dojang, and one of the students -- who was going into high school at the time -- was a member of my church. And my friend was telling me that this student saw me as an inspiration to pursue music.A similar incident is when we did an interview with Korea Times in Virginia, and the interviewer brought his sons, who said they wanted to follow the path that AMP has been on. So shows like these, with a lot of youth, we realize that they have a big impact, and see the scope and the scale that God is using us, which is scary, but also exciting.
Chung: A performance that we did in J-Gen in 2012 or 2013 stands out to me, and similar to what Sam said, I think it wasn’t so much performance, but while we were eating, there were a couple of guys who came up to us who said the music led them to receive Christ, and their lives were really impacted. The music was a tool that the Lord used to impact them. And seeing how the Lord is using this music for His kingdom and glory was really meaningful.
Q: What was it about the hip hop / rap genre that attracted you to it?
Han: I was the only Asian in my neighborhood growing up, so it was hard for me to feel like I belong somewhere. Hip hop was a way for me to connect with people and feel like I belong. It became my language in middle and high school, and it became a source of empowerment for me. I saw how rappers were so proud and confident in themselves, and that’s something I wanted in my life. So I was drawn to that.
Chung: The first time I ever heard a hip hop song, back when I was younger, I thought, “What is this music? It makes me wanna move.” And shortly after that, there was a lot of gangster rap that came out – urban street style rap. I was attracted to it from personal experiences and growing up. Being an angry, misunderstood kid, the anger in those songs attracted me. Even though we’re from different contexts, this is how I felt. So I was gravitated to that.
Ock: Personally, why I liked the genre, is that I really enjoy the musical side of it. I grew up in music, my whole family is musical. And I thought it was a very unique musical voice. I’m going to do a little philosophizing here. When you look at urban Black culture, and Korean culture, there are many things that unite them together at the center. There’s a lot of common ground. Both Black and Korean people are very family oriented. They’re very community oriented. And they believe people are representation of their community.
So I think, musically speaking, rap is attractive because there’s a voice that’s representing the people – that’s why rap was such a huge thing for the Black community. It was a voice for the voiceless, for those who are struggling, going through abuse, or caught in some kind of messed up system. This idea of having a representative voice deeply resonates in the Korean community as well. In other genres, they definitely foster and help represent an individual, but they don’t help to represent a culture as well, because within a song, you can only say so much.
For rap, it’s kind of like a sermon and praise at the same time. It’s like a sermon, because you can rap it and fit a lot of words into one segment – but there’s also a part where you can rally people together. Asians – they love to rally, and to be together for some cause.
I think that’s really why hip hop seems to resonate within the Asian community today – because of this idea that we want a voice, and to unite under something. Hip hop gives us a great forum and platform to be able to do that.
Q: Many Christian rap artists have been gaining attention recently, both Korean and non-Korean, including Lecrae, Trip Lee, Mickey Cho, and others. What’s the significance of Christians using rap or hip hop to convey their message?
Chung: From a cultural standpoint, when hip hop first came out, it spawned a culture. And the significance of using this tool as a Christian, is that you’re able to reach a type of cultural group that other media can’t. That goes for other genres too. When Christians are utilizing this platform, it reaches a group that has very specific cultural issues, such as fatherless homes, or abandonment, and it provides a platform to speak on those things, and to address issues that are relevant to that culture.
I think it’s also important in speaking to the Asian community in particular, for them to acknowledge hip hop as not being this “bad thing,” and it’s not always for people who are into “bad things.” Hip hop is something they’re going to have to deal with. It’s not something they can brush off, especially for older believers who are more conservative or may have an issue with it. This is the medium that is reaching their kids, and this is also the medium that is speaking into issues relevant to Asian culture. So as an older believer myself, I’d encourage them to not take hip hop as this bad thing, but to be open to see how God is using this for His glory.
Han: I spoke about hip hop being my language – and I say that, because that is literally how I understood life and processed things – through music. This is how I processed the idea of being the underdog, and of not being understood, and I think this type of music really speaks to a lot of people. And being able to speak the same language through this music, and then bringing a biblical worldview while you’re at it – I think that’s really significant.
Ock: Hip hop, when you look at its core, it’s poetry. It's poetry to a beat. And if you ask anyone to write poetry, they don't just write about something that doesn't matter. They write about something from their own experience or themselves. It's an artful verbal expression of self. So because of that, authentic hip hop is when people are expressing who they really are. So hip hop's role in Christianity is very necessary. I think that, through this music, Christians are able to really express themselves, how Christ fits into their context, and how they fit into Christ – which may not be possible in other genres because of the amount of words you could fit in a song.
Also, Christian hip hop is important because it’s picking up among our youth. Our youth is conditioned to be open to it because there’s rap everywhere now. The new generation is using that to our advantage to use rap and hip hop as a platform to express the lifestyle of a Christian, the struggle of a Christian, to be a representative of what it means to be a Christian in today’s society.
Q: What advice would you give to the youth and young adults?
Chung: This is something that I’m trying to continue to learn myself, but in whatever pursuit, whatever the Lord is calling you into, always pursue intimacy with the Lord first. Dedicate and commit that time to deepening your prayer life and scripture life. Early on as believers, those aspects are core, but sometimes, as time goes on, the work and the tasks start to take precedence. Fix your eyes on Christ. If you walk closely with the Lord, all the questions you have will be answered, and He will provide clarity.
Ock: I would point to Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I think for us [AMP], that’s one thing that has become more and more clear. When we start letting things go, and we start to pursue Christ first, the other things fall into place.
Han: For the longest time, I read Scripture and wanted to know more about who God was, just so I could apply it into my own life, which is great. But where I am now, God has been bringing people to pour into. So no longer am I just reading Scripture just for myself. All of this wisdom and understanding that I’ve gained, now is being used to encourage others. So read the Bible – not only for yourself, but also for someone else who might need that encouragement, reminder, or rebuke.