In the Ibis Hotel in Suwon, a suburb just south of Seoul, the lobby is alive with movement til the early hours of the morning.
Hundreds of b-boys and b-girls from hip-hop's global underground of floor-rockers are here. They are sleepless from hours of travel from Cape Town, South Africa, or Hamburg, Germany, and dozens of other destinations around the world, but they're afire with ideas and moves to share, classic battles to recount and re-enact. They've come to compete in one of the world's biggest breaking competitions, R16, and the energy is luminescent.
Earlier this evening, at an orientation, the hotel ballroom filled nearly to capacity. One of the organizers, Queens native Charlie Shin, ran down a roll call of the countries represented--"Brazil, Netherlands, Israel, China, U.S., France, Korea..." Legendary hip-hop photographers Joe Conzo and Jamel Shabazz exhorted the b-boys and b-girls in the room to get up on stage, and the pictures they snapped were stunning: a beautiful multiculti crowd lifted straight out of an Obama speech, with t-shirts emblazoned with crew names, hot-colored sneakers, and super-mugsy attitude added on for effect.
Shin and representatives from the Korean Tourism Organization had asked the b-boys to respect each others' space on the stage in the upcoming battles, but perhaps they needn't have bothered. There was a lot of respect in that room already.
That afternoon, in the streets of Seoul, there had been a lot of talk about beef.
In a stunning reversal, the Korean government announced it was lifting its ban on U.S. beef. By rush hour, tens of thousands of ordinary Koreans had poured into the streets in protest--farmers, office-workers, mothers rolling their children in strollers. They brought candles and signs that signalled their fears about Mad Cow Disease.
Department stores gave out thousands of bowls of beef soup to protestors. Business-suited demonstrators appeared at Korea's McDonald's headquarters. Labor unions promised to put up blockades at dozens of beef distribution warehouses to peacefully stop the U.S. beef from being sent into the country. News reports made much of the fact that government officials appeared apologetic and ashamed about the decision.
Nine thousand riot police--many of them young men serving mandatory military service--were deployed in Seoul to contain the protests. The American contingent here for R16 watched as police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, and then later in amazement as tens of thousands of people raised their candles in a quiet, powerful show of solidarity.
Why all the fuss over beef? To many ordinary Koreans, the government's reversal is a demonstration of the way the U.S. version of "free trade" has hurt their country.
Fears of Mad Cow Disease focus on the health of American imports, but they point to a greater Korean anguish over the pressures to accept expensive American imports, the destruction of local livestock farming, and displacement of Korean jobs at a moment when the national economy has been in a downward spiral.
Just yesterday the Korean government was forced to back up its currency to prevent further investment flight. President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative in the George W. Bush mold, has seen plunging approval ratings over his management of trade and the economy.
Rallies are expected to spread across the country today, and should continue to pose serious problems for President Lee and his right-wing party, the Grand National Party.
Here at R16, Americans are a decided minority, but there's no angst about that. There's none of the we-invented-it-so-bow-down attitude about hip-hop that Bush and his supporters in both the Democratic and Republican parties seem to take about democracy and capitalism.
Quite the opposite. Heads are here to compete intensely on the floor and leave with respect, returning to their homes with the task of continuing to build a culture that creates possibility rather than displacement.
Would that leaders were wise enough to follow their people.
Originally posted at Vibe.com
Jeff Chang blogs regularly at Vibe.com, Cantstopwontstop.com, and the Huffington Post. He is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of The Hip-Hop Generation and editor of Total Chaos: The Art & Aesthetics of Hip-Hop.