To quote Winston Churchill: “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”
Throughout history, Koreans have encountered many heartbreaking events that have shaped and influenced the Korean society in one way or another. This goes all the way back to the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910 to the Sewol Ferry Disaster in 2014.
And throughout it all, many musicians have used their music as a medium to express their opinions about various societal matters and to remind the public to remember the events of the past for a better future.
With that being said, here are eight songs that commemorate the victims and brave heroes of a series of unfortunate events that took place over the course of Korean history:
1. Kwanghee, Gaeko – “Your Night” feat. Oh Hyuk
Kwanghee and Gaeko teamed up to produce this track as part of “The Great Heritage” special of MBC’s “Infinite Challenge,” which was a project to spread the knowledge of Korean history through fusion with hip hop.
“Your Night,” which also features singer Oh Hyuk, is a tribute to the poet Yoon Dong Joo.
The lyrics talk about the heroic act of the poet during the Japanese colonization of Korea in the 1930s. At the time, the Japanese banned the teaching and use of the Korean language and forced Koreans to take on Japanese names. However, the poet Yoon Dong Joo resisted by continuing to write poems in Korean. “Your Night” uses two of the poet’s most well-known poems “Night of Counting Stars” and “Prologue” as references.
2. DIA – “Independence Movement”
DIA released the track in honor of the Korean Independence Movement Day in 2017. The members participated in producing and writing the lyrics for the track, in which they pay homage to a number of independence activists and nationalists who came together in peaceful protests to proclaim Korea’s independence from Japanese rule in 1919.
The Korean title of this track is “Geon Gon Gam Ri,” which are the names of the four trigrams on the Korean flag. The trigrams come together to present movement and harmony as fundamental principles with each trigram representing each of the four classical elements: heaven (Geon), earth (Gon), moon (Gam), and sun (Ri).
3. BTS’ Suga – “518-062”
Suga reportedly wrote this track as a high school student in partnership with hip hop group D-TOWN’s leader Nakshun. The track recalls the tragic event that took place in 1980, which is now known as the Gwangju Democratic Uprising Movement.
On May 18, 1980, the residents of Gwangju rose up in protest against the coup d’etat and martial rule of Chun Doo Hwan. This follows the cruel treatment of military forces towards Chonnam University students who demonstrated against the martial law government in peaceful protests. The lyrics of “518-062” urge listeners to not forget about the protests. The second set of numbers “062” refers to the area code of the city of Gwangju.
4. BTS – “Ma City”
Not only Suga, but BTS as a group is known for criticizing the Korean government and society through their music as according to RM, the group always looks for different ways to give positive influence to society. “Ma City” is only one of numerous BTS tracks that address societal issues in Korea.
RM, Suga, and J-Hope participated in producing and writing the lyrics for the track. A proud citizen of Gwangju, J-hope talks about his hometown. In the song, J-Hope raps, “If you want to see me, everyone gather up. The time is at 7 O’Clock.”
“7 O’Clock” is the derogatory term used by the users of Ilbe, an online community with far-right political views and hate-filled content, to refer to the city of Gwangju. By purposely including the term, J-Hope calls out those Ilbe users and the disrespect they have shown towards his hometown. The rapper also doesn’t forget to include “518-062” to remember the victims of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising Movement.
5. Joo Hyo, HA:TFELT – “There Must Be”
Although never confirmed by the artists themselves, many suspect that “There Must Be” was composed and released to honor the victims of the Sewol Ferry Disaster in 2014, a tragedy that took away the lives of 304 people and shook the country with sorrow and anger.
There’s a part in the lyrics that says, “Here’s hoping a small movement will create a big miracle,” which is a phrase and belief that led many Koreans to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Campaign. For the campaign, people posted and/or wore yellow ribbons to show their support for the clarification of the truth behind the tragedy, which ultimately played a major role in impeaching then-South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
6. Cheetah, Jang Sung Hwan – “Yellow Ocean”
Cheetah performed this track with high school student Jang Sung Hwan on the December 27 episode of JTBC’s “Nation of Hip Hop,” as they were competing in the show’s semifinals.
The song also addresses the Sewol Ferry Tragedy that took place only a few months prior to Cheetah and Jang Sung Hwan’s emotional performance. In the song, the rapper raps about the helplessness people felt at being unable to do anything and mourned for all lives that were lost due to the tragedy. Jang Sung Hwan kicks off the second verse with a single question, “Is no one out there?” The two also ask for forgiveness as they promise to never forget the date April 16 and hope that the truth will eventually prevail.
7. Kim Yoon Ah – “River”
This track was released as part of Kim Yoon Ah’s fourth solo album “The Pain of Others” in December 2016. “River” also commemorates the victims of the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, and the singer sings about missing those who have gone to a place where they can never come back from and walking alongside a river hoping to see them again.
Kim Yoon Ah also performed this track on JTBC’s “Begin Again” while busking in Portugal. Before beginning her performance, the singer explained to the crowd, “A few years ago in Korea, many people lost their family members in a tragic accident. At the time, we couldn’t do anything for them. The only thing I was able to do [for them] was to write songs, and the next song is one of them.”
8. Tany – “Always Remember”
The late singer Tany decided to make his debut with a song to honor the victims of the Sewol Ferry Tragedy. In “Always Remember,” the singer sings, “The person whom I’ll never forget even after adding years after years. I will continue to wait even if I have to add pain after pain.”
After releasing the track, Tany explained, “It was an accident that happened to people who were my age. It is a heavy subject, so I wanted to be especially more careful. I was unsure [if I was making the right decision] to address the topic in my first album. However, it was a story that I definitely wanted people to hear.”
A year and six months after releasing the beautiful track, Tany passed away in a car accident at the age of 21.
We thank the above musicians and many others for using their influence for good. Do you know any other songs that commemorate the brave heroes from the past? Let us know in the comments!
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