Tell us the stories of the ‘comfort women’ issue through music

Posts Earkey Project (The Project)

  • Created at2020.05.14
  • Updated at2020.12.21
How can people remember the issue of 'Japanese military sexual slavery' (called ‘comfort women’)? Talking about an issue involves the processes of embracing it as one's own, facing it, and contemplating on it. In December 2019, a compilation album <Tell the Story - The Third Compilation of Songs> commemorating the ‘comfort women’ victims was released with the participation of about 30 musicians.

The <Tell the Story> project was initiated by the suggestion of Song Eun-ji, a vocalist of the Sogyumo Acacia Band. It showcased its first album in 2012 with the participation of female indie musicians including Hwang Bo-ryeong, and then launched the <Tell the Story - The Second Compilation of Songs> in 2013. For the third album released last year, both Song Eun-ji and Hwang Bo-ryeong worked in the project’s planning team to lay out the overall concept of the album. Seo Sang-hyuk of the planning team arranged the meeting venues for discussing the project’s directions, while Lee Yoon-hyuk managed the copyright and other practical tasks in preparation of the album's release. 

They express that this new album is "an attempt to go a step further away from the past where people couldn't face the scars of the ‘comfort women’ victims, to provide an opportunity for people to examine the events contemporary women are experiencing". Their intention, above all, is to deliver the story through 'good music rather than the message itself'. We met with the project’s planning team at the 'Haenghwatang' ART Space : Cultural Complex to hear about how they could persistently work on the <Tell the Story> project launched in 2012, and what kinds of worries and errors they experienced before the third album was released to the world.


Unfolding the stories of the 'comfort women' issue and women through music

Q. Hello. First of all, please tell our webzine <Kyeol> readers how the <Tell the Story> project got started.

Song Eun-ji : My grandmother passed away after being ill and bedridden for a long time. Watching my grandmother suffer made me think about many things. That is, observing the process of a woman being marginalized after her body can no longer fulfill the functions assigned by society made me determined to talk about my grandmother at some point. Then, one day, I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night thinking, 'I should write a song about the surviving 'comfort women' victims.' That is how the inspiration I got from my own grandmother led to the project about the surviving 'comfort women' victims (the ‘grandmothers’). I believed the project could be meaningful in many ways.  

I also took part in a group meeting on feminism studies with other musicians around 2006 to broaden my perspectives. The group was called 'The Gaze of Lilith'. We read books, discussed together, and shared personal stories. Many members of that group participated in the first album. I proposed to the group members that we should sing about the ‘comfort women’ issue from female musicians' perspectives. We ended up making a little profit after the release of the second album, but the third album was also about a decision on how to spend the profits. Of course, we wondered for years, 'Would it be better to donate the money?', because the process of making the first and second albums was not easy and even had a negative impact in terms of the energy levels. However, making this new album was about the process of returning to music and finishing the journey. It was also about deciding to take the direction of sharing my heart with others as much as possible. That is why the project’s planning team was set up. 

Q. Society’s awareness on gender equality must have been quite different around the time the project first began. For instance, people are now aware that the word 'Hongdae goddess' is a form of hateful expression that objectifies women. Nevertheless, many articles that wrote about the first album describe the participating musicians as 'Hongdae goddesses'. 

Song Eun-ji : The 'Hongdae goddess' trend at the time infuriated me so much and I hated the term. I heard that a lot during my career, and the press release on the first <Tell the Story> album adopted the expression such as 'The Hongdae goddesses have gathered.' It was irritating how people were attaching the title such as 'Hongdae goddesses' in order to praise us when we were telling stories about women's pain. Still, it was challenging to raise any issue since the press release was about the promotion of the album. 

Hwang Bo-ryeong : Some people even said, "Why are you upset about such a good meaning?". The atmosphere seemed to be that we were ‘being overly sensitive’.

Song Eun-ji: That actually touches an important part of the album's intention. I thought it was wrong how the image of female musicians who had long been active in Hongdae's indie scene was objectified as 'goddess' to be packaged for consumption. This triggered me to believe that it would be great if female musicians who are doing their own wonderful work could join their hearts together. 

Hwang Bo-ryeong : I felt the term was particularly unfair to me. My image had always been a tough girl, like a general, or a swordfighter, but people were suddenly calling me a goddess. So, I went around showing people how angry I was. (laughs) 


Pondering the 'comfort women' issue as a musician by transcending boundaries

Q. In one of Song Eun-ji's interviews in another media, she talked about hoping to see gradual changes in the conventional or outdated elements entering people's minds when thinking about the 'comfort women' issue. What do these conventional elements refer to? 

Song Eun-ji: I was struck with a particular impression when I participated in the Wednesday Demonstrations for the first time. That is, the demonstrations have been repeating themselves in a consistent pattern for almost 30 years now, playing the same protest songs such as 'As a Rock' during demonstrations. I realized that the first image that enters our minds when thinking about the 'comfort women' victims might be the scene of the demonstrations. That started to worry me, as people might feel increasingly detached toward the issue in case they associate the issue with only the image of the grandmothers shouting on microphones, 'Apologize! Compensate!" It is certainly not easy for many people to share the same level of energy in their empathy and anger towards the issue that has been left unresolved for a long time. Some might get bored, while others might want to avoid it. Therefore, I began to wonder if there was a different way to give strength to the grandmothers. 

I wanted to make the stories of the grandmothers accessible through a different channel, rather than through demonstrations, given that the ‘comfort women’ issue is not restricted to the past or to the direct victims only. Therefore, I thought it would be nice to make the first <Tell the Story> album about a female body by featuring each musician’s experiences. Therefore, I proposed to the participating musicians that 'the output itself should be about a single body'. Although I couldn’t say at the time, I was really appreciative of everyone for accepting such an obscure proposal.

Lee Yoon-hyuk : Song Eun-ji once talked about ‘wishing to avoid people who tell others that they’re suffering.' Although the work itself is significant and worthwhile, I see that people get tired at times. I remember her mentioning that was the reason why she desired to create an opportunity to refresh conventional elements.


Q. Male musicians took part in the project for the third album. The ‘comfort women' issue is not simply about the problems between countries, but it is also about the problems of gender power imbalance. Men's perspectives on this issue may be different from women's perspectives. I wonder if there was any wariness about male participation in the album, given that they were born as men and thus had no choice but to partake in the gender power imbalance. 

Seo Sang-hyuk : Frankly, I’m more interested in looking at history in terms of existence versus existence. For example, South Korea has a history of being a perpetrator at the Vietnam War. Therefore, I thought that if the victims and perpetrators can become flexible about their positions to recognize unique circumstances and contexts, then it would be possible to achieve different ways of dialogues. 

Hwang Bo-ryeong : I can also assert that everyone is a victim when it comes to war. It is meaningful to be able to meet together like this when people do what they can do as people, regardless of the boundaries imposed by countries or gender.

Song Eun-ji : In fact, male members did participate in the first album, also. Male musicians also participated in the fund-raising performance at the time. Yet, since I was a conventional musician who was obsessed with a form of albums, I insisted on making the album a visible output by female musicians. In fact, the first people I reached out to for the making of this third album were the male musicians who had participated in the first album's fund-raising performance.

Lee Yoon-hyuk : <Tell the Story> is the output of looking at the 'comfort women' issue through the eyes of people living in this era. I believe the important point of this project is that we can regard this issue from the artistic perspective of music, and record it to leave it for future generations. I think that thanks to the medium of music, I was able to regard this issue by taking a step back from my identity as a man living in South Korea. It would have been easy to get caught in rigid and wasteful arguments if we asked bluntly, "Discuss the 'comfort women' issue!", but I see that addressing this issue through music could make a difference. 


How can music address the 'comfort women' issue?

Q. Everyone seems to know about the ‘comfort women' issue. However, actually, people do not know about it as well as they think, as they rarely think about it as their own. The <Tell the Story> is really outstanding in this respect. It must have been definitely not easy for the participating musicians to think about the issue in their own ways and to express it into their own words. In particular, considering the characteristics of music as a genre, the creative undertaking must have been painful as it had to compress and deliver the process of thoughts and emotions into three or four minutes or less.

Hwang Bo-ryeong : That's right. I gave it a lot of thought, indeed. I initially wanted to break away from the typical 'sad' sentiment by expressing the topic through the genres I used to work on, such as rock, trance, or techno. However, the process of creating a new message while taking into account the whole context of the album was truly challenging. After long deliberations, I eventually decided to arrange and release <As If Nothing Happened> from my personal album. The song is so emotional that I usually end up crying during the performance, but I thought the song’s lyrics and messages were in line with the grandmothers' history, so I arranged the song by adding a hopeful touch.

Song Eun-ji : Some musicians even said, 'I occasionally thought about ringing you to tell you that I’d give up'. Everyone had immense difficulty figuring out how to write the song. However, everyone eventually completed their songs, and that truly touched me each time.

Lee Yoon-hyuk : Indeed, a lot of the songs in our album feel heavy because the album features 'comfort women' as a starting theme. No one could be free from that. However, I feel pleased as a project planner to see such a broad spectrums of songs and the highly diverse ways they were expressed according to the values held by each musician. 

Q. As mentioned before, the brilliance of this album is that various musicians of different genres and characteristics joined to accomplish a vast spectrum. However, if the work was not done right, the album could have turned out looking like a haphazard mix of varying messages. I suppose that was a concern for the planning team.

Seo Sang-hyuk : I came to the conclusion that long discussions on the 'comfort women' issue eventually equates to discussions on peace. Thus, I requested the participating musicians to work on their music by maintaining the imagination of peace and solidarity in their minds, with this issue as a starting point. (The latest album was released in two separate CDs: CD1 and CD2. The songs directly addressing ‘comfort women' are featured in CD1, while those addressing the extended theme of 'peace and coexistence' are featured in CD2. – Editor’s note)

Song Eun-ji : Since we decided to address 'peace and coexistence' in our third album, I thought it would be good to expand the themes of the songs to include various stories such as minority issues. I requested this to the participating musicians, but many chose to focus on the ‘comfort women’ issue itself rather than expand the theme. I guess it must have felt like a challenge each musician faced. They did not give up their work until the end, and that's the fruit of this album.

Lee Yoon-hyuk : I personally expected that the results should look rather vague and fuzzy. In other words, I thought the music should come before slogans, because listening to beautiful music by chance makes people wonder 'How was this music created?'. This is not only how music lovers think, but also why music exists. I thought that good songs would not only prompt people to seek the reasons and processes by which this album was created, but also encourage them to search for the reason why they should be interested in the 'comfort women' issue.

Seo Sang-hyuk : Listening to music evokes fresh thoughts and emotions, and those emotions can vary depending on people's circumstances. I think music itself acts like a prism. Just as light bounces in different ways depending on the different objects it passes through, listening to those songs would allow listeners to engage in various thoughts and emotions. 


Hoping that the music would be remembered simply as good music 

Q. How do you expect people to perceive the <Tell the Story> project which contains various musicians' thoughts on the ‘comfort women’ issue? 

Song Eun-ji : My expectation is simple. That is, I hope people would enjoy it simply as good music, beautiful music. I would feel grateful if our message is delivered after that. The aspects I focused on and desired the most from the first album were 'I want to capture the output of female musicians' and 'Let's make our own stories into music.' I feel delighted that these have developed into the notion 'How should we remember the grandmothers?' in the third album.   

Seo Sang-hyuk : I think we can also draw lessons from how COVID-19 is currently interrupting people's daily routines across the globe. South Korea's meticulous handling of it will not stop the problem; instead, the current situation calls for many entities to unite and form solidarity. Similarly, I think it is crucial for one to embrace and face various social problems such as the 'comfort women' issue as one’s own, and to actually feel it.  

Hwang Bo-ryeong : Music comes before slogans. I think that perfectly captures what we want to say. 

Lee Yoon-hyuk : I hope people would listen to our music carefully. There are 16 songs in the album, so I'm sure there would be at least one song that suits one's taste. (laughs)  

Q. Do you have future plans for the <Tell the Story> project? 

Seo Sang-hyuk : I’d like to share even more stories in the future through this project. Since doing outdoor performances is difficult these days, I consider the possibility of giving light project performances with the participating musicians through new ways. 

Song Eun-ji : I think now is high time that we change the ways we view life. Therefore, it would be fantastic to see more performances and meetings that discuss alternative ways of life. In fact, the music in this album can be construed as one of the suggestions on how to remember the grandmothers. I want to keep working to put forward such suggestions. I truly believe music is love. I would like to continue sharing these stories in places where music flows.




Planning/execution : Hyun Seung-in  
Interview/writing : Geum Hye-ji 
Photo : popcon)

Date : Tuesday, April 21, 2020 
Location : 'Haenghwatang' ART Space : Cultural Complex, Mapo-gu, Seoul 

*This interview was conducted safely in accordance with the rules and guidelines for preventing the spread of novel coronavirus.

Writer Earkey Project (The Project)

The <Tell the Story> campaign team currently consists of Song Eun-ji, Hwang Bo-ryeong, Seo Sang-hyuk, Lee Yoon-hyuk, Kim Bo-hwi, Heo Young-kyun, and Park Chang-hyun. The members are from diverse backgrounds (e.g., musicians, planners, designers, etc.) and their activities revolve around Song Eun-ji (a vocalist of Sogyumo Acacia Band) who initially proposed this project.