- An interview with An Chi-hwan, whose music embodies the spirit of Korean democratization
“UNTIL THE spirit of the People rules the world with freedom, I shall wade on even through darkened waters,” sings An Chi-hwan in his song “Pine, pine, the ever green pine*.” During the 1980s democratization movements, a voice could be heard singing the song of the people, above the chaos of daily student protests and police brutality. In remembrance of the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising**, which embodies the Korean struggle for justice, The Yonsei Annals interviewed An Chi-hwan, a singer and Yonsei graduate of the Department of Social Welfare, to know more about his music career from the times of political turbulence.
Annals: Can you please introduce yourself?
An: I call myself the “singing An Chi-hwan.” There are two types of singers in Korea: the entertainer and the artist. I believe that we should clearly differentiate the two. I define myself as the latter.
Annals: What made you begin your career as a musician?
An: Back then, becoming a singer happened naturally. It wasn’t like nowadays where people have to enter an agency and go through training before they debut. Instead, singers were recognized for their talents alone. Those who were talented and committed enough received opportunities to record an album and release it to the public. It was the same for me.
I entered Yonsei as a student back in 1984, four years after the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising and three years before the 6.10 Democracy Movement**. By the time I was a senior in 1987, Yonsei University was the hub of democratization movements with students as the leading force.
After the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising in 1980, there was a cultural movement among university students to utilize songs we now call “resistance songs***” to inspire meaningful change in society. When I was a freshman in 1984, universities had a liberal atmosphere: students actively organized bands to perform resistance songs during student demonstrations. In Yonsei University, a band called Ul-lim-teo was formed during my first year. I applied, and I remember being the second in line for the auditions.
While performing in the band, I began to understand the social issues of dictatorship and oppression more in depth, and I got a clear sense of what kinds of songs I wanted to play. I wasn’t interested in singing songs for entertainment; I wanted to perform resistance songs that gave me the power to fight against injustice. Of course, I felt overwhelmed and even scared to take action at first. However, with my bandmates by my side, I could naturally begin my music career.
Annals: What was the first resistance song you wrote?
An: In the beginning, I used to only perform resistance songs from the music scores we—the members of Ul-lim-teo—shared. We practiced until the papers were ragged. However, I had this ambition of writing my own songs, even though the guitar was the only instrument I could play. I didn’t know anything else about music and how it worked. Then, during my junior year, one of my sun-baes**** in Ul-lim-teo was arrested and sent to jail for instigating a demonstration. Reading over the things I wrote down while thinking of him, I composed my very first song, “Pine, pine, the ever green pine.”
I performed the song with Ul-lim-teo at Dae-dong-jae***** in May. The festival was held in the Amphitheater back then with Yonsei students filling up all the seats. I sang “Pine, pine, the ever green pine” on stage, and, to my disbelief, it made a big sensation. It first became famous in Yonsei University, then bands from other schools started performing the song in their campuses. My song was known to almost every university student despite it not having been released in an official album.
Annals: How was your life as a Yonsei student? Are there any memorable events from your school days?
An: Looking back on my old school days, I am happy to have been a part of the democratization. Many people, including myself, suffered and some even died fighting, but my friends and I share unforgettable memories from those turbulent times. During the day, we were out at protests, getting attacked by the police with tear gas bombs. At night, we gathered in our friends’ boarding houses to sing songs and drink. I would not go home for days, so my parents would even come to school searching for me. My friends and I were not preoccupied with worries about our future, jobs after graduation, and such. We spent time reflecting on the things we could do to fight against the government, especially through art. I took comfort in music when nothing else was certain.
As for a specific event, I remember the very first time I performed on stage. It was in April, and there was a beautiful field of azaleas right below the Amphitheater. I was only a freshman, and I was preparing for a school concert in commemoration of the 4.19 Revolution** in 1960. In the school theater with around 4,500 seats, I sang a song called “Jin-da-lae******,” which was written in remembrance of the revolution. After the song ended, the audience, mostly students, clapped for a whole minute. I had never experienced that before in my life—I was overwhelmed. I wondered what brought about such passionate, enthusiastic response from the students. I had discovered the true power of music in bringing people together.
Annals: You are known for having been part of a music group called Those Finding Music*******. Can you share your experience of what it was like?
An: I would first like to explain how the group Those Finding Music came about. By 1987, during my senior year, we—the students—had made considerable progress in democratization. Even though we had lost our dear friends, including Lee Han-yeol, in the struggle, we had brought about tangible results, such as the direct presidential election system. The changes that we had only dreamed of for the past years were finally realized; and, at the same time, the general public began to demand for the songs that powered these demonstrations to be officially released in albums. Those Finding Music was formed to meet this public demand for resistance songs. Luckily enough, I was “nominated” as one of the key members of this group thanks to the fame that my very first song had brought me.
This was when I graduated from Yonsei in 1988. I didn’t think of continuing my studies in graduate school or getting a job. I was already earning a living, so I continued my career as a singer of this group. After spending a year and a half in this band, I left to pursue my own music career as a solo musician. Here I am now, still making music and performing for more than 30 years.
Annals: You are known as “The singer of the people.” What are your thoughts on this title?
An: I don’t agree with the title. I understand that it stems from the public belief that I am the musician who wrote songs for a great cause. That is how I started my career, so, to some extent, I can’t get away from that image. However, I need to ask: To whom is the word “people” referring? I don’t think all people enjoy my songs. Authorities certainly don’t sing my songs; the laborers and the intellectuals low on the social hierarchy are the ones who do. I simply don’t agree with the title.
People call me by other titles, such as “The singer who transcends genres” and “The singer who abandoned resistance songs,” but I am just me. It’s been 30 years since I became a singer. All the songs during those long years cannot be encapsulated into one of these definitive titles.
Annals: You have recently released a song “One Hundred Years of Struggle********” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 3.1 Independence Movement**. What was your motive behind writing this song?
An: One hundred years have gone by since the 3.1 Independence Movement, yet I realized that there were no songs to commemorate those 100 years. This got me thinking. If I am to be called an artist, I felt the need to act like one. Artists must utilize their talents in their respective fields. They shouldn’t free ride [and claim to be a musician when they are not using their talents for a good cause].
Annals: In 2016, you were invited to be a guest singer at the candlelight protest in Gwanghwamun. How did you come to perform at this historical event?
An: In the case of the candlelight protest, there were only a handful of singers who could go up on stage. People call me to national events, because it has to be me; An Chi-hwan has to be there. Famous young artists like BTS would probably have been hesitant to perform on that occasion. These kinds of events require people who have the age and wisdom to handle grave matters. Performers should sing songs that are suitable for the situation, so that everyone else can sing along. Imagine Girls’ Generation singing at the candlelight protest—there is no connection between them and the purpose of the protest.
Being able to perform on stage was a great honor for me. The candlelight protest became a very crucial point in Korean history. In contrast to the 6.10 Democracy Movement where people bled and fought for their lives, the 2016 candlelight protest demonstrated a complete paradigm shift. People showed their power through nonviolent ways of protest. Now, we are living in a different era where we do not fight by throwing rocks at the enemy. I think it is beautiful that the ways we protest have become a form of art. Can you imagine how I felt on stage, seeing a million citizens holding up their candles, all in one hope? How moved I was by the burning passion in the people... This isn’t something many singers get to experience, so I am always grateful for these opportunities.
Annals: You are known not only for revolutionary songs, but also for popular music, such as “If I were*********.” What message did you try to convey through this type of genre?
An: I am more popular as an activist singer, so all the songs in my first and second albums were dedicated to the theme of “revolution.” However, after the 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart and there was a period of ideological division, I thought I wanted to become more personal in the songs I wrote. My career went through a phase of personal transformation where I started to incorporate my personal stories into the music I created.
“If I Were,” isn’t a song that I wrote myself. I got this song from a hoo-bae**** and was invited to sing it for broadcasts. Surprisingly, it was a big hit. Since the public had always known me as an activist singer, I did receive some criticisms for “turning coat” from my original colors. However, I wasn’t very affected by those comments because I realized that the public demanded more than one genre from me. I just tried to focus on making songs for my fans and sing what I wanted to.
Annals: Do you have a favorite verse from any of your songs that you want to share with us?
An: As people say, “Every child is dear to their parents,” the same applies to me and my songs. I like the ones that I wrote from my heart, rather than what the public likes. I can say I am an indiscreet narcissist; I cherish all my songs. I am an artist with boundless self-pride.
Annals: When have you felt the proudest as a musician? When do you feel most content?
An: Music has been my life—I was only ever into music. I established my fame through music, and I’m still happily producing my own songs.
I have met and seen countless people while on stage, and when I see that my songs make them happy, I am happy. Although my songs can’t absolutely cure everything, the fact that I can brighten up people’s lives even a little counts as a blessing to me.
I also feel proud as a musician knowing that I still mean something to our nation. The well-being of our country has been my motivation for pursuing music, and still holds true now.
Annals: Many people may call you “the singer of the people,” but how would you define yourself? How do you want your songs to be remembered by the future generation?
An: When I was invited to programs such as “7080 Concert,” at first, I felt like I would look “shabby.” I don’t like it when old singers try to act young, wearing trendy clothes on stage, when everyone knows they are too old for that. I decided to appear in front of the public again in my own style. Not only did I sing my old hit songs, but I continued to introduce new songs to show the public that I am still a working musician. I will age as time goes by, but I will not stop singing for the people. I own a concert hall, so I am going to keep on hosting concerts and meeting my fans.
Everyone has songs and memories pertaining to their own generation, but I am not going to let myself get out of touch. I am going to age as an honorable musician who stays in tune with his audience.
I want to be remembered as a “living musician,” or a “present-continuous” musician. I feel like this is the most important thing I can do for my fans.
Annals: What message would you like to convey to the Annals readers and Yonseians?
An: Do things with passion and have fun. This, I believe, is the way to happiness in life.
*Original song title in Korean: “솔아 솔아 푸르른 솔아”; original song lyrics in Korean: “민중의 넋이 주인되는 참 세상 자유 위하여; 시퍼렇게 쑥물 들어도 강물 저어 가리라”
**5.18, 6.10, 4.19, and 3.1 refer to particular dates: May 18, June 10, April 19, and March 1; the dates are written as such to follow the original titles in Korean.
***The word “resistance song” is a direct translation of the original word “저항가요” in Korean
****Sun-bae, hoo-bae are Korean terms referring to upperclassman and lowerclassman respectively
*****Dae-dong-jae: A schoolwide festival held in May to pay respect to the students who lost their lives during the process of democratization; the tradition of dae-dong-jae still continues nowadays.
******Jin-dal-lae: A Korean term that refers to azalea
*******Original band name in Korean: “노래를 찾는 사람들”
********Original song title in Korean: “100년의 함성”
*********Original song title in Korean: “내가 만일”
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