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Standard text messaging rates apply group of south korea springhill: The Stalking of Korean Hip Hop Superstar Daniel Lee


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May 22, 2009, and one of New York City’s most storied music venues, the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, was sold out. The line stretched all the way down Irving Place, turned the corner onto East 16th, and …

May 22, 2009, and one of New York City’s most storied music venues, the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, was sold out. The line stretched all the way down Irving Place, turned the corner onto East 16th, and kept going.

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  • 1. group of south koreaspringhill: The Stalking ofKorean Hip Hop Superstar Daniel Lee
  • 2. Daniel Lee, whose nom de rap is Tablo, is the frontman of the successful Korean trio Epik High. Photo: Miko Lim
  • 3. It was Friday night, May 22, 2009, and one ofNew York City’s most storied music venues, theFillmore at Irving Plaza, was sold out. The linestretched all the way down Irving Place, turned thecorner onto East 16th, and kept going. People hadcome from as far away as Michigan, Toronto, andOhio, but they weren’t lined up for the latest indiedarlings or house music sensation. They’d come tosee an improbably successful Korean trio namedEpik High, which as far as anyone could tell wasthe first Korean hip hop act to attract a mainstreamAmerican audience.
  • 4. The group was headed by a skinny 28-year-oldnamed Dan Lee, and when he danced onto the stagethat night the audience started dancing with him.Lee—whose nom de rap is Tablo—had a puckishcharm, a sly grin, and a reputation as a genius. InSouth Korea, Lee was already a superstar. He hadreleased four number one albums with Epik Highand published a best-selling collection of shortstories in both English and Korean. Talk show hostsalmost always found a way to mention that hegraduated from Stanford in three and a half yearswith both a bachelor’s and master’s degree inEnglish. Though that would probably count against arapper in the US, back home he was lionized as asymbol of success.
  • 5. Now the group was building a fan base in the States. Inaddition to its New York show, Epik High had sold outmajor venues in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thecrossover success was visible on iTunes, where the triowas soaring up the hip hop charts and would soon hitnumber one in the US, topping Kanye West and Jay-Z.But then, at the height of the group’s fame, thecomments sections of articles about Epik High startedfilling up with anonymous messages accusing Lee oflying about his Stanford diploma. In May 2010 anantifan club formed and quickly attracted tens ofthousands of members who accused him of stealingsomeone’s identity, dodging the draft, and fakingpassports, diplomas, and transcripts. The accusationswere accompanied by supposed evidence supplied by theonline masses, who also produced slick YouTube attackvideos. It was a full-fledged backlash.
  • 6. By that summer, Lee’s alleged fraud had become one ofKorea’s top news items. Death threats streamed in, andLee found himself accosted by angry people on thestreet. Since his face was so recognizable, he became avirtual prisoner in his Seoul apartment. In a matter ofweeks, he went from being one of the most belovedfigures in the country to one of the most reviled.But in fact Lee had not lied about his academic record.He actually did graduate from Stanford in three and ahalf years with two degrees. His GPA had been in the top15 percent of his undergraduate class. The evidencemarshaled against him was false. It was an online witchhunt, and last spring I set out to discover why ithappened.
  • 7. I first heard about Lee when editors at Stanford Magazine, a publication of the Stanford Alumni Association, called to tell me about the rapper’s plight. The university’s administration and the alumni association had tried their best to defend him, seemingly with little success. The editors asked if I would write an article about the controversy, and I agreed to. (I attended Stanford as an undergrad.)
  • 8. I started by tracking down Lee’s classmates andspoke with four who lived in the San Francisco BayArea. They felt terrible about what had happenedto their friend. He was smart, they all agreed, butwhat set him apart was his dedication to music. Hecould have taken a more traditional path aftergraduation—law school or consulting—but insteadhe chose to return to Korea to start a hip hopgroup. “It was a risky career choice,” says ConradLo, a former dorm-mate and now a productmanager at Google. “Koreans didn’t even like hiphop back then.”
  • 9. Sure enough, Lee struggled when he first returned toKorea. Epik High released two albums to little fanfare.Lee titled the third album Swan Songs, on theassumption that he’d have to get a real job after it failed.Instead the 2005 release was a hit and helped introduceKorean audiences to hip hop. It also turned Lee into acelebrity, and his star power only grew over the next fiveyears.The campaign against him took off on May 11, 2010,when someone formed an online forum titled TaJinYo, anabbreviation in Korean for the phrase “Tell the truth,Tablo.” The leader of the forum identified himself asWhatbecomes, indicated that he lived in the US, andexplained that he was contacting news organizations inKorea and the States to inform them that Lee was a liar.Chief among the accusations was that Lee had fabricated
  • 10. Diploma falsification had been a sensitive topic in Koreafor some time. In 2007 the chief curator of a modern artmuseum in Seoul was found to have fabricated a YalePhD and was jailed for 18 months on forgery charges.The scandal prompted prosecutors to investigate at least120 cases of diploma fraud, ensnaring celebrities,soldiers, and even a monk. “There are definitely morepeople out there,” one of the prosecutors toldBloomberg News. “We just can’t spot them.”In that environment, the accusations against Leeseemed plausible. After all, it usually takes four years tocomplete a bachelor’s degree. A master’s normally takesanother year or two. Lee had done it all in less than four.Students also typically write a thesis to attain a master’s,and yet Lee admitted that he never wrote one. (Hisprogram didn’t require a thesis.)
  • 11. After entertainment gossip sites wrote about theanti-Lee site, TaJinYo’s membership swelled tomore than 100,000. Not content to wait for moreallegations to emerge, many forum memberslaunched their own investigations into Lee’s past.Soon, in a birtherlike onslaught, Stanfordprofessors and administrators were flooded withemails from people questioning Lee’s educationalbackground. Thomas Black, the Stanford registrar,received 133 emails on the subject. Everybodywanted to know one thing: Was Lee telling thetruth?
  • 12. Forum members seemed to relish the digitalinquisition. “We call this game <Tablo Online>,” wroteone heckler, who referred to himself as a Tablo Onlineplayer, as if it were a casual pastime to be enjoyedduring work breaks. What becomes expertly fanned theflames, threatening to reveal dark secrets about Leeand promising to unveil them slowly for maximumdramatic effect. It was, he said, “more fun that way.”What becomes began hinting at a broader conspiracy:The media was colluding to protect Lee, because he waspart of Korea’s upper crust. But the average citizencould fight back. “By proving Tablo’s fraud this time,the deep-rooted symbiotic relationship [between themedia and the rich] can be cut off,” he wrote.