bill stax, vasco, detox, pastor kang sung-seok, weed, south korea
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Music

A Rapper and a Pastor Team Up to Legalise Weed in South Korea

With the religious fervour of a missionary, veteran hip-hop artist Bill Stax and pastor Kang Sung-seok preach the good word on weed to rehabilitate its reputation among Koreans.
30 April 2020, 8:18am

For South Korean rapper Bill Stax (previously known as Vasco), Detox is not just his fifth studio album, it’s the start of a movement. A weed movement.

“My movement seeks to change the public’s perception of weed as an illegal drug,” the 39-year-old, veteran hip-hop artist and father told VICE at his home studio in Seoul.

He doesn’t at all look like your average Korean dad. Tattoos that run down his hands, arms, and chest, peeked through a bright red hoodie with the word “Marijuana’s” styled like the McDonald’s logo. He designed the hoodie himself, which will soon be released under an upcoming clothing brand.

Bill Stax holds a physical copy of his latest album in his home studio.

His 8-year-old son ate dinner in the kitchen, outside the studio’s soundproof walls. One of these walls had a poster that said, “medical weed is a matter of surviving.” In the same room was a ziplock bag that contained a limited edition cassette of the album. Only 420 copies of the green tapes were made.

This is where Bill Stax spent over a year working on tracks like “Wake N’ Bake” and “Lonely Stoner,” songs from Detox, which dropped on April 8.

“I'm trying to use my music, fashion, and other cultural influences to ‘detox’ away the brainwashing the public received from society’s propaganda against weed, ” the rapper said.

He revealed that he is in talks with directors and producers for a possible weed documentary and movie.

Weed and hip-hop is not exactly a new combination, but it was almost unheard of in South Korean media. Music streaming platforms refused to showcase Detox as a new release because the cover art featured rolled-up blunts and an ounce of weed. It did not help that Bill Stax was charged in 2018 for smoking weed and taking cocaine and ecstasy in a 2015 incident. Initially sentenced to a year and a half in prison, he was later indicted without detention. He’s currently serving a three-year probation that requires him to undergo regular drug tests.

Even the rapper’s own family does not approve of his new role as South Korea’s de facto weed spokesperson. He stopped talking to his father about his work, limiting conversations to uncontroversial topics like his son.

Thankfully, other loved ones are more open.

“My wife and her family are my biggest supporters,” he said. “After telling my in-laws that my end goal was to advocate for the friendly use of weed, they came back the next day with questions they wrote down after researching online. I’ve made plans to smoke weed with my mother-in-law in the future.”

While South Korea became the first East Asian country to legalise non-hallucinogenic doses of weed for medical use in 2018, the country also has some of the harshest laws against the possession and sale of recreational weed.

Knowing that it would take a lot more than music to change Koreans’ perception of weed, Bill Stax called on unlikely back-up in the form of Pastor Kang Sung-seok. A religious leader ordained by the Korean Association of Independent Churches and Missions, Kang, 41 years old, founded the Korean Medical Cannabis Organisation (KMCO), a civic organisation with about 200 members. It is the first organised group in South Korea to advocate for medical weed and was one of those who pressured the government to allow the use of weed in the medical sector.

“We barely convinced the assembly representatives to change legislation by sharing stories of people suffering from epilepsy, cancer, and chronic pain, who could potentially see their lives changed with the help of medical weed,” Kang told VICE.

On the way to a recording session for his podcast on weed, Kang looked like any other minister with his black shirt, white collar, and navy suit. Yet he doesn’t preach like other pastors. In fact, he talks more like rappers like Bill Stax.

Pastor Kang Sung-seok prepares for a recording of a podcast series about legalising medical marijuana.

On April 20, the pastor and the rapper partnered up for an Instagram Live to promote a national petition on “Weed Day.” Bill Stax started it just hours before, with the goal to make it easier for patients to get their hands on medical weed, and to decriminalise recreational use. The petition amassed over 8,400 online signatures in six days but it still has a long way to go in reaching the 200,000 it needs in 30 days, to get an official response from President Moon Jae-in’s office.

“I consider him as a colleague who is looking in the same direction as me,” Bill Stax said about Kang, adding that the pastor contributed to the contents of the petition.

Apart from appearing on Instagram Live, Kang’s organisation, KMCO, also promotes the petition on social media. The pastor and rapper have been in contact with each other ever since last year’s Weed Day, when Bill Stax joined KMCO’s general assembly meeting inside a church in the hip district Hongdae.

“He signed up on the spot to become a member and has been a loyal supporter who regularly pays his membership fees," said Kang.

They plan to work on even more collaborations in the future, to promote weed through culture and civic advocacy. Both men are outliers in their industries. Hip-hop artists in South Korea mostly appear agnostic and don’t associate with religious groups. On the other hand, many of the close to 30 percent of South Koreans who identify as Christian are against weed legalisation, Cho Man-soo, a professor at the Graduate School of Techno Design at Kookmin University, told VICE.

“There hasn’t been a Christian group that has publicly denounced my organisation or work, but there also hasn’t been any group that has outrightly supported me,” Kang said.

He is a third-generation pastor whose grandfather is a well-known martyr who was executed after confessing his faith during the Korean War. The younger Kang learned about medical weed when he was diagnosed with a ruptured disc in 2014.

To him, advocating weed legalisation is the same as missionary work.

“Just as Jesus healed many people back in his day, my medical mission is to bring treatments to patients.”

Like Bill Stax, Kang believes that social stigma is what kept professors and doctors from pushing for medical weed, even when they were well aware of its benefits. That’s why he stepped up to promote it.

“You can say that everyone in the country is against promoting weed,” Professor Cho said. He is one of the very few South Korean academics who conduct research on the industrialisation of weed. He said that Koreans have no knowledge and interest in weed because most people have never encountered it.

“Only about 10 percent of Korean adults have ever done weed,” Cho said. His team of researchers analysed data from the Korean Association Against Drug Abuse and the police agency’s reports on drug-related arrests.

“In South Korea, weed is considered to be in the same category as hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth, due to the fact that there’s not much of a difference between the number of people who have experienced weed and those who have experienced hard drugs.”

Signs of marijuana can be found in alleyways of neighborhoods like Hongdae, where youth culture is popular.

He added that the cost of getting weed is equivalent to purchasing harder drugs, which is why it’s known as the “chaebol drug,” or a drug for the elite.

“News reports of chaebols (owners of powerful conglomerates) being investigated for smoking weed is what usually comes to mind when Koreans think about weed,” Pastor Kang said. “There’s this view that being prosecuted for possessing weed is the equivalent of being sentenced for murder in this country.”

That is also likely why Bill Stax’s album Detox was overlooked. While many of his past songs reached the Top 100 charts on streaming sites, none of the tracks on Detox did. The album did not create nearly as much controversy as the rapper had hoped.

“If more people had listened to the album, the comments section on music streaming sites would not only be full of compliments from fans, rather it would be full of criticism and hate comments,” he said. “There are probably a lot of people who don’t even know that I released a new album.”

“I really wanted people to see my album and say, ‘Wow, you can really release an album like this in our country?’” he said, sounding disappointed.

But hope is not lost.

Until Koreans accept weed, both the rapper and his pastor-partner are committed to spreading the good word.

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