If you’ve never heard of Edmonds-born Korean American rapper Jay Park, maybe the best way to acquaint yourself is to wander out to Luna Azul in Greenwood.
At this small, unassuming cafe, you can eat the burrito named after Park — his favorite order: chicken, rice, beans, guacamole and green tomatillo — and talk to Luna Azul owner Felipe “Junior” Orduna, who met Park before he became the rapper/entrepreneur powerhouse that he is today.
Orduna is a close friend of Park’s, and a founding member of Art of Movement, the dance crew they were in together as high schoolers in the mid-2000s.
Orduna says he always knew Park had what it takes to grow as a musician.
“The dance scene is really competitive and you have to work really hard to be the best,” said Orduna. “I see some of that in [Park’s] music, the way he adapts, breaks things down and is constantly working on being better.”
That adaptability is evident in Park’s latest EP, “Ask Bout Me.” Released in 2018, it features a plethora of verses from notable guests like 2 Chainz and Vic Mensa, crossing genres from hip-hop to pop and R&B.
Park returns to the area Sunday, Dec. 1, for a performance at Seattle’s Showbox SoDo as part of his “Sexy 4 Eva” tour. (As of press time, Park had not responded to multiple requests for an interview.)
Since he left the U.S. in 2005 to try and break into the Korean music industry, Park, 32, has reinvented himself (twice) and started two record labels while managing to stay relevant in a rapidly changing entertainment industry.
As a testament to his staying power, this concert will bring together fans who’ve been with Park since the beginning, when he started out with Art of Movement, and fans who’ve latched onto his music more recently.
“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of Asian people [in the mainstream media] to look up to,” said Daniel Zhu, 23, a real-estate investor and former software engineer who’s an avid Park fan. “So I was really inspired when I found Jay Park. He’s really proud of who he is and his identity.”
Park is part of the reason Zhu, a Bay Area native, came to Seattle.
Zhu says the University of Washington was an obvious pick for college because of its strong computer-science program, but he also liked the idea of living in a place that Jay Park had repped in his music for so long.
Park got his start in entertainment by dancing with Art of Movement as a student at Edmonds-Woodway High School. But he took an unconventional route to music stardom, beginning his career in Korea before coming back to the U.S.
Encouraged to do so by his mother, Park moved to Korea in 2005 to further his training in dancing, singing, music and rapping with JYP Entertainment. In 2008, he debuted with K-pop group 2PM, quickly rising to fame in the Korean entertainment industry. After some controversial MySpace posts in which Park criticized Korea surfaced online, Park left 2PM and returned to the U.S., moving back in with his parents in Edmonds.
Since then, Park has been a force of nature. He reinvented himself in the music and dance worlds, started record labels AOMG and H1ghr Music, and is currently developing a soju company.
Park has continued to represent Seattle in many ways: working with local music artists, referencing the city in his lyrics and filming music videos around town — like his 2013 video for the song “Joah” that was shot downtown and in the U District.
K-pop fans are known for being a passionate bunch, and fans of all ages will be out in full force on Sunday to give Park a warm welcome home.
Wing Hadrann, a 23-year-old senior at UW-Bothell, runs the Twitter account @kpop_seattle and tries to organize fan projects for every K-pop concert that comes to the area. For Park’s Showbox SoDo concert, Hadrann is organizing an “ocean,” an audience display common at concerts in Korea in which the whole crowd holds up light or glow sticks in coordinated colors.
“Oceans are much less common at concerts in the U.S.,” said Hadrann. “But we want to light up the crowd in blue and green — Seahawks colors — as a way to say ‘Welcome home.’ “
The project is one of many ways K-pop brings fans together. Fans also mobilize through online groups, like the Emerald City Noonas (“noona” is Korean for “older sister”) — a group of women aged 30 to 73 who share dinners, travel, go to K-pop concerts together and generally bask in their common love of Korean entertainment.
Melanie Bryce, 51, loves the camaraderie she’s found in the group. She started listening to Park’s music in 2015, intrigued by his tattooed, “bad boy” image, which comes off as more edgy than most clean-cut K-pop stars. Bryce’s 72-year-old mom, a fan of Korean R&B and hip-hop, will also be coming to Park’s concert.
When Bryce told me that, I couldn’t help but laugh and ask, “Isn’t there something inherently funny about a 72-year-old woman going to a concert that’s a part of a tour titled, ‘Sexy 4 Eva?'”
She started laughing too, “My mom says, ‘good music is good music.'”
Bryce finds parts of Park’s massively confident, “throw bras on stage at my concert” persona to be silly, but says it adds to the fun of the experience.
Despite Park’s success, his close friends say he’s still just a down-to-earth Edmonds kid at heart.
Orduna says Park always makes it a point to stop by Luna Azul to have a good meal and see his old friends whenever he’s in the city.
“Sometimes I forget how big he is until times like this [when he’s on tour] and I see that he’s sold out shows all over the place,” Orduna says. “When I see him in person, he’s still the same.”
Jay Park, Sexy 4 Eva Tour; Dec. 1, 8 p.m.; $59-$69; Showbox SoDo, 1700 First Ave. S., Seattle; all ages.