Interview: HeeSun Lee – Stereotypes

by Sam Robinson

HeeSun Lee is breaking stereotypes and wants you to do the same. The latest album from the New York Christian rapper, Stereotypes (read my review here), is a sixteen-track record that challenges the way we view others and focuses on identity. I recently got to chat with HeeSun about Stereotypes, being honest in her rhymes, and also the difference between chicken wings and buffalo wings.

SAM: Your brand new album Stereotypes, how long did it take to come together?

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HEESUN: Yeah this was kind of a long process. My first album Redefined came out in 2008. And then we promoted it for about a year. Then around 2010 I started working on Stereotypes, and we were going for about a year I guess, and then I got pregnant! So I took a little over a year off. So then after that, that’s when I really started wrapping it up, trying to get it all done. It took about four years. [Laughs]

SAM: Wow. So I guess now that it’s out there, are you really pleased that others can now hear it?

HEESUN: Oh man, yes. There’s a lot of relief, y’know, I guess you never really know what people are going to think of the album, but I was more so just happy that it was out there letting the world hear it. Whatever that people wanted to take from it is fine. I just wanted them to get something from me since it’s been so long.

SAM: Yeah, what has the reaction been like so far?

HEESUN: It’s been fairly positive. I don’t hear anything too critical about it. So, a lot of people are enjoying it. They’re liking it. I’m getting a feel for what are the more popular songs, which we kinda predicted anyway. It’s good that what we thought were going to be the hit songs were actually the ones that everyone is enjoying right now. And the brighter side of all of that, is that there were a lot of songs that we kinda were shocked by that we weren’t sure if they were going to grab people or not, but they were bigger hits than we thought they would be.

SAM: Tonight is the Night which features Tiffany Michelle is a very bouncy track – what can you tell me about it?

HEESUN: Tiffany Michelle, she just did an amazing job singing the hook. That really made the song right there. It’s basically for everybody – whether you’re a Christian or not, we all have those moments where we feel kinda defeated by things around us. We’re stalling, we’re hesitating in life, and we don’t know where to go next. So this song is pretty much saying: that’s it, enough is enough, we gotta get going, we gotta change something about our life. Tonight is the Night is exactly what it means – we’re gonna get things done and we’re gonna start changing our lives.

SAM: Across this album, you talk a lot about identity and your past. Would you mind sharing briefly your story and how you came to find Jesus?

HEESUN: I’m thirty years old. I was born in Seoul, Korea, and was given up for adoption right after I was born. So I never met my birth family. I was in foster care for about four months and then I came here to the United States, I’ve been in New York ever since then. I have a great family, they’re Chinese-American, born here – which is funny because I was born out of the US and they were born here in the US, the opposite! We’re very Americanised. Love my family, they’ve been supporting me all my life. I pretty much consider them my birth family even though by blood we’re not related. Growing up was great. They took me to church but once I got to a certain age we all kinda stopped going.

So throughout high school and college I did the typical stuff. I think around high school is when I really started questioning my identity and my adoption, where I came from. And that took a sour turn for me. I started getting into partying and drinking and all this stuff because I pretty much didn’t know anything about my life and it was really getting to me. And as much as I loved my parents, and as much as they loved me, they really couldn’t answer any of the questions I was asking. They don’t know who my real family is. It gets kinda frustrating when you want answers to questions that nobody has the answers to. So I got into college and I was still with it battling it – y’know I still had God in my life. There were good people around me that kept pouring into me, so eventually I got out of my issues. Then I finally got back into the swing of things with God. I still do deal with my identity here and there now, but I’m learning that God is the true identity in all of us, so we may not know certain people in our lives, but as long as we have Christ with us, that’s really all that matters. And I’m learning that more and more each day.

SAM: And it’s such an encouragement that you’re so open and honest about that on this album. Thanks for being bold and sharing! Now, thinking about the album – where did you record it?

HEESUN: Right here, Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn is one of the other five boroughs, it’s right over the bridge. The production company I’ve been working for for years now called JahRockn Productions. My first album, the mixtape I did in between, and now Stereotypes was all done by them. I only work with them pretty much!

SAM: And as you made this album, I know you’re reaching out to many different people, but did you hope to reach out to a particular audience?

HEESUN: I guess being female I kinda sway more to the female population. I want a lot of the ladies out there to be bold and courageous in their walk with Christ. I know it’s hard being female in this world where we’re looked at in such horrible ways a lot of the time. We feel like we have to feed into the media into what they’re portraying females to look like and act like, and we don’t really have too many positive voices out there. I’m really trying to be one of them for them, and let them know that there’s another way. But not just females, I guess I do have a heart for people who deal with adoption, foster kids and stuff. Anybody who has issues with identity, not knowing who they are. I’m well-crafted in that area [laughs] so it’s easy for me to reach out to them. Whoever comes in my life I try to help them as best I can but those are the real target areas that I try and work with.

SAM: The track Runaway is a deep one – it deals with rejection – what can you tell me about this song?

HEESUN: Yeah, that one does focus on my identity because I’m talking about looking at myself and not being pleased with it, not being happy with anything that’s going on in my life, and I just wanted to be honest with people. As much as I am a Christian artist and I do uplifting and positive messages with people, we’re still human. We still have our issues. We still have our bad days and our times where we just wanna be alone, kinda run away and be in our own thoughts and deal with things on our own. So that’s pretty much what the song’s about. You just wanna get away for a little bit and just have nobody bother you. But at the end of the song I put a twist of positivity in it and I say that even through the days where you’re down there is God. There is always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

SAM: It’s time for the FAST FIVE. Quickly – winter or summer?

HEESUN: Summer, definitely.

SAM: What’s the last movie you saw, and was it any good?

HEESUN: Captain Phillips. It was awesome, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen!

SAM: It’s intense, isn’t it?

HEESUN: Oh yeah. I thought it was going to be good because I love Tom Hanks, but as soon as I started watching it I was like ‘whoa!’

SAM: If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

HEESUN: Probably chicken wings. I just love chicken wings. I love chicken in general.

SAM: Now here’s a question for you that I’ve never understood. Are chicken wings and buffalo wings the same thing?

HEESUN: Yeah. I battle with that too. Chicken wings come in different types. Buffalo wings are the ones you eat at the ranch with the dressings. My mom makes these Chinese chicken wings and you put bread crumbs on it and stuff, but I wouldn’t consider those buffalo wings.

SAM: If you have one, what’s your favourite book of the Bible?

HEESUN: I guess Ephesians. A lot of my favourite verses are from there, and the New Testament. But to be honest, I just started going over Genesis actually, and I was just so intrigued getting to know all the characters and people that we hear the names of all the time, but we never really know to the extent of who they are. So I’ve been reading Genesis over and over most recently and enjoying.

SAM: And finally, what album can’t you get enough of at the moment?

HEESUN: Andy Mineo just dropped Never Land. Andy Mineo is a great artist, he comes from New York too. I know him personally and his music is just getting better and better. He actually released the EP right after I did. It’s crazy that album.

SAM: And there’s a song on it called You Can’t Stop Me and I can imagine you might be walking around the streets of Staten Island hearing that pumping out of car stereos.

HEESUN: Oh yeah. That song is great.

SAM: I’ve really enjoyed getting my ears around that as well. It’s a good record! Now I want to ask you about the collaborations on this album because there’s so many of them. When you’re putting an album together, how do you work out who to feature on what track?

HEESUN: Personally for me, and it doesn’t work every time, but for the most part, I like to have a personal relationship with the artist. Obviously with any artist I’m assuming that you want them to have kind of a buzz, so you can put people on that other people know of. But I don’t like just putting a popular artist on there because of their name. So the bigger names on there that I appreciated was MC Jin and Social Club. They’re really great people, I know them personally so that just adds to it. It’s not just like ‘Social Club’s on the album!’ but I don’t even know who they are.

When I worked with my producers we went through a list of artists we potentially wanted on the album. And some I didn’t know personally but we tried to hit up anyway and it just didn’t work out. But I just wanted to have artists that I feel I have a good relationship with and we can make good music together. So after getting to know Social Club, Jin, Chris Cobbins, Mia Hunt – all the other artists on there – I just felt like it was perfect for the album.

SAM: One of those collaborations is I Break Stereotypes featuring MC Jin. It seems like a real key track on this record because you’re rapping about breaking stereotypes, and you boldly state that you’re a Christian. How important is it to you that you’re boldly sharing who you are on this track?

HEESUN: It’s super important because, like you said, it’s the basis of the entire album. It’s letting people know that the album is called Stereotypes and this is exactly why I’m calling it that. It’s all about breaking all the walls that people have around you and placing on you saying ‘this is who you’re supposed to be’. So we’re trying to make it clear that we are not about that, and we’re trying to do this whole new movement where we’re free from all these stereotypes and we’re our own people, and we’re representing for God and we’re doing it boldly and unashamed, and all that other good stuff.

SAM: How do you hope that people will be challenged as they hear this album?

HEESUN: Playing off what I said before about the stereotype thing, I really want people when they finish listening to it to say: ‘You know what? I want to do that. I want to break out of whatever I’m in right now. I want to feel like I have the power and the courage to be a new me. I’m tired of being chained to whatever society is placing me on.’ And it doesn’t have to be society, it could be your family or your friends, even yourself that’s really stopping you from being everything you could possibly be, especially in God’s eyes. One thing that I’m very grateful for is that a lot of the responses I’m getting from this album is people are saying: ‘Oh yeah I hate stereotypes, and I’m so glad you put out this message because it’s really giving me the courage to want to do the same, and not be restricted’. That’s really what I want to challenge people with: are you going to be like that? Are you gonna be the one to say ‘enough’ and ‘I’m going to do something that nobody expected me to do”?

SAM: At the tail end of the album we find some more serious tracks – one is Skin Deep. What did you want people to take away as they listen to this track?

HEESUN: This was geared not just for women but for men too. The outer appearance or what people value as they look at you is not as much as what’s on the inside. We see all these celebrities today and they’ve got all the money, they look good, they’re living the life, and everybody’s looking up to them. But actually you’re not seeing it. You see it on the news sometimes and you’re realising they don’t have it all together. There’s something missing and it’s clearly not stuff that’s on the outside, it’s stuff that’s on the inside. They’re not happy. They’re struggling. I feel like the same people who are struggling with these issues are the same people who are promoting to the world that it’s OK to just value your outer appearance. It’s a contradiction. I’m trying to tell people, along with other people who put this message out, that it’s really so much more than what you’re seeing. If you’re not right on the inside, there’s no point in what you look like on the outside. We’re all more than skin deep.

SAM: The track I’m Supposed to Be is very raw and honest. Is it hard to lay your life out on a track?

HEESUN: Yeah sometimes, I think I’m getting more used to it now. But this song especially, I remember speaking to my producer about it and there were certain things I didn’t want to say because when you say certain things people might say ‘Whoa! She’s struggling with that?’ Because at the same time as much as people know you’re human and that you have issues, they still look at you as a role model and somebody who gives hope and a powerful message. So if you’re being a little bit too transparent, they might think ‘She’s not a role model! She actually deals with a little too many issues.’ So you’re dealing with that but after speaking with my producer, he just goes ‘Keep it real and just say who you are, and people will understand that. You’re not going to lose fans.’

SAM: What have you got planned for the rest of the year?

HEESUN: Things are rolling in day by day. But right now we’re trying to work out a little local album release party here in New York. I’ll be in Texas next month, then Arizona in June, and then Idaho. Just trying to get out there as much as I can. We’re trying to shoot a video for Skin Deep. All these things are coming into place…

SAM: The final track North Korea is a very powerful song, and you remind us of the persecution Christians experience in that place. But also, you call us to action which is a great way to end the record! Is that what you wanted for the end of this album?

HEESUN: Yeah. In the beginning [of Stereotypes], like you were saying, it’s a fun album for people to dance to, but as you get towards the end it ends more on a serious note. I wanted people to take it all in and let them know that as much as it’s great to do music and have fun, at the end of the day there are people in this world who are dying for God. Not to make it depressing, but to let people know that we have to take the gospel in all these things we’re trying to do in our lives. We have to do it. It plays in with this stereotypes thing, breaking stereotypes. Being those leaders and those world changers. I really pray that after hearing a song like North Korea that it will motivate them to really do something great.

SAM: Heesun, thanks so much for walking me through your album!

HEESUN: No problem, anytime.

Stereotypes by HeeSun Lee is available now on iTunes.

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