WASHINGTON – A few weeks ago, a Kickstarter project was posted on the Internet featuring two young men who went by the names of Pacman and Peso. The duo and their producer were using the crowdsourcing site to raise money for a creative endeavor; they wanted to make a music video. A rap music video. They wanted to do it on a karaoke party bus. They only needed $6,000, a fairly modest sum, considering that this estimate also included lodging and two overseas flights. The video, you see, was going to be filmed in Pyongyang.
“This trip will be a fantastic opportunity for Pacman and Peso to meet young, dynamic people and significantly broaden their horizons,” read the proposal, which was posted on Aug. 30, “in addition to jump starting their musical careers.” The title was straightforward and surreal: “Pacman & Peso Make a Music Video in North Korea.”
Because this is what North Korea has become: A place of hideous human rights violations but also a surreal punch line, a backward land where Dennis Rodman is our best diplomatic liaison to Kim Jong Un and where, if you know anything about its relationship to popular music, it is this rumor: In August, Kim’s ex-girlfriend, herself a performer and dancer, allegedly was discovered to have made a sex tape, and for this was put to death by a firing squad.
So, yes, it sounds weird. Two African-American youths from low-income, Washington-area neighborhoods have paired with a white part-time producer from an affluent Washington neighborhood and they all want to go to North Korea because they see it as their best shot at a better future. Call Christopher Guest. Call Dave Chappelle. Someone is pulling your chain.
Unless, of course, it’s real. Unless it’s complicated. Unless it’s a whimsical windmill-tilt of a heartbreak.
“My goal was to rap,” says Peso, 20, whose real name is Dontray Ennis. If it wasn’t that, it was football. “But other than that, it was either doing wrong in the streets, or getting locked up.”
“This is my only option now,” he says of North Korea. “If it was to work.”
Ramsey Aburdene has a slight build, a post-college beard and an earnest way of communicating that makes him seem both younger and older than his age, which is 24. By day he works in commercial lending. But Ramsey grew up attending District public schools and always dreamed, after college at the University of Connecticut, of returning to his native home and forming a small production studio for rap music. He knows it’s an unusual aspiration for a white man from middle-class Washington, but explains: “I don’t watch HBO or Showtime. I’m not waiting for the next episode of ‘House of Cards.’ I’m doing this.” The music vision might be a pipe dream, but he didn’t see it as any more of a time-waste than anyone else’s evening pastimes.
The Forest Hills Tenleytown Music Group is now based in Ramsey’s Mount Pleasant rowhouse. The recording studio is in his walk-in closet, a microphone on a bureau between rows of collared shirts. Several months ago, he and some local artist buddies were filming video footage at a playground in the Congress Heights section of Washington.
This is how he met Pacman.
Pacman, 19, whose real name is Anthony Bobb, had gone there to play basketball with some friends. When they saw Ramsey’s crew, Pacman’s friends told him he should show off a bit — he had a skill for improvisation and had been known to entertain passers-by by freestyling.
Ramsey thought Pacman was impressively good and invited him to come up to the house sometime if he ever felt like laying down a track. “I wasn’t taking no breath after that,” Pacman says. He offered to come up right away, that day. After a few sessions, he started bringing his friend Peso.
The pair soon became part of the rotating creative collective at the address. Another visitor was Michael Bassett, a former soldier once based near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Bassett now studies the region in grad school at American University and facilitates cultural exchange tours to North Korea, which lifted its most restrictive travel sanctions in 2010. When Ramsey learned about the possibility of seeing North Korea on a tour, he was intrigued. An idea emerged: Bring along Pacman and Peso. Make a music video. Watch it explode on YouTube. Get famous.
On a recent weekday morning, I visited Ramsey, Pacman and Peso at Ramsey’s home. They sat on an L-shaped couch in the living room and talked about their dream.
Pacman has long dreadlocks, and a soft, gentle speaking voice. He used to be overweight when he was a kid, and he still has the unassuming posture of someone who isn’t quite used to his svelte body. He is immediately likable; within hours of meeting me, he’s already developed a wicked impression of my voice but then looks mortified that he might have offended.
Peso is taller, reed-thin, with a face that is often impassive — when he was little, the solemnity earned him the family nickname “Grandpa” — until it erupts into a cackling laugh. His new nickname, “Peso,” was bestowed on him because he was always serious about business, numbers, money. He has a proud, chin-jutting walk. He is late coming downstairs for the interview because he has been ironing his shirt.
“No one’s ever been there,” Peso says, explaining why he’s interested in going to North Korea. “No one’s tried to do the things we trying to do out of there. No one ever shot a video.”
“All you got is the hype behind it,” Pacman adds. “You don’t really know what to expect. All you got is what you hear on TV about what North Korea is. That’s why I want to go.”
“We want to explore more,” Peso says. “We want to learn more. Do different things.”
“I feel it can’t be as bad as people say it is,” Pacman says. “I want to see what’s real.”
It’s an adventure, they say. Neither of them has ever been out of the country. The farthest Pacman has ever traveled is North Carolina, and Peso, New Jersey. The airplanes to North Korea are what make them the most nervous; they’ve never flown before.
On this morning in early September, Ramsey and the other members of the music collective — many of whom live in the house — had been tweeting out to local celebrities, trying to find ways to spread the word. But the Kickstarter had raised only $600, and most of that was in $10 and $15 increments from Ramsey’s friends.
At noon, they go upstairs to do a Skype interview with a London-based reporter for North Korea News.
The interviewer, a shaggy-haired younger man named Oliver, wants to know whether the duo will collaborate with any North Korean musicians when they’re there.
Pacman and Peso don’t know of any North Korean musicians, they say.
Are they going to meet with average citizens?
Peso looks dubious. “Do they speak a certain language down there?” he asks. The interviewer confirms that they speak Korean, and Peso laughs. So, he wants to know, how would they understand each other?
The interviewer has a vaguely uneasy expression on his face at the naivete with which his subjects are responding. There is a sense that they might not truly understand what they are getting into.
Back downstairs, I’d asked them what, exactly, they think North Korea will be like.
Peso shrugged. “I mean, the same as here.”
Here? Here meaning . . .
“The neighborhoods, the shooting, the killing,” he elaborates.
“The whole environment,” Pacman supplies. “Like, when you think of Southeast (Washington), what do you think of?”
Pacman and Peso know that North Korea is supposed to be dangerous. They also know that the places they live have reputations for being dangerous. Like North Koreans, they are also from geographic regions that people are warned about, that are portrayed as wastelands by people who have never been there.
Suddenly, there are tears running down Peso’s face, steady and silent. He swipes at them with the back of his hand. Allergies, he says. And:
“My whole life’s been nothing. The whole 19 years, I wasn’t trying to do nothing. . . . I never had nothing, for real.”
It’s not that they don’t think North Korea is a hopeless place. They just don’t think it’s any more hopeless than where they’ve already been.
Congress Heights in Washington has storefronts and a Metro, apartment complexes and old Victorian single-family homes. In August of this year, the Washington Business Journal speculated that the area might be in the early stages of gentrification, due to an increase in incomes and property values, but “increase” is a relative term. The poverty rate of Ward 8, where Congress Heights is situated, is 36 percent compared with a Washington-wide average of 18 percent, according to 2012 statistics from the Urban Institute. Its unemployment rate is 22 percent, compared with a city average of 10 percent; 19 percent of Ward 8 adults do not have high school diplomas. There is no other area in the city that is as poor, as lacking in job security.
This is where Pacman is from.
He knew of his father but didn’t know him. His mother had an injury from a previous job that prohibited her from working steadily throughout his childhood; Pacman, his mother and younger brother lived with a rotation of family members. His older brother, he says, is in prison. Pacman dreamed of being able to take care of his mom and younger brother, but two years ago, he got in trouble, too, for breaking and entering. Because he was a juvenile at the time, the court records are sealed, and the public defender’s office says it doesn’t comment on cases involving minors. But this is what he says happened: Some friends picked him up to hang out; he didn’t know that their plans included illegally entering empty houses.
He graduated from Luke C. Moore, an alternative high school, this spring. Right now, he lives with his mom and younger brother in an apartment that is impeccably vacuumed, but with not a stick of furniture in the living room, and only rolled-up blankets in the room he and his brother share. They moved in only a few months ago, but “We can’t afford (furniture),” he explains. Sometimes a grandfather fills the refrigerator.
Peso grew up about a 20-minute drive from Landover, Maryland. When he was 14, he says, he learned that the man who raised him, a carpenter, was not his father. The revelation confirmed a long-standing feeling of isolation, a sense that he was perceived differently from his brothers and sisters. Peso’s mother, Vera Ennis, remembers the revelation being difficult for her son.
Peso says the information catalyzed a rebellious streak. He wasn’t a stranger to street fights, and one night, he says, one got too big. A fight became a brawl, the brawl got out of control, Peso pulled out a knife and then spent time locked up. He was 17, so these records are sealed, but other arrests amassed since then aren’t: marijuana possession with intent to distribute, a charge for which he is awaiting trial. Attempted robbery, which he says was a misunderstanding. He never finished high school.
They made the sort of mistakes that are not unheard of for teens trying to prove themselves, and now they are trying to straighten out. “I used to be real lazy,” Peso says at dinner one night. “I didn’t realize there were a lot of things I needed to do, to get out of my mother’s house,” which is where he stays most of the time now, in a small apartment decorated with Redskins football paraphernalia.
“I used to care about what everyone was saying about me,” Pacman says. He would bristle at other people’s opinions of him.
That changed, he says, with meeting Ramsey and the other members of the Forest Hills music collective, and with the North Korea plan. “I want to try my hardest. He gave me this feeling. This hope.”
“Everybody has a dream,” Peso says.
“Even if other people think that dream is stupid?” I ask.
“Yeah. Even if people think that dream is stupid, everyone has a dream.” He waits, a beat, then nods toward my notebook. “That should go in your article.”
But it’s easy to worry about the health of this dream: What will happen if they make the video in North Korea and nothing comes from it? How long will Ramsey — who thought of this idea to begin with and who pays for all their food, arranges their transportation and lends out his cellphone every time I’ve seen them — remain invested? When I bring this up, Ramsey says he’ll stay all-in as long as he sees Pacman and Peso working hard. But if the plan doesn’t work, he still has a big house and a good job. And Pacman and Peso do not.
“See him?” Pacman nods his head to a shuffling man across the street. “He used to be my man, and now he’s gone.” He twirls his finger around his ear, the universal “crazy” gesture. “His mind is gone,” he clarifies. Drugs.
It’s a little after 3 p.m. Pacman is giving a tour of his neighborhood to Ramsey and Esteban Glower, another friend of Ramsey’s who has gotten involved in the music collective.
The sidewalks are filling with children in school uniforms, and adults hang out near the storefronts. Pacman knows a lot of them — this is, he explains, one of the places he used to come and practice rapping in front of an audience.
“You can’t just get on a stage in front of thousands of people and, like, pause.” Peso laughs. You have to practice performing for the public. You have to work for it.
In the past few days, they have decamped permanently to Ramsey’s house, crashing on mattresses on the floor. They get up, they write, they record, they write some more and record some more. One evening, I asked Ramsey to email a particular song; he responded with that song and several more they had just written and recorded in one manic, marathon session.
The day before, former Washington Mayor Marion Barry had retweeted one of Ramsey’s donation pleas to his 10,000 followers. Bryan Weaver, a candidate for District of Columbia City Council, has also responded to a tweet: “This idea is 50% foolhardy and 50% inspiring,” he writes. “As every dream should be.”
Despite the publicity, more than a week after posting on Kickstarter, they had raised only about $800. It’s a weird sort of project for people to want to donate money to, a logic leap that requires skirting a basic reaction Westerners have to this proposition. Namely: If you want to support the success of two young men, you do not help send them to North Korea.
Given a self-imposed recording schedule, Pacman hasn’t spent much time in his neighborhood recently, and he has returned as somewhat of a celebrity. The other day, the Express newspaper published a small picture and caption of the two of them, and everyone saw it.
“You’re gonna make it, son!” A large man in a white T-shirt claps his hand on Pacman’s shoulders. “Get out. Korea?”
“Where have you been?” a teenage girl stops him in the street. “I miss you!”
“This is my man, Peso.” Pacman shyly waves toward Dontray.
“He looks familiar,” the girl affirms. “Hey — I saw your picture!”
A teacher at his former junior high remembers him, commenting that he’s a lot less round than he used to be.
The people in this neighborhood are cheerful, encouraging, proud of the duo’s modest fame.
Because, Peso explains, when you feel as though you don’t have anything to lose, you might as well dream big. It’s not like he doesn’t want a regular job, he says, but without a high school diploma he’s had no luck. “I can’t get lower,” he says. “I might as well try to get higher.”
I send a link of Pacman and Peso’s SoundCloud account, which has several of their recordings, to my friend Chris Richards, the pop music critic at The Washington Post, and ask for his professional opinion.
Chris writes back: “The rap scene in our city has exploded in recent years, and with the rise of rappers like Fat Trel and Shy Glizzy, there’s been an escalating desire to explain life in the streets of Washington D.C. to the rest of the world. These guys sound poised to enter that discussion. Especially on ‘Ballin.’ It’s easily their strongest tune.”
“Ballin” is an insanely catchy song, the kind that you hear once and find yourself singing several days later. A fantasy of what it would feel like to have it all, to be somebody, to live large, the tune has one line in particular that sticks out. The line, in this ode to the high life, is: “Ballin’ like I’m employed.”
Chris continues: “Pacman and Peso don’t sound out of their league, here, even if it sounds like they recorded their vocals in a closet,” he writes. “They sound hungry.”
Late in the afternoon, back on the neighborhood tour, everyone ends up at a park in Landover, playground equipment surrounded by a grassy expanse, leaning against the monkey bars and talking while parents play with kids nearby.
The five of us set out, ambling toward the grass, singing loose phrases of lyrics, when — “Stop.”
It takes everyone a second to realize that the police officer is talking to us, but there he is, approaching from behind, his Taser drawn. His partner has pulled up in a cruiser, blocking the path to the park lands.
“Stop,” he orders again. “Put your hands on the car.”
Ramsey and Esteban demand to know what they’ve done, and why the officers have the right to stop them. We all put our hands on the car. The hood is hot. There’s a young officer, round face, and an older one, tall and portly. The officers say there’s been drug activity in the park. A group of people walking away from the park together, the officers explain. It looks suspicious. Especially, they say, with Ramsey, Esteban and me, who don’t look as if we’re from the neighborhood.
The explanation enrages Peso.
“Would I really be smoking up in front of those kids?” he demands. Over by the park equipment, the mothers glance up long enough to register what’s happening, barely breaking the rhythm of pushing their children in swings.
“Peso, just put your hands on the car,” Esteban begs him. “North Korea is bigger than this, it’s bigger.”
“This is bulls—-” Peso’s voice is raised, a rubber band waiting to snap. “This is bullsh—.” he keeps saying. “Bulls—-.”
“Peso,” Esteban says.
Eventually, the cops will finish running everyone’s IDs. Ramsey will tell them I am a reporter with The Washington Post; I will explain what we are doing there. Eventually, everyone will be allowed to go. Not for a while, but eventually.
But for now, there’s just this: Pacman and Peso, with their hands on the hood of the police officer’s cruiser. And Esteban, repeating the same phrase over and over again, soothing them with the lullaby of a better future: “Soon you’re going to North Korea. It doesn’t matter. Soon you’re going to North Korea.”
Several days after the police incident in Landover, a businessman who wished to remain anonymous donated $5,100 to Pacman and Peso’s Kickstarter campaign, tipping them over their $6,000 goal. Pacman and Peso immediately applied for passports. Plans to travel to North Korea are in the works.