“Are you ready?” Ramsey Aburdene demands of the assembled buoyant audience. “Are you ready to go to North Korea?”
The fans at the Dunes in Columbia Heights hoot and wave their hands. They are ready, if not to go to North Korea, then to see Aburdene and his two musical proteges go to North Korea, in two weeks, to make a rap music video on a party bus.
This journey began in August, when a fundraising plea appeared on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, featuring Pacman and Peso, two young men from Southeast Washington and Landover, Md. Their goal? Six thousand dollars, plane tickets to the most repressive regime in the world, a music video on YouTube and then fame and glory. The Washington Post published a story on this endeavor, which people found equal parts quixotic and bizarre, optimistic and idiotic. Even their most earnest supporters wondered whether the trip could possibly come to pass.
But then, a wealthy hedge fund manager named James Passin, whom Business Week once referred to as “the American who bought Mongolia,” learned about their cause and donated $5,100, the balance of the money needed for the project. Pacman and Peso, whose real names are Anthony Bobb and Dontray Ennis, applied for passports. Their visas came through two weeks ago. Dates were set. Pacman, Peso, aspiring music producer Aburdene and North Korea expert Michael Bassett will be spending Thanksgiving in Pyongyang.
The Thursday-night party at the Dunes was their official goodbye, as well as a performance of songs from their debut mix tape, “Coming Soon,” which was recorded primarily in Aburdene’s walk-in closet.
One hundred or so well-wishers had gathered in the performing arts space, some wearing specially made Pacman and Peso T-shirts reading, “DMV to DMZ.” (The DMV, of course, refers to the geographic area encompassing Washington, Maryland and Virginia; the DMZ is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea).
“If someone had told me a year ago this would happen, I would have thought, that guy is crazy,” Pacman — lithe, goofy, long dreadlocks — says before the event.
“I would have believed it 50 percent,” says Peso, the more serious of the two. Outlandish dreams are how he has propelled himself through life. Still, this one didn’t feel quite real until he received his passport in the mail. “Now I’m really thinking about it. About the plane.” Neither of them has ever been on a plane before. Until a recent New York trip to meet Passin (“He was cool,” Peso affirms), the farthest Peso had ever been from home was New Jersey.
The two have yet to write the song that they will record in Pyongyang, reasoning that part of the point of the trip is to be musically inspired by new locations, and they can’t be inspired until they actually visit them. They do have a beat picked out, though, and Bassett has been liaising with an officially sanctioned tour agency to make sure their music will be acceptable to the state. “North Koreans don’t really mind bad words,” he explains. “They mostly just want to make sure there’s nothing anti-North Korean” in the lyrics.
Their trip will begin with a stopover in Beijing, where Pacman and Peso, who do not own suits, plan to take advantage of the country’s inexpensive tailoring and purchase the formalwear required for visiting the embalmed body of deceased dictator Kim Jong Il.
“I don’t think I’ll really get excited until we’re standing in the airport,” Aburdene says, and he can stop worrying about all of the trip’s outstanding details.
“I can’t get no happier,” says Peso, his normally solemn face splitting into a broad grin. “I can’t get no happier.”
“Yet,” Pacman corrects him, envisioning the trip and everything he hopes will come after it. “Yet.”