When Sam Okyere arrived in South Korea to study, he was met with racism. But he found a way to transform his negative experiences into positive ones, making a name for himself as a popular television personality.
To many viewers in South Korea, Sam’s singing voice is hugely familiar. You can find him on some of the country’s most famous variety shows and he even has his own radio slot. He raps in English and South Korean and sometimes in his native Ghanaian language Twi. Although he was born and raised in Ghana, he has recently become known as ‘the most famous black man of South Korea.’
Sam can hardly walk the streets of Seoul without being stopped by people asking for autographs. Luckily it is relatively quiet at the juice bar in the popular downtown shopping district of the capital where he agrees to meet.
“It’s crazy,” he explains. “There are times that I have to wear a hat and a mask. People from different age groups are coming up to me. I have got grandmas coming up to me, I’ve got babies coming up to me, young adults, high schoolers, people from different age ranges coming up to me asking for autographs. If somebody would have told me a couple of years ago that that would happen, I would have said: No, that’s not possible.”
Once he had mastered the language, he quickly made lots of Korean friends. But his life really started to change when he entered the Korean entertainment business. He started off with small roles in commercials but he eventually got his big break on a variety show called ‘Abnormal Summit.’ After this, he appeared in more variety shows, got roles in TV and now even has his own radio show. At first he was surprised, then pleased, to discover that he had become popular.
As his fame grew, Sam decided to use this platform to start addressing the problem of racism on national TV. Speaking in fluent Korean he told a story about the day when a lady on the bus raced towards him and took the empty seat that he was about to sit in. She blocked him with her legs, while swearing at him and telling him to “go back to his country.” He quickly realized this was a form of blatant discrimination.
His story had the desired effect and touched the hearts of many South Koreans. He says for most people it was a wake-up call.
“So many people wrote to me, saying: ‘Thank you for mentioning this, I feel like we are living in a bubble, but now we really understand that it is real, now that you’ve spoken about your experiences we can see it from your perspective.’ And I felt like it was such an important and iconic moment on Korean television. Because it was the first time something like that was spoken about openly and honestly.”