JooWan Kim’s “Hip Hop Orchestra” Fuses Classical Music With Rap

Story by Grace Kang.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj has all the nuts and bolts you’d expect to find in a typical classical music group—flute, clarinet, violin, cello—and then you have the rappers (Do D.A.T., Sandman and RyanNicole), vocalist, drums and a pianist decked out in Taoist robes.

So maybe EMN isn’t your typical classical group. Formed in 2005 by its inverted namesake JooWan Kim, this ensemble explores new melodic territory by melding genres of classical, hip-hop, jazz and more. interviewed the eccentric founder and music director of Ensemble Mik Nawooj to uncover the mind behind the music.


Where do you draw your musical influences from, and how do you think the music you create builds upon or transforms those influences?

I draw a great amount of influence from the natural sciences as well as cognitive and social sciences. I am very interested in finding the universals of everything, so that makes me think about the First Principle a lot. I believe that the essence of musical development (and possibly the development of all human knowledge in general) lies in the process of hybridization, which is sort of similar to evolution and mutation in biology. In my opinion, any great changes require two or more foreign systems to be exposed to one another, which then make each system mimic and compete with the others, thus creating a new system.

This is the way I create a hybrid of multiple genres of music.

When and why did you start playing music? Was piano your first instrument?

When I was 8 years old, my Korean parents made me learn to play the piano. It’s a Korean thing. Especially since I grew up in Korea.

Given your classical training, what drew you to other genres of music like hip-hop and rock?

Completely by accident. When I was still doing my master’s at the San Francisco Conservatory, I wrote a novelty piece involving a rapper and chamber ensemble and people loved it (it got a full page write up in Oakland Tribune). After that, the MC at the time, Kirby Dominant, suggested that we should make an album and I wrote an hour of music.

That’s how it all began.

What’s the story behind spelling Joowan Kim ‘Mik Nawooj’?

It’s a professional habit. I am fond of retrogrades. Also, Mik Nawooj is the name of magical entity I summoned one day. I think he is Anubis. Yes, I mean the Egyptian god.

How did you assemble EMN? Were they decisions based solely on musical talent, or were there other factors involved?

All of my players are in my ensemble based on their merit alone and they are OK with my sociopathic revolutionary ways.

What do you seek to accomplish through Ensemble Mik Nawooj? Where do you see EMN going in the future?

It would be great when EMN is considered one of the best musical groups in the world. All the people who are currently involved will benefit from this. And I know this is going to happen. Mik Nawooj told me 5 years ago.

Are there any political or philosophical messages you seek to project through your music?

That hybridization has been happening for a long time and we should embrace this for the evolution of the human race.

As a public figure in the music world, would you say that you seek to break down the barriers built up by racial prejudice against Asian Americans and other people of color either through or outside of your music career?

Racism works a lot like religion in my opinion. It only exists when you believe in it. I tend to be pretty agnostic about things until I know they’re real. So far, there hasn’t been any “racism” that put me down. It was largely people who were ignorant. Fortunately, I haven’t dealt with so many of them yet.

I am not really a political person, so I don’t foresee myself “fighting against” things. However, if something blocks the path to my objective, I will do my best to eliminate it.

What is the next big project for Ensemble Mik Nawooj?

We have yet to release a professionally recorded full length album. So, our first album would be a good place to start.

What hardships did you go through on your journey to becoming a musician?

Becoming a classically trained composer wasn’t really hard, as I really like learning new things. However, doing something significantly different and making a living is challenging. People detest things they don’t understand.

What is the most memorable time or moment since the formation of Ensemble Mik Nawooj?

MTV randomly featured us and we didn’t even find out about it until much later.

What do you hope people will take away from your music?

I want people to feel happy and better.


This story was originally published in KoreAm Journal


Be sure to check out Ensemble Mik Nawooj headline their on show on NOVEMBER 1ST @ Yoshi’s Oakland .

They will also perform for a subscribers only concert on Dec 4 @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and will be featured in UnderCover Presents on Jan 17 & 18 @ the Independent in SF.

Learn more on their official website.