Dan Lee goes by the name Tablo. He's a rapper — hip hop, specifically — and one of Korea's most famous artists. He's also been at the center of a media storm, but not because of his music. His is a story of pop-culture paranoia and conspiracy.
Tablo burst onto the Korean hip hop scene around 2005 — young, handsome and just back from the U.S., where he went to college — at Stanford. He earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in English there, then decided to become a rapper.
"At the time, rap was not a very popular genre in Korea, but he decided to go back to where he was from, and try to produce hip hop music," says Josh Davis, an editor at Wired Magazine who wrote about Tablo for a recent issue.
Tablo found some early success, not much at first, but by 2009 he'd started to gain traction. "He did a tour in the United States, and he sold out major venues in NY, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles," Davis tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
"His album at that time was the No. 1 album on the U.S. iTunes hip hop charts," Davis says. "It was topping Jay-Z and Eminem, so he was really on the verge of something."
That attention skyrocketed when he married a top Korean film star. The celebrity couple burned headlines onto Korea's entertainment sites, like a Korean version of Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Tablo was at the top of the world, but then, about a year ago, it all fell apart.
From Rumor To Firestorm
Someone began making accusations against Tablo on an Internet forum.
"And on this forum, anonymous individuals started posting information, saying Lee had stolen somebody's identity, had lied about his Stanford degree, was not in fact a Stanford graduate, had basically fabricated this entire persona, all with the aim of becoming an international hip hop star," Davis says.
The accusation stuck.
"Within a number of weeks, hundreds of thousands of members signed up to this forum and demanded that Tablo reveal the truth," Davis says.
There were a few things that seemed suspicious about Lee's story, like completing both undergraduate and master's programs at Stanford in three and a half years — an extraordinary feat. Lee released his Stanford transcripts and diploma publicly, but that didn't end the matter.
"It only exacerbated the controversy," Davis says. "It basically fed food to the fire. They then zeroed in on the diploma and they looked for the exact placement of every comma on the diploma to see whether or not in fact it was a forgery. And then they charged him with forgery when they said they felt there were discrepancies."
Koreans are wary of Ivy league claims; in 2007 a curator at a Seoul art museum got her job with a fake Ph.D from Yale. Tablo was now suspect, Davis says, and his story began to dominate celebrity news in Korea.
"It affected his career, it affected his life," Davis says. "He couldn't go out on the streets, because people were starting to threaten him."
Lee's record sales plunged. He parted ways with his label; he felt they didn't do enough to defend him. And because he was among Korea's most recognized celebrities, he couldn't leave his home without being harassed.
"He became a hermit at age 29," Davis says.
Tracing The Rumor Back To Its Source
At that point, Stanford University itself contacted Davis and asked him to investigate the source of the malicious accusations. The trail soon narrowed.
"I found a number of posts from an individual online claiming to be a cousin, a relative of Dan Lee," Davis says. The purported cousin accused Tablo — in detail — of lying about his academic credentials.
"This occurred right before the creation of the forum that then blew up into a larger deal, that took over the attention of the country," Davis says, "so it seemed curious to me."
As Davis scrolled back to the initial posts on the forum, he saw that the accusations were based on the alleged cousin's claim.
"I saw people saying 'Look, here's a relative,'" Davis says. "'If a relative thinks it, then it really must be true.'"
Except it's still not clear whether that person actually was a relative, or a jealous friend, or someone who simply wanted to ruin Lee's career.
It took more than year before Korean tabloids began to come around on Lee and accept that he wasn't lying and that he had, in fact, graduated from Stanford. Most people believe Lee's story now, Davis thinks.
"The evidence is so strong in his favor that you'd really have to have a strong sense of conspiracy to not believe him at this point," Davis says.
Earlier this month, 12 people who posted false accusations online were put on trial in Korea for criminal defamation against Tablo. They could face jail time.
Meanwhile, Tablo has recorded a new album about his ordeal, named Fever's End. It's put him right back at the top of the charts, but after such an experience, he's still not ready to perform publicly again.
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