With BTS’ recent performance at the BBMAs, K-pop has officially announced itself as a global phenomenon with a deafening following. This “genre” of music has become so popular around the world that western audiences have no choice but to pay attention. The K-pop craze is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, and it is making itself known. So, while the western media hastily thinks up ways to monetize this new sensation, K-pop is also under new scrutiny by increasingly tougher standards.
Diversity is a huge issue in western media and the conversation around it is getting more complicated. So, the impact of introducing K-pop to the masses here in North America cannot be ignored. On the surface, the popularity of K-pop seems to be cause for celebration. Authentic Asian representation by Asian artists (no, they are not all Korean) in western media is a monumental feat. It’s something the Asian-American community has been struggling to attain for decades. So, when “Gangnam Style” goes viral or when western artists like Kanye West and Will.i.am want to collaborate with K-pop artists, shouldn’t this be a step in the right direction?
Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated than it seems. K-pop is not immune to the industry wide practice of cultural appropriation for the purposes of entertainment. K-pop capitalizes on black culture hugely, by borrowing from hip-hop, rap, black street style, AAVE, and the viral dances recently politicized in Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” Even black hair gets appropriated often by K-pop stars as accessories while African-Americans face racism when they do the same. Winner was the latest K-pop boy group to wear cornrows in their recent concept in a list that includes K-pop giants such as Exo, Big Bang, 4minute, 2NE1, and Super Junior.
While it would be a convenient excuse to say that K-pop groups are simply inspired by black culture and are showing their appreciation for it, this is not the case. In fact, the K-pop industry gets itself into the racism controversy often enough for it to be a problem. Recently, Red Velvet’s Wendy appeared on a Korean variety show doing a racist impression of a black woman. Last year, the girl group Mamamoo was seen in blackface in a parody video of “Uptown Funk.” This practice can be traced back to Seo Taiji and the Boys, the group credited with bringing Hip Hop to Korea in the 1990’s, who questionably donned black hair and black streetstyle for their on-stage personas.
Anti-blackness and colourism are still major issues in most Asian countries. While discourses around race are commonplace in western societies, it is still an arguably new concept in Korea. Because of the racial homogeneity of Korea, racial intolerance is an active problem within Korean society and by extension, in the K-pop industry. Black people living in Korea face the harsh reality of this everyday, just by existing as black in a society that still harbors racist beliefs about them.
Han Hyun-Min, a half-Nigerian-half-Korean model who became an international star, spoke of the colourism he faced growing up in Korea. He was bullied for his skin colour and often mistaken for a foreigner despite being born and raised in Korea. Last year, on the Korean variety show “Hello Counselor,” a Nigerian man living in Korea described how Korean women are often afraid of him as a result of racist stereotypes. Similarly, Lee Michelle, who is an African American and Korean singer, also admitted that as a child, her friends’ parents would tell them not to touch her because they perceived her to be dirty.
Black K-pop fans have been grappling with this for years. Their struggles of loving K-pop while watching that very industry appropriate their culture and profit off of it are apparent in the K-pop fandoms. Black K-pop fans have to put up with the occasional racist language, “idols” openly mocking darker skin, and watching black people be used as ornaments in videos. The ignorance they face while trying to engage in art they love is upsetting to say the least. Not to mention, many black people actively work in the K-pop industry as well.
This is further made complicated when one realizes that the appropriation goes both ways. The African-American community is also responsible for appropriating Asian culture to gain profit. Recently, Nicki Minaj came out with her hit single “Chun Li” which relies heavily on Asian symbolism and motifs. Based off of the character Chun-Li from Streetfighter the videogame, which was a racist caricature of a sexualized Asian woman to begin with, Nicki uses it to infuse her video with racist and reductive Asian imagery. And this is not the first time black artists have relied on Orientalism and racist Asian stereotypes. For more examples, see the Wu-Tang Clan or Kung-Fu Kenny a.k.a Kendrick Lamar.
This issue eventually boils down to the debate of whether people of colour can truly engage in cultural appropriation or is it always, by default, cultural appreciation. Since cultural appropriation is based on an imbalance of power, which community here has the capacity to take wrong advantage of the other? Which community gets to claim oppression at the hands of the other? Who quantifies the power each community wields on stage and in the media?
While the answer to these difficult questions may not come to a simple resolution, K-pop is not immune to the reverberations of these important discourses unfolding on our screens. And we should not stop holding K-pop artists responsible for their actions, especially as they face the scrutiny of a new and diverse audience.