Words: Tung Nguyen
I came back from a short break in Korea, in love with K-pop music and all it had to offer. As a Vietnamese living in London, other Asian music genres like K-pop always make me curious. While speaking on the genre, a friend brought up the subject of cultural appropriation of black culture in K-Pop music.
It is clear that a lot of people in the black community feel a sense of injustice and misrepresentation about what the Korean music industry is doing. Over the last ten years, K-pop has distinguished itself by appropriating enticing elements of rap, Hip-hop, jazz, and rock; all genres which emerged and was created by black musicians. These features, which have been populated through American TV and media over time, range from glamorising a rebellious lifestyle, fashion, swagger, afro-centric hairstyles, dance and language – yes, even the use of the “N” word
As the majority of these characteristics stemmed from the expression of self-identity in an oppressive society, offense brews when some Korean artists emulate these personalities on stage or in music videos, and then promptly “take it off” and live their ordinary lives outside of the spotlight, gaining fame and money without judgement or affliction.
In a controversial incident on a Korean network, a rapper named “Truedy” claimed that she was half black and often rapped about the “black struggle” before being eventually called out for her behavior live on television. Other incidents include a BTS star using the N word live on stage and then having to apologise weeks later, or CL and her backup dancers emulating black swagger in her music single “Hello bitches“. It seems that when appropriation happens in the world of K-Pop it typically occurs offensively and goes unchecked unless enough people notice and speak up.
It almost like the k-pop industry is sending out a message to black people saying “We like parts of your culture enough to use it for ourselves, but we don’t like your people enough to feature in our music videos or society”. My friend made a powerful point when he said: “when K-pop does hip-hop or R&B, it’s cool and edgy, but when black people express themselves through hip-hop and R&B, it’s negligible”. Whilst a lot of K-pop fans are aware of the appropriation happening in the industry, they don’t see the extent of the injustice or allow to it interfere with their love of the genre.
Although a small number of K-pop artists that have acknowledged an appreciation for black music, we are far from an ideal world where artists show respect and appreciation beforehand, not years later. about many Korean artists is that they are put through a training academy for years, learning everything from dance to singing, while maintaining industry recommended weight and fitness.
So in essence, their music and brand persona doesn’t belong to them, but to the record labels that sign them. So ultimately does the blame lie with corporations and agencies that instigate these trends? They are the ones who decide on the branding and the direction of artists, along with their clothes, music influences, and video styles. They will naturally push out the products that are successful and making money.
It is the responsibility of those in business that need to make the change, but unless something major happens, this is not going to go away anytime soon. K-pop is a massively successful and popular genre, enjoyed by people all over the world. However, there are many times where elements of different cultures are incorporated into their art, predominately black culture. It’s important that the Korean music industry and its artists look into and understand the history and origins of what they are imitating, so as to have an appreciation for the art and give it the respect it deserves.