Korean pop (Kpop) has taken over the western world. While it was extremely popular in eastern countries, only in recent years has it been able to break into the American market. Artists like PSY and groups like BTS, Monsta X, TWICE, and Blackpink have helped push the Kpop genre. The music Kpop groups make, use Hip-Hop and R&B elements with a pop approach. As a fan myself, I enjoy this combination. They keep up with American trends and implement them in their mannerisms and choreography. Trends and music that has originated from Black culture. With that being said, racism in Kpop has been prominent. Kpop commits cultural appropriation more often than it should while still promoting racist views.
Racism against black people is not a new concept and definitely isn’t something to be shocked about coming from South Korea. Blackface has been practiced in eastern countries including South Korea. Blackface has been broadcasted on Korea’s national TV stations. National Tv Station SBS allowed blackface to be portrayed by Hong Hyun Lee for comedy by painting him in dark brown face makeup, overdrawn lips, braids, and ignorantly and incorrectly worn Native American headdress. Famous African TV personality in Korea, Sam Okyere explains how Koreans moved away from him on the subway. In a video by Asian Boss, Koreans on the street revealed that they see Black people as athletic, poor, dangerous or good singers. Typical stereotypes made about Black people.
Kpop idol Chen from EXO received backlash for mimicking a character named Michol. In the same video he states that he looks like Kunta Kinte who is a slave character in the heartbreaking 1977 show Roots.
Let’s talk about Michol for a second. Michol is a character of a popular Korean children’s cartoon called Dooly the Little Dinosaur. Although children’s cartoons tend to be rather innocent, it’s pretty obvious Michols character design is based on blackface. Overdrawn lips, small eyes, and moronic like mannerisms. Depictions of this character have been done on TV shows in Korea, with hosts getting into blackface.
Chen is no different from these hosts. EXO received backlash at a separate time for calling group member Kai “too dark”. Kai has often been mocked by group members in EXO. He does not fit the Korean beauty standard of pale skin because his skin has a natural brownness due to his ethnicity. A natural trait that is not favored by Korean society.
Even the breakthrough group BTS has been criticized for racist actions while being a Hip-Hop group. During one of their early performances, Rap Monster, now known as RM, clearly says, “you n***as better know.” Although this was in 2014 and BTS has not been in a controversy since, BTS debuted as mainly a Hip-Hop group and should have known the weight that word carries. The fact that MBC, another national Korean broadcasting station, allowed this word to fly with lyrics is unacceptable.
Zico, a famous rapper from the Kpop group Block B, displayed a confederate flag in his Tough Cookie music video. Under the defense of “not knowing” he was successfully able to minimize the backlash he received. The music video was criticized for the overall aesthetic because of the appropriation. In mimicking the finesse of Black rappers, the video looked as though it was mocking black people. Bad twerking, fake “thug” hand gestures, and over the top Hip-Hop fashion made the video seem fake and disrespectful.
Is the claim of ignorance a good enough excuse?
Kpop idols are capable of researching and learning things that are offensive to other cultures. Using black culture and then indulging in racist behavior is something that should be corrected immediately.
Black culture has become pop culture. Most trends, fashion, and language come from Hip-Hop. And while I’m proud and appreciative black culture has reached a large audience, it’d be nice if people didn’t look down on Black people.
Cultural appropriation doesn’t just stop at music videos and performances. Kpop has used black fashion and dance too. Canadian Kpop idol Henry got into trouble with his single I’m Good.
The song is versatile, smooth, and has a nice melody that R&B listeners will enjoy. Backlash came from the many hairstyles and activities that were displayed in the music video. Cornrows, Afros, dreads, bandanas, and braids with beads were showcased on Korean models and actors. The hairstyle themselves were not the problem. The attitude was, if you are going to have all this black culture in a video, why not have a Black person in it as well. Singer Hyolyn is known for using black people in her videos and attributing where she has got her ideas from.
This is all that is asked from black people. Just to acknowledge that non-African Americans got inspiration from Black people is usually enough. Koreans still have negative attitudes towards Black people while enjoying music and style that has originated from Black people.
To bring up EXO member Kai again, he recently released a song titled Mmmh. One of the main outfits in the music video included a durag, an incorrectly worn durag. Durags are important to Black people for functionality purposes and is more than just an accessory. They have become popular in social media again because of the wave trend. Black men and women have been wearing durags for decades to help and protect their hair. Kai wearing it as fashion is disrespectful especially because black people have been called negative terms for it.
Famous popular dances such as the dab, whoa, whip, shoot, and other Hip-Hop style dances are incorporated into Kpop choreography. They can be seen in nearly every popular Korean dance. In the SEVENTEEN dance OH MY!, the shoot dance is the main choreography in the chorus. GOT7 dabs frequently in their choreography. In the hit song for MOMOLAND, Bboom Bboom, dabbing and the whoa are key factors.
Black culture has spread across the world. The music has touched people and is created in all languages and cultures. Attitudes are changing in Korea due to education and exposure to different cultures. Of course not all Koreans are racist or have negative views about Black people. Many artists have apologized for their ignorance and oftentimes it was not purposeful. In a YouTube video by YOURS, a Korean woman explains to trainees, in-training Kpop idols, what cultural appropriation is. In it she says, “But people are using this stolen culture to look “cool” outside” Black culture is much more than looking “cool”.
There is a difference between appreciation and appropriation. Proper representation and holding people accountable for their actions has become more prevalent. Excuses should not be made with the access to information the world now has. Taking the time to educate and learn about the racial slurs and backgrounds of other cultures could prevent backlash and misunderstandings for the future.