The Commodification and Exploitation of Black Cool: K-Pop and South Korean Society

*DISCLAIMER: When using the term "they" I obviously do not mean ALL Koreans nor ALL idols, please do not perceive it that way. In this instance "they" refers to anyone it applies to. Thank you.



K-Pop, known for its machine-like industry that has the ability to mass produce celebrities (a.k.a "idols"), has carved out its own space within the universal music industry. With a calculated understanding, they continuously (somewhat) generate successful groups (which is something the U.S still isn't able to figure out). As a billion dollar industry, with making sales internationally, and holding #1 spots on charts among native artists in countries on the other side of the world, one wonders: What exactly makes Korean popular music so globally appealing?

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South Korea is a very conservative, homogeneous society. They firmly believe in skin whitening, surgery to get wider eyes/double eyelids, etc. Anything outside the norm is almost always ridiculed. So, how did black culture, almost the complete opposite, become such a way of expression within their music? Well, westernized Korean music rose to popularity in Korea in the 90's beginning with the hip-hop crew Seo Taiji & Boys. As for RnB, it has an even longer history in the country, so, black American culture being embedded in K-Pop act's repertoire and presentations is extremely common. However, 10+ years ago, most of the natives there would tell you they had never met a black person, (some still haven't) it's only recently, with an increase of foreign residents, that they have actually experienced blackness in real life. Like the majority of the world, they only know of blackness through the lens of how we're portrayed in the media. And they'll tell you so:


They know what they see is propaganda, but they don't care. Why would they? To acknowledge that we aren't the caricatures they make us out to be would to destroy fantasy of the "super humans" they think we are.

It's a weird dichotomy. On one hand, they put us on high pedestals - regardless if we are older than them or not, they refer to us, and only us, as Heuk* Hyung** and Heuk* Noona*** (*= "black" , **=  term of respect for a man who is older/brother, ***= term of respect for a woman who is older/sister): 



They think we can all sing, dance, play basketball, etc. The usual. They fetishize our existence. Some have admitted to actually wanting to be us:


(In this video, this Korean YouTuber literally says "...In my next life, I want to be born black.")


BUT, on the other hand, they do shit like this:


(K-Pop girl group MAMAMOO doing blackface to impersonate Bruno Mars in his 'Uptown Funk' video in March 2017)


(Jooheon, of K-Pop boy group Monsta X, imitating what Koreans call "Black English"; basically AAVE)


(Zico, of K-Pop boy group Block B, showing his favorite "hobby" - "talking like black people")


(Rap Monster, of K-Pop boy group BTS, showing off his "black English")

So, how does this make sense? How do you simultaneously mock and discriminate the same people you aim to imitate? I'll tell you; Black Cool. Just like other non-black people, they appropriate and fetishize blackNESS & dispose of and disregard black PEOPLE. They use blackness as social currency to up their relevancy and capital. 

They do everything from incorporating our dance trends into their choreographies (nothing particularly wrong with this, just for context):

(They dab and hit dem folks)

(They hit dem folks)

(They milly rock)

To sampling old RnB, Soul, and Rap songs into their own tracks (nothing particularly wrong with sampling, it's also just for context):






To incorporating AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) into their lyrics:


("We gon' get it poppin', We gon' get it poppin'")


("I got, Myself a shawty, I got, Myself a 40, And imma 'bout to go get lifted..")

To using our livelihood as aesthetics and bodies as props:


(CL, G-Dragon, and Taeyang appropriating the hell out of hood and gang culture.)


 (G-Dragon using black kids as props.)

(Zico doing what he apparently does best.)

Even to, my personal favorite, adding in the word "nigga" to songs that just don't require it:

(K-Pop group Shinhwa included the word 'nigga' in their 1999 hit song 'T.O.P"...)

Trying their darnedest, aren't they? But all the while treating the Afro-Korean/Black members within their society as outcasts - still perpetuating colorism to this day:

(An Afro-Korean man goes on a counseling show to speak about the racism he faces in Korea only to be dismissed.)



K-pop companies, like a lot of other celebrities in other genres, have realized that the best way to market yourself as more socially desirable or interesting is to engage in black culture without actually being black. They take a bastardized version of black American culture, cosplay in it until they get what they want, then they leave it, or continue to exploit it.

The most astonishing thing to me is the audacity to gatekeep this genre from the very people they're taking from. A few weeks ago, an all white American (there used to be two black members, but then they mysteriously disappeared) K-Pop group flew to Korea to try to debut as a boy group. They are what many K-Pop stans call "Koreaboos". K-boos are basically non-Koreans who fetishize Korean idols, people, and its culture. They try to act like a "traditional" Korean by speaking broken KorEnglish, eating strictly Korean food, etc. (I wonder where I've heard something like this before...). It garnered a lot of criticism, as it should have, but then things took a turn when people started to redirect the criticism to black people interested in K-Pop. I don't know if you've heard, but Jaden Smith as stated multiple times that he wants to be a K-pop star . So naturally, K-pop stans went after him. They also tried to drag a black girl duo, CoCo Avenue, for trying to appropriate Korean culture despite them explaining that they aren't a K-pop group as much as they are a group that incorporates the Korean language (which they both fluently speak) in their own songs:



And this is a problem for me. The gatekeeping against black people interested is baffling. How can we appropriate from a genre that appropriates from OUR genres and culture? K-Pop stans have very little to say when their idols are claiming spaces in RnB, Rap, HipHop, etc., but have EVERYTHING to say when one of us takes the simplest interest in K-Pop. I understand that there isn't much visibility for Asians in the Western music industry, but... come on. You can't NOT see the irony.

Now, I have no problem with cultural sharing. But there are limits and the need for common decency. The key is respect and authenticity. When you're borrowing, or trying to be a part of, someone's culture you need to exhibit that. There are ways to be a part of a culture, or be inspired by a culture, without wearing it as a costume or using it for capital gain.

I'll be clear, this doesn't mean that every idol participates in black culture fetishization. It doesn't trivialize the fact that these idols work extremely hard. I'm not telling you to hate K-Pop. I'm not telling you to stop listening to it either. Exploiting black culture while being anti-black is not a new concept nor solely exclusive to Koreans. What you do with this information is up to you. Black people aren't a monolith, we aren't all going to feel the same way about being exploited. I just ask that you make sure to research who and what you support. It's 2017, and it's time to start holding these idols accountable. 

Comments

  1. shinhwa doesn't say the n word in that song--the word they say is a real korean word, "naega" which means "i" and it only appears once in the song and they pronounce it the way that korean word is pronounced (so not deliberately differently to make it sound like the n word, which some kpop groups like big bang actually have done and should be called out for). the sentence is "duryeowo ma nae son jaba naega neol jikyeojulge" - that's not an appropriation, that is actually the korean language

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. you were probably thinking of their song, t.o.p, which does use the slur/appropriate

      Delete
    2. Where did BB make use of the N word?

      Delete
    3. Thank you for correcting me, it has been changed. x

      Delete
  2. Excuse me but it's still showing up as Shinhwa is saying the n word in the article. I don't know if it's just me but could you double check this article again? Thank you in advance

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. he said "all you niggas better know" and that's how it was EXACTLY written in the lyrics, please miss me with that "naega/nega" bs, just watch BTS' cover of the shinwa song

      Delete

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