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K-pop appropriation

How K-pop is responding to its longstanding appropriation problem

K-pop has long had a blind spot when it comes to race, but as the genre grows internationally, and with the ongoing Black Lives Matters protests, fans are demanding change

K-pop has expanded considerably over the last few years. South Korean artists that were once largely invisible outside of their home country now embark on huge world tours, receive western media attention, and collaborate with non-Asian artists. Yet as the K-pop industry has grown to incorporate a larger and more diverse base of international fans – and with it, their spending power – one issue that has never been fully confronted is that of cultural appropriation. With the worldwide rise of Black Lives Matter protests, appropriation has once again become a point of discussion among K-pop fans. Some fans are demanding change from the entertainment companies who hold power within the industry, others are attempting to educate their idols, and many are facing elements within the fandom who are either indifferent or outright hostile to the idea of change.

Cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity in K-pop is nothing new. There are notorious instances of Blackface going back to at least 2003, when the Bubble Sisters wore Blackface for their debut cover art and promotional images. Things haven’t exactly gotten better since then: G-Dragon wore an Afro wig and comb in the “MichiGO” video, and MAMAMOO apologised after performing “Uptown Funk” in Blackface at a concert in 2017. Black people have also been the subject of stereotyping, like when Yuri of Girls Generation did a racist impression of Black people on KBS’s Invincible Youth in 2010, and Wendy of Red Velvet imitated ‘Black’ mannerisms in 2018. But not everything has been so blatant. K-pop stars have also appropriated Black, Brown, and Indigenous cultures as aesthetic concepts in their work. Girl group T-ara’s 2012 video “yayaya” showed the band in stereotypical Native American dress, while some idols – especially those who have drawn from Black music styles like hip hop and R&B, such as Zico, EXO’s Kai, and Bigbang’s Taeyang – have worn dreadlocs and braids, essentially performing Blackness for profit.

Such incidents still occur today, such as with Chungha’s “Stay Tonight” visuals, which sparked controversy in late April with accusations that it appropriated Indian culture. Last month, MAMAMOO’s Hwasa – who has previously been criticised for singing the N-word and wearing a durag on top of MAMAMOO’s “Uptown Funk” performance – was accused of dressing in traditional Nigerian clothing buba on MBC’s Home Alone: Girls’ Secret Party, though the show’s producers denied this, claiming it was in fact a Korean sauna outfit.

Alex Reid was K-pop’s first Black idol, joining the group BP Rania from 2015 to 2017 after being recruited by a Korean entertainment company while in Los Angeles. She believes that many of these incidents stem from the fact that South Korea is such a racially homogenous country. “They don’t have as much experience first hand, so they take what they see without understanding the implications,” Reid explains. “It’s a hard transition for others who have never experienced other cultures.” She says she doesn’t fault the industry so far, but with the current international pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s “no excuse” not to try to improve things from now on. While working on an upcoming book that dives into her experiences as a Black woman in the industry, Reid realised that she often made excuses for situations that wouldn’t have happened to idols that weren’t Black. Sometimes, this would mean having to do her own hair and make-up; at other times it would mean getting styled differently to the girls in the group, or being given less stage time. “If you’re going to have a Black girl in the group, you need to have the resources,” Reid says.

There are suggestions that things are improving. When ATEEZ’s Hongjoong was criticised for wearing cornrows in promotional images for their comeback single, “THANXX”, their parent company KQ issued a statement apologising within 24 hours. When solo singer Sunmi was called out for offending Indians with a seemingly mocking dance, she also issued an apology promising to do better. For all of these improvements, though, there are instances like XRO, a new group whose debut song “Welcome to My Jungle” used stereotypical Native American calling sounds and the lyrics “Call like an Indian / Dance like an Indian / Go crazy, we are Indian”, with a response that felt short.

20-year-old Indian student Nish was unhappy with BLACKPINK’s music video for “How You Like That”, in which a statue of Lord Ganesha was placed on the floor, defiling the religion of their Hindu fans. After a backlash, BLACKPINK’s entertainment company YG edited the image out of the video and replaced it with a vase. “We received no apology for it,” Nish says. “I was furious. I still am. Be it Desi culture, Black culture, or Middle Eastern culture, why are they not educating themselves and their artists? Even just a bit of research before adding something to a concept will be a huge help. It’s not that difficult.” She doesn’t accept that this is simply due to ignorance. “At first, I used to think it’s because they don’t have enough knowledge to understand why what they’re doing is wrong, but it kept happening, even after we called out various companies. That just makes me think it’s for publicity, because there’s no way the companies don’t keep an eye out for what’s happening in the industry.”

One fan, a 17-year-old student, was disappointed when (G)I-DLE’s Soyeon said in an interview with Billboard that she wanted to use Latin music to show off the “aggressive side” of the group for their music video “Senorita”. Their next video, “Uh Oh”, took clear inspiration from 90s Black and Latinx fashion and styling. “As a Latina, this made me frustrated and upset,” the fan says. The group have previously emphasised that they make their own concept decisions, with the girls attempting to go for – as they put it – an “ethnic hip” concept, which has manifested in stereotypes from and appropriations of Indian, Native American, and African cultures. The fan concluded that, especially for fandom, “it’s only when we try to bury the voices of those affected and trying to speak up and the problems happening are we stunting change and growth in an industry that could desperately benefit from it.”

Stereotyping also bothers 26-year-old nurse Stephanie, who says that K-pop often uses Black hair “to evoke edginess, being wild/exotic, or some other stereotype that they’ll inevitably take off before the promo cycle ends”. She adds that “it’s improved since 2010, but the improvement feels marginal, because international fans have been making our feelings known for a good decade now, so there’s really no reason for incidents to keep happening.” 20-year-old Monjay talks about the ups and downs she’s experienced while stanning Got7: “Sometime in 2017, Jackson of Got7 wore dreads. I was pretty upset with how he responded to fans who called him out for his cultural appropriation. He proceeded to call Black fans ‘haters’ when we tried to explain why he was wrong for wearing it.” Now, “seeing Got7 members donate (to George Floyd’s memorial fund) honestly made me so emotional because of the mixed feelings I had towards the group. It was an indication of them learning from their past mistakes.”

“As K-pop gets so much more popular (entertainment companies) will realise the consumers, their fans, are of different cultures than just East Asian cultures, and they’re going to realise they have to appeal to that market” – Alex Reid, musician and ex-BP Rania member

Alex Reid believes that the K-pop industry will continue to learn lessons as it grows internationally and realises that it can’t take its diverse audience for granted. “As K-pop gets so much more popular,” she says, the entertainment companies will “realise the consumers, their fans, are of different cultures than just East Asian cultures, and they’re going to realise they have to appeal to that market.” She cites BTS as a group who’ve made conscious efforts to address and fix problematic incidents in their past, from appropriating Black hairstyles to using the N-word and mimicking African American Vernacular English. From respecting their Muslim fans by maintaining appropriate boundaries, to adjusting Korean lyrics so that international listeners don’t mistake it for the N-word, to donating $1 million to Black Lives Matter, Reid says that “BTS constantly sets the best example. They go out of their way to promote that message (of inclusivity). They’re always my example of what K-pop can look like. It’s coming to an important time that if the international audience doesn't see that there is true respect, it could be problematic.”

Another step in the right direction came from Stray Kids, who, after a member wore what many fans interpreted as a Black caricature, made amends with a statement. When a fan won a video call with the group, she used the conversation to echo Black fans’ concerns – and the group actually listened. “I saw it as a really good start because it’s way more than we have gotten from some other groups and idols,” says Aaliya, a 21-year-old child care worker. “I can’t stand when fans make up excuses for these idols. They’re grown adults that should be held accountable. And no, I do not believe that they have no say. If they have hurt their fans in any way, they should speak up, no matter what.”

“The K-pop audience is such a responsible and proactive fanbase,” says Alex Reid. “They are very progressive and they want attention being paid to doing the right thing. They aren’t a fanbase that will cancel on a drop of a dime, they do give room for an apology.” With virtually no artist having not been subject to criticism, the difference in how fans perceive them lies in how the artists and their companies react and move forward when an issue is brought to their attention. Fixing these issues should be a priority as K-pop continues to expand. 

“The way that the businesses run, things are very compartmentalised,” adds Reid. “The team in charge of getting the song done doesn’t do the concept. They need better communication. They have international producers and artists they work with that would be willing to share.” In the past, these companies “never nitpicked or dissected what fans were saying, they never looked closely,” she says. As K-pop fans go out of their way to educate themselves on Korean culture, the artists and companies should do the same, especially in a world where Google, or Naver, is free. “With everything going on in the world,” Reid says, “people are looking with a magnifying glass.”

This article has been updated to remove a translated quote from Home Alone: Girls’ Secret Party