Antiblackness in the K-pop Industry and its Fandom Spaces: Introduction

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Anti-blackness is universal.

Outside of maybe a handful of countries around the world, there aren’t many places where I’m guaranteed to be entirely free from anti-black racism. Even my home island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands isn’t a safe space for me as a Black person –

And I grew up there.

Because anti-blackness is so ubiquitous across so many different spaces and how often it shows up in situations where Black people aren’t actually present or involved, I am not surprised at anti-blackness being present out of the blue – to me at least.

I am really not surprised at how antiblackness shows up in the K-pop fandom – because antiblackness is everywhere in fandom spaces.

But there’s something a little… extra about how anti-blackness works in K-pop fandom spaces and how much of that anti-blackness is actually fueled by issues present in the music industry’s consumption and repackaging of Black culture.

One of the first things that I became aware of as I moved in and out of the fandom spaces for Korean pop music (K-Pop) was that this was a fandom space and genre that hinged quite heavily on loving a repackaged form of Blackness (when attached to non-Black performers)… Even as the people involved moved between pretending Black people didn’t exist – as cultural touchstones and inspiration to/in the industry or within fandom – and not really seeing Black people as people.

Before I knew pretty much anything else about the culture of fandom in K-pop – and I’m talking about in Korea as well as in international fandom spaces – I knew that getting into K-pop would likely mean experiencing and witnessing anti-blackness on a massive scale.

So what do I do?

I get into K-pop right on the heels of dipping from another super anti-Black fandom: the Star Wars fandom.

Because I didn’t have enough anti-blackness in my fannish life, right?

But I digress: this essay series on anti-blackness in the K-pop industry as well as in the fandom spaces I’m in and adjacent to is a labor of love.

I genuinely love the experience of being in K-pop fandom – and I’ve got a piece in progress detailing my positive feelings about the communities we’ve forged from this shared interest.

At the same time, however, I’m aware of how this set of connected communities is:

a) Forged from a genre that pulls from (oft-stereotyped perceptions of) Black American culture and repackages it so that Black people aren’t even a footnote in its creation

b) Full of fans worldwide who do not want to see anti-blackness where it exists in their favorite genre or in their fandom spaces, and so they amp up their own anti-blackness in attacking Black fans that talk about their experiences and frustration.

I have spent years writing about anti-blackness in fandom spaces and in media. I have experience with the responses that Black members of many fandoms get when we talk about our frustrations with the anti-blackness we witness and experience.

Coming into the K-pop fandom as an active participant – sharing and consuming fan content, purchasing official and fan merchandise, streaming via official platforms – made me happy.

But I wasn’t happy enough that I could ignore how Blackness was consumed (by artists and fans alike) and how Black members of fandom are (mis) treated when they reminded folks in the fandom that they existed. Especially when they’re talking critically about folks’ favorite artists.

That’s why I’m writing this series.

In this essay series, I’ll be looking at the almost circular nature of anti-blackness in (primarily but not exclusively) international K-pop fandom spaces and the K-pop industry.

Think of it as a more cohesive and more explanatory piece than this “Fleeting Frustrations” piece on how many of the K-pop groups we know and loves had a horrid “hood” phase (or are in the middle of one now). Cultural appropriation in terms of visuals will come up, but the overarching theme of the series is broader.

Across what’s currently marked as nine essays – seven for the main work and a bunch of side pieces for now – I’ll be looking at three things.

First, I’ll cover the history of the k-pop industry and early aspects of borrowed Blackness. Then, in this context I’ll talk about how Black sound is appropriated by the industry across the decades and embraced by a fandom doesn’t have room for Black fans or the desire to acknowledge how Black American culture shapes their idols’ biggest hits.

Then, I’ll be talking about the cultural appropriation of the Black aesthetic and how the fandom’s response to Black fans is always unacceptable and overblown in its unkindness.

At one point across the appropriation conversation, I’ll be unpacking one specific argument in particular: the “But Namjoon” argument that is always present in conversations about horrible hair in cultural appropriation controversies (“But Namjoon/BTS [did cultural appropriation or were antiblack] so why is my idol being yelled at or about” is basically how the script goes…).

I’ll also be detailing the difference between cultural appropriation and the great white whale (in that I rarely see it in this genre/context) that is cultural appreciation.

Lastly, right before the conclusion, I’ll be talking about the fandom’s refusal to engage meaningfully or positively with Black fans when we talk about antiblackness in the fandom or in what the industry/our favorite groups put out.

Here, as in many other fandoms, Black people who talk critically about our experiences in these spaces and with antiblackness, are reduced to “antis” and dehumanized accordingly.

The side pieces so far are:

  • A detour into looking at the paths that between 10 and 22 Korean rappers took on their own road to hip-hop (in their own words)
  • a bibliography that’ll cover everything I watched, read and listened to across this project as well as “thank you” notes to the people who listened to me unpack this project, who held my hand, and who helped me with the context and language barriers that I, as a Black USian looking at Korean popular culture, will undoubtedly run into across this project
  • A short piece about the n-word (in covers and in conversation) in the industry and the fandom response
  • One on authenticity, Korean hip-hop, and how a form of antiblackness is baked into the quest for authenticity in this genre

(I’m also contemplating making the cultural appreciation/appropriation stuff its own side piece and talking about what happened with the BTS fandom’s attack on the Black rapper CupcakKe and how misogynoir makes folks view Black women as monstrous for expressing themselves in fandom – even as celebrities – in similar ways to how nonblack fans do.

Because I don’t know about y’all, but that whole issue and the fact that some stans still harass her continue to bother the hell out of me.)

This is going to be one hell of a journey, but in the end, I hope that we’ll all be able to talk and understand more about what antiblackness looks like across a fandom so massive that it has the opportunity to literally change the world.

I hope that we’ll all come to the end of this series thinking about how we can be better fans and how we can ask for better understanding from our idols.

Thank you for coming along with me.


gossip stitch

PS. I’d like to also center the voices of other Black fans and Korean fans across their respective diasporas who’ve talked about the genre/industry’s relationship with (anti) Blackness across this project. I may not have a huge platform in the slightest, but I’d like to share what I do have with y’all!

If you’re interested in doing a guest post at any point in this project – about your relationship with K-pop as a Black fan or how you engage with the reality of the fandom or industry’s antiblackness as a Black or Korean fan, please hit me up @stichomancery on twitter, my website’s contact form, or use this actual form to send me a pitch!