Another issue in how cultural appropriation of Black culture and Blackness leads people to devalue the culture and people they’re copying: across my research for this essay series – and this installment in particular – one thing that keeps coming up is how little people care for Black members of the fandom spaces and for Black people in general.
One way that they do this is in the way they talk about hip hop and rap.
How many times have you seen people talk about how they didn’t actually like hip-hop or rap until they listened to it from a Korean artist because that version of the genre was so much purer?
I see it primarily with the rappers currently in idol groups, but I don’t doubt that hip-hop artists in Korea who are outside the idol industry get hyped up in a similar way.
Rap from Black USians is always associated with violence, poverty, grasping for unearned power, misogyny, etc.
The image of a rapper to Koreans and to many non-Black fans engaging with this music – especially outside of the US – is someone closer to Fetty Wap in “Trap Queen” or Snoop Dogg in the nineties than Jidenna in “Long Live the Chief” or Janelle Monae and Missy Elliot in uh… anything.
Like there’s no attempt to understand that there’s diversity in hip-hop in the US, that rappers and Black people come from all walks of life and are valid because of it.
The outside view of hip hop and rap in these cases and contexts is negative –
Until a handy and hip Korean artist comes through to gentrify the hell out of it, that is.
Here’s how Chuyun Oh describes USian rap in her article “Performing Post-Racial Asianness: K-Pop’s Appropriation of Hip-Hop Culture“:
If racism orients “white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy” (hooks 1992), it is likely that the “authentic” blackness in hip-hop is portrayed as violent and misogynist gangsters. Hip-hop musicians are often involved in this disenfranchisement because this makes them seem more “Authentic.” For them, a political fight often means no profits. Indeed, African American rappers, such as 2 Chainz (“Used 2”), Drake (“Hold On, We’re Going Home”),Pusha T (“Nosetalgia”), Tyga (“Don’t Hate Tha Playa”), and Frank Ocean (“Pyramids”),reproduce stereotypical black masculinity. Their music videos are often featured at dark underground clubs, bars, or working class cities. Their lyrics often include slang, sometimes to make social commentary, but also contain sexist connotations. Rappers are generally clad in black costumes, and props, such as guns or fake blood, are also staged. The movements of female back dancers in their music videos are often limited to “twerking” hip movements.
Oh’s article, which was published in 2014, generalizes the hell out of Black hip hop in order to remove responsibility from and also praise Korean rappers in Korea who’ve been accused of appropriation.
The snippet above from article is… problematic.
For starters, it makes clear errors. For instance: Drake is so Canadian that he’s known for being on the most Canadian show ever and probably bleeds maple syrup.
It also doesn’t acknowledge the role of female MCs/hip hop stars who were active in some capacity prior to 2014 (like Missy Elliot of course, but also up and coming rappers like the ones on this list).
Additionally, Oh ignores necessary nuances to make her point. Like Frank Ocean is bisexual and came out in 2012 and that absolutely informs a non-stereotypical Black masculinity in his work.
It also boils Black male creativity and music videos created by them down to a messy murk in the quest to highlight how much better Oh’s artist of choice, G-Dragon (from YG’s Big Bang), is at hip-hop, with Oh writing that:
Their music videos are often featured at dark underground clubs, bars, or working class cities. Their lyrics often include slang, sometimes to make social commentary, but also contain sexist connotations. Rappers are generally clad in black costumes, and props, such as guns or fake blood, are also staged. The movements of female back dancers in their music videos are often limited to “twerking” hip movements.
Those things that Oh writes about these Black rappers – especially where she says things like “Rappers are generally clad in black costumes, and props, such as guns or fake blood, are also staged,” – aren’t an actual industry norm. (In fact, I don’t think they actually exist as things in the industry for Oh to use as a scaremongering image.)
Not in 2014, not in 2019, and probably not even back in 2004 or 1994.
This is a purposeful misrepresentation of the Black American rap industry and what hip hop looks like in the US. Oh frames the industry and its artists as aggressively violent, so sexist that the occasional social commentary gets drowned out, and claims that there are guns and fake blood everywhere.
This misrepresentation exists in order for Oh to be able to then turn around and praise Korean rappers for Not Doing That.
Keep that in mind when you think about how Oh switches gears and talks about G-Dragon’s performance of hip-hop.
First, Oh talks about how G-Dragon borrows “some of the elements of hip hop” in the music video for “One of a Kind” and directly positions that borrowing as a bad thing – because African American hip hop is oh so problematic.
(Oh references G-Dragon using rapping, “the grounded hip-hop movement” of his “heavy hand gestures”, pelvic thrusts apparently influenced by hip-hop, and objectified women dancing in the background of the song as if Black men invented misogyny in the music industry.)
But then she talks about reappropriating hip-hop via G-Dragon’s “Crayon” and shit gets real thanks to one set of sentences at the start of the paragraph and another set at the end:
“In his music video, “Crayon,” he remains highly effeminate. His body is slender, tiny, and slight. His face is also highly groomed, polished, and has very smooth, good-looking skin.”
“The overall image of the video is bright, bubbly, colorful, and eye-catching, with artificially adorned backdrops. Therefore, G-Dragon deliberately takes off the dark and often criminalized image of hip-hop, while situating it in a highly cute, bright, and mischievous context.”
The first sentences seem to assume some things about what Black rappers in the US look like (as if, Black rappers have never been “highly groomed” or as if hip-hop hotshots in the US don’t give a shit about looking fresh), but the second –
The second reconfirms that Oh probably isn’t someone that knows a lot about Black people in the US or hip-hop culture.
Oh’s essentially and simply regurgitating problematic ideas about hip-hop without acknowledging or unpacking how the reasoning behind her (and other non-Black people’s) view of hip-hop as “dark and often criminalized” is because of its connection to Blackness. Because Black people are viewed as inherently criminal.
There are light, bright, and fun hip-hop videos and some of the dudes she’s listed in her example of the music that G-Dragon is supposedly the opposite of have made them. (Just putting that out there.)
Oh’s article seems to position US hip-hop aesthetic and culture as problematic until Korean dudes are involved and can, for lack of a better word, gentrify it
Articles and commentary like Oh’s highlight how that aspect of cultural appropriation where the folks originating the culture being repurposed or appropriated are often viewed extremely incorrectly and negatively by the folks doing the appropriating.
Let’s talk about learning and responsibility:
Back in February 2019, Korean-American rapper Jay Park (formerly of JYP’s 2PM, now a solo artist currently on his own world tour) took to Instagram to make an absolute ass of himself over some white dude’s dreadful dreadlocks.
Aside from the fact that you should never make defending a white dude’s lackluster and possibly lice-filled locs your hill to die on (because you will be slaughtered upon it), Jay Park made some really obvious mistakes in his approach to defending his friend.
For the most part, people (like me!) seemed to have moved on… Until July 2019 when he posted the following tweet in response a long-time Black fan asking him his opinion on antiblackness in the Korean music industry and how he combats antiblackness in the spaces he moves through:
“If your [sic] basically isolated from a different culture it’s hard to be educated on that subject. More educated you are bout it the better you understand so the better gauge you have on what lines to not cross.”
This notion that Koreans can’t possibly be expected to Get Antiblackness (despite performing it often enough according to accounts from many Black people who’ve lived in South Korea across the years) or know Black History is one that is explicit across TK Park’s piece as well.
It’s also in Oh’s article, where she writes (about a controversy where some overseas fans assumed that an Instagram photo from G-Dragon was both blackface and in reference to the murder of Trayvon Martin) that:
K-pop performers’ appropriation of hip-hop often prompts outrage among Western audiences who believe that K-pop hip-hop is a form of contemporary minstrelsy. Coming back to G-Dragon’s blackface controversy, however, something is missing in this response. If GD were an Asian American, he would be more knowledgeable about the minstrelsy tradition, and he would likely avoid the black makeup. Koreans, however, do not have minstrelsy tradition like the U.S. does, nor have Koreans been colonizers. They are not necessarily knowledgeable about the history of African American slavery and racial politics or representational issues in the U.S. The American audience’s expectation reveals that Korean identity is likely conflated with Asian American, or their identity as Korean is invisible from the gaze of American audiences
Aside from the fact that all the Blackface that’s been on Korean television over the years, that at some point G-Dragon did do blackface in attempting to portray Andre 3000, and the buffoonish portrayal and perception of Black people still present in Korean media –
We can see that South Korea does have a tradition of minstrelsy that may or may not be born from the United States’ own…but has evolved into a commonplace piece of Korean culture that further informs how people in South Korea see Black people and culture.
Jay Park, TK Park, and Chuyun Oh choose to infantilize Korean entertainers like G-Dragon for slip ups, misunderstandings, and clear antiblackness rather than acknowledge that appropriation and antiblackness aren’t solely the purview of US residents and citizens.
All three of these people (Jay Park less than the others because he wrote a tweet, not an article or essay) set up a sort of expectation where Koreans are innocent of racism, incapable of antiblackness, and can’t possibly be expected to know African American history/culture outside of hip-hop unless they’re educated.
With TK Park and Oh, (Black) Americans are also chided for not knowing Korean history and cultural nuances, are kind of… gaslighted about how an overwhelming number of Koreans view Black people, and they set up Black people as colonizers with too-high expectations – Oh is more subtle about it while TK Park just zooms in on it.
There’s a lot that I want to say about how infantilizing Koreans isn’t helpful in the slightest, but I’ll just repeat what I said in response to Jay Park’s tweet (though, not to him directly because I am a small fish and not fond of being yelled at by a celebrity’s followers):
I am not expecting South Koreans to know every single aspect of Black history in and out of Korea. But let’s be very real here: we live in an age of widespread internet and almost immediate access to information.
If folks want to know something, they WILL find out.(Tweet Link.)
In 2018, a survey claimed that about 96 percent of Korean adults reported using the internet. Chances are, that with teenagers and young adults, the percentage inches up that much higher. According to this survey, South Koreans have a greater internet penetration percentage than the US does (at 89% in 2018).
Knowing that, I’ve got some questions for everyone, not just Koreans:
If you know the latest Black (or Black-inspired) fashioned trends, can search up lyrics to African American hip hop songs or dances so you can learn them yourselves, and probably know when Black artists and other entertainers are coming to South Korea or collaborating with your favorite artists in South Korea –
What’s actually stopping you from using that wonderfully ever-present internet access you’ve got on your phone to search up some of Black people’s critical thoughts on our Blackness, on antiblackness, and on our experiences with both in and out of Korea?
What’s actually stopping you from realizing that Black people aren’t trying to take your fun away, but to explain something important to us so that we don’t have to keep waiting on edge for our faves to fuck up?
The knowledge is there (not just from Black USians across the Pacific but by Black people of Korean descent and not who have talked about their experiences and their lives in South Korea in clear and poignant ways).
Koreans on the peninsula and in other countries can look this up if they wanted to.
The heads of the companies churning out hip-hop inspired groups and comebacks probably already know about these experiences.
Non-Black people can absolutely and easily find information on how Black people feel about this particular brand of cultural appropriation in Korean hip-hop and pop spaces –
If they want to, that is.
However, to quote myself again, “[…] they just… don’t seem to think that it might be interesting or useful to start looking this shit up about Black people and our thoughts on what appropriation and appreciation are in order to stop being ignorant and educate themselves.”
At the end of the day: antiblackness doesn’t stop being antiblackness just because the person doing it doesn’t know that that’s the word for what they’re doing and how they’re viewing Black people. That’s not how that works.
Black fans who talk about cultural appropriation and that performed Blackness keep being told “educate, don’t attack” by other fans, but let’s be real here: there’s next to no opportunities for direct, meaningful communication with these celebrities/their stylists or opportunities to educate them –
But Google and Naver are free and searching for information isn’t that hard.
And what about the great white whale that is “cultural appreciation”?
Black fans keep being told that these idols (like Bang Chan, Taeyang from Big Bang, BTS’ entire Rapline probably, and Kai from EXO) who’ve talked about how they made those horrid hair choices on their own are just appreciating Black culture and people so we can’t complain that this is how they chose to show that love.
We keep being told that they just adore Black people so so much and that is why they have to wear cornrows, dreads, and the like.
It’s just appreciation, and we should be grateful that they appreciate us.
Cultural appropriation isn’t appreciation.
It’s not a compliment.
More than that?
Cultural appropriation is not a conversation between cultures. It’s not sharing. It’s not an equal cultural exchange.
Turning someone’s culture into a costume actually stops the cultural exchange from happening because now, the people whose culture is being appropriated have to deal with dismissal and dehumanization from the folks doing the appropriating and their fans/supporters.
They have to deal with the fact that they don’t have access to the culture of the people appropriating theirs and that their humanity frequently comes under fire by the people putting on their culture.
They have to deal with the fact that at the end of the day, not only are they not respected as arbiters of how their own culture can be shared or how it should be presented, they’re generally… called selfish for trying to have that small bit of control over a very slippery conversation.
At the end of the day, I wish there was more actual cultural appreciation in Korean hip-hop and pop spaces and less (no) appropriation.
That’s partly why I didn’t list “rap” and “hip hop” dances like twerking or krumping on my list of things that served as signals of cultural appropriation from Korean hip-hop or pop. I do actually think that there’s no inherent appropriation present in non-Black people simply rapping and dancing in ways that are visibly “hip-hop” because they like the music or think it’s cool. (In the same way that I don’t think there’s cultural appropriation inherent in enjoying Korean pop and hip-hop and learning the dances and songs…)
The cultural appropriation conversation is more complicated than that.
I do believe that there’s incredible value between the exchange of culture that has Koreans and Korean Americans participating in this form of entertainment. I do believe that there are tons of Korean rappers who came to the performance via appreciation, who actually get that Black people are people and like us beyond the content they can jack for their aesthetics and careers.
But when the appreciation of hip-hop, rap, and Black culture that these rappers are performing involves appropriation, and Black people aren’t actually being appreciated in the process –
That’s a problem.
At the end of the day, idols who appropriate Black culture (or what they think Black culture can be distilled down to) can and do take off the costume.
They can let their tans fade, take the grills out their mouth, and go back to their natural hair. Like Miley Cyrus does whenever her attempts at hip hop flop, they can go back to talking “proper” and deferring to the society that may have side-eyed them for embracing Blackness.
Once they’ve gotten all that they can out of performing Blackness for their audience and it’s no longer edgy and interesting, they can return to their position in society.
Despite what TK Park seems to think, that is a privilege I don’t have as a Black person in the US (or anywhere).
Regardless of where I go, I will always be Black. I can’t decide that being Black is no longer cool and drop it like a bad habit once it’s not making me enough coins. I can straighten my hair until it falls out or bleach my skin, and I still won’t be able to hide that I am Black.
My very visible Blackness will always inform how people engage with me, how they view me –
And being Black in an age of cultural appropriation means that chances are… they’re not viewing me in a very positive light because of how they understand Blackness. That’s not a privilege.
In an age when Black people interested in Korean hip-hop and pop feel more comfortable talking about appropriation despite the TK Parks of the world, it’s important to understand that we aren’t trying to be gatekeepers.
We’re trying to get people to understand why we’re hurt, so that they will stop hurting us.