In this installment of What Fandom Racism Looks Like: Antiblackness in the K-Pop Industry and its Fandom Spaces, we’ll be doing some fast and furious foregrounding.
The point of this foregrounding essay isn’t to provide readers with an exhaustive and complete history of Korean and/or African American hip hop and popular music.
Here are the goals of this furious foregrounding essay:
- to provide some context when it comes to what K-pop generally is for folks with a wobbly grasp
- To briefly cover the history of Black creativity being exported to South Korea and beyond without Black influence (but with antiblackness),
- To foreground myself and my experiences with this genre and the fandom spaces.
Let’s start with a quick coverage of what k-pop is from two experts who’ve written books on it.
In the introduction to his monograph Sorting out K-Pop: Globalization and Popular Music in South Korea, Michael Fuhr writes that:
K-Pop is mainstream music in South Korea. Initially modeled for the teenager market, this music of the country’s youth has become the most pervasive music in Korea, effectively shaping the sonic public sphere, the musical tastes among different generations, and the imaginative worlds of its consumers and producers. (3)
Then in Suk-Young Kim’s K-Pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance, she writes that:
In the broadest sense of the word K pop as an abbreviation for Korean popular music includes all genres of popular music that emerge out of South Korea. […] But in from 2009 onward, when the term entered a wide circulation, it came to designate a much smaller fraction of south Korean music. according to pop music critic Choe Ji-seon, it references “music dominated by idols dance music which strives to gain a competitive edge in the international market .in this respect indie music or rock or anything that does not belong to dominant Idol music usually is not characterized as K pop”. (8).
K-pop – as an industry and as a genre (smush), is a multifaceted [thing] that really dates back to just under thirty years ago with the term itself dating back to the mid-nineties. (Suk-Young Kim traces the term to Hong Kong’s Channel 5 in 1995 and mentions that it follows in the footsepts of the already coined and widely used “J-pop” ).
Whatever its etymological origins, what’s most relevant about the origins of K-pop to this project in particular are its hip-hop roots. While the first recorded song in Korea to contain elements of rap was 1989’s “Kimsatgat” by Hong Seo-beom, the song that really cinched tight the relationship between Korean popular culture and hip hop was Seo Taiji and Boys’ “Nan Aroyo”.
In “Nan Arayo”, we see one of the earliest instances of South Korean borrowing so fully from Black American culture from the sound of the beats to Seo Taiji & Boys’ style to their dancing.
As we can see in the “K-pop” episode of Netflix and Vox’s Explained series back in May 2018, Seo Taiji & Boys were like no other South Korean musical artist that’d come before them.
In the episode, we see that just a decade before, South Korea’s biggest musical hits were either soft and inoffensive romance songs (Lee Gwang Jo’s “You’re Too Far Away To Get Close To”) or national anthems wrapped in a cheery pop beat (Chung Soo Ra’s “Ah! Republic of Korea”). These artists’ aesthetic style and their sound absolutely embodied The Eighties but were nothing like what would become popular in Korea following Seo Taiji & Boys’ performance.
Seo Taiji & Boys were immediately reminiscent of New Kids on the Block, but they also put me in mind of Bel Biv Devoe’s Poison and the work of Black American artists who were popular around the same time period. They dressed like the hip-hop artists of the eighties and early nineties with Seo Taiji himself in that iconic performance, putting me in mind of Dwayne Wayne from the television series A Different World with his look and swagger.
Making connections like that between South Korean artists of the Nineties – many of whom would go on to be industry leaders themselves – with Black American cultural icons isn’t as far off as you’d think.
Even in these early internet days, there was some level of cultural flow across the Pacific Ocean. From reading Hanguk Hip-Hop and from what I know from research, young adults and teenagers ordered cassette tapes or mailed each other bootleg videos of recorded MTV content. The first generation of Korean hip-hop heads that would become leaders of the industry were among those people who translated lyrics into Korean and practiced rapping in their friend groups in rented rooms in the Nineties.
So at the same time that my big sister was in the US Virgin Islands (or Germany for her brief stint in the military) listening to music from what many people called the “golden age of hip hop”, Seo Taiji and his generation of rappers were listening to the same dang thing. They were watching the same videos. They were taking in this culture and being inspired by it!
And then, when Korean rap and hip-hop fans decided to perform for themselves (then go on to be industry moguls in some cases), they took what they’d learned from Black hip-hop artists and the music industry we were partaking in and made it their own.
For a long time, a lot of early Korean hip hop was distinct because of how derivative it was. In Kim and Park’s piece, they write that:
As with all Western-style music, hip-hop was an import into Korea’s pop-music scene. At times, the fact of this importation gave rise to the criticism that hip-hop in Korea was inauthentic. Such criticism, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Hip-hop in Korea was an authentic expression of the identity of the Korean artists, who were responding to the musical environments in which they found themselves.
We’ll be tackling the idea of/drive towards authenticity in Korean hip-hop in a later part of this project, but for the time being, I want to look at what this quote and Park and Kim’s refusal to acknowledge Korean hip-hop as something that initially drank deeply from the well of Black culture say about the derivative nature of this early adoption of hip hop.
In the Vox, Explained episode on K-pop that I’ll drag around until I’m dead, the narrator points out that, “K-pop is happy to take good ideas from anywhere”.
When you go on YouTube and search, you can find plenty of people talking about alleged plagiarism or similar beats, concepts, and lyrics from popular idol groups and even from rappers who aren’t in the idol scene. The derivative nature of a lot of Korean pop music isn’t new – a lot of pop music worldwide is derivative because the goal is to copy what’s selling and try to sell more of the same.
When it comes to Korean hip-hop in and out of the idol scene, that means that people learned how to spit their own lyrics over the beats from popular US hip-hop and rap tracks. However, in some cases…the didn’t always break cleanly away from the source material when they went on to make their own sound.
Black Culture, Exported Context-Free
If you’re into K-pop, you probably know that we can trace the roots of modern K-pop – you know, the music that led to us getting BTS on Good Morning America and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on May 15th – to Seo Taiji and Boys’ performance on MBC almost thirty years ago.
What you probably don’t know is that Seo Taiji and Boys are just one bump in a very long timeline when it comes to the way Black music was exported from the US following the 1950s. In fact, in Jaeyoung Yang’s “Korean Black Music and its Culture: Soul, Funk, and Hip-Hop” the author makes this connection clear from the jump, writing that:
“Popular music in Korea is deeply influenced by traditional Anglo-American pop-rock, making it problematic because of the tradition’s roots in traditionally African American genres such as gospel, soul, jazz, and hip-hop.”
In this article, Yang really sinks it in that the music marketed to Koreans as “just” pop-rock music really has these very visible roots in the African American music tradition. But before it even leaves the United States, those roots get trimmed back or covered up with a metaphorical tree skirt so that everyone outside of African American communities is presented with this All-American Music Style that suppoedly doesn’t have to be related to Black people in the US at all. Except it does and it is.
US films like Dreamgirls and the adaptation of the musical Hairspray have scenes showing that from around the Sixties when Black music was really getting shipped overseas as part of the US’s Neo-Colonialism Package™. At that time, Black singers, songwriters, and producers could expect to have the very Blackness stripped from their songs so that white performers could swing along into success without these Black creators even getting a serious chance to hear themselves on the radio.
There’s nothing new about Black sound being shipped out to other countries as if Black people didn’t birth and shape it.
Because of the history of how Black people have been erased from Black music, I’m not surprised that in 2019, the Korean pop music industry and its fans worldwide remain invested in rewriting music history to portray Black people as unnecessary to hip-hop and unwanted in a fandom essentially built on this Black music.
The entertainment industry worldwide is such that it’s capable of erasing Black musicians and creatives in our own countries – but also when our work and our sound is used to build up non-Black artists.
Too many people find it easier to rewrite history so that the contributions of Black artists and the roots that many popular musical genres have in the creative pursuits of enslaved Africans and their descendants.
But they’re wrong and it’s obvious.
Essentially, if it’s a genre of music with its roots in US culture, it actually has its roots in Black American perseverance, suffering, and well… creativity. Even when divorced from its origins and repackaged as an all-American sound that anyone can have access to even if they’re not from the US, it’s obvious that that’s not quite the case –
And that it’s never actually been the case.
Even if fans (and some creators) of Korean hip-hop seem to think otherwise.
K and Park’s “A Brief History of Korean Hip-Hop” is useful in some very clear ways as it traces the trajectory of Korean hip-hop and sketches out an easy to follow timeline that stretches between 1989 and 2019.
One main problem with this article, however?
Its brief history of Korean hip-hop trims down the roots of one of the core aspects of hip hop: the genre and industry’s backbone and origins in African American music and creativity.
Oh, Park and Kim pay some light lip-service to the role of Black Americans and Black creativity in the piece, but the US phase of the article primarily centered more on what Korean Americans did for k-pop in terms of introducing Koreas on the peninsula to rap and hip-hop in the Nineties. Instead of you know… talking about the complex cultural exchange and conversations that were happening in the Nineties and that influenced some of the most iconic names in Korean American hip-hop.
Take for instance the very painful history of antiblackness from the Korean community that escalated following the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins, a Black fifteen-year-old girl, by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner. Not only was this murder – and what many people saw as a miscarriage of justice as Du served no jail time for her crime – seen as one of the catalysts for the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but it also shaped the music that Black rappers put out in response to Latasha’s murder as well as the riots.
Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” was dedicated to Latasha. Both her name and death were referenced in “Something 2 Die 4 (Interlude)”, Thugz Mansion”, “I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto”, “White Mans World”, and “Razor”. Additionally, Ice Cube, in response to Latasha’s murder and increased hostilities between Black and Korean communities, composed and released the controversial (because it’s… supremely racist) track “Black Korea”.
Park and Kim talk about how Korean-American rappers who “sought to create raw and message-driven music” were influenced by gangster rap.
But, on top of Park and Kim framing hip-hop and rap as purely from the United States – with no mentions of the Black American creativity and culture that went into and shaped rap and hip hop outside of haphazardly scattered references – They’re also tying it almost entirely to Korean Americans in a way that purposefully obscures the actual complex and painful history of Korean hip hop and its relationship to Black Americans and antiblackness.
Park and Kim skim over the complexities underlying the history of Korean hip-hop and don’t even seriously talk about how deeply Black influence and creativity are threaded throughout Korean hip hop and K-pop as a whole.
The choice to zoom on past these references is not just antiblackness.
The choices on display across this article are also disingenuous in how the article tries to ignore the fact that some of the biggest names in gangster rap (that they proudly claimed that Korean Americans were bringing home to Korea sans-context in the Nineties) were:
a) not involved in this cultural exchange for the most part (as in sharing their content and working with Korean-American hip hop artists)
b) hurting and angry at the state of relations between our communities in the Nineties (and, as a result, created content that actively and harshly covered it)
Park and Kim’s article treats Blackness and Black creativity (and the exportation and commodification of these things) as entirely unimportant to the development of hip-hop in the US. I get that cuts probably happened across the writing and editing process, but something tells me that TK Park at least doesn’t actually give a shit about Black people and Black creativity.
Park and Kim’s brief history of Korean hip-hop pretty much charts a path through the genre’s thirty-year history that renders Black people – even Afro Koreans – inconsequential and unimportant to the genre.
This piece even erases (or, more aptly, minimizes) Yoon Mi-Rae’s cultural contributions as an Afro-Korean performer.
First, in the two times they use her name, they call her “Korean-American” and erase her Black identity. Second, she’s honestly only referenced in relation to her husband Korean American rapper Tiger JK instead of as a powerful and influential rapper in her own right.
I get it: Park and Kim are experts on a level that I cannot currently claim I’m at. That’s why they’re writing for Vulture and I’m working on this project as a passion project.
However, the validity and legitimacy that they get from being known as experts on Korean hip-hop don’t excuse the ways in which their brief history of K-pop (or Park’s unnecessary essay on cultural appropriation) dodges any serious acknowledgement of the issues in the genre when it comes to anti/Blackness and leaves some glaring holes scattered across the timeline. Because their points of view converge along a singular axis that
Which brings us to…
Stitch Foregrounds Themselves
When I look back, the moment I guess I link with my association with consciously getting into K-pop as a filthy casual was back when the Speed Racer movie came out and I saw Rain in like his single scene when I poked my head into the theater auditorium that I was scheduled to clean later on.
I can’t actually tell you what his character (Taejo Togokahn, apparently) even did in the film outside of regurgitating what I learned from Wikipedia just now, but I remember that once I finished cleaning the theater, I scribbled Rain’s name and his character’s name on some scrap paper and kind of… got invested.
For years Rain was my ult idol, my ult performer, and one of my favorite singers.
But I was still a casual fan and I kind of just… bounced from one group or artist to another if their music or concept lost me over the next seven or eight years. (I never dropped anyone for good or for very long at that point, let’s be real here.)
I was reintroduced to BoA – who I’d known from m-flo’s “The Love Bug” back when I was a high schooler, I believe – with her solo career, and have remained a fan to this day. I got into Big Bang kind of intensely, the closest I’ve come to stanning prior to my Monsta X and BTS thing(s).
I was deeply invested in f(x) and 2NE1, and I made all kinds of nonsense noises over Ga In’s thighs and voice when I was introduced to Brown Eyed Girls.
I played SHinEE’s “Lucifer” so many times that to this day the niecelings bring it up as one of their introductions to k-pop. Heck, there was even a time when I was (lightly) a Jay Park fan and said nice enough things about him – which I know has to be weird considering how much time I spend roasting him now.
I liked a lot a of the music I was interested in and thought the groups and artists I liked were talented. They were also goofy as hell when it came to performing what they knew of Blackness and even back then, that was one of the things that stopped me from getting fully invested.
Here’s the thing about this project and my investment though: I found myself shifting from a casual fan to a more emotionally and financially invested one after I had already kind of started balking at the hood cosplay from the idols and the outright and actual antiblackness from the fandoms.
My nieces reintroduced me to K-pop by updating me with information about what my old favorites were doing (or uh… not doing in the case of disbandment) and got me invested in groups who I’d known of mainly from their fandom’s memes and/or bad behavior. And from the start, antiblackness was at the forefront of my vision.
It’s not necessarily that I went looking for nonsense, but that I kept coming across it. I kept seeing idols doing their best impressions of Black Americans and the fans bending over backwards to let Black fans and celebrities alike know that we didn’t belong. Especially when Black fans were critical of the idols’ reliance on stereotypes about Blackness for their concepts or when the fans tried to Columbus hip hop and rp for their idols.
And I’ve always been the kind of person to try to unpack a problem first instead of running away from it.
So I decided that part of my fandom way would be to talk about how this industry and fandom space that I was deeply invested in and had become a more prominent part of my offline and online fandom life constantly let Black people down. I wanted to talk about how I was working my way into the fandom as “more” than a casual fan and left feeling let down at too many different opportunities because once again this is a space where Black fans critical of fandom are removed from being “real” fans.
So here we are.
There’s more cultural exchange than ever in this last decade of K-pop.
As the industry moves to do more shows and events outside of Korea and comes in contact with fans from across the world, we’re seeing more opportunities for culture in conversation where idol groups and independent artists are in engaged in conversations with Black artists.
But in the case of Black Americans, these cultures have been in conversation for a long time and it’s important to talk about the complex relationships that background this genre.
It’s also important to talk about the complex feelings that black people have with their cultures and with how our cultures are exported and adoptd by non-Black people who don’t quite seem ready to acknowledge that we’re people and not stickers to slap on top of non-Black celebrities and randos alike.
If we can’t talk about that, what are we really doing in this fandom?
K-pop owes a pretty significant amount to Black culture, creativity, and history. If you didn’t know that there were connections at the start, you probably can start to see them now. If it’s doable for me (and my very helpful friends who let me unpack a lot of shit as I researched things) to trace connections between our communities and cultures back to the start of the industry, why is it that fandom now has so much trouble acknowledging those connections?
If you’re interested in reading any of the research I’ve looked at across this project section, once I get more time I’ll be putting together my reference list for public consumption so that everything I reference directly will have a space.
But in the meanwhile: I hope that after this foregrounding and the timeline post, y’all have enough of a background for the next part of this project: an essay about Black fans being told that K-pop isn’t for them and accusations implying that we’re “colonizing” K-pop no matter what we do.