WFRLL: Black Sound… Somehow Not For Black Fans?

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Back in in the beginning of April, when I first started this project and the idea for this section started to take form, I screenshot and shared a tweet from a K-pop fan (though the group they preferred, escapes me) that said:

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“I don’t know why black people are even stupid enough to like K-pop. It isn’t for you. Go listen to rap.”

Go listen to rap.

Imagine having the nerve to tell Black fans to “go listen to rap” because – in this case – you were frustrated by yet another conversation about cultural appropriation in the K-pop industry.

Imagine being that much of a walnut that you zoom on past the fact that even the cutesiest of girl groups will have something that’s attempting to be a rap line and rap breaks in their songs – specifically so that you can tell Black people to get the hell out of “your” fandom space/genre of choice.

This is just a taste of what international fandom spaces are like for Black K-pop fans on social media. When we are even a tiny bit critical of the way our idols try to emulate our cultures, folks tell us that we need to get out of the fandom because there’s no way that we belong.

They tell us to return to rap music, the same rap music that our favorite idols and artists are listening to and performing in South Korea.

Imagine being that awful.

In the previous installment of this essay series, I briefly covered the history of hip-hop and South Korean pop music, the cultural exchange that gave birth to this billion-dollar industry, and the early relationship to Black culture, repackaged.

In this installment, I’ll be further unpacking some critical thoughts that tie into an overarching question that shaped this project form the start: how can the fandom for an industry/genre built partially on Black sound and a Black aesthetic somehow not be for Black audiences/fans?

Seriously, folks, this is a genre built partially on top of the bars black people spit or the beats we put together and yet, the (primarily international) fandom spaces it’s spawned are spaces where Black fans are frequently and explicitly told that they’re taking up space and don’t belong.

(There’ve been times where Korean fans tell International fans they don’t belong, but it’s not generally like they’re constantly and specifically telling Black fans to fuck off.)

Think about how, in the international spaces of stan twitter and K-pop fandom at least, the mode/l of fandom and fannishness is one inextricably associated with “Black Twitter” meme formats, jokes, etc. as a regular part of the experience.

How are Korean pop and hip-hop somehow – according to non-Black people in the fandom spaces – genres not for Black people to consume and engage with?

Why are Black fans constantly and explicitly told to get out of K-pop fandom spaces and K-pop as a whole?

Who died and made these moomoos god?

Don’t get me wrong, folks: I understand the limits built into the cultural exchange and that even with K-pop being promoted worldwide that the primary audience, the “home” team, is South Korean.

I get that.

What I don’t get is how everyone and their mother insists on rushing to Black fans – those enjoying the industry boldly and those critical of how it presents Blackness – to let us all know how unwelcome we are.

How unwanted we are.

Especially when white fans have uh… become pretty successful at not only Columbusing K-pop, but at actually entering the industry despite not having a lick of Korean – or even another form of East Asian identity – in their heritage.


Months ago, when I was first drafting an earlier version of this essay by hand, I was reintroduced to m-net’s UHSN, a reality show that serves as a literal “ticket to K-pop” for 10 young women who aren’t Korean, but are interested in K-pop.

The majority of the young women associated with this project are both white and from various Western counties across Europe and North America. Of the ten girls, it’s important to me to note that Erii, Nada, Mind, and Livia are respectively Japanese, Egyptian, Thai, and Afro-Swedish.

While the demographics are better than I could’ve hoped for, that’s still not a very diverse group of girls. I’m not just saying that because I demand excessive amounts of Black Girl Magic on display at all times, but because the world is wider than a handful of European countries and the United States.

Simply put, the makeup of international K-pop fandom is a lot more diverse than what we are being shown on a show like this or in the footage from other concerts and events. When you see the footage and selfies from the concerts worldwide, there are plenty of Black and brown faces to be seen.

So why doesn’t m-net’s UHSN reflect that in their choice of K-pop fan?

Black and brown(er) K-pop fans weren’t handed a ticket to K-pop on the same scale and were probably not considered strongly as potential participants for the show even when their auditions were stellar.

I bring this reality TV show up because I want to make a point about how Black fans are explicitly told that we don’t belong in K-pop fandom and that the music isn’t for us when we talked about or express our feelings about fandom.

We’re seen as unwanted in these fandom spaces when we exhibit:

  1. extreme joy and sense of self in fandom (when we find our space to be joyous fans and talk about the idols we adore)
  2. critical thoughts about the fandom spaces (even when not about anti-blackness in fandom) or of idol group concepts and behavior related to anti/blackness

(Even just us stating the simple and, I’d say, non-controversial idea of K-pop pulling or stemming from Black music – because pretty much all popular music owes something to Black culture and creativity exported to the masses – gets us yelled at.)

Basically, we’re not allowed to be happy in huge chunks of K-pop fandom or critical of it and the industry. So, what does it seem like folks want from black folks in K-pop fandom?

I feel like it’s… our silence.

Before I even really started work on this project, I had a run-in with a handful of fans that believed firmly that Black people talking about what K-pop literally owes to Black creativity was akin to us trying to colonize the industry.

(Which is interesting because of the recent inroads where again: white people from the US or Europe are brought into the industry in ways even Afro Koreans do not have access to.)

The users in question framed me and another Black person talking about the role of Black music in K-pop as “claiming something from other people as if it was yours”. This is as we talked about how messed up it was to see the person in the tweet I introduced early in this essay say that K-pop wasn’t “for” Black people.

Considering how much K-pop literally gets from Black Americans – like not even talking about appropriation or plagiarism, but from the industry’s leading producers and artists being inspired and even taught by Black Americans – well, that’s a load of shit.

In any case, Black fans talking about how being told we “don’t belong in K-pop fandom” or that “K-pop isn’t for [us]” hurts and is also silly, shouldn’t be met with this kind of response.

Aside from being unkind, it’s also something that shows a profound lack of knowledge when it comes to music history.

Rap is born from West African rhythmic storytelling traditions and has been used as a vehicle to tell stories about our experiences as Black Americans. As with most pieces of black culture, once rap became popular enough in the US, it was exported largely without us – our participation or art input – and turned into this neutral and globalized US culture that “everyone” should have access to.

But it’s still very obviously Black.

And let’s be real here, Black people still aren’t really allowed to participate in and perform anyone else’s culture in that same form of supposed cultural exchange.

I would love to live in a world where culture flows freely from one culture to another.

It’d be great if Korean rappers were finding freedom in hip hop – inspired by and borrowing from African American experience, tradition, and linguistics – and if Black artists and people could find freedom in

  • Our blackness and our own culture (i.e.., if we weren’t dehumanized at home and abroad for existing while Black)
  • Immersing ourselves in Korean culture/musical traditions (i.e.., if the cultural exchange was actually equal and we could come together in conversation and share cultures on the regular)

The flow of finding freedom in a new culture, in language, in performing, is not equal.

It’s largely actually just going in one direction, and that’s one of the biggest issues with the way that Black fans are denied room in K-pop fandom spaces.

We’re already cut out of the music history for the genre and now we’re also denied room in the fandom “because it’s not for you people”?

Thanks, but I hate it.

A recurring comment that pops up when Black folks are critical of any aspect of K-pop – especially when it comes to criticizing the artists themselves for their appropriation of Black sound and a Black aesthetic is that Black people shouldn’t be into k-pop in the first place.

Why?

Because again, it’s not for us.

The point of view is that because Black people aren’t ever going to be the ideal audience for the K-pop or k-hip hop industries jacking our style and sound, we should just go somewhere else where we’re wanted and stop trying to “control” the artists and fandom.

Wild.

Obviously, K-pop is for Koreans first and foremost. That’s a huge, honking “duh” that I don’t want anyone to think I’m not aware of. But who else is it for that Black people specifically should be told that’s not for us on a worryingly regular basis?

Surely not white people?

Seriously, I have never seen white people told en masse that K-pop isn’t for them by other fans.

Never.

Not even from Korean fans tired of Western Manager Fans who feel entitled to the groups and want to control them more strictly than their actual managers do.

But I have seen multiple Black people – some of my friends in the fandom and others who I don’t know at all – receive hateful messages from people in their respective fandoms telling them that they don’t belong in K-pop fandom. They get messages telling them that K-pop isn’t “for” Black people.

And, until relatively recently along the life of this project, I didn’t actually realize who these anonymous assholes think K-pop is actually for…


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There’s a screenshot of the message floating around K-pop fandom Twitter and Instagram of a message supposedly sent to a black fan. In this message, the anonymous user tells the fan in part that, “I just believe K-pop isn’t for black people, it wasn’t made for your kind and I think you should stick to your own type of music.”

Aside from how, again, the majority of idol groups’ genre blending music blends or incorporates hip-hop and most groups have rap lines or have had hood phases, if K-pop explicitly isn’t for Black people and Korean fans are not part of the equation-

Who is? Who is K-pop for?

According to that anonymous user and a bunch of other people? White people.

I know that it’s easy to think “hey, this is just a troll” and to brush this kind of message away, but for many Black K-pop fans- regardless of the group or idol they stan – this “isn’t for you/ the idols would never date or even befriend a black person because white fans are here” point of view and message is what they get hit with on the regular.

There are hundreds if not thousands of black K-pop fans across multiple fandoms who can speak to you and share the communities and safeguards they’ve had to build to protect themselves.

Black fans don’t just have to deal with occasional antiblackness from their idol faves, but with their fandom’s abuse and the assumption that not only is K-pop not for Black fans, but that white fans have a right to it.

While the message above is a screenshot of somewhat dubious origin, I know many Black fans of K-pop who’ve gotten hate aimed squarely in their direction for daring to be critical of the groups they stan or another group they’re aware of.

I know many Black fans who’ve been the target of racial slurs, accusations of being racist (against the idols they’re critical of), and who have been told to leave the fandom since they can’t be real fans if they have critical opinions about idols’ appropriation or fandom’s unending antiblackness.

I’ve seen multiple Black fans told to get out of the fandoms they’re a part of because they dared to criticize something an idol’s done or a hairstyle they’ve worn.

Multiple Black fans get told across twitter and via Curious Cat that they don’t belong in the first place, that Korean pop music isn’t for them, that they’re making fandom worse by existing and daring to either be loud in their joy or critical of their groups’ choices.

Aside from that screencapped image and some others I’ve seen floating around – especially in the wake of the Chicken Noodle Soup situation where fandom pretty much decided what Black opinions mattered and what didn’t -, few people have actually been willing to say outright with their chest that they think Korean pop music – a genre/industry that is incredibly Korean even with what it takes from Black US-ian culture – is actually for white audiences.

But they keep saying that it’s not for Black fans.

Especially when we’re critical of an idol’s behavior or cultural appropriation.


I want to return to the idea of “Black sound” that I open this essay with.

The Black sound I’m referring to in the title of this essay, is a literal one. The idols we listen to and whose music we enjoy, didn’t come to this music out of nowhere.

Hip-hop doesn’t date back to 1992 with Seo Taiji & Boys’ iconic performance and it’s supremely shady to pretend that it did in order to claim that your idols came to hip-hop organically – as in, without experiencing Black artists doing this very Black genre.

I’m not saying that there aren’t Korean rappers who were primarily inspired by Korean rappers.

I can’t say that.

Obviously.

Epik High and Tiger JK are just two rap acts that inspired the hell out of later rappers who are popular now In Korea.

At the end of the day, it makes sense that you’re getting into hip-hop while Korean, you’re going to imprint on the artists who you understand first and then move on to artists from other areas.

But the Korean artists you love and think are (re)inventing hip hop didn’t actually pave the way like you think they did. They didn’t invent the wheel, they’re just spinning it.

Anyway –

What I can say is that it’s one of those facts of the fandom/industry for folks to remove the Black people from hip-hop – including, again, even Afro Koreans – and pretend that the first ever usage of a triplet flow or the first time anyone ever referenced social justice in rhyming rap came from the mean streets of Seoul.

If folks interested in Korean hip-hop – and the idols participating in it – didn’t pretend that Blackness was somehow unattached to the genre or the performances, maybe things would be different.

If the fandom spaces didn’t make it clear that hip hop and rap are ugly and harmful to them until Korean artists gentrified it, then maybe it wouldn’t be as painful and frustrating.

But too many people are invested in celebrating a Korean performance of Blackness via hip hop at the same time that they stereotype Black performers as violent and hip hop as inappropriate (via coded language, of course) and tell Black fans that this music and these concepts built off of our music and identities as Black Americans aren’t fucking for us.

And because Korean hip-hop and pop aren’t “for” Black fans, we’re erased in the conversations about K-pop fandom and our concerns and joys alike are minimized alongside our presence.

We’re not the people that folks think of when they think of fans and we’re not the fans that the industry markets to or displays prominently.

Think about the average K-pop fan outside of Korea.

Picture your average fan.

Chance are, that despite the fact that many of the groups that blow up in countries outside of Korea are hip-hop groups, you’re not picturing a fan that looks like me. Right? You’re picturing someone that looks like they could’ve debuted with the girls on UHSN.

Recently (within the last few weeks of me writing this draft), the hashtag #BLACKGIRLSLIKEKPOP was trending pretty hard on Twitter. The hashtag, coined by a Black female fan to hype other Black girls up, exists specifically because it’s assumed – by too many people – that Black female fans aren’t into Korean pop and so we’re erased from fandom.

And a few things happened that are of note to this project:

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  • Korean American rapper dumbfoundead shouted out the hashtag on twitter.
  • Lots of Black guys accused these women and girls of thinking that liking K-pop constituted a personality.
  • Like with the Black ARMY selfie tag days (or any time Black people in fandom are doing something), pretty much none of the major translator/fandom accounts that weren’t Black engaged with or acknowledged it.
  • And a too-loud amount of non-Black K-pop fans reverted to the tried and true “you’re drawing attention to a problem that isn’t there, that’s why no one likes you [Black fans]”.

And it’s all… very interesting to me how this works because the only thing that surprised me was that dumbfoundead shouted out the hashtag.

Everything else was predictable.

An attempt at reminding fans that “We are here” was met by abuse from Black non-fans and non-Black fans alike while the majority of the fandom kind of pretended that once again –Black people weren’t a significant group of people doing things in fandom.

And it is frustrating to see fandom show their asses time and time again where Black fans are concerned. When positive hashtags created to raise awareness of our existence trend (like the aforementioned #BlackGirlsLikeKPop one and the selca days for Black fans in different fandoms), folks either pretend none of it’s happening or they react with anger and questions about how “if white fans had a special selca day, wouldn’t you call it racist?”.

Black K-pop fans are constantly explicitly told or implicitly shown that we don’t belong in these fandom spaces.

All while the industry hinges often on hip-hop sounds and visual concepts, and when the idols talk about how much they love Black artists and aesthetics, and when the fans jack meme images and text formats from Black Twitter (and Black twitter users).

It says volumes that Black K-pop fans have to announce our presence –

And that our raised voices and hashtags are met with pushback as if we don’t belong in “their” spaces after all.

In 2019, it’s wild to see people go out of their way to pretend that Black people aren’t into K-pop – and, frequently, decide that the ones that ARE, aren’t critical of it.

Every day, there are Black fans on Twitter and Instagram that talk about their love of K-pop and Korean hip-hop despite how often these genres and their fandom spaces make it clear that they don’t have us in their minds.

Every day, Black fans come together with each other and with their non-Black friends in order to share experiences and build community.

And we’re still erased, rendered invisible by the majority of the fandom community that still seems incapable of accepting that Black people can like K-pop… and be critical of an industry and fandom built off of our creativity and cultural contributions.


Because K-pop as a genre supposedly isn’t for Black fans and the fandom space is also not seen as a space where we belong, intense and unending antiblackness is present towards Black fans at every single step of the way through fandom.

Simply for committing the sin of stanning while Black in these spaces, Black fans are subject to incredibly insensitive comments and antiblack harassment that negatively affects them for years to come.

I think there’s no way to make this clearer than by sharing parts of Claudia Williams’ recent article on stan twitter “Stan’d off” where a teenaged K-pop fan recalls the harassment she got – just for being Black in the fandom for a group she’s still unwilling to name.

The band became the framework around which Aaliyah constructed her identity. She spent hours online talking about their music, voting in Korean music competitions or award shows, and following their every move on social media. She thinks she probably spent around $3,000 on extra phone data, as well as on niche merchandise she tracked down online and forked out extortionate shipping costs to have sent from South Korea.

But when other stans found out that Aaliyah was black, things began to change. Some started bombarding her with racist messages. At first, she tried to ignore the abuse and kept it from those around her, including her family. But, eventually, the need to extricate herself from this online community – or, of unstanning the band – became overwhelming. Even six years later, some of Aaliyah’s devotion remains: she is unwilling to name the group in case it marrs their reputation.

Aaliyah wasn’t doing anything wrong.

In fact, she was doing all of the “right” things for stan twitter. She was spending her money to support the group she loved, voting for them religiously to win awards, and buying tons of merchandise so that she could rep her fandom.

Nowhere here does Aaliyah mention doing anything in her fandom that be considered problematic or as a trigger for harassment in fandom except –

That she was Black.

This isn’t even the first time that I came across someone saying that their fandom experience in these spaces was fine until they dropped a selfie, and folks realized that they were Black.

That’s what I mean when I say that what K-pop fans really seem to want from Black fans is our utter absence from fandom. They don’t want us to participate in the pleasure or critique any aspect of the group.

And they’re going out of their way to harass the hell out of Black fans at every level to let them know that they don’t belong.

At a point where all of these artists are (apparently) trying to get into the self-care #LoveYourself game following BTS, realizing that you’re in fandoms with people who would send Black fans images of lynchings (which happened to Aaliyah) or racial slurs (which happens to pretty much any Black fan with a Curious Cat account and some notoriety) –

Is flat out horrifying.

It is hard to believe the hype – that these groups love us (or rather, the idea of us) or that the fandoms are actually welcoming spaces when Black fans are consistently and repeatedly told that we have no business here.

But I am nothing if not determined and so are plenty of the other Black fans I’ve come across in my time working on this project and as a fan of K-pop.

Every time I see a tweet denigrating hip hop by Black artists or talking about how annoying Black fans are or claiming that there aren’t any Black fans into a group (or critical of them on top of that), I resign myself to doing the thing harder.

I will critique cultural appropriation from idols and the antiblackness from the fandom harder. I will love more groups more intensely. I will make more plans with more friends to enjoy these idols together.

Because no one’s going to make me flounce from this space.

But it sucks that Black fans here, as in other fandom spaces, have to try to decide between what they have to do to be respected as Black people and what they have to do to have a relatively stress-free fandom experience.

When just saying “we are here” can get you smacked with waves of hate –

How do you figure out your best path through a fandom like this?

About Zeenah

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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