I sound like a Barbie doll most of the time.
If you heard me on the phone without knowing anything about me or without seeing my profile picture, you’d probably think I was a sure front runner to play Elle Woods in the musical adaptation of Legally Blonde.
For all intents and purposes, I “sound white”.
I’ve sounded like this my entire life, even when I was a child growing up in the Virgin Islands.
Out of all of my siblings, I am the only one without a recognizable Caribbean accent. If I’m around the right people – my friends and family from the islands or other Black people from other islands – sometimes I sound similar but, it doesn’t happen all that often.
All my life, I’ve struggled with authenticity.
Am I being authentically Black? Am I being authentic to myself? Am I authentic in my writing and when it comes to who I’m writing about? And then, when I started writing lyrics again and everything from my pen was a pointed diss track or something sharp, I wondered if I was being authentic to hip-hop.
I understand the struggle to be seen as authentic and to be taken seriously in your genre of choice and by your peers in that genre.
But that’s part of why I’ve decided to look critically at Korean pop and hip-hop and what authenticity means there.
From the start, once I began putting this project together, one constant that stood out to me was that authenticity is something that many of the rappers in this industry – whether or not they’re in a group – struggle with.
Finding or receiving access to authenticity in hip-hop, aching to be taken seriously by their peers and by the wider industry – especially Black and Korean male artists and critics – is something that drives a lot of antiblackness across this industry.
From the #HoodCosplay these artists put on for stages or concept photos to the blaccents they only seem to adopt when rapping, talking to Black people when they encounter us, imitating Black people on variety shows, or pretending that they grew up in the hood and actually sound Like That, we see a lot of East Asian artists reaching for Blackness as a way to assert their own authenticity and right to perform –
And to entertain their peers in the process, of course.
I tend to take a critical track in fandom and when it comes to authenticity, all I can be is critical.
I wasn’t raised listening to hip-hop.
I grew up in a rigid religious household and didn’t have my first real taste of secular music until I was about eight or nine when I visited my older sister in Florida and two boys at the apartment pool sang India.Arie’s “Brown Skin” to me one day. Later on in that trip, my sister introduced me to R&B and rap from her favorite artists and I was hooked.
I loved rappers that were the same age as me like Lil Bow Wow and Lil Romeo just as much as I did powerhouse pop stars like Whitney Houston and Britney Spears. And that love went in and out as I grew up and in my teens, I eventually expanded my interest to include East Asian musical groups or artists that focused on a “Black Sound” like m-flo, Wang Leehom, Home Made Kazoku, Heartsdales (more hip-pop than anything), BIGBANG, and SOUL’d OUT.
Twenty years after that day at the pool, I’ll listen to hip-hop from anywhere and anyone as long as it sounds good and antiblackness doesn’t leap out at me from the performer on a regular basis or as the first thing that I ever learn about them.
And now, I have all of this highkey opinionated knowledge about what makes “good” rap and who makes it and how the culture/s of hip hop work(s) around the world, but I still don’t feel 100% like an expert that “belongs”.
Sometimes, despite the fact that I know I have just as much a right to write on anti/blackness as “experts” like TK Park do, imposter syndrome strikes and I find myself wondering if I even have the right to work on this essay series or position myself as knowledgeable on any of this.
At multiple times across my life and while working on this project, I have worried that my own connection to hip-hop isn’t as sturdy as I’d liked.
There are times when I’ve found myself wondering if I was technically chasing a form of the same authenticity and acceptance that the artists I’m listening to and writing about are also chasing – just in different ways or a different direction.
And it’s been interesting to sit with and unpack.
This mini-essay series is partially inspired by the fifth chapter of the brilliant Myoung-Sun Song’s Hanguk Hip Hop: Global Rap in South Korea. It’s also partially inspired by my own experiences and observations of hip-hop/rap culture, and I understand the ways in which people largely seen as “unwelcome” in hip hop are driven by an urge To Be Authentic.
That urge fuels many questionable moments and career or concept choices by East Asian hip-hop artists in and out of Korea
What fuels my theorizing and my writing for this segment of the project?
The fact that authenticity is complicated and that we don’t all have the same access to it across the board.
In Jaime Shinhee Lee’s “Glocalizing Keepin’ it Real: South Korean Hip-Hop Playas”, she tackles the idea of authenticity by referring to the work of Professor Alastair Pennycook and writing that:
The need for authenticity in performance seems to be quite widespread in hip hop. Pennycook (2007) notes that there is the ‘global spread of authenticity’ in the hip hop world, while globalism itself challenges the idea of authenticity in hip hop: what is real and what is not real. (141)
In the context provided here, Lee views “authenticity” on its face as what’s real and what’s not real. So, by her logic, if you’re rapping, you’re a real rapper and therefore… authentic. Which certainly is… a thing.
It’s a thing that fuels many of the conversations we have about hip-hop in Korea from solo artists and the raplines or main rappers in different groups.
A thing that raises even more questions.
What makes a rapper authentic in the first place?
Can a rapper be authentic just because they’re rapping?
What about female rappers and the performance of Black masculinity?
What does the performance of authentic hip hop have to do with the antiblackness so often on display in these idols and rappers?
Then, in the notebook I use for my work, I also wrote down the following questions:
Whose rules? Who rules? Who’s real? How there can even be authenticity in the genre [Korean hip-hop/rap in and out of their underground scene] when it’s so distanced from the Black US-ness that birthed it?
Maybe by the time I finish this segment within a series, I’ll have answers to some of these questions!
Here’s what’s on the roster in terms of immediate content for this shorter series of mini-essays within my larger project. Feel free to suggest topics or pitch me an essay for this or any other aspect of my writing.
Coming up next (in one form or another)…
- Misogyny and (Korean) Hip Hop
- Gatekeepers and Idol Rap
- Blackness as Performance
- Possibilities of Authenticity
- Talking Black (On Entertainment Shows)
- Blaccents and all that ish
- Reaction Accounts and Assigning Authenticity for Clout
I’ve got a lot to say and a lot of time to write so I’m hopeful that y’all will be sticking around for these shorter essays and videos across the next few weeks/months before I get back to the meaty parts of things with “‘But Namjoon’ Nothing”.
As always, thanks for reading and thanks for sharing!
If you want to keep up with how the series is going, look for my tweets on the #StitchProcesses tag on twitter or look at my masterpost for the overarching series!