Authenticity Essay #2 – Girls (Not) On Top

Near the end of October 2019, Korean rapper San E posted a photo on Instagram of his favorite (“best”) Korean rappers as part of the promo for something he’d reveal in the following days. He has ten rappers on the list, and while many of them would be on my top ten list… none are female artists.

Now, here’s the thing… I’m not actually surprised that San E couldn’t bring himself to place a single female MC on his list.

First, there’s the way that San E seems to hold female rappers – and women – to a different standard in his time as the host of m-net’s Unpretty Rapstar (2015 to 2016).

Take the way that he treats Jimin (AOA) across the show as he views and moves her between a binary of idol/pretty and rapstar/unpretty as she tries to prove herself.

Myoung-Sun Song mentions this leter on in her chapter on the show and female rappers in Korea, writing that,

Throughout the episodes, San E is seen commenting on Jimin’s appearance by calling her “pretty.” On the first episode, San E questions why Jimin is there on the show by saying to her, “You are a pretty rapstar.” On the seventh episode, San E introduces Jimin by stating, “From a pretty idol, she is becoming an unpretty rapstar. Let’s give it up for Jimin.” Here, we see how being an idol is equated with being pretty as being a rapper is to being “unpretty.” (165)

Then in November 2018, San E released a song called “Feminist”, a release that read as a “diss track” to Korean feminism and feminists. The song received widespread criticism abroad and at home.

Korean rappers SleeQ and her labelmate Jerry.K both responded to “Feminist” by releasing diss track responses of their own.

SleeQ’s song “Equalist” addresses San E directly, calling out the old fashioned lyrics in the song, and showing the difference between what San E wants and what she wants, showing her rapping that:

What you want is

For women to serve in the military, to split the bill on dates

To get rid of the subway seats reserved for pregnant women that only women can use

To get rid of parking lots designated only for women

For couples to split the costs equally when they get married

For women not to hate men, for there to be no reverse discrimination

To shut down Womad, to shut down Megal

For us to believe that you’re a little different

What I want is

For men not to kill women

For men not to rape women

For men not to assault women

For men not to blame the victims as they kill, rape, and assault them

For men not to push women out of the system while telling us to blame the system

Her labelmate Jerry.K tackled the patriarchy problem from a male perspective in “No You Are Not”, writing that:

There was only one thing you said that was right, we are victims of patriarchy

But you know what’s sad, the people who made the patriarchy are men

Have you ever thought about all the sweet benefits you’ve reaped under it?

It’s at least sweeter than what you got that midsummer night

Let’s break that patriarchy together, why do you hesitate?

Let’s destroy that 36.7 percent wage gap

Then you can ask your date to cover half the expenses whenever you want

We [Men] get positions as CEOs, high-level employees, and politicians

Yet you’re talking about having to give up your seat on the subway, bus, and parking lot

After Korean vloggers on DKDKTV unpacked the song’s lyrics, Billboard writer Tamar Herman points out in her article covering the song’s release and immediate backlash that while at one point San E’s lyrics claim that the massive gender pay gap in South Korea was a “fucking fake fact”,

“The gender pay gap in South Korea is the highest among the OECD, with the 2017 OECD report “The Pursuit if [SIC] Gender Equality: An Uphill Battle” acknowledging that women in Korea earn only 63% of what men earn, and that only 56.2% of women in the country are employed”

A few days after the song’s release, San E released an explanation and apology for his song on Instagram. In this post, which is still online, San E claims that “Feminist” was intended to be satirical, poking fun at some men from a meta-perspective that does not reflect his own point of view.

In the translation hosted on Soompi, San E wrote that:

“Hello, this is San E,” he wrote. “I thought that if I wrote an explanation, it would be seen as an excuse and that people would accuse me of changing my beliefs according to people’s reactions. I put out a song and it’s the public’s job to judge it. Since I thought someone would understand the song’s true meaning, I thought it would be better to stay silent myself.”

“But someone I love, a fan and friend who has supported me for 10 years, recently told me that she felt betrayed and that she regretted the time she spent being my fan. When I saw what she wrote to me, asking me if the lyrics were how I really felt and that I should wake up and realize that it wasn’t right, I decided it didn’t matter if other people thought I was making an excuse.

“‘Feminist’ is not a song expressing hatred towards women. If you listen to the song one more time, you’ll see that the narrator in the song is not me. I enjoy books and movies with this meta perspective and I thought I had set up my song so that people would understand what I was doing. It seems that my set-up was weak. I chose this theme in order to speak strongly against the societal issue of hatred against both men and women. The original meaning of the song is to criticize people like the narrator in the song: people who say that they respect feminists, gender equality, and women on the outside but on the inside are hypocritical and contradict their words in the way they act and speak to women. I hope that this explanation can bring comfort to my friend and people who think like her.”

The only problem (aside from how he ended his apology-explanation with a little “feminism shouldn’t involve attacking all men” approach that is wholly unnecessary because he wasn’t actually or clearly talking about radical feminist groups – like the ones SleeQ mentions – in his song)?

Whether San E is lying through his teeth, really fucking bad at satire, or both of these things, real women were hurt by this song as well as by the glaring lack of allyship and understanding on display.

And instead of showing that he understands where these women are coming from and how his supposed intent is meaningless, San E clearly chooses to deflect, claiming that this is the point of view of a character and not his own point of view while still letting us know his POV on feminism and what feminists should do.

San E is a rapper who’s played with personas and narratives in his music and music videos before – take the lyrics and video for his March 2017 video “Seoul, Or the 120 Days of Sodom” for example.

However, the difference between the two songs is… pretty clear. It’s clear what San E is referencing – a film based off of a shitty novel by the Marquis de Sade – in the linked video and song and few people actually identify with de Sade in the twenty-first century.

But a lot of people do identify with anti-feminist language?

So again, even if this is satire… it’s not great at it.

Anyway, with what I know about San E alone, I wasn’t expecting much from any list he did about his favorite MCs. How could I? He hasn’t seemed to show that he truly values female rappers even when working with a bunch of them for Unpretty Rapstar and when he’s used his work to craft satire that calls women bitches (see this part from 2019’s “Wannabe Rapper”).

But then there’s another reason why I wasn’t surprised by San E’s list: the culture he’s living in and the genre he’s performing in. Hip-hop around the world does have a patriarchy problem. Period.

Because we live in a world that hates women.

This is a constant that crosses oceans and borders alike.

Part of why I balked so hard at the assertions that Chuyun Oh made in her 2014 article “Performing Post-Racial Asianness: K-Pop’s Appropriation of Hip Hop Culture” back in my two-parter on cultural appropriation is because she seems to miss a very clear problem as expressed in statements like the following:

In his music video “One of a Kind,” G-Dragon directly borrows some of the elements of hip-hop. His music is influenced by rap and consists of spoken, chanted, rhyming lyrics. Some of his steps and movements are also influenced by the grounded hip-hop movement with exaggerated, strong, heavy hand gestures. […]  He also employs some misogyny. Female black dancers are clad in military uniform–influenced black leotards wearing police hats and black sunglass. Since they are all clad in the same costumes and move in the same ways, not revealing their faces or individuality, the dancers are dehumanized to some extent and can be more easily objectified. It turns the audience’s attention to their bare thigh while they are twerking their hips, albeit in a moderate way. The appropriation of hip-hop, thus, provides a space where female bodies are sexually objectified, while GD can be more masculinized, which potentially serves to maintain the patriarchal status quo. (122-3)

One of the big issues with Oh’s article is that she makes these weird and wild reaches in order to rob her fellow Koreans of their responsibility to make better content and to not be antiblack on main.

So, with the misogyny present in G-Dragon’s “One of a Kind”, Oh centers his misogyny (the dancers’ styling and their dance in the video) as a hip hop and Black thing rather than as the product of a misogynistic world.

In the above snippet, she doesn’t come outright and say, “this is because Black people are misogynistic and he’s trying to be like them”, but because she spends her actual article doing this by misrepresenting hip hop as inherently dark and monstrous –

She doesn’t have to.

The issue with misogyny from these artists isn’t due to hip-hop or Black American masculinity or any of the stuff that Oh tries to reference in her inadequate criticisms of hip hop and her understanding of why Korean performers are performing hip-hop as they do.

Oh – like many people that write about the appropriation and gentrification of hip-hop and other aspects of Black American culture by Korean artists as if it’s a positive – refuses to acknowledge two things.

First, she’s refusing to acknowledge that the patriarchy in and of itself is a problem. That being a misogynistic douche that treats women like objects in their music isn’t a Black people thing or a hip-hop thing or whatever – it’s a dude thing.

Second, Oh doesn’t talk about female rappers in or out of Korea and therefore she doesn’t talk about how the patriarchy shapes their performance even as it silences their creativity.

Many female rappers around the world are forced to appear and perform according to relatively rigid perceptions of what makes a good rapper/woman – which often subjects them to endless hypersexualizing portrayals.

This is not a hip-hop thing or an entertainment thing or an American thing – exported. This is, again, a patriarchy problem

In Myoung-Sun Song’s chapter on female rappers, there’s a quote from the rapper Ignito that honestly set me to steaming.

Ignito’s perception of women’s rap/lyrics is that they’re emotionally driven and therefore not something that meshes with hip hop, which he’s described as having lyrics that are “rationally constructed and organized” (152).

As someone who’s witnessed several years of man-baby beef via diss tracks a few moments away from being a public tantrum, and male rappers being fragile on main and both irrational and unorganized in their lyrics?

I call big bullshit.

These gatekeepers – who fashion themselves as experts on a culture (Black American-a) and a genre (hip-hop) that they’re also outsiders to – come up with all of these rules and reasons why women can’t be and aren’t “good enough” to be in the big leagues of Korean hip hop.

As Myoung-Sun shows in her chapter, there’s literally always something that these men will find to use in order to excuse the absence of female rappers or deny that they could ever have a shot.

Their lack of skill – There’s an expectation or assumption that women “just” don’t have the skill (at writing lyrics or performing them) and since there aren’t many skilled female rappers on the same level as the greats gatekeeping… of course there can’t be many female rappers period.

Their style – Maniac notes in Hanguk Hip Hop that “Every female rapper that I have heard, I am able to put them in 2 categories: Either they sound like Tasha or they do not” (153).

While there are definitely a few go to styles for female rappers in Korea (Tasha/Yoon Mi Rae is one while Hyuna is another), it’s not like male artists are any more diverse.

They’re all also cannibalizing their styles and concepts from more successful and visible rappers in their immediate frame of reference. But since they’re men, they can get away with it…

Their lack of role models and community – one of the reasons that male and female rappers alike gave as to the lack of female rappers in Korean in Myoung-Sun’s research was a lack of role models for them to look up to and learn from. Again, I have to call bullshit on that because well… aside from the fact that it can’t be that hard to find and reach out to female rappers in this small community –

Who did the first male Korean rappers look up to? Who were their role models?

There are female rappers across the world – not just Black and Korean ones – and female rappers in Korea should be encouraged to look to them for community rather than expecting Yoon Mi Rae to shoulder this burden of community building and bonding alone.

Like there’s a huge mess of misogyny and misogynoir on one level on blaming the supposed lack of female rappers in Korea on the lack of community since Yoon Mi Rae won’t start one (because women can’t get along/don’t help each other is another underlying explanation we’re given) – while the male rappers in question do nothing to fix the situation.

Their sex appeal – Again, this isn’t a Korea thing or a hip-hop thing. This is a “misogyny in the entertainment industry” thing.

Women can’t be themselves without motive being assigned to them and agency being removed.

If a female rapper is talented, but not sexy or otherwise appealing to an audience or peers that are assumed male, they’re boring and set up to fail. If a female rapper is sexy or appears to appeal to men – like Jessi or Jimin (AOA) or Megan thee Stallion, it’s assumed that that’s where their success comes from.

That talented women are performing and dressing for themselves and that their success isn’t tied to how appealing a man/men do/n’t find them… never quite enters the equation.

And how fucked up is it that the gatekeepers are keeping female rappers on the industry outskirts because of their preferences for women and what they believe makes a good woman and rapper. And then they have the nerve to blame their preferences, actions, and their gatekeeping on these women not getting as far as male rappers who they literally shower with mentorship, producing, and songwriting opportunities.

This is an essay about authenticity tying back to my overarching project on antiblackness in these genres and their fandoms, so let’s talk about that for one small second.

I firmly believe that a large part of why so many of these female rappers in Korea – like their male counterparts – reach for the #HoodCosplay is because they think (and may even be told) that they won’t succeed unless they’re authentic to (these folks’) perception of hip hop.

Many of the idol rappers that went on Unpretty Rapstar were “pretty girls” in their groups or solo careers. Their cuteness made it difficult for them to be taken seriously by the male rappers running the show and their female co-stars on the show.

So that’s definitely part of why some of them reach for the #HoodCosplay.

Of course, the antiblackness I’ve witnessed isn’t solely or even primarily due to feeling like they have to be just as hood as their male counterparts. Like their male peers, these female rappers also know next to nothing about Black people and Blackness outside of hip hop and are definitely exposed to casual antiblackness from their peers and in media.

It’s far from an excuse – like I note in my (currently in-progress) video on Truedy over on YouTube – but it’s something that helps flesh out the explanation. That’s for sure!

If you’re a woman in hip hop that’s surrounded by dudes in Hood Cosplay telling you that you have to be more like them to be taken seriously –

What will you reach for in your quest to be authentic?