If you listened to my review of BTS’s new album Map of the Soul: 7, you might have clocked that I’m really fucking feral for BTS’ trio of rappers – RM, Suga, and J-hope. I mention it a bunch of times across my review and my social media.
On top of that, I’m a huge fan of hip hop from around the world and have been since I was a teenager listening to m-flo on my Zune. Like if I didn’t love hip-hop, there’s no way that I would’ve spent a huge amount of the past year having public opinions about hip hop and working my fingers off on this project.
That’s why, when I saw someone I follow retweet a Porochista Khakpour tweet about BTS’ rapline, I kind of like lost it (laughing) at first. In the linked tweet, Khakpour writes that:
“I was a hip hop journalist for a long time & really wish I could convince hip hop heads to give a listen to this track UGH on the new BTS, which features some of the most insane hard rapping i have heard since we used to use embarrassing terms like ”gangsta rap“ I SWEAR”
On my end, I go into the wildness of insulting the name of the subgenre and then kind of simultaneously assigning gangsta rap-ness to a song that isn’t remotely in that genre. (Just because a song relies on nifty gun-related sound effects and utilize an aggressive delivery, that doesn’t make it inherently “gangsta” rap.)
However, there’s another angle to this: the authenticity one.
In Khakpour’s tweet, there are two things here that tie back into this portion of my project.
The first is how she sets herself up as an expert on authenticity (“i was a hip hop journalist for a long time” and “some of the most insane hard rapping i have heard”).
The second is how she positions other experts as refusing to listen to this song so they can validate her POV (“really wish I could convince hip hop heads to give a listen to this track”).
“UGH” is a fantastic song and I absolutely (over) identify with it. It’s a clapback at the haters online and the people who doubt you and my god, am I here for that kind of content.
However, it’s not gangsta rap and I wouldn’t even consider comparing it to that subgenre of hip hop even if the “storyline” provided for Spotify hadn’t said outright that the song owes its sound to Memphis trap.
“UGH” is also not something that hip hop heads are guaranteed to like if they listen to it because it sounds similar to some people’s ears.
Trust me. My BTS-loving niece has probably played “UGH” for my sister, a huge fan of hip hop who keeps up with genre changes and has strong opinions when it comes to who’s on top and why –
And like my sister probably wasn’t feeling it.
(In fact the similarity is one of the things that many Black people who grew up with African American hip hop dislike about East Asian hip hop. It’s not a bonus for them.)
I know YouTube personalities (often, I suspect, over) reacting to new releases from our favorite East Asian artists has us spoiled about the reception, but… the majority of die-hard (Black) hip hop heads really… don’t care about what these artists are doing in 2020.
Because Black artists generally already did the thing in like 1990 or 2010.
That’s not to say that these East Asian artists aren’t talented now, because I certainly couldn’t figure out a triplet flow at gunpoint, but when I see non-Black journalists and twitter users bemoaning how much it sucks that (Black people in) the hip-hop community won’t give these artists a chance, I have to wonder…
What do you actually think that these artists are bringing to the table that these people who’ve listened to hip hop their entire lives will be stunned by? What do they do that is so innovative to a Black American audience raised on this music?
But another thing about this is… why do these people’s opinions matter? Or rather, why do only their positive opinions matter?
Khakpour and many other fans of Korean hip hop just want other people to like “their” thing. That’s absolutely fair and beyond valid. I feel the same way and I get tantrum-y every time I try to introduce someone to my faves and they scoff.
However, what happens when the people who are being tapped to bestow authenticity on our idol groups and indie (or indie adjacent) rappers… just don’t like our thing?
Take the hypothetical hip hop heads Khakpour refers to in her tweet: what happens if they don’t like “UGH”? What if my older sister doesn’t like Tiger JK’s latest release?
What if they use the words that I’ve seen other people use when talking about Korean hip hop? Words like “derivative”, “copying”, and “mimicking”? What if they do what half of the hip-hop experts on Bad Rap do when listening to the documentary participants’ work – suggest that they don’t seem to do be doing anything that innovative with their sound? What if they bring up cultural appropriation?
What if, what if, what if –
What do you do if the (Black) people in the industry or who’ve been long-term fans in their day to day lives that can assign authenticity to an idol group and give them a seal of approval aren’t biting?
I guess that’s where YouTube reactor channels run by Black guys desperate for approval from these massive fanbases come in.
There’s a video by The Haters’ Ball show – a podcast or whatever with a twitter account that had under five hundred followers when I last checked it – where a room full of Black men definitively decide that there’s no way that J-hope’s gel twists and the concept of the “Chicken Noodle Soup” update he did with Becky G was appropriation. In fact, they decide that it is appreciation.
I won’t get into appreciation being part of the appropriation problem again, you can watch my video on it if you feel like making the time in 2020, but here’s the thing:
This is a tiny ass show. Its most-followed host has 42 thousand followers. He’s not, as far as I can tell, a mega-fan of Korean pop or hip hop. None of the people on this podcast seem to be huge fans.
But because they are four Black men who like hip hop and decided to literally assign authenticity and provide Black approval for clout from BTS’s big fanbase…
The 79-second long video of theirs has almost 124 thousand views, 13 thousand likes, and 5.2 thousand retweets on twitter.
And the comments are primarily non-Black fans thanking them for understanding and recognizing that J-hope just appreciates Black culture so much that he had to get gel twists do that remake to show it.
Meanwhile, careful *critical* commentary about the concept and Hobi’s hair from Black fans in the trenches? All largely got shut down and buried under outright antiblackness from some of the same fans in these dudes’ mentions underneath the tweet acting like they are The Chosen Negros.
Black people aren’t a monolith.
We’re individuals and we will disagree on whether something is offensive or frustrating. We will all have different opinions on whether something bothers us, whether it’s antiblack, and what we want to see done about it.
But here’s a thing for y’all:
I see a lot of people talking about “clout” in Korean pop and hip hop portions of stan Twitter and what people do for it.
However, one thing I haven’t seen a lot of is people talking about how a lot of Black *men* on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube use their Blackness as part of how frame themselves as experts… specifically, so they can collect clout and amass huge followings. They’re not just assigning these artists authenticity (they’re “good enough” to be on the playlist of “tough” Black men who don’t seem like the typical idea of a fan even within the fandom) –
These dudes occasionally wind up glossing over or minimizing things like cultural appropriation from the artists that hit that particular snag.
There are a lot of Black people reacting to Korean pop and I’m sure the majority of them honestly love what they’re listening to, but we need to talk about how there’s this desire to get and give authenticity in this sphere that often… leaves us with situations like said reactors having to apologize to massive fanbases for committing one fandom faux pas after another.
(Like within a day of BTS’s music video release for ON, popular Black Guy Watching K-Pop BRISxLIFE felt like he had to record a whole ass apology video for comments he apparently made about the video’s views on YouTube and I’ve definitely seen at least one other video or text apology from him floating around.)
Or whatever Khakpour has been going through on her Twitter account the first week of March.
Authenticity is… complicated. Because, authenticity is really largely concerned about being able to pick out who doesn’t belong to a subculture as fans or participants. If you’re not authentic, you’re an outsider.
Which is… gatekeeping. Technically.
Something I’m normally very against.
But when it comes to hip-hop in an antiblack world that devalues the cultural creations and contributions of Black people – to say nothing of how our humanity itself is constantly under fire –
I’m not so sure.
But one of the issues of assigning authenticity-in-hip hop to any non-Black rapper stems from a profound misunderstanding of what “hip hop culture” actually is and how that rush to stamp a seal of approval on artists dabbling in the craft leads many people to trip.
Take how Sara Hare and Andrea Baker define hip hop culture in “Keepin’ It Real” Authenticity, Commercialization, and the Media in Korean Hip Hop” where they write that:
“Hip hop culture comprises of four key elements: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti art but rap is the most well-known and representative element of the culture (Price, 2006) and the focus of this article” (3).
But hip hop culture is also explicitly Black American culture and the fact that their explanation doesn’t include that to boost the list to five key elements is one of the issues with how most people see hip-hop. Hip hop and its related culture are up for grabs because most people don’t truly think about how much Blackness matters to this genre-
This culture was shaped by the experiences of Black Americans and what we have had access to as a people. It’s born from our lives and the realities of being Black in a world that hates us.
But okay… let’s talk about how rapping, DJ-ing, breakdancing, and graffiti art – and let’s talk about how weird that is a thing to see people say in 2020 – are all things you can learn. Blackness is the one part of hip hop’s culture that you can’t learn. You can #HoodCosplay all you want and speak with a blaccent to boot, but at the end of the day, being Black isn’t something you just “pick up”.
And that’s what assigning authenticity does for these rappers – who, mind you, aren’t even really asking for this – it’s something these reporters and reactors try to give them.
It tries to give them a shortcut to a specific kind of success that the Hood Cosplay, Hair Crimes, Basic Blaccents, and these artists’ work with Black producers, songwriters, and artists can’t.
But that… doesn’t tend to work the way they want it to because in the end, what does assigning authenticity even do?
If I use my Blackness to background my interest in an East Asian group – ex. “m-flo’s VERBAL is one of the most innovative rappers I’ve ever heard and I feel as though his grasp of hip hop exceeds that of even the Black rappers I grew up listening to –
What happens when like… my older sister goes to listen to m-flo’s new track “tell me tell me” and finds it uh… far from that?
Not only is she pretty much obligated to challenge me to a duel, but then her expectations for m-flo and for VERBAL are punctured and she’s going to react with suspicion for future recommendations.
We should be able to enjoy these artists as they are.
Without making comparisons between them and Black artists that honestly almost always wind up devaluing the very hip hop culture they’re trying to give them authenticity in.
I know it’s difficult because we’re used to making comparisons to draw in fans that might like one thing and haven’t thought about a second.
However, it’s important that you can just say that you like the sound of an East Asian hip hop without connecting said group to or elevating them above Black people in the genre.
You can just say you want more people to listen to a Korean hip hop song without bemoaning the lack of “hip hop heads” (i.e., Black people… it’s legitimately always Black people) getting into them.
It’s fairer to your faves and to the Black people who built the genre!