Authenticity Essay #4: Gatekeepers and Idol Rappers

Back when BTS was a baby group, they were subject to what seems (to me, as a fan coming later on to the group) like a really disproportionate amount of criticism. One theme that got the group loads of criticism?

Their relationship with and attempts at embodying hip-hop culture.

When you watch their m net -hosted series American Hustle Life, the first episode has a selection of headlines revolving around BTS’ debut as a group under BigHit Entertainment (around the 1:05 mark). These headlines, when translated, say things like “BTS challenging real gangster”, “BTS debut, opening up with 90’s gangster”, and “BTS, strengthening the industry with gangster rap”.

As an act, BTs was marketed and developed as a hip-hop idol group.

In the time period that they trained and debuted, a ton of idol groups were also debuting.  Exo (2012), Block B (2011), B.A.P (2012), Winner (2014) and Got7 (2014) are just a handful of male idol groups that debuted roughly within the same era as BTS. But as far as I can tell through research, while all idol rappers are met with the same sort of disdain and suspicion from “mainstream” and underground rappers alike –

Some of the documented nonsense that BTS – and more specifically, their rapline – has been hit with by some of these dudes and, most likely, their fans has been… wild.

Case in point?

Rapper B-free’s on-again, off-again beef with BTS following a 2013 KBH Hiphop Radio interview that swiftly went sour.

What I find interesting and infuriating is how B-free and the other Korean rappers involved – Okasian, Don Mills, and Deepflow – set themselves up as gateekeepers of hip-hop… so that they could then close the metaphorical gates on Suga and RM for… not being authentic enough.

To them.

But who died and made these dudes of all people actual gods of hip hop?

In last month’s article, we covered people who assigned authenticity-in-hip-hop for clout. However, can we talk about people who deny other room to grow and participate in hip-hop culture within their communities – in this case, Korean rappers shutting down other Korean rappers – because they’re lacking in some form of authenticity?

Because that’s what B-free et al did back in 2013: they utilized their greater age (all four men were in their late 20s while Suga and RM were 21 and 20 respectively) and longer time in the rap game to talk down to their juniors. After all, who were RM and Suga to them but two infants playing at hip-hop, right?

Except –

What made that quartet so well-positioned to deliver that criticism?

In 2013, all four of those rappers seemed to be pretty well-known in the hip-hop scene. Their shit was (apparently) legit. But… what exactly makes them and their own #HoodCosplay so solid that they could then decide that Suga and RM’s wasn’t?

There’s a difference between how the Black hip hop fans and experts – icons of gangsta rap and kind of regular hood dudes alike – engaged with BTS on American Hustle Life or via criticism and what B-free et al serve up across in their 2013 conversation.

For one thing, off the jump, there’s the issue of B-free and them setting themselves up as experts to a culture that they don’t even belong to and that they’re not intimately familiar with.

If you’re not Black and your exposure to hip-hop and Blackness comes solely or primarily from other non-Black people – as, undoubtedly, many Korean hip hop fans and artists do? Your understanding of things like the histories, communities, politics, problems, and positives that helped develop the genre and the culture is gonna be too shallow for you to engage meaningfully with it.

And with that on the table, it’s really ballsy to be one such non-Black person – as I don’t believe that any of the four are known for their deep connection with African Americans or engagement with Blackness beyond their #HoodCosplay – and then turn around to police who gets to be respected and taken seriously as a non-Black person in these spaces and as an outsider to hip-hop yourself.

Then there’s the fact that their “critique” of Suga, RM, and BTS as a whole really isn’t sincere. It’s not about their skill as rappers or as hip-hop artists. It also doesn’t seem target to help them grow as younger adults with no solid understanding of anti/blackness.

Instead, what B-free et al seem more focused on is about their style as male idols and the idea that they’re selling out. This is on the part of Suga and RM, who cut their teeth on and made their initial ground in the underground hip hop communities of South Korea before they became idols.

B-free in particular aims his ire at Suga and RM’s perceived lack of masculinity as idol rappers. In Hanguk Hip Hop we see this with the following comment at the start of Myoung-Sun Song’s fifth chapter “Idol Rapper: K-Pop and the Production of Authenticity”:

The conversation shifts to masculinity within hip hop when Bong-Hyeon Kim asks what the idols think about putting on bunjang [stage make-up]. B-Free interrupts and says it is not bunjang but yeojang [males dressing as females]. (121)

Masculinity and authenticity in hip-hop have been bound up within each other long before B-free et al decided to move in the direction of some major machismo back in 2013. Like I mentioned in our second authenticity essay “Girls (Not) On Top”, there are clear patriarchy problems at play that transcend South Korea, hip-hop as a genre, and the entertainment industry as a whole.

But isn’t it interesting how, in their quest to set themselves up as authorities on authenticity and hip-hop – against “outsiders” like Suga and RM despite… being outsiders themselves by their own logic – they reached for toxic masculinity?

More than that, they lean in hard on a line of reasoning where “real men” wouldn’t wear makeup and wouldn’t have or respect their female fans by providing content catering to them and therefore… BTS’s rapline, as members of an idol group, couldn’t be real men or real rappers.

You know, because no rapper in the history of hip-hop has ever been a pretty boy. No rapper in the history of hip-hop has ever had (and tried to court their) female fans. Like authentic hip-hop shouldn’t have room for rappers who aren’t immediately enrobed in a commonly worn costume of (Black) hypermasculinity.

One of the things I’ve been intrigued by across my writing and researching for this project has been the way that the ideal and apparently authentic rappers in these areas of Korean hip hop perform a specific type of “hard” masculinity. It’s unflinching and unyielding, with no flexibility and plenty of power grabs.

When I brought up the term #HoodCosplay initially, one thing that I clocked was the kind of cosplay that these dudes were doing. It was incredibly hypermasculine. It was very “we have to be men this way”.

If you’ve watched the documentary Bad Rap, one thing that’s obvious across the three male rappers in the documentary and the early part about what drove East Asian teenagers to hip hop in the 90s/from the 90s is how these people were drawn to the masculinity on display from 90s gangster rappers because of what was being denied to them as East Asian men and boys.

The masculinity on display by men like Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Tupac, Biggie, and Dr. Dre was:

  1. a type of costume in and of itself considering that these rappers weren’t “like that” all the time even in the case of those who were actual gangsters
  2. directly opposite the racist stereotypes about East Asian masculinity that actively (to this day) desexualizes, dehumanizes, and infantilizes these men because those dudes got chicks

(If you’ve ever noticed some East Asian men’s preoccupation on social media/their blogs with how fuckable they are to people outside of their communities, this is uh… part of that. It’s a pushback against centuries of dehumanizing racism and racist notions of desirability that ignores how bigots… frequently fuck the objects of their dehumanization and often single out their chosen partner as an exception to their racist rule.

Check out how, at one point in Bad Rap, one clear complaint that Dumbfoundead makes to the director of the documentary, is that when he asks her to name an Asian man that she’d want to be with, she names Daniel Dae Kim. His reaction is this almost annoyed form of disbelief because “nobody wants to fuck the Asian guy from LOST”. Equality to Dumbfoundead in this moment in the documentary is being fuckable enough and being an object of desire for women who aren’t Asian. Which… I get to an extentbut… There’s a fine line between appreciation and objectification.)

Because BTS as a group is primarily comprised of pretty attractive guys – who wear skinny jeans, utilize make-up on and off the stage, and who openly talk about the love they have for a fandom that is assumed to be primarily female and young – they’re not seen as authentic-to-hip hop.

They weren’t then and honestly, I suspect that some of the same people who had similar thoughts to B-free et al about BTS’ masculinity as a unit and hip hop as a genre… probably still have them because it is hard to unlearn that shit when there’s no one checking you for it.

(And like, even BTS themselves made these connections early on – albeit largely in self-deprecating and joking manners that don’t seem to have lingered into their present. I just had a gif of Suga in a maid costume saying that “hip-hop is dead” float by on my timeline.

The difference between that and B-free et al’s comments?

I believe that Suga a) was joking and b) has likely grown enough as a person and as a rapper to be more confident in his identity so he doesn’t have to perform or pretend to mourn the absence of the hypermasculinity that we’re told needs to be present in hip-hop culture.

I don’t think B-free et al have.)

Anyway, if you’re valuing someone’s worth and their ability to “be hip hop” based on how masculine you personally find them – or, more plainly, how good they are at performing a particular kind of Black hypermasculinity that men in hip-hop reach for even when they aren’t Black themselves

You really don’t have a leg to stand on in this case and your opinions on hip-hop and who gets to do it or who’s doing it ?

Suspect as hell as a result.

Now, let’s get back to gatekeepers because it’s time to wrap this up by talking about the other issue with authenticity that B-free et al – and likely, many other people who consider themselves hip hop heads in Korea and beyond – have with Suga, RM, and of course… BTS as a whole: something about “selling out”.

What’s interesting about the interaction between Suga and RM and B-free et al is how the beef continues on via B-free… despite how BTS as a unit and RM/Suga independently have leveled up and proceeded to gain authenticity and earn accolades from people within the international hip-hop community.

Think about it, RM is out here collaborating not just with Korean legends like Gaeko (“Gajah”) and Tiger JK (“Buckubucku” and “Timeless”), but with icons of African American hip hop like Warren G (2015’s “P.D.D”) and Wale (“Change”). Then you have Suga… Suga has a reputation for being an incredible producer who makes magical music. He has notably worked with and produced for Suran (2017’s “Wine”), Heize (“We Don’t Talk Together”), Halsey (where he performed with her on “Suga’s Interlude”), and Korean-American hip-hop legends Epik High (“Eternal Sunshine”).

From when their star started truly rising in 2016, BTS as a group – but, to some extent, RM and Suga as rappers and, in Suga’s case, a producer working on other people’s tracks – had the reputation they’d lacked in 2013 when their perceived newness to the genre made them an easy target for B-free et al.

So why is it that in early 2016, B-free allegedly threatened to “bitch slap” BTS on behalf of the group’s fans following the fans’ response to his first apology for his 2013 comments? Why is it that it then took him another three years to come up with another apology? Why is it that Korean netizens will still rank a bunch of people – who are still talented but perhaps… not quite on Suga and RM’s level considering many of them are relatively less experienced at rapping as rookies who went straight into the idol machine with no skips – higher than the duo when it comes to their significant skill?

What is it about idol rappers – and the ones coming from BTS in particular – that makes anyone decide that they’re not authentic to hip hop?

But on top of that, what makes people who are themselves tourists to hip hop and the particular Black American cultures that this music calls back to – like Korean artists and netizens alike – declare themselves experts to rank and deny others’ promise?

Song’s argument in my favorite chapter of Hanguk Hip Hop is that, “authenticity is assumed to be non-existent or very minimal for K-pop group members and it is something that must be earned through a show-and- prove in the public eye.” (123).

One of the problems that many people seem to have with idol rappers and the music they make or the personas they put on is that they view authenticity as something that can’t be manufactured. Meanwhile, the idol industry at every level is extremely manufactured and produced in order for companies to put out artists that are best oriented to make them that good money.

So at first glance, I get it: authenticity-in-hip hop has to be earned and idol rappers may not have that thing that means they’re authentic here.

Seems simple enough, right? And even fair?

Except, like I point out, Suga and RM had that surface-level authenticity in their origins that many of the idol rappers who get respect… also have.

Their rapper origin stories were that they’d been rapping and songwriting and producing from when they were teenagers in their respective hometowns. What it looks like is that them joining BigHit as, rappers in a group that was then fully “taught” to embrace hip-hop culture more or less robbed them of what little in-roads they’d made as teenagers in these underground hip hop communities that they’d gotten into.

I mentioned that B-free et al seemed really focused on the idea of Suga and RM “selling out”, right?

But in a capitalistic society, what even is selling out?

We literally can’t survive unless we’re making money.

And I mean… for most rappers, the goal is to have the “big house, big cars, and big rings” that Suga references in “No More Dream”, “Home”, and “Shadow”.

The goal is to “win” at this incredibly materialistic form of media-

And it’s not like Rolex watches and Cartier tie clips grow on trees.

Many people in and out of the industry (around the world) view “underground” as a speedbump on their way to becoming legit. To being taken seriously at hip hop and making it possible to build a career, put together an audience, and (hopefully) rake in millions.

Sure, there are people creating art for art’s sake, because they love rapping, songwriting, and producing.

But no one wants to be a starving artist.

And for me, personally, there’s nothing more authentic-in-hip-hop than doing what it takes to survive and make more of the music that lets you take care of yourself and your people.

But that’s just me, I guess.