Title: Ma Girl
Artist: Taeyang feat. G-Dragon & T.O.P
Setting: There is not much to say about the setting of this video beyond how this looks like the filming budget was light. Like I remember seeing a twitter meme asking for folks to name videos that looked like they cost $10 (an exaggeration, of course) and I honestly thought of this video immediately?
Sound: Written by Big Bang’s leader G-Dragon and with music/arrangement by Israel Dwaine Cruz, “Ma Girl” is a smooth R&B track that sounds like it was ripped from the 90s. It’s a love song with Taeyang crooning about missing a love that he fears that he’s in the process of losing, and I mean… in the end it is basic. It’s comfortable in its familiarity though, sounding exactly like something I could imagine hearing on the radio as a younger adult or teenager.
A high point is the feature where G-Dragon and T.O.P pinged that part of my brain that had imprinted on the group back in the day before I went back to being a casual fan for the better part of a decade? They’re so YOUNG here!!
Styling: Yes, I see those cornrows. In “Ma Girl”, Taeyang really showcased the Light Skinned Energy TM that he’d become known for in some circles of international VIP and wider K-pop fandom. (Okay, look… it’s largely the Black parts, but still.) It’s not enough that he sounds like Omarion in this track… he has to look like him too. Back in 2008, while Black fans of K-pop (they were there, trust me) undoubtedly caught themselves kekeing over the visuals in this song and praying for Taeyang’s poor scalp with those tight ass braids.
“Ma Girl” looks and sounds like this for a reason.
Back in Cultural Appropriation in the Age of K-Pop Part One, I mentioned that:
Back in 2005, former YG CEO Yang Hyun Suk talked about modeling his in-progress group Big Bang after the US R&B boy group B2K. At the time, while R&B and hip hop from African Americans clearly influenced the landscape of the industry in Korea, this decision to model Big Bang on B2K was so complete that it included the damn cornrows that these young men were wearing.
As talented as Big Bang was when introduced to the Korean pop landscape, they were still functionally a Korean B2K cover group. Voice, visuals, and styling all pointed to the same conclusion: that Yang Hyun Suk clocked that Korean audiences wanted popular Black music… but not from Black people.
And boy did he provide.
Anyway, Yang Hyung Suk shaped the group that would become BIG BANG by basically doing a copy and paste of Blackness onto his chosen five, but what remains interesting to me is how hard Taeyang held on to Blackness as his.
“Ma Girl” is from 2008. In 2008, everyone in Korean pop/hip hop was messy and few artists made it out without some horrible Hair Crimes (eternal shoutout to my darling friend Caps for that!). If it wasn’t the Hair Crimes, it was clothing that looked like they were channeling Kris Kross or like they could’ve been extras on a Very Special A Different World episode. Sometimes (okay, often) they spiced it up by doing both.
And it’s all because of how Blackness is seen and understood by Korean idols and as a thing they can do to entertain an audience that is similarly interested in the performance of Blackness as something inherently cool and edgy.
Take how Kim Suk-Young describes Taeyang in the video for “Eyes, Nose, Lips” in her article “Black K-Pop: Racial Surplus and the Global Consumption of Korean Pop Music”:
The camera slowly reveals an extreme closeup of a young man’s lower face, viscerally exposing every pore and moustache hair. Saturated in deep blue shades, his clammy skin appears unambiguously dark. As the camera gently pans out, it reveals a male figure donned with the paraphernalia — a heavy gold chain drooping over his shirtless torso and a cuffed beanie layered askew over the fishnet hair cap — that have come to stereotypically stand for the images of urban youth culture in the US, for which essentialized blackness is often posited as metonymic shorthand (fig. 1).
The whole point of the visuals and production for “Eyes, Nose, Lips” as Kim points out, is “to have him channel a black rapper”. Taeyang, six years after “Ma Girl”, is still performing Blackness via the signifiers accessible to him and oozing Light Skinned Energy in spades.
And if you ever asked Taeyang why he didn’t push back against the stylists that tortured his scalp when preparing for “Ma Girl” or why he returned to late-stage B2K cosplay in 2014, I’m genuinely sure that he will not get why or even that it’s a problem. Because, as lots of people will tell you when pressed: Blackness is coolness and they’re truly just trying to emulate the coolest people they know.
But that’s still… weird.
Early on in my #StitchProcesses project on anti/Blackness from these artists and their fandom spaces, I came across a translated quote attributed to Taeyang courtesy of their 2016 photobook where he (apparently) said that:
“I’m not black, so I’ll probably have to have more experience and go through more pain if I want to express the sentiments, emotions, and soul that black people have through my music. That’s why I believe that pain and suffering will make my music richer.”
To this day I have zero idea if that’s what he actually said because I’ve never seen anyone 100% unbiased pull up the original and go through it. However, what I do know is that this attitude that the specific sort of suffering and stress that Black people go through as a result of unending and global antiblackness makes our art better is not a new one?
So it is plausible that someone subject to what the United States loves to export of Black people and culture – non-Black people’s antiblackness alongside creative works that highlight The Struggle and how we’ve overcome – would be like “oh shit, I wish I could do that!”
But it’s still weird to watch “Ma Girl” – and then move on to “Eyes, Nose, Lips” – because it’s Taeyang basically leaning into Blackness where he can.
It’s a space where he feels like he may be able to be himself… because of the room Blackness (or the performance of it) offers him. He can be counter culture, he can be overtly sexual, he can be aggressive in a way that is more overt and aligned with (stereotypes of) Black masculinity.
(Other Korean and non-Black Latinx artists with comparatively darker skin and who earnestly want to portray authentic hip hop have done this too. Like I can’t ever forget RM’s look when BTS came out because that is him as his most lightskint and it is hilarious that there are photos where he had the curl pattern I do now!)
In the end, “Ma Girl” is a bop. The music video, however, makes me want to light a candle for Taeyang’s edges over a decade later because even my edges sting thinking about how hard it must have been to braid his hair like that.