Arts & Life, Music

The struggles of being a Black K-pop fan

“Yo, what did you say, girl?! Mhm, you ain’t doin’ that!”

My face twisted with disgust while I watched the over-exaggerated impression of a Black woman play out by Korean girl group Red Velvet member, Wendy. The wagged finger, neck rolling and gravelly voice was sadly something I was all too familiar with.

The day I discovered my first Korean pop or K-pop music video was the day I was introduced to a whole new side of the music industry I never imagined could exist.

The video may arguably be the “gateway drug” for many K-pop fans was popular group, EXO’s “Call Me Baby.” From the second the video started, I was drawn in.

While the music wasn’t necessarily different from Western music, a good song paired with solid vocals coming from the mouths of attractive men is a telltale recipe for disaster. From that point on I listened exclusively to K-music: K-pop, K-rap and K-R&B. Despite the language barrier, I found myself drawn in by the beats of their music and the flow of their words.

Growing up, I was all too comfortable with the sounds of hip-hop ranging from old-time classics like Run DMC to newer artists like Lil Wayne and Kanye West. When I found K-pop, my father would often note how the music sounded Black. My brother made the same comment, which made me begin to consider differently.

After several others made the same observation, I started to take note.

Being a two year veteran of K-music I’ve learned to look past the surface level glitter of the music and delve deeper into the very obvious and sometimes completely stereotypical portrayal of hip-hop and Black culture that is imitated in Korean music.

Seo Taiji and the Boys were a popular group in the ‘90s that revolutionized the way Korean society viewed what could be deemed as popular music. The group used elements of Western-style music including rap and rock to introduce a brand new sound to a lax music scene.

Donning baggy clothes, bucket hats and the occasional dreads, Seo Taiji and the Boys laid down the path for future groups to walk on.

Fast forward to today and you can see many Korean groups walking that same path set by Seo Taiji and the Boys but now it seems like it’s on steroids. Today, there are twice as many members to one group versus Seo Taiji and the Boy’s three. Groups usually have a couple of good dancers, singers and a solid rapper mix and match this as you please, sort of like a game of Tetris if you will.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sharing culture. I’m from America, the melting-pot of the world but here’s where things get a bit tricky. K-pop relies heavily on Black culture. They rely not only on the musical aspect of Black culture but also the look of it.

I use the term look loosely but here’s what I mean: EXO’s member’s Kai donned cornrows in the “Wolf” music video and has worn other braided hairstyles since then. BTS’s RM, sported a kinky, afro style during the early years of his group’s debut in around 2013.

And the appropriation doesn’t stop at boy groups. Disbanded girl group 2NE1’s leader, CL has often come under fire for her usage of stereotypical black culture.

So what’s the problem. Am I being an overly sensitive, angry Black American? Am I stuck in the history of my ancestors past? I would say no to both of these options.

It’s not uncommon for K-pop idols to be put under fire for their usage of the n-word or their appropriation of Black culture and what is considered “acting Black” by the general public.

While I enjoy the music of many of those found sitting in the hot seat, it’s necessary for them to know why it’s wrong to do these things due to the harmful portrayals of Black culture to their audience.  

Many fans love to give the argument, “they didn’t know it was a bad thing to do or say, they live in a homogeneous society with only Koreans!” and to that I say: bullshit.

Come on now, South Korea holds the number one spot for the fastest internet service in the world and you’re telling me they can’t use that same internet to read up on why it’s not okay to drop the n-word?

I understand that living in a homogeneous country does not allow for many idols to have interactions with other races and nationalities, but the issue settles in when idols refuse to apologize after being called out.

Black K-pop fans often find themselves at war with being followers of the genre. We risk waking up one morning and seeing our favorite group member doing something deemed “problematic” on one hand and the hate of other fans for defending our right to be upset on the other. The toxicity of fans is another added bonus of being a Black K-pop fan due to the high levels of targeted racism many endure.

There’s a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Many K-pop idols teeter between the two. I hope that fans Black or not can continue to educate idols on why whatever they’re doing is wrong because accountability is the key to progression.

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