Chasing the aesthetic: the world of K-pop and cultural appropriation
There’s something festering within K-pop — besides the rampant mistreatment of artists by their companies, which is another discussion entirely — something that could seriously tank an idol group’s reputation on a near-permanent level. That something is cultural appropriation.
Managing News Editor
Korean pop music: passively referred to as South Korea’s top export.
In 2020, it’s difficult to not have the genre on one’s radar; K-pop songs usually make it to the top of American music charts and have infiltrated both U.S. radio and media spaces across the board, with frontrunner boy group BTS breaking records as this article is being typed.
International fans admittedly lose out in a variety of ways: South Korea is quite far, and unless your favorite group is marketable in America and their company has enough money to fund a promotion overseas, chances are fairly low that an American fan will have the opportunity to see a group in concert.
But international fans benefit in one very specific way, and that’s being able to know fairly quickly when something is … off.
There’s something festering within K-pop — besides the rampant mistreatment of artists by their companies, which is another discussion entirely — something that could seriously tank an idol group’s reputation on a near-permanent level. That something is cultural appropriation, and it seems to truly affect Korean idols differently than American celebrities.
American celebrities are expected to know better, to have already done their research and to know what styles and sounds are hands-off. In America, to be involved in music today is to understand and know the rules of one’s race — otherwise, you run the risk of being “cancelled,” and for good reason.
Nonblack celebrities in America release apology letters on what is seemingly a biweekly basis for saying the n-word or appropriating select aspects of another culture. The internet is seemingly relentless in its pursuit to locate and “call out” these offenders, but their argument still stands: it’s wrong. It’s wrong for a nonblack person to loc their hair. It’s wrong for a nonblack person to say the n-word. It’s wrong for a nonblack person to wear a du-rag solely because they think it will make them look cooler on stage. It’s wrong for someone not of South Asian descent to utilize the culture’s traditions (henna, mehndi, bindis or Bharatanatyam dance movements) solely because they think it will make their performances more pleasing to the eye. These offenses stereotype and reduce entire groups of people to one singular facet of their lives, but only what is aesthetic, only what they choose to take.
It is purely the bastardization of culture.
And yet it continuously crops up, almost relentlessly as more and more individuals attain fame and platforms. It even begins to feel sickeningly familiar, as you start to notice things quicker, pick up on things faster.
But this “taking” is universal — so why would it be treated so differently in South Korea?
K-pop idols get the distinct privilege of not knowing better. And not for nothing; there is an apparent and distinct lack of understanding of how this form of appropriation can harm. Some aspects of Black or South Asian culture, to them, are easily borrowed for a specific look or vibe for a “comeback” (when a group releases a new single and begins active promotions).
Certain looks and aesthetics therefore become more appealing when looking to stand out against the vast competition. Companies and their stylists look for inspiration from a variety of viral markets and current fashion icons, and more often than not, a group will get through their promotions with few hiccups.
Yet sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, a performance will feature an idol or their backup dancers in stolen cultural attire, such as du-rags. Hwasa committed not one but both of these offenses, although the latter was announced to have been the fault of her stage director. It might be worth mentioning that Hwasa is the youngest member of RBW Entertainment girl group Mamamoo, who did blackface during a 2017 performance of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” and later apologized.
Up and coming JYP Entertainment girl group ITZY even once featured their leader, Yeji, wearing her hair in locs and referring to the style as “swag hair.”
To an American, this arguably exhibits the disconnect quite clearly. Here, there is no understanding of what the hairstyle actually is; to Yeji, locs are simply a byproduct of “swag” culture — something cool, something hip-hop, but something abstract. She doesn’t make the full connection between the hairstyle and Black culture itself. She doesn’t necessarily understand that the hairstyle is not hers to wear.
She has, whether she is aware or not, reduced the culture to nothing, picking and choosing what is most aesthetically pleasing or attractive. She isn’t aware that the very same hairstyle she’s wearing has the very serious potential of costing a Black woman a job because she’s deemed to be “too ethnic.”
Yet what must be highlighted is that ignorance is distinctly different from bad intention.
K-idols have consistently been revealed as ignorant in a variety of ways, even in cases where they were clearly found to be capitalizing off cultures that were not their own.
Kim Namjoon, the leader of aforementioned top group BTS, appropriated Black hairstyles during the group’s “trainee days,” and used to fulfill interviewer requests to “talk Black” as a sort of party trick. Kim, who also works under the moniker “RM,” is fluent in English. Over the years, he has mentioned some American hip hop stars as personal inspiration and collaborated with rapper Wale in 2017.
While it’s worth noting that South Korea has its very own underground rap scene, it would be ignorant to assume that Kim was never influenced by Black rappers, making his “talking Black” segments that much worse. This illustrates the utilization of culture when it is convenient — and here, it was specifically to be humorous. To make a mockery of the way certain people speak.
Kim has since apologized regarding his past lack of respect for Black culture, stating it was “further than a mistake, it was a wrong.”
It’s extremely tiring to see it happen repeatedly: it feels like we simply have no more patience for this type of transgression. But that’s almost solely up to the privilege we have of experiencing waves and waves of inappropriate behavior from ignorant artists.
Fairly recent examples include Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girl” era or Avril Lavigne’s culturally insensitive song and music video “Hello Kitty.” Or Miley Cyrus’ usage of Black aesthetics for a few years of her career for shock value or when it was convenient to her. Even Katy Perry donning Egyptian queen garb and having Black women bow down to her for a music video, or the amount of Kardashians and Jenners who have tanned their skin to a point where they are openly accused of “blackfishing” (or altering one’s appearance in order to “look Black”).
However, this is not just limited to appearances: several idols have assumed parts of an identity that does not belong to them.
These idols include former leader of boy group Block B and current solo artist Zico, who in the song “Bermuda Triangle” featuring Crush & DEAN, states, “We’re the yellow race / But I got a black soul.”
Some fans have written off this phrase as indicative of something pun-like, riffing off skin color, but it implicates a more damaging situation entirely. Americans may be more familiar with immature phrases such as referring to a Black person as an “Oreo” (white “on the inside”) or calling a white person a “reverse Oreo” (Black “on the inside”). These categorizations are in reality more perilous than an ignorant joke — insinuating a Black person is truly “white on the inside” controversially implies they are “acting white,” a term that is directly correlated with the rejection and negation of one’s (Black) culture.
Zico’s possible meaning here is that while he may not look Black, he certainly feels Black “on the inside.” This declaration is yet another that shows how nonblack celebrities can capitalize off using Black culture while actual Black people continue to face some of the harshest racism the world can provide. And Zico, feeling as though you’re Black on the inside does not equate to an “n-word pass” or make doing blackface okay.
This all runs in tandem with the fact that colorism still socially rules the nation. Like many Asian countries like Japan, India and the Philippines, whiter skin is widely coveted, a mindset that was established far back into many of these countries’ histories. Fairer skin was telling of wealth and prosperity, while darker, more tanned skin may have represented that someone labored in the sun for long periods of time.
Most, if not all “selcas” (selfie photos) taken by K-pop idols are photoshopped or run through “Snow,” a Korean mobile application that features skin-lightening filters and augmentation options for editing. Many fans will go so far as to manually edit the skin of their favorite idols to be lighter, whitewashing them and further enforcing this belief that “fairer is better.”
This reinforces that these idols do have a large amount of privilege while still taking from minoritized cultures that may be demonized for what these Korean celebrities are essentially making money off of. Why is it that South Asian culture and tradition is perceived solely by stereotype: a country with “exotic”-looking dances and curry, but when Korean women appropriate Bharatanatyam, it’s suddenly attractive, appealing and aesthetic?
Which leads quite nicely into the “Curry song.”
In 2016, this video was posted to WM Entertainment girl group Oh My Girl’s YouTube channel. In the video, the girls cover a song by Norazo. The song in question, “Curry,” is filled to the brim with negative stereotypes about Indian culture, complete with a music video starring Norazo in brownface and appropriating a dance. For context, the hook of the song is as follows: “Shanti, Shanti, Yoga Fire! I love hot curry.”
For four years now, fans have left comments pleading and vilifying WM Entertainment for leaving the clip up, to no avail. There has been nothing but silence from the company on that front, and Oh My Girl has had similar issues consistently over the years, appropriating several elements of traditional Indian culture.
But this was not the last time that Norazo’s (very popular) song would be the center of attention.
Three members of Pledis Entertainment boy group Seventeen went viral in July of this year for singing the song on two separate recorded occasions.
In this part of their episodic reality-type show, members held a singing contest, similar to the likes of American Idol. When member Wonwoo performs, he briefly begins the hook of “Curry.” Some fans ended up recognizing the song from another one of Seventeen’s videos, a prior vlog where members eat at an Indian restaurant in San Jose. During the meal, two other members, Vernon and Dokyeom, quietly sing the chorus of the offensive song while giggling.
By the end of the day, several hashtags directed at Seventeen’s company were trending on Twitter, as South Asian fans and supporters called for a swift response. Pledis had recently issued a quick fix and apology a few months prior for posting a video containing a clip of American member Joshua sitting on an American flag during an escape room, and fans wanted Pledis to address the current situation accordingly.
But there was no response that day, regardless of the well-constructed fan email templates and trending hashtags. Although even Norazo issued an apology, there was no response from Pledis at all. The company even fully declined to comment at Teen Vogue’s request, as confirmed in this powerful op-ed from a writer and fan.
The silence not only left fans isolated — it completely removed the opportunity for growth; for the members to actually learn why their actions were so harmful. The silence allowed for the clips to remain online, further perpetuating these negative stereotypes.
But it’s not just Yeji’s “swag hair.” It’s not just Zico’s proclamation that he has a “black soul” amid n-word scandals and wrongfully loc’d hair. It’s not even Pledis Entertainment’s refusal to address an issue that hurt a large group of fans, some of whom will never be able to forget this.
These individuals are idols. They are especially revered and loved, and they are very much in the public eye. Further, they have influence, especially on their hordes of younger fans, and they must understand that everything they do and say will be heavily scrutinized and possibly imitated. These idols must do better and be cognizant of who’s watching — but really, who they have the ability to hurt.