Six years ago while scrolling through my favorite LiveJournal gossip site, I came across a post for a Korean group called Big Bang. I had no idea who they were or what type of music they made but I decided to click on the YouTube link and give it a listen. Fifteen listens later, I decided to give this Kpop thing a try and that coincidentally made a huge impact on the trajectory of my life choices. Fast forward to 2016, and I am a huge consumer of Korean music, television and films. I’m even learning Korean with the goal of going to Korea one day.
As you can tell, I don’t half ass my interests. I’m an all in kind of woman. That being said, it’s not easy to navigate the Kpop world when you are black. The music they create is heavily borrowed from black culture, specifically African American culture, but without the desire to give any credit to the forefathers of the movements that they now make profit off of. This then bleeds into the visuals which tend to be more try-hard and eye-roll worthy than edgy or different. There are also extreme cases where in order to prove their “hoodness” Korean rappers say the N-word, use Nazi and Confederate symbols and use black people as hood ornaments in their videos.
None of that is ever okay and at first it came as a shock to me. I remember listening to a song and hearing the N-word for the first time out of nowhere. It never occurred to me that I’d hear it in a Korean pop song because I assumed they would not have the need or the historical connection to know the word. After some research, I realized that like white people in North America, Koreans too found that the use of the N-word in rap music justified its usage. I would have thought that they didn’t understand the connotation as Korea is famous for being a one-race state but it became clearer that the ones that should understand the term were the worst offenders and that because of that, the general Korean public did not see anything wrong with its use.
As you can see, there are challenges in consuming Korean music. The colorism is a real, living and breathing machine to the point that it’s completely acceptable to point out darker skinned members at concerts for laughs. You regularly run into xenophobia towards other Asian countries even as these idols (and the Korean economy) benefit off the numerous concerts, music sales, films/television roles and endorsement money that they receive. Blackface is super popular and so is Native American wardrobe and war cries. As an external consumer and a generally decent human being, I do try to find out if this person prescribing to these behaviors is someone who is uninformed because I didn’t walk out of the gate “woke” and still continue to unlearn negative behavior that I absorbed growing up. In some cases, they simply don’t know unless you tell them.
But here’s the thing, there are black people in Korean. Insooni is a famous African American/Korean singer who has openly discussed the discrimination she faced growing up in Korea. Michelle Lee is a wonderfully talented biracial Korean singer who has largely been ignored by the public for racial reasons. American television, culture and news is simply a click away for the general public. This is an issue that hits Korea as much as it hits us here in North America, but it’s actually much worse there because the population of black people is much smaller and they are not able to rally together for many of the movements we get to experience here. It is also downright hypocritical to talk down to other Asian countries, but also want to make money off of them. A number of music agencies actively scout inside of these countries for idols as a means of gaining an “in” with the entertainment sector.
That’s the crux of how I found another reason to consume everything Korean. I still listen to Kpop and use Korean beauty products. I still watch the dramas and variety shows. I still meet regularly with my language exchange “unnie” with plans to go to Korea one day. But instead of just being a fan of everything Korean, I want to bring more awareness to what it means to be black and a fan of Kpop. I want us to get the credit we deserve for everything that they have taken from us. I want people to understand that hip hop is more than a dope beat and rhymes, it’s the story of an eternal struggle that people continue to die for. It’s not that non-black people cannot rap or be into hip hop, they just have to respect where it came from and not disrespect the people it represents. I want people around the world to understand that blackness isn’t something to be ashamed of or dirty. We are all born different but that doesn’t make us less than.
You may wonder how I navigate the world of Korea with everything that I’ve mentioned above and honestly, it isn’t always easy. I don’t want to say that it’s a compromise but it can be looked at as that in a way. I don’t compromise on the truly unjustifiable which to me are anti-black symbolisms (flags, blackface, afros, the N-word) so I will not listen to the song, watch the video or support that group/individual during promotion period. They are pretty much dead to me during that time. That being said, I have stanned groups only to find out afterwards that they’ve done side-eye worthy nonsense. I look to see if when called out for it, they’ve apologized and made efforts to be better. Obviously, this isn’t going to be the case all the time and I’ve even seen my love for Big Bang, the group that first indoctrinated me into the world of Kpop, decrease over time due to G Dragon’s many offensive behaviors.
I wonder how Kpop can be better and I do believe it starts with the entertainment agencies and the idols themselves. Fans will do anything to protect an idol even when they’re wrong and there does not seem to be any classes/means of studying inside of these agencies where the trainees can learn how to navigate customs of people around the world so that those who simply don’t know can learn.
I want senior idols to set an example. For example, as a Shinhwa fan, I would have also loved for their leader Eric Mun to not just say he’s going to cut the N-word from their past hits but also explain why he’s doing it so that junior groups that perform their classics don’t also use the word. I’d also like for him to not pick and choose when he’s not going to say it. There are so many easy remedies to these negative aspects of Korean culture but it has to start with the desire to want to be better and want to treat other people like human beings.
Most of all I want people to try to understand how it feels to walk in another person’s shoes. Just because something isn’t offensive to you, doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive. Though that’s a general desire of mine and not K-Pop specific.
My hope is to be an advocate by taking part in the conversations that you can find all over the internet. We international fans just want to love this amazing thing from an amazing country without having to feel that our money, time and resources do not matter.
Shouldn’t we be heard as well?
By Natandy, who lives in the 6 but has regrettably never met Drake. She loves Kpop, comic book movies and her favourite genre to read, write and watch is fantasy. You can find her on Twitter (@ashleyt17) where she is constantly confused about How To Get Away With Murder and gushing about Kpop at the Music Mind (themusicmind.com).