When one looks at a fandom, there is a vast array of diversity in the mix. People of various backgrounds bond over shared interests, and many times it’s in the form of entertainment. It can be a particular show, a book series, a sports team or musical group. Our feelings about these things are usually similar when it comes to our favorite things, but sometimes our experiences as fans differ because of who we are as individuals.
For this roundtable, we invited Camiele, Cjontai and Taylore to speak on their personal thoughts and insights as black K-pop fans. They covered many topics from the influence of black entertainers to their feelings about appropriation, stereotypes, colorism and racism. As these are sensitive issues, we recommend our readers proceed with that in mind.
Cjontai: As much as I hate mentioning this person, I need to clarify something right from the start because I KNOW there will be someone in the comments who will draw attention to this loud elephant in the room: Kanye West. I bring him up because some fans always defer to him as a reference of defense when the Confederate flag pops up in K-pop. He’s not our sole representative, so fans, please stop saying, “But Kanye did it.”
I understand that US history is not a required subject in South Korean schools. Obviously, this means they would be as clueless about the historical background of that flag as most non K-pop fans are about the Japanese Imperial flag and think it’s fine to turn that into some appropriated fashion statement. Cultural ignorance is a worldwide problem and not exclusive to South Korea. All I’m asking other fans to do when black K-pop fans bring up these issues is respectfully hear us out instead of tuning us out.
For me, I love how K-pop has found inspiration from black artists. I think it’s cool that BTS’ Rap Monster tweets song recommendations from artists like D’Angelo, Prince and India Arie. That’s true appreciation to encourage your fans to listen to music created by black people. I enjoy seeing John Legend perform at the MAMAs. We definitely can’t overlook the impact of Michael Jackson on K-pop either, especially when so many idols pay homage to him in their videos.
Unfortunately, there are times when the homages cross the line as a couple of recent articles mentioned. With regards to videos like 4Minute‘s “Crazy” and Keith Ape‘s “It G Ma,” what do you think takes cultural appreciation into that cringe-inducing wormhole known as “appropriation”?
Camiele: I second everything Cjontai said. Kanye has turned into this caricature for White pacification. He’s a symbol that mainstream media has used to cast a judging eye on the entirety of Black culture.
The biggest issue with talking about “appropriation” is people misunderstand the word’s meaning. Appropriation is using someone else’s culture as a costume and daring to say you have every right to “use” that culture however you like.
I don’t expect Korean artists to know the detailed history of America. That’s just disrespectful. My problem is in 2015, with many Korean artists and their record companies wishing desperately to crossover to the States and find success, they refuse to do basic research to find out the historical significance of some of the things they imitate. Groups like 4Minute are more or less handed their concepts; however, the idea that “acting Black” somehow makes them cool or more authentic and will appeal to the masses is systematic of a culture steeped in a lot of isolationism and refusing to show even a modicum of respect for other cultures.
As far as I can tell, there aren’t that many known Korean rappers who actually know the history of hip hop or its many transitions, legends and leaders. Their idea of the culture is based on what they see from the most popular artists. They emulate that and call it hip hop. I don’t care what culture you’re from; if you deign to use hip hop as your vehicle, you need to have a passing knowledge of what hip hop actually is. Doesn’t mean you have to study the works of KRS-One or learn about hip hop’s African roots, but you need to at least know that hip hop didn’t start in 2010. And study your own legends: Tiger JK, Tasha, Dynamic Duo. These artists don’t put on a costume and call it hip hop. They stay true to themselves, and they can do that because they know what hip hop is.
Taylore: You both have spoken the truth. The “Kanye did it, too!” excuse is a small example of the very annoying tendency of fans to latch onto one person who thinks problematic behavior is okay or inoffensive and use that person as a way to shut down any criticism. Just because Kanye thinks Confederate flags are cool does not mean the image isn’t hurtful to see, especially in a context like fashion that almost glorifies the flag as something “cool” and “trendy.” Just because one black fan doesn’t care about Yesung‘s use of blackface does not suddenly make it inoffensive.
Appropriation is a big problem within K-pop; I don’t think anyone can deny that. Now that hip hop style has become the flavor of the month, I often find myself wondering about rookie groups who come out with some sort of hip hop concept. I always fear that the group will drop hip hop once they realize it isn’t a magic spell for instant popularity. BTS initially worried me because I couldn’t be sure whether they’d use hip hop as a concept for a few singles before turning into a pure pop group, but they’ve constantly impressed me. When I listened to their song “Hip Hop Lover” and heard the rappers that Rap Monster, Suga, and J-Hope mentioned, I thanked the K-pop gods for giving me rappers who listen to more than just Drake or Eminem. With more established groups like 4 Minute, I know that their hip hop concept is just a trendy, edgy gimmick. Now we’ve entered appropriation territory.
I keep up with Korean rappers pretty closely, and it’s always disappointing to find out that a rapper I really liked did something offensive, like dropping the “N” word in a song. People usually live and learn, though. Mistakes happen, and I can forgive you for them.
Sometimes a rapper will completely turn me off by showing some sort of animosity toward black rappers. San E comes to mind for me. He dropped a slur toward black people in a verse, and even though it was supposed to show his anger about not being accepted as an Asian rapper, it rubbed me the wrong way. However, that’s a complicated discussion. It just makes me wonder whether other Korean rappers feel that sort of tension toward black rappers, as if they need to prove themselves superior.
For you all, how has being black affected how engaged you are in the fandom as a whole? Although the K-pop fandom outside of Korea is truly international, I usually interact with other fans from the US, which means I’m often the lone black person among Asian and white fans. The content that fans put out is never something I can truly identify with — for example, when a reader-insert fanfiction has a guy running his hands through my hair, I immediately laugh because there is no way anyone is ever running their hand through my mass of hair. That’s a really specific example, but it’s something that I come across all the time, and it has kept me from buying into the lovey-dovey illusion that my biases are accessible to me (which, I feel, is a good thing). When it comes to fan-produced content, black fans are never really acknowledged as existing, unless we’re acknowledging ourselves.
Camiele: All the friends I have who are part of K-pop fandom are from my interactions with international fans on the internet. As far as thinking I have a chance with my bias, the possibility is low because honestly, no fan has a high chance of being in a situation where they’ll be thought of as a romantic interest. But as a Black woman, it’s hard enough being thought of as desirable by men of our own ethnic group, let alone an ethnic group that’s been indoctrinated into believing dark skin is either unpleasant or “exotic.” The only representations of Black sensuality that they have are Beyonce and Nicki.
I think we do interact with K-pop fandom differently as a cultural group, but not insomuch as we can’t relate to other fans. We go nuts over our biases just like everyone else, yet I personally think there’s a tangible historical connection that is similar in how it continues to affect our respective communities: oppression. Our historical experiences with it are very different, but how it still manages to creep into everything — from how we view our own ethnic groups to how we allow certain things to become gospel based on “mainstream” ideals of what’s essentially right — is very similar. I think without realizing it, we can connect to Korean artists easier and with less of an accusatory glare than if we were dealing with, say, Chad Future.
The tension between Korean and Black rappers stems from the idea of authenticity and even pre-resentment that our culture and the hip-hop subculture therein will just be mocked and watered down. There’s an “Impress Us” sign over every non-Black rapper who comes onto the scene, and I don’t know if a lot of rappers realize it’s steeped in the history of the minstrel show and how every generation has its TD Rice.
I find it hard to believe in this day and age that somebody wouldn’t get the hint that blackface is a no-no. That whole “Well, they don’t know any better” or “They just think it’s funny” doesn’t fly with me. Yes, anyone not part of Black culture who already finds “those silly Negroes” entertaining would laugh at one of their own impersonating us. As visible as these artists are now and how often the issue gets brought up, you’d think someone would actually put it together that what they do is offensive.
So how do we educate Korean artists who aren’t aware that some of the things they do are, in fact, not only disrespectful but flat-out racist? Should we just let it slide, as so many people tell us to do?
Cjontai: I’m aware that international BBCs do contact Seven Seasons whenever Zico drops the “N” word or one of the members of Block B insists on showing their impression of “black style.” To Seven Seasons’ credit, they do respond positively to those who reach out to educate them. They understand the fans like Block B, and only want them to receive less hate for portraying themselves in a negative light. We know how talented these groups are, but it’s hard to defend them if they appear to constantly mock the very fans who support them.
I’m glad that Camiele brought up the “let it slide” thing because I see that comment from non-black K-pop fans all the time. There’s an underlying message of “Your feelings don’t matter” that is so insidiously passive-aggressive. If we respond angrily, we’re accused of being “fake outraged,” but unfortunately that comes from sheltered minds who feel their opinions outweigh the feelings of others. For the sake of argument, it’s the entitled, non-marginalized masses who perpetuate these negative stereotypes of black people. They label us as “uneducated thugs” while forgetting that the music their favorite idols produce now originated from black artists.
I can’t give a full history lesson on the blackface issue, but what I can tell fans is that the history of entertainment is rife with instances of racism. In the past, there were white celebrities who refused to even be on a show that had one black person. Some black performers were stripped of all their rights to their work and paid mere pennies for it, which sounds oddly similar to a certain story in K-pop.
Camiele: As much as people tell us to get over it, what makes us stay? When is it enough for Black fans who have to deal with the constant belittlement of our culture and just say, “Deuces”?
Cjontai: I didn’t get into K-pop to allegedly bully groups who do culturally insensitive things. That’s not to say I condone it or think racial matters should be ignored altogether. It actually saddens me to hear fans do the “give it up” retort because what they’re really saying is “idols are too stupid to learn from their mistakes.” Do fans even realize they are insinuating that their beloved groups are morons by saying they lack all ability to learn about other cultures?
I’m more irritated with elitist fans than idols who appropriate culture because hypocritically those fans are gushing over music inspired by black people. Without our influence, K-pop would probably be a lot of trot music and EDM. You wouldn’t have R&B, and you most definitely wouldn’t have hip hop. That would mean no Exo, B.A.P., Big Bang, DBSK, iKon, Epik High, Shinee, Got7, 15&, Crush, Zion T., Ailee — the list is endless. It also means that Unpretty Rapstar, Show Me the Money and American Hustle Life wouldn’t have happened either.
I know the idols typically don’t mean anything malicious through their actions, but I can’t say the same for fans who know that discriminating against a race of people is wrong. As I said before, I’m thankful that K-pop idols found inspiration through music from black artists. I love hearing a different culture’s take on the music created by us, but what we would appreciate getting from everyone more often is RESPECT. Respecting the roots of K-pop means respecting the contributions of the black community. Don’t ignore us and blow us off. We’re K-pop fans, too.
As long as the music is genuine and retains a quality I enjoy, I’ll keep listening to it. We may lament about the negative things that occasionally pop up, but we know a lot of positive things come from it also. I made friends, learned another language and tried new foods, such as kimchi.
In the US, Asian entertainers are grossly underrepresented and under-appreciated and getting into K-pop has awakened me to that fact. Asian artists are no less talented than anyone on the planet. The only ones concluding that people wouldn’t enjoy entertainment from Asian artists are narrow-minded studio executives. I want to hear voices from all cultures, not just black or white. Like a stained-glass window, music needs a kaleidoscope of colors for its beauty to shine.
Camiele: I agree with you, Cjontai. I’m here for the music. Plain and simple. Most of the idol groups that do come out are all pretty much one in the same for me. It’s how back in the mid-late ’90s, pop music in the States and much of the UK was all the same, so I stopped listening to the radio. But, of course, you branch out of that one genre and find music that’s more interesting. The same goes for Korean music. Stepping away from K-pop and venturing out into other music genres is reason enough to remain involved in Korea’s music scene.
It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to think K-pop artists were perpetuating stereotypes and going as far as using blackface to entertain their fans. Having to deal with ignorance just about every day as we live and breathe, I don’t need to deal with it in the music I listen to. My hope is that as K-pop tries to expand into international markets, artists and their companies will have the common sense to look into what it is they’re trying to imitate to entertain the masses. It’s hilarious that in the States, racism is big business, but as soon as someone from an Asian country perpetuates it, people get up in arms. Wonder what that’s all about…
Our writers expressed a fraction of what they wanted to discuss, but we’re sure there is more to be said from the perspectives of black K-pop fans. Can you relate to their experiences? Do you think the K-pop community treats black fans differently? Should K-pop idols give more respect when they take inspiration from black entertainers?