BET recently announced that the network would be expanding onto the TV networks of South Korea. Of course, South Korea isn’t the company’s first overseas venture. Previously, Viacom — BET’s parent company — set up TV networks in South Africa, France, and Italy to relatively little controversy.
To provide some background information, Viacom partnered up with Broadband, a South Korean pay-for-view operator to broadcast the channel in South Korea — making it the first country in Asia where the channel exists. It will have the usual host of staple shows like the BET Awards, The Wendy Williams Show, Being Mary Jane, and The Hip Hop Awards, along with some local productions from South Korea.
Broadband CEO Lee Hyung-hee embraces the change:
We believe the BET channel will find a fan base among Korean youth, who are globally recognized as fashion and cultural trendsetters — similar to the BET audience.
Despite this optimism, there are undoubtedly questions forming on everyone’s lips: what are the overarching implications of this for black people residing in Korea? What does it mean for issues of cultural appropriation and blackface? Essentially, is this move one to be lauded, or denigrated?
To look at BET’s potential impact in South Korea, we must first be aware of its history in the US. BET has had a long and controversial history in its nation of origin. It has faced criticism from various public figures, academic figures, and the general public. My own introduction to BET was some several years ago through Aaron McGruder‘s multiple satirical jabs at it through his controversial cartoon show, The Boondocks, which pretty much guaranteed that my initial impression of the channel would be poor.
To add some context to the video for those who haven’t watched the full episode or aren’t as familiar with the series, “Debra Leevil” is a parody of real life BET president Debra Lee and “Wedgie” is an expy of BET entertainment president Reggie Hudlin, of whom previously poked fun at BET with his then-colleague McGruder as they were working on the book “Birth of a Nation”. Admittedly, there does not seem to be any real proof verifying the show’s cited rates of unemployment, drop-outs, and teen pregnancies skyrocketing since the network came on the air, but the basic sentiment is one echoed by many critics of the network.
Another dissident of BET writes an op-ed in the style of an open letter voicing her opposition on Clutch Magazine, mentioning that some less than savory behavior from her teenage peers may have been influenced by BET. She criticizes BET for forgoing educational and socially conscious programs in lieu of mindless hip hop videos.
The recurring theme in these arguments seem to be the fact that BET perpetuates harmful caricatures of black stereotypes through programming, which may in turn negatively influence impressionable black American youth, and the entire community in general.
Of course, not all opinions of BET are bad. Some harken back to the days when Robert L. Johnson was the CEO, and it was still an African-American ran company before it was sold to Viacom. Through the creation of BET, Robert L. Johnson developed into the very first African-American millionaire. It also became the first black-controlled company to make it onto the New York stock exchange.
Some look back even further to its well-meaning origins, ones that involve carving out a niche for black people in the white-dominated entertainment industry of the ’80s. During this time period, MTV refused to air MVs from African-American artists, so BET stepped up to the plate to do it.
Kagendo Mbogori, a US-based blogger, contends that the conditions for African-American entertainers back then are still existent today to an extent, which makes BET all the more important for African-Americans:
A comment from many black women and men in entertainment is that there is no space for them in mainstream Hollywood to play the lead.
So many take on the BET roles, the ones that won’t give them Emmys, the ones that will give them American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awards and an opportunity to earn a salary.
I understand that not every show will depict black America in a good light, but BET caters to people who will be otherwise dismissed by a majority white America.
Similarly, another argument in defense of BET’s programming is that it reflects the general state of African-Americans. After all, it is perhaps common sense that, like with many other communities, there is a portion of black Americans who don’t want to ponder over heavy social issues. Those who are content to simply have fun and party like the rappers in MVs gravitate towards those types of programs which emulate that lifestyle. It could be argued that this is BET’s main audience. Debra Lee insinuates this as she justifies her programming decisions by citing the poor ratings of a more intelligent show she tried to push. She concludes that while the audience clamors for this type of programming, they never actually watch them.
Despite this, there seems to have been a change in direction for BET as of late, possibly to re-create their image. For instance, there was the creation of Beverly Bond‘s Black Girls Rock! Awards, an awards ceremony based off of her non-profit organization by the same name. Its goal is to increase self-esteem of black girls and open discussions about media portrayal of black women. Another example is how BET has began covering the Black Lives Matter movement back in 2016, and even gave a platform to an activist from the movement — Jesse Williams — to deliver an impactful speech at the BET Awards.
So, then what does this all mean for South Koreans?
South Korea’s racial dynamics is, of course, extremely different from the US. Compared to black people living in the US, black people in Korea are fewer in number and have had a much shorter residence. They are more marginalized, and have much less of a voice on sociopolitical issues. This means that people such as half-Nigerian teenage model Han Hyun-min face prejudice in their careers and day-to-day lives. This may be the reason why cultural appropriation, blackface, offensive jokes, and stereotypes still make the rounds through Korean pop culture.
Because of this, it could be argued that, while there are no readily verifiable statistics supporting the idea that BET negatively impacts black Americans, they could very well come into fruition in South Korea. Following the logic of the arguments made by BET’s critics, black people in South Korea — who perhaps feel more of a disconnect with the country and feel a sense of marginalization — may resort to the stereotypes they see on the channel in effort to find a sense of belonging.
However, there seems to be no actual proof that BET negatively harms the black community, so this logic is a bit iffy. It could be argued that although BET may contribute to reinforcing negative stereotypes about black people, the reasons for the social ills in the community lie elsewhere. BET can be seen as a reflection of the black community rather than its influencer. It can be asserted that the reason why people may have an aversion to BET lies within their discomfort at staring at their mirrored image through the looking glass — seeing both the good and bad in the black community. This includes the fact that the songs that BET displays — lowbrow in content as they may be — were made by African-Americans and listened to by a substantial amount of African-Americans, making sure that these types of songs are a substantive facet of the community.
Nevertheless, South Koreans who have little to no exposure to black people may look to the channel and take the stereotypes they see and accept them word for word. This may lead to a more negative general impression of black people in the country, which is frankly, the last thing they need at this point in time, as black people already deal with a lot of discrimination in Korean society.
Without providing proper educational programs and the like, the channel could also lead to an encouragement of cultural appropriation and blackface from impressionable South Koreans who try to emulate the culture.
Cultural appropriation and blackface are complicated issues in South Korea that we’ve touched on a lot. Although its unfair to say that one channel can be blamed for encouraging cultural appropriation, an easier access to BET can become something that serves as an affirmation to artists such as Zico, Taeyang, and Jackson that what they are doing is okay — that it has a basis in reality. After all, as mentioned in the Clutch Magazine op-ed and alluded to by The Boondocks, BET is where much of those stereotypes are furthered.
Nonetheless, at the same time, BET could provide a much-needed platform for black people to voice their thoughts and opinions with its original local programming, serving its original intention. With these programs, black people in Korea who might have wanted to get into the entertainment industry, but previously couldn’t because of discrimination, may now have a better chance, which is always a welcomed prospect. In the words of Sam Okyere, the best way to break stereotypes is to become famous, but even then he still faced discrimination on a recent variety show.
With the channel’s recent attempts to change its programming, Koreans could possibly become more educated about serious social issues pertaining to the black community as well. Subjects that BET covers, like the Black Lives Matter movement, may be compounded in the future with other important topics, such as incarceration and systematic racial discrimination. If having more black Koreans on TV doesn’t change racism leveled against them, perhaps education will.
However, my arguments may only hold water under the presumption that Koreans will actually tune into the channel. As I mentioned in the beginning, BET will be only available under a pay-for-view service, which may deter many from watching the shows on the channel. If this is the case, then BET might not have any significant social impact on South Korea.
Under the assumption that a substantial amount of people will watch the channel, BET could potentially have a simultaneously positive and negative effect on South Korean society. For issues of cultural appropriation, it’s a bit difficult to predict what will actually happen. There is the extremely real possibility that South Koreans may gain a negative perspective of black people because of how BET spreads negative stereotypes. South Koreans who already feel inclined to appropriate and mock black culture may feel encouraged by BET to continue doing so. On the flip-side of the same coin, this may be counteracted with an increased presence of black Koreans on TV, and possibly channels giving proper education about issues in the black community. Ideally, this exposure could slowly chip away at the accumulation of ignorance and consequent racism that black people face in Korean society.
Going back to the questions I raised in the beginning, the answer varies depending on how cynical or idealistic you are about the channel and the capacity of South Koreans to change their perception about black people. Criticisms of the channel’s potential impacts and the defenses of the channel’s good intentions and attempts to change in recent times are all valid. Therefore, BET’s move to South Korea can both be praised and criticized.
(Variety , The Washington Post, Clutch Magazine , Rutgers Consumer Society, Hip Hop DX , Tremr, News24, Daily Mail, Hip Hop Wired, The Grio, RBR, Nate, Your Black World, YouTube , Images via Adult Swim, BET, SF Models X Entertainment, Seven Seasons)