K-Pop Has a Cultural Appropriation Problem

K-pop or Korean pop music is a music industry full of boy bands and girl bands, colorful aesthetics, gimmicks and choreographed dances which are executed to the “T.” It is also a music industry that is heavily influenced by both the hip-hop music genre and the aesthetics associated with hip-hop.

Hip-hop was first introduced and accepted on a wide-scale basis in South Korea in the 90s when the South Korean artists Seo Taiji and the Boys released “Nan Arayo.”  “Nan Arayo” was a song that was the first of its kind in South Korea and it incorporated jack swing-inspired beats, upbeat rap lyrics and catchy choruses. This song was so popular that it forever changed the country’s music industry and has helped create what K-pop is today – a hip-hop laden music scene.

While it is clear that the K-pop industry enjoys and likes hip-hop there have been times where their use and incorporation of hip-hop has crossed the line of admiration and appreciation and has entered into the realm of cultural appropriation and stereotypes. More specifically, K-pop artists have a tendency to stereotype Black Americans (the founders of hip-hop) and to appropriate Black American culture.

K-pop idols tend to wear grills, braids, cornrows, chains, do-rags, bandannas and other items associated with Black Americans for their music videos and their performances. Many K-pop artists have very little to no understanding of the social and historical significance behind these items besides the fact that these items have been worn by Black hip-hop artists nor do many K-pop artists seem to be aware that hip-hop was created to give a voice to an oppressed group (i.e., Black Americans). In fact, there are some K-pop artists who regularly use hip-hop and claim to love the genre but don’t know any of the history behind hip-hop as can be seen in the below clip where BTS gets schooled by Coolio.

Obviously, not all K-pop artists, especially the new generation, are going to know the founders of hip-hop due to the fact that they are so young and because they did not grow up in the original hip-hop generation. However, while not knowing the founders of hip-hop is excusable, to wear cultural items associated with Black Americans and Black American hip-hop artists while completely ignoring any possible cultural significance that the items may have, is not. To do so can be incredibly insulting to the culture and can potentially cause the perpetuation and generation of stereotypes.
The following are a sampling of some of the different Korean artists who are guilty of stereotyping Black Americans and appropriating Black American culture.
CL – “The Baddest Female”

In this clip, CL from 2NE1 sings her debut solo song “The Baddest Female.” The song is an anthem to all of the women who are confident in themselves, who do as they please and who are just overall badass, cool chicks. The way that this “cool” image is conveyed is through the use of a grill (e.g., CL wears a gold grill with elongated canines), chains, large gold hoop earrings, bandanas and through a pair of shoes that are hanging off of a power line. Not so coincidentally, all of these items are associated with Black Americans. Grills, for example, were made famous by the Black hip-hop artists of the 80s; thick, heavy chains were worn by the originators of hip-hop and were symbols that they had made it despite racism and that they had escaped poverty; hoop earrings are an African fashion; bandannas are heavily associated with gang affiliations like the Bloods and the Crips; and shoes that are tied together and are hanging off a power line tend to be associated with urban African American communities and bullying and death (though it should be said that there are multiple meanings associated with shoe tossing and that these meanings can vary depending on the culture and the area).

While using these elements in themselves isn’t so bad, what turns CL’s music video into a moment of cultural appropriation is the fact that she used these items (some of which were based off of stereotypes of Black Americans) as a fashion statement in an effort to look cool instead of as a means of respectfully acknowledging another culture or dismantling stereotypes. A culture is not a costume or a fashion that one can simply put on and take off at will and use as a statement piece.

Masta Wu – “Come Here” featuring Dok2 and Bobby

Masta Wu, Dok2 and Bobby call people out and rap about how tough and real and true they are to hip-hop in “Come Here.” In the video for their rap, Masta Wu, Dok2 and Bobby demonstrate their “true” hip-hop nature by wearing grills, chains, large gold pieces and bandanas. This, of course, is a giant stroke of irony as they are clearly wearing these items because they are consciously trying to make themselves look cool, tough, hip-hop and “gangsta” (i.e., like a stereotype of a Black American) which negates the very idea that they are true hip-hop artists as true hip-hop artists don’t feel the need to prove themselves by stereotyping and appropriating a culture.

Taeyang – “Ringa Linga” and G-Dragon and Taeyang – “Good Boy”

“Ringa Linga” and “Good Boy,” two songs about partying, sex, and being a player and a “gangsta,” feature both Taeyang and G-Dragon from Big Bang. In the videos, like CL, Masta Wu, Dok2 and Bobby, Taeyang and G-Dragon wear bandannas, chains and gold pieces and they wear these items as a costume for their video. However, unlike CL, Masta Wu, Dok2 and Bobby, Taeyang and G-Dragon go a step further in their level of cultural appropriation and they appropriate Black hairstyles. More specifically, the two wear braids.

Black hairstyles have had and do convey different social meanings, and in the case of braids, this ancient hairstyle which has been used by Africans for thousands of years has and does symbolize tradition, oppression, defiance, resistance, religion, kinship, status, age, ethnicity, assimilation and pride. Braids and other Black hairstyles have also, historically and currently, been looked down upon and viewed as “unprofessional,” “thuggish,” “unkempt,” “nappy” and “ghetto” by White Americans so there are obviously a lot of different charged social and cultural meanings associated with Black hair. Thus, when you have guys like Taeyang and G-Dragon who completely ignore the cultural significance of braids and wear the hairstyle as a fashion statement and as a costume, this is more than a bit insensitive. It is an insult.

B.A.P – “No Mercy”

B.A.P’s “No Mercy” is a hip-hop song that is about hip-hop and the attitude, swagger and confidence that goes hand and hand with the genre. In the music video for “No Mercy,” this hip-hop theme is conveyed through wide-open, sweeping body movements, bandannas, a chain with a money sign and cornrows. So basically, B.A.P, in an attempt to appear cool and urban and to prove their hip-hop-ness, have replicated and have implemented stereotypes of Black hip-hop artists and Black Americans in their video. Awesome. Just awesome.

G-Dragon – “One of a Kind”

G-Dragon, an icon in the K-pop industry, is known for both his music and his fashion sense. G-Dragon is also known for appropriating cultures and using items from other cultures as a fashion statement and as a costume for his music videos and live performances. The perfect and absolutely obnoxious example of this is the music video for his song “One of a Kind.”

In “One of a Kind,” G-Dragon and his crew wear bandannas, chains, large gold pieces, braids and cornrows and Black children are used as props. All of these items and hairstyles (not to mention the Black children) are clearly meant to indicate that G-Dragon is cool, urban and not someone to mess with. For him, just like CL, Masta Wu, Bobby, Dok2 and Taeyang, wearing bandannas, chains, gold pieces, braids and cornrows is just a gimmick to enhance his image. Which is ironic because when these items and hairstyles are actually worn by Black Americans they aren’t seen as cool. Instead, they are viewed as “ghetto, “unprofessional,” “thuggish,” tacky and as just generally less than.

As has been seen, cultural appropriation can most commonly be found in K-pop artists’ aesthetic style for their music videos and performances. This is not especially surprising when one considers how vital aesthetics and appearance are for a K-pop idol.

In South Korea, a lot of pressure is placed on K-pop artists, and they (the artists) are expected to be perfect in everything, including looks and style. If a K-pop idol fails to meet these expectations, then he can easily be replaced and forgotten. K-pop artists are thus constantly changing up their look and attempting to forever be considered cool, interesting and edgy. With this in mind, it’s not so surprising that K-pop idols do appropriate Black American culture, since when appropriated by other racial and ethnic groups, Black American culture is considered cool and innovative. And it’s even less surprising when one considers the fact that South Korea has a very homogeneous population (i.e., because South Korea does have a very homogeneous population, South Koreans tend to be culturally encapsulated and have no ongoing dialogue about issues of diversity). That being said, however, facing a lot of public pressure and being culturally encapsulated is still no excuse for and does not make cultural appropriation acceptable. After all, cultural appropriation, at best, is insulting as appropriating a culture involves ignoring race, gender, class, cultural values and beliefs, oppression and power dynamics, and at worst, cultural appropriation can perpetuate and generate stereotypes, discrimination and oppression. And when it specifically comes to K-pop and its relationship with cultural appropriation, because K-pop has become so widely popular throughout the world and the genre has an ever increasingly diverse audience, K-pop artists will have to face and confront the hard reality of their cultural appropriation problem. Unfortunately, K-pop artists most probably won’t do this until something huge and monumental occurs and they are faced with enormous backlash. And when this does happen, it’s going to be a real shit show and these young men and women are going to have learn about issues of diversity and cultural appropriation the hard way.*

*This article has been lightly altered and edited since its original publication.