An excellent editorial from Gaya at Seoulbeats on kpop encountering other cultures - and how kpop generally succeeds in offending the cultures it attempts to integrate. To date, I actually don’t know of any examples in which kpop has creatively and acceptably showcased another culture.
I completely agree with and support the request of the author of “Four Minutes to Make a Case for Cultural Sensitivity,” namely, that if an artist is going to incorporate/appropriate elements of other cultures into his work, that it be done respectfully. In fact, I think that doing so actually enriches the work, adding levels of meaning and connecting with new audiences. For me, that’s a huge part of why hiphop is so incredibly rich - it’s full of appropriation that takes on new meaning, both in words and in samples. One of my favorite examples of this is Modenine’s “My Skin is Black,” in which Modenine samples Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to generalize a message to people of African descent all over the world. Even though Modenine has no personal claim on the black American experience or culture, he recognizes commonalities between their struggle and his own and respectfully builds on the work of black Americans to make his argument. (That’s Pan-Africanism!)
But in the case of kpop, there are two structural/cultural problems that prevent this kind of synergy from happening, and that is why we see the same offensive mistakes repeated over and over again.
1) “You could know, but you don’t.” Kpop places no value on coming correct because it’s inherently an imperialistic and colonizing endeavor. Hallyu is unabashedly open about spreading Korean cultural values and language across East Asia - and to anyone who will buy it (see Angry Kpop Fan’s excellent summary of Cho 2011 on this). Coming from a Confucian society where individuality and difference are frowned on, where multiculturalism as valuing difference is explicitly rejected by those in power, and where those in power tend to be older men and therefore conservative, kpop has no incentive or reason to respect other cultures. The only use for (lip service to) diversity is for profit. That is why other cultures appear as “concepts” in kpop but are clearly not taken seriously.
Since there is no value in diversity, there is no need to “come correct,” that is, to do the research and really understand other cultures. Kpop takes other cultures as instruments through which to express its commercial, colonizing message. In other words, it chooses ignorance. Of course artists/managers/producers don’t mean to offend anyone - after all, those are potential consumers - but they do not get a free pass because they “didn’t know.” They could know, but they choose not to, so they should be held fully responsible for the offensive content in their work. In this world, there is no excuse for being ignorant. You as an artist can either come correct, or face the consequences. International kpop fans who do value cultural sensitivity should continue to speak out in favor of coming correct - only by doing so can they (the fans) reduce the potential harm of kpop’s colonizing intent.
2) Kpop doesn’t know how to represent. Unlike the US (and many other countries that produce popular media), Korean media has a single epicenter for production. In order to appeal to as many fans as possible, idols are essentially stripped of personal origin and history. And in a broader sense, the music/pop culture industry operates under the assumption that Korean culture is monolithic and universal. There is no need for kpop to pay special attention to the ways it represents Korean culture because it’s all the same. Since no one in kpop has ever had to represent (in the hiphop sense of the word), they cannot recognize the importance of allowing other cultures to represent themselves. Again, there is no excuse, and producers of Korean culture should be held accountable.
Here are my recommendations for upending these structural/cultural barriers.
1) Start with empathy. In my experience, cross-cultural understanding and respect are built from firsthand immersion that renders one completely at the mercy of the host culture. That’s why Jay Park and Tablo can do hiphop credibly, because they’ve lived that reality as a bboy and a rapper, respectively, in the US, where hiphop culture developed. But when Big Bang shows up at a concert dressed in all red gangster clothes, telling me they’re “bad boys,” I shake my head, because they have never lived the reality of gang wars and have no idea how insensitive their costumes are (cue K’Naan’s “What’s Hardcore?”). There is no shortcut here - no, 4minute, you cannot just drop in to India (yes, all of it) and then say you can make a “Hindi” music video of your own song. If kpop is serious about appropriating other cultures, then it must begin with an empathetic view for the real human beings whose cultural capital is being borrowed.
2) Stick to collabos. Kpop loves prestige (I think of JYJ bragging about getting American producers on their tracks, Big Bang getting Lady Gaga’s tour organizer to sign onto their tour for this fall, every other group trying to break into the American market), so it should seek out collaboration opportunities with respected artists from around the world. Those collaborations by definition would demand that Korean artists give foreign artists the liberty to represent themselves. Then and only then will Korean audiences as well as other artists/managers/producers understand what it is to respectfully incorporate other cultures.
I have a long list of collabos I’d like to see… IU with French-Nigerian songstress Asa or Cape Verdean artist Sara Tavares; Big Bang with Nigerian rapper MI; JYJ and PSquare or Prince Royce (can you imagine JYJ doing bachata?! my life would be complete); Bollywood folks featured in music videos (Amitabh? is that you?), and maybe a song or two penned by the one and only A.R. Rahman; any boy band with Justin Bieber (more on this in a future post!); 2NE1 with Afropop diva Angelique Kidjo; CNBLUE with GT the Guitarman… The world is full of talent, and kpop will be enriched by including it within its scope rather than attempting to colonize foreign markets.
Until and unless international fans insist that kpop face its own structural/cultural barriers to fair and respectful incorporation of other cultures, songs and videos will continue to be released that offend the very people Hallyu wants to entice. Kpop can only get better by learning to RESPECT and COME CORRECT vis-a-vis these other cultures.
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