Why K-pop needs to stop appropriating black culture and start collaborating more

The genre has long been accused of airbrushing its hip-hop heritage

South Korean boy band BTS attends the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. / AFP
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K-pop group BTS and their management company Big Hit Entertainment have pledged $1 million (Dh3.6m) in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

According to Variety magazine, the money was transferred to the organisation on Saturday, June 6, three days after the boy band released a statement pledging their support for BLM.

“We stand against racial discrimination," the message read. “We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter."

The move was part of a well-choreographed – it is K-pop, after all – display of support from a billion dollar music industry long accused of airbrushing its artistic heritage. Other acts Ateez, and Monsta X, tweeted similar messages on the same day.

BTS x Lil Nas: a rare collaboration

And while the seven-figure donation is undoubtedly welcome, it remains to be seen whether this is a genuine attempt for solidarity or another chapter in K-pop’s transactional relationship with African-American and black popular culture.

Chances are we will find out soon enough, because the global anti-racism movement that has grown recently seems to no longer be pacified by words and gestures.

This is as much a time for learning as it is a reckoning, with individuals, groups and organisations – from police departments to the NFL and social media giant Facebook – being rightfully called out for present and previous conduct that is rife with discrimination.

And it is in this spirit that BTS and their K-pop cohorts also need to face the music, as it is a genre of such international popularity, but one created by a deeply insular industry.

From cornrows to offensive posts: a history of K-pop’s racial missteps

Now, I consider myself to be an undercover K-pop fan – I'll listen to a hearty playlist within the anonymity of my headphones, but I won't geek out at a K-Con.

Despite the horrific nature of some of these examples, they do point to ignorance rather than malice. And that's down to K-pop being a notoriously closed industry

As a hip-hop lover at heart, what attracted me to the genre wasn't its flamboyant and viral videos, but more the deft sophistication of the compositions.

Like mad scientists, leading K-pop producers, such as Brave Brothers (Big Bang, Sistar, AOA) and Yoo Young-jin (Super Junior and Shinee), take key attributes of hip-hop and RnB from the past few decades – such as the stuttering drum patterns of trap music and the blazing synths of crunk, as well as the elastic melodies of New Jack Swing. They then synthesise them into a killer sonic brew that’s smooth enough for your playlist and powerful in stadiums.

That’s not cultural appropriation, that’s just shrewd innovation that deserves to be applauded.

The area that has always been problematic with K-pop, however, is the frequent adoption of stereotypical African-American and black fashion and behavioural archetypes. These are presented devoid of education and context – this is a surefire recipe for public faux pas.

And there have been a few cringeworthy and offensive howlers over the years.

On the fashion front, there is the prevalent use of black hair styles such as Chenle's copper-coloured cornrows and Black Pink member Lisa's use of silver braids in the music video for Kill This Love. These fashion choices were worn in an outlandishly stereotypical way.

But worse, Big Bang's Taeyang caused an international uproar in 2016 when posting a lunar new year greeting that had an image of his face filtered with rapper Kanye West's, with the accompanying text proclaiming: "Happy monkey new year”.

While Taeyang removed the clip, the internet has never forgotten, with copies of his insidious post continuing to hover online.

K-pop needs to extend its hand

Despite the horrific nature of some of the examples out there, they do mostly probably point to ignorance rather than malice.

And that’s down to K-pop being a notoriously closed industry.

While the US and western pop music scenes have thrived thanks to international talent, K-pop has been resistant to opening the doors to global artists (with the exception of certain calculated artist collaborations, such as Old Town Road with Lil Nas). They simply don't often work with the African-American artists who inspire their sound.

It is that lack of attribution and messages of appreciation from K-pop acts that bolsters the argument that the genre is more about cultural appropriation than artistic collaboration.

Hip-hop is about collaboration

This closed-door policy stands against the hip-hop culture K-pop acts so love to take from.

More than the hairstyles and flashy clothes, a central ethos of hip-hop is the importance of collaboration. That artistic sharing of knowledge has built scenes across the UK, India, South America and Africa.

K-pop has yet to truly extend its hand to black artists, and until it works with them in a genuine way, a cloud of inauthenticity will hover above the genre.

It is bad business practice as well.

With the globe becoming increasingly connected and cognisant of racial discrimination, the K-pop industry needs global perspectives in those board rooms to protect it from the next awful post or viral video uploaded by one of its stars.

If not, the whole industry remains in the precarious position of being on the edge of an international scandal that no large donation can fix.