Cultural appropriation is a very nuanced issue and not one to be taken lightly. Today I will be talking about cultural appropriation in K-pop, and how groups over there were ignorant of the cultural strife of the west and used it as a fashionable dress sense.
Lets start from the beginning and understand the cultural context. South Korea is situated on a peninsula, in the middle of Asia, and is considered to be a very homogenous culture, being 99% Korean in contrast to America, which has more diversity. It is rare to see foreigners as a part of this culture, as Koreans inside Korea keep close to their ‘family’ both in a literal sense and a cultural sense. It is a very ingrained sense of community that only awoke to the influences of the US after the effects of the Korean War in 1950 and when both nations began to gradually rise as superpowers and have a global impact, and in Koreas case, it was the Hallyu.
Korean culture grew, and in the 1990’s they started a new genre to export, influenced by the movements of America, called K-pop. In the beginning it was very sparse, but the group that kicked it off, Seo Taji and the Boys, incorporated rap into their pop songs. This started with their hit song in Korea, called Nan Arayo (I know), and popularized the hybrid mish mash of musical styles that kpop would come to be.
Now onto the appropriation part. Over the years, many kpop groups have come under fire for imitating a ‘gangster’ style of wearing clothes, hair and rapping, which they got mostly from African-Americans. While this in itself might still be considered fine, it becomes cultural appropriation when they unknowingly borrow concepts from African American culture that have cultural importance to them. African-Americans more than likely do not want it to be used as a set piece in a Korean music video with little cultural meaning behind it except that ‘it looks good’.
Some specific examples are Korean Idols wearing Box braids or any other braid that is very distinctively used in African American culture. These hairstyles are cultural appropriation because they were used in the African-American entertainment scene for them, while in reality, many of these African-American kids at schools were being told that they looked ‘dirty’ with it, or that they were in ‘gangs’ because of this hairstyle, and being shunned out of society because of it. The braids that African-Americans is an important part of African Culture and symbol of their heritage. Kpop idols simply wear this now because ‘it looks good’ on them, when no one said that those hairstyles were ‘cool and fashionable’ when an African-American wore them.
Here are some specific examples, starting with hairstyles (They are all 100% Korean by the way) –
And there are probably many more examples that I have missed. Now here’s a photo of a group concept that BTS had at debut, that many people groan at when they look at BTS’ past.
To be fair, BTS were a rap-focused group in the beginning but slowly transitioned to standard kpop fare that they showcase today. Though that doesn’t excuse the clear cultural appropriation that is seen in those photos above. It is understandable why South Koreans would not understand the importance of cultural appropriation or even see it as an issue at all, but still need to realise that it is an issue.
I have to admit, being an Australian myself, and being raised in a very white area, when I’m first exposed to this, I think ‘Why something like this is cultural appropriation?’ in a genuinely confused manner. Like the hairstyles, since I haven’t met many African-Americans, if any, and only through reading about it and seeing other people’s cultural experiences can I understand the impact.
What do you think about cultural appropriation?
Grays, J. (2019). The blurred lines of Cultural Appropriation. City University of New York (CUNY), [online] Fall 12-16-2016, p.Page 2. Available at: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1193&context=gj_etds [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019]
Dal, Y. (2019). The Korean Wave: Retrospect and Prospect. International Journal of Communication USC, [online] 11(2241). Available at: https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/6296/2047 [Accessed 25 Aug. 2019].