While it is great to see so many people writing about K-pop and its cultural implications around the world, what’s not cool is generalizing about cultural appropriation in K-pop.
Many individuals writing about K-pop on the Internet are using cultural appropriation as a synonym for racism in K-pop. In 2011, Angry K-pop Fan devoted an entire post to the subject entitled Arrighty, kpop, let’s talk about cultural appropriation. In a post on Black K-pop Fans Tumblr a few days ago, unphazzedcat listed cultural appropriation as one of several discriminatory ideas, including blackface, fat shaming, misogyny and anti-blackness/racism. But discussion about cultural appropriation and K-pop went nuclear recently when Mark at Seoulbeats wrote “Aegyo Hip Hop: Cultural Appropriation at Its Messiest” on January 5, 2013, sparking conversations around the Internet.
What is cultural appropriation?
These pieces on cultural appropriation all suggest that ANY cultural borrowing constitutes negative cultural borrowing. Angry K-pop Fan cites this Wikipedia definition of cultural appropriation: “It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.” The piece goes on to elaborate: “There seems to be zero interest in the importance of the element in its original context, and is adopted for the sake of aesthetic appeal. When placed this way, it becomes understandable as to why the subject culture deems this act as offensive.”
However, much of what people label as negative cultural appropriation ISN’T. Cultural appropriation itself is not wholly negative term, and a certain amount is unavoidable. From the main definition for the entry on Wikipedia that Angry K-pop Fan cites: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. . . .It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.” When one culture borrows from another culture, it is not always in the service of subordinating the other culture or should be viewed as theft. Richard A. Rogers, of the School of Communication at Northern Arizona University, says that “Cultural appropriation, defined broadly as the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture, is inescapable when cultures come into contact, including virtual or representational contact” (474). This means this happens WHENEVER cultures come into contact with each other, such cultural exchange is its inevitable.
Varieties of Cultural Appropriation
To be sure, there are negative modes of cultural appropriation, especially in relation to black music in the United States, which involves historical (and many would argue, continuing) exploitation, where mainstream America has appropriated and not compensated or recognized black artists, their music and their influence. One stark example of this comes from the early days of rock and roll, where white artists covered black songs, and, taking advantage of more access to a larger audience, profited from it. It continues to resonate today with the tension some see between black music and Elvis.
At the same time, black music has always been multicultural, borrowing from and appealing to other cultures. Even as artists like Elvis were recording songs originally sung by black artists, black music had connections with other cultures. In his book One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture, Gerald Early reveals Marvin Gaye‘s desire to emulate Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, Berry Gordy‘s use of business practices he gleaned from Jewish merchants, the presence of successful black labels like Vee Jay Records that, for a time, carried The Beatles and The Four Seasons. Black music has always been simultaneously about a blackness that meant something to not just blacks but other people. Early quotes Mary Wilson: “Our tours made breakthroughs and helped weaken racial barriers. When it came to music, segregation didn’t mean a thing in some of those towns, and if it did, black and white fans would ignore the local customs to attend the shows. To see crowds that were integrated–sometimes for the first time in a community–made me realize that Motown truly was the sound of young America” (105).
Cultural Appropriation and K-pop
I suspect that much of the writing done on K-pop and cultural appropriation is emotional. People feel awkward and uncomfortable at some of the ways black music gets used, and express their personal feelings through the Internet, the primary mode of personal expression of our age. However, I’m focused on people who purport to provide some kind of cultural analysis or position themselves as a kind of authority when they write about cultural appropriation in K-pop. The way they consistently characterize cultural appropriation as negative is problematic.
Doing so makes all cultural borrowings instances of negative cultural appropriation, so that anytime anyone borrows anything from black music or culture, it’s bad. Instead of relying on generalizations, we need writers to be more nuanced and sophisticated when characterizing cultural appropriation as negative. Surely, blackface does not equate to somebody using rap in a song. SNSD wearing bandannas in their video is not the same as showing up in blackface on a Korean television show. For example, Fans Against Discrimination in K-pop describes its Tumblr this way: “This is a blog created by international K-Pop fans in response to the rise of black face in Korean entertainment. We are trying to create a movement that will educate Korean entertainers about what is or is not appropriate. This includes black face, racial stereotypes and overall ignorance in the K-Pop industry about its multi-racial audience.” The blog does by posting incidents it deems to be discriminatory that go beyond blackface, including fatshaming, “discriminatory” comments by K-pop artists, quotes about racism in general, and cultural appropriation in general.
This is a noble sentiment, but failing to provide commentary that distinguishes and contextualizes these things does not constitute education because they do not provide the criteria for why something is discriminatory. Focusing in K-pop’s cultural appropriation of stereotypes in this way also ignores the cultures originating and promulgating the stereotypes around the globe. I suspect that on any given day, there are more instances of blackface going down on college campuses in the United States than there are happening in K-pop. Why not address the continued use of blackface in the country that originated and continues to spread it across the globe? Why not explain where these images come from in the first place, and explore why they seem to still be in popular circulation in our globalized world?
If people who write about negative cultural appropriation detail how and why the cultural appropriation is problematic, it would go a long way. If Angry K-pop Fan explained why T-ara‘s use of the Indian headdress is problematic, or of Black K-pop Fans explain why Zico‘s use of the N-word is problematic, or if Mark at Seoulbeats explained how wearing a bandanna translates into disrespect for all of black urban culture and experience, would go a long way.
There are readers who do a better job of resisting grand generalizations about cultural appropriation in K-pop. Here are a sampling of comments related to the Seoubeats’ story on Reddit: “Aegyo Hip Hop: Cultural Appropriation at its Messiest: kpop”:
I also find it eyeroll worthy to pretend that using hip-hop beats and wearing bandannas equals attempting to appropriate black culture. SNSD clearly isn’t going for that in any way.
It’s all music and musical expression. It’s not “appropriating another culture”, it’s exploring music and style. Saying that they can’t appreciate and elaborate on an existing style of music or dress (and that to do so is offensive) is just silly. Just because it originated somewhere else for different reasons doesn’t mean that there’s a copyright, or that there should be.
Why is it politically incorrect to sing a song with hip-hop elements in it wearing clothes that fit that style? It’s not just k-pop doing it, i live in Hungary and know of dozens of artist whom are white, wearing bandannas, low trousers, tattoos, shades. Are they politically incorrect too?
In addition to generalizations, the failure to recognize that K-pop can borrow from other cultures diminishes K-pop and those who write about it. Appropriating elements of a culture by taking them out of their original context and using them in a completely different way does not automatically constitute negative cultural appropriation. In fact, suggesting that people “stay in their lane” by not engaging other cultures does more harm to the culture “being appropriated.” Michele Catalano elaborates:
Whether it be music, art, food, movies or fashion, there are always going to be myriad cultures represented in any given creative industry. Being a “tourist” of those cultures is what enables us to discover what is out there beyond our own backyards and in turn sharing those discoveries with others, thus spreading cultures. . . . Whether you are asking a white person to step back from covering products of black culture or asking people who are not from, say, Ireland, to cover the music or other entertainment that comes out of that country, you are asking people not only to not do their jobs, but to stifle the very culture you are purporting to protect.
Catalono focuses on those who write about music, but what she says also holds true for the music itself. Placing universal constraints based on race makes for bad art. The criteria shouldn’t limit the ability to use a culture based on membership in that culture, but based on good knowledge of that culture, which transcends all kinds of racial and national boundaries. If it didn’t, this blog would be in trouble. I have a particular beef with people who target K-pop use of hip-hop, but that’s a whole other post, as this one is getting to be tl;dr already.
Cultural appropriation is not a synonym for racism, and writers need to use accurate examples and explain their positions with evidence if they want their opinions to be taken seriously. Generalizations are not cute.
“Aegyo Hip Hop: Cultural Appropriation at its Messiest: kpop.” Reddit.
Catalano, Michele. “Hip-Hop Album Review Spurs Debate: Should White People Write About Black Culture?” 11 Jan 2013. Forbes. 12 Jan 2013.
Early, Gerald. One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory 16 (2006): 474–503.