In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois posed the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” in his influential book, The Souls of Black Folk. I’m experiencing a 21st century version of this, ”How does it feel to be a question?” As a black woman who writes about K-pop, it’s one I’ve been getting more and more. That question has different implications.
When people ask, “Why are you into K-pop?,” they want to know why I’m interested in music from halfway around the world made by people who don’t look like me. These people genuinely want to know, in part because K-pop is a subculture outside of Korea and seems so different from what people are used to. However, I find that this becomes less of a concern once people TALK to me about K-pop. By the time I finish telling you about my favorite groups (SS501 and Shinhwa, baby!), my favorite videos (OMO! did you see the camera work on Shinhwa’s “Brand New?”), my favorite choreography (I still can’t get over Yunho’s dancing in “Keep Your Head Down“), favorite songs (the Planet Shiver Mix of Brown Eyed Soul’s “Can’t Stop Loving You” is awesome!), and most interesting obscure K-pop tidbits (Big Mama and Solid both did versions of “Kkum”), it’s pretty clear that I have a genuine passion for K-pop.
But that passion is demonstrated by knowledge. People are more convinced by the fact that I took the time to know what I’m talking about. Knowledge is a often-used barometer of fan status, and as anyone who knows their K-pop knows, that knowledge is flung wide across the Internet. People respect the fact that I work to get that knowledge. This is something that anyone can do, regardless of ethnicity. This is why K-pop has such a diverse following despite the language barrier. At the same time, I cannot escape the lens through which I see K-pop. Quiet as its kept, I’m not Korean or Asian, and as a result, some cultural nuances are lost on me. But they are also lost on others who do not have first-hand knowledge of those cultures, including later-generation Asian Americans. What I can do is be aware of that lens, recognize the limits of my perceptions, respect the culture and always try to do better.
Because of this, I am welcomed into like-minded K-pop communities, both popular and academic. The initial trepidation of the question disappears the minute I start talking about K-pop. I am happy that a small but solid community of people who write and do work on K-pop provide such a diverse, entertaining and welcoming community. We can all act the fool together! These people just accept that I’m a black girl into K-pop, an incredibly knowledgeable black girl into K-pop. And it’s all good.
Then, there are people who ask: “Why are you into K-pop?” Sometimes they mean: “K-pop (and other forms of Asian popular culture) is only for Koreans (or Asians).” Before we talk about why black people like K-pop, let’s talk about why Koreans like black music. It’s the reason why anybody likes black music: they like the music and it speaks to them. For people who say that Koreans can’t understand the struggle and pain that underlies black music, I suggest they investigate the state of Korea just after the Korean war, a war in their own country that killed a significant portion of the population, and tell them they don’t understand pain. At the same time, black music is about much more than that, and K-pop shows that Koreans can understand that too. It would be helpful for interviewers to ask K-pop artists who they listen to rather than who they are dating, because then more people would know what K-pop fans already know: the black music tradition resonates with Koreans. It’s not just about the now and the popular. K-pop artists will tell you their favorite artists include Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder. They overcame a linguistic barrier because the music has a language all its own.
Other times, people mean: “Black people should stick with black stuff; stay in your lane.” This is my lane! My interest in Asian cultures is not new: watching Saturday morning kung-fu theatre, running home to watch Star Blazers, taking four years of Japanese in college, being ecstatic that we finally got a Three Kingdoms movie in John Woo’s Red Cliff, and now, writing on K-pop. K-pop has particular resonance for blacks because it’s a hybrid style of music, combining black music and Korean elements. I wonder why more black people aren’t into K-pop. Even my mama likes K-pop! I recognize black elements in K-pop, but also like Korean culture.
To suggest that black people should only engage in black culture runs counter to the history of cultural production of black people. I follow a long line of African Americans who also pursued a passion for Asian cultures, including Du Bois, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, iona rozeal brown and the Wu-Tang Clan. Black culture has ALWAYS been hybrid. Blackness has always been multidimensional. Black people have always been cosmopolitan. I feel that in making an argument for the legitimacy of black culture, some people have taken the extreme view that the “real” black experience is a narrow one, often associated with urban life, grounded in an unrelenting daily struggle against the forces of racism and discrimination. While these are aspects of the lived experience of my blacks, they are not the ONLY barometer of black experience. I think that we forget that there is black joy; that our music and art and film and literature is about a larger experience. The tom-tom laughs AND cries, y’all.
So, I doubt I’ll stop getting asked this question, and I’m happy to explain as well as remind people that it is ridiculous to put artificial barriers on who can like what based on who they are.