Of Misconceptions About Cultural Appropriation in K-pop

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.


18 thoughts on “Of Misconceptions About Cultural Appropriation in K-pop

  1. As a minor subpoint regarding the cultural appropriation discussion to complement your critique, it’s also important to note the context of the cultural hegemony that Western, especially American, media has in the world. Because of the reach of American media’s power, everyone in the world is exposed to its pop culture and, consequently, it’s not surprising that with such heavy bombardment that elements of American culture eventually become normalized in other cultures, even without an appropriate context. Even if the root of this normalization, and sometimes even acculturation, is based in corporate misappropriation of American Black and Latino cultures, it’s also important to consider the power differential between American media and countries around the world that are influenced by its long reach.

    That said, while the existing criticism that you cite don’t have that nuance and depth of reasoning, I do think it’s good that they are continuing the discussion and creating a context for their readers to discover those involved nuances. I also don’t think that it makes sense for these groups to focus on cultural appropriation in the US since that is not what their intended work is about and would derail them from their point. There is most certainly cultural misappropriation and racism going on in K-pop and I think it’s better that people are expressing their emotional response to it, even if not a reasoned essay, than to be silent. At least it creates an avenue for discussion where commentators like the one on Reddit can bring in that very nuance that is missing from the original pieces.

    Thanks for writing, Crystal.

  2. Thanks so much for your insights and for your blog. As a newcomer to kdrama and kpop (15 months), I was immediately struck by the beautiful music, then by the definite cultural influences evident in said music, no matter what genre it was. I’ve even heard Latin influences. As a daughter of the Puerto Rican diaspora, raised in the West Side of Chicago, the R&B influences were the most striking to me. And how could it NOT be an influence, if you love music? Sometimes I listen to kpop and am transported back in time to our little social center/house party dances!

    Also am in complete agreement with refresh’s response. I can understand some kpop artists wanting to make the crossover into the Western market from a $$ point of view. But it sort of, idk, distracts me sometimes when I hear English phrases in a beautiful Korean song. (Except for 4men’s Can We Love Again? ’cause it’s in the background.) But that’s just me. Very few Latin singers/groups have been able to crossover “successfully” and I don’t especially welcome the implications of such crossovers.

    1. I think that the Western market not only offers monetary gain but also a certain amount of prestige: if one can make it in the US, it really says something if you are an Asian act (so the thinking goes).

      I am a strong proponent of K-pop keeping the K! 😀 The English phrases don’t bother me, maybe because I’ve always heard them in K-pop.

      The crossover success is fraught with pitfalls! :O

  3. I am so glad that you were here to so eloquently and clearly express what was so jumbled up in my mind.

    I would just like to add that there is a silent alarm going off in the back of my mind when I read angry rants against cultural appropriation. I can’t help but feel that their message is that we should all stay separated. As a European who is madly in love with a Korean, I see true beauty and need in mixing of cultures, even if it is sometimes done just on the surface.

    Also, standing up against cultural appropriation is presenting the world as if the cultures just recently started mixing and were totally separate entities. I’m sure that any deeper look into any particular culture will reveal that it is not “pure” but rather intricate and complex mixture of countless other cultures it has come in contact with over thousands of years.

  4. As of lately or specifically 2012-2013, I had noticed Appropriation coming up a lot. Im black raised in Chicago. Grew up threw in head first into hip hop by my mom. So to listen to another genre of music and hear pieces and influence of hip hop in there warms my heart. At first I blew it to the side. Like yeah whatevever they like hip hop blah blah blah, but the more it started to come up specifically with YG Ent. being the main subject (I’m YG bias), I started trying to learn more about it. And I still feel like blowing it to the side. I always say if you look to get offended then you’ll get offended. When I see little piece of Black culture in K-Pop, I get excited because I think that theu wouldn’t know about it. And I take pride in it. Then I see post about ofbthis and that idol did black face which I completely understand people would get abit upset about it. I mean it makes me feel awkward then for non black kpop fans to kind of bash the onesthat are offended by it be hypocritcal. Like see it from our stand point. If they did something cultural insensitive you would be a bit hurt by it too. But we as kpop fans got to understand and kind of forget that kpop comes from a homogeneous country. I’m sure they have seen maybe even met blacks and etc but its more to it than meeting. Ill admit I wish that kpop would kind of educate themselves about other cultures more especially since a lot of them are trying to cross over into America because the cultural ignorance would not be seen as ignorance if they did some of the stuff they have done. I really do appreciate this post. It really made things clear for me. And sorry if my comment is serious scatter brained. -__-

    1. Right. When it comes to popular music, you’re going to find a bigger percentage of young Koreans listening to American artists than you’ll find young Americans listening to Korean artists. American labels are pretty relentless in pushing their product overseas. Even if Billboard has dedicated a chart to K-pop sales and airplay in the U.S., it’s still a very niche market. If someone is accusing the Koreans of cultural appropriation, When it comes to the saturation of K-pop vs American pop music in the international marketplace, Korea can still claim being the more “marginalized” culture.

      If the Korean kids have grown up with American music and fashion, it has become a part of their culture.

  5. By posting what I posted in another forum about this article I’m probably destroying my internet anonymity but oh well this is important.

    Basically, I said this in response:

    Well, to write a full response to the blatant inaccuracies in that article would require it’s own essay but the thesis of my essay would be this:

    This article fails to take into account the historical context of racism, racial hierarchy, and balance of power. This article is assuming that the borrowing is neutral. It’s not and never will be, sorry not sorry. It’s not the same as people in third world countries ending up with smartphones.

    Among other things, it is about how authentic cultural artifacts are trivialized and robbed of their significance (like the prevalence of Buddhist statues in modern home decor), and/or one race being praised (or seen as cool) for doing something that the orignating culture is shamed for.

    I’ll even use my mistaken idea about this as an example. Not that long ago, I did not take culture appropriation (hereafter known as “CA” here) in kpop articles seriously, so I couldn’t see how it was CA of SM to style Kai in cornrows. I thought the cornrows on Kai were sooo cute (but really, Kai is just adorable because he’s Kai), and as a black person, I didn’t “feel” offended. As I and this blogger failed to understand is that CA is not about how any individual feels as much as it is about the reality of racism. It’s true that cornrows have been shamed and have a negative connotation when used by black people (for example, in some places there are still bans on cornrows in the workplace). In Kai’s case, I saw them as “cute”, but this ignores that while SM can remove Kai’s cornrows and Kai can escape the negative connotation that cornrows still have, a black man or woman wearing cornrows because they are a practical style for his/her hair type cannot. They get told to take them out if they want to be taken seriously, like when interviewing for a job. This is just one example about how borrowing in this way is never neutral, so it is important to be aware of it.

    It’s not surprising that we aren’t aware of it, since CA is a common offense that Westerners are often guilty of, but when it is pointed out it should be addressed.

    -Now I will say that there are many many ironies presented in the blog post, the most glaring of which is that you say people who write about CA are just basing it on emotion. You’re doing that yourself! Besides the fact that their opinion is backed up by historical facts about racism, you’re basing your blog post on the idea that you don’t feel offended, therefore it’s not offensive (NOPE!). And really, if people were going by pure emotion on this issue, they would just ragequit kpop and be done with it.

    TL;DR: Sorry I don’t have one. I did my best to make even that short but when it comes to context about CA, it’s hard to explain a complicated issue in just a few sentences.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      My article is not about whether people feel offended or not: if you reread it, it’s about the failure to qualify or explain or support their positions about cultural appropriation. If everything is cultural appropriation, then nothing is. You may disagree with my argument, but it is well-supported by various kinds of evidence (Richard Rogers, Michele Catalano). It takes into account not only historic instances of negative cultural appropriation, but also the long history of cultural exchange in African American culture. When peoples and cultures migrate, it is inevitable that there is cultural exchange, and if that is the case, then any culture can engage in it. My point is to try to get individuals to qualify their criticism of cultural appropriation and not be so general. This gets even more complicated when you consider the histories of African Americans and Koreans, both of whom are ethnic groups who have suffered discrimination. Are the power relations the same as between whites and blacks in segregation-era United States? What about when African Americans borrow from other ethnic cultures. Does “Man with the Iron Fists” ring a bell? Who is borrowing from whom and why are key issues that often get sidestepped when people are having emotional reactions. Many cultures are hybridized, and I’d like people to be more specific rather than generalizing when they see one culture borrow things from another culture.

      Your comment also overlooks the historical tradition of interracial cultural exchange (see Motown). How does that factor into cultural appropriation?

      1. Hey I just came back to this because I don’t really get notified when I get a response to my posts on this medium (something I can’t stand!).

        But I think this is the most important point you raised:
        “Are the power relations the same as between whites and blacks in segregation-era United States?”

        Here’s the thing: Even cultural appropriation between people of color is due to the history of white supremacy, due to the international reach that white American media had and continues to have. Yes, there are some native Korean people who are wary of black people (especially black men) coming to their country because they are seen as “thugs”. On our end, black people are guilty of making kung-fu jokes about East Asians. We have to take responsibility for that and stop that stuff immediately, but at the same time we can acknowledge that the white media’s representation of both of our cultures plays a big part in how we perceive each other.

        As for the other points: yes, when you read tthe many CA in kpop (and other places) articles online, they will appear “general” because honestly if someone doesn’t “get” CA they can educate themselves with a google search — they do not actually have to meticulously define CA every time the issue comes up. Yes, they are allowed to be emotional, not always “objective” and “analytical” and that’s okay. This can hurt people. It’s elitist to think that a dissertation needs to be written every time.

        Motown actually proves my point more than yours — white people would make money from “covering” songs made by black people, whereas the tracks made by black people would be written off as just “race music”. This is the very definition of CA. And…Elvis, anyone?

        “If everything is cultural appropriation, then nothing is.”

        This is the most puzzling statement in your whole response, seeing as how it’s blatantly dismissive of valid critiques from people who are genuinely offended. It’s like how when minorities are accused of “making everything about race” while pointing out very real instances of racism. Very bizarre statement.

      2. I agree that the media plays a large role in how both cultures appear to each other.

        We may have to disagree on how people use cultural appropriation, because I think words and their meanings matter, and I don’t think people are always using it in the same way, so misreadings and misinterpretations occur.

        In terms of Motown, yes white people made money covering R&B songs known as race music, but at the same time, music created and performed by black music became so popular that at one point Billboard just eliminated the R&B category because R&B music WAS the popular music. Black people have had more control over what they produce creatively than I think we often give them credit for.
        Both of these things occurred at the same time. Just because whites covered black music does not mean that black people didn’t make their own music and didn’t borrow from other cultures to make that music.

        Once again, I acknowledge that people are emotional when it comes to cultural appropriation, but that is not the point of the post. See here from the post: “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.” This statement acknowledges that people respond emotionally (and I don’t say that they can’t), but I’m focusing on people who distinctly say they are doing analysis, not responding emotionally. Both the tumblr and Angry K-pop fan position themselves as educating others, not merely sharing their opinion. So yea, if you say that you are being critical, than your critique should be supported with evidence and have some logic.

        And yes, if we call every instance of cultures adopting other cultures (which happens anyway with all cultures), than substantial charges of racism and negative appropriation will fall of deaf ears.

    2. Cultural appropriation has more to do with a culturally exclusive practice or item from a marginalized culture being exploited. Someone sampling tribal drumming or “inventing” a dance based on a custom’s ritual would be appropriation. An artist building a style around a commercially available form of popular music (which is not exclusive) would not.

      Radio stations having a “whites only” policy that promotes white artists covering music originally written or performed by black artists and songwriters isn’t appropriation, it’s the racism of “cultural purity”. The real tragedy was not that the original R&B artists songs were sung by white people, it’s that the original artists were blocked from being heard by the much larger audiences they deserved.

      When you argue against cultural appropriation, just make sure you’re not arguing for cultural exclusivity in pop music. Otherwise, your arguing the same thing that those “whites only” radio station owners were arguing back in the 50s. The only way to prevent white kids from borrowing from black artists is to prevent them from hearing it in the first place, and that’s a step backwards.

      1. Thanks for your comment!

        My post was more about how others were using cultural appropriation in a fast and loose way, often to cover things that are the result of inevitable cultural exchange. So, in your example, some people, like the ones I cite, would argue that the building would also be cultural appropriation. Your radio station example, as you indicate,is straight up racism, and beyond the purview of my post.

        I’m not arguing for cultural exclusivity; some of the people I cite do. I actually argue for more nuanced use of the “charge” of cultural appropriation by others, because if everything is cultural appropriation, then we leave no room for cultural exchange from which numerous cultural forms have benefited.

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