K-pop and Hip Hop

While we can all agree that hip-hop has had an impact on K-pop, we don’t all agree on what that impact is.  Some writers tend to define hip-hop solely in terms of oppression and discrimination experienced by African Americans. This reduces the complexity of the experiences of African Americans, distorts the genre of hip-hop,  and potentially simplifies any analysis of K-pop and hip-hop.

One of the most-repeated characterizations of hip hop is that it is the solely product of and response to the oppression and discrimination experienced by African Americans.  While the topic appears in forums and other discussion venues, Seoulbeats frequently addresses this topic, in part or as the central theme of its pieces.  Seoulbeats writers are “interested in not only the news, but what the news implicates about the culture. We love our pop, and we also love analyzing it.”  The site represents “a collection of many authors with many different opinions, united by a love of taking apart and facilitating discussion on a deeper level of everything associated with K-pop” (“About”).

Several of these analyses involving K-pop and hip-hop tend to define hip hop  primarily in terms of its relationship to oppression and discrimination.   Most recently,  in “Aegyo Hip Hop: Cultural Appropriation at Its Messiest,” Mark defines hip-hop this way:  “Hip hop – a genre of music developed by African-Americans that has evolved from an underground movement meant to give voice to the socially oppressed to a worldwide phenomenon that has been mainstreamed into submission. . . .  To don a bandana on one’s head or a handkerchief around one’s face is a reference to the American ghettos in which hip hop was born and nourished.”  In “K-pop and Cultural Appropriation: ‘Cool’ Culture,” Jen writes:  “The growing rap and hip-hop movement’s purpose was the provide an outlet as a result of the discrimination and oppression felt by the Black community.”

Black Experiences

The experiences of black people in the United States may be influenced by racism and oppression, but they are not defined by racism and oppression. What’s the difference? Most black people do not wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and go, “Still oppressed? Check!”  To reduce the complex, beautiful, creative and often contradictory experiences of African Americans to oppression does not match the actual experience of blacks.

Eugene Holley Jr. recently wrote about what he calls African American pessimism:  “I’ve pointed out to them that while racism is not dead, it certainly is dead-on-arrival as the unmoving, unchanging, unwavering force that conscripts the black, brown and beige to the gray hells of second-class citizenship. . . . Those horrors are real. But what is also real is that against unimaginable odds, we are still here. We forged ourselves, with the full, white weight of the Western world bearing down us, into what W.E.B. Du Bois called ‘a small nation of people.’ This black nation is united less by any single African, pre-American past than by what Ralph Ellison termed ‘an identity of passions.’ We are a multicolored branch of humanity that won a centuries-spanning struggle that liberated master and slave.”

Hip-hop is not the product of a beat down and broken people who can only talk about what ‘The Man” has done to them. That’s not all hip hop has to say about black experiences.  Hip hop voices also the joy, fears and head-scratching responses black people have to life.

The Heart of Hip-Hop

In addition to providing a critical voice, hip-hop also represents a mode of diverse creative expression.  In an interview with Nelson George, hip-hop pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash weigh in on the issue of “real” hip hop:

BAM: They’re ignorant. They don’t know the true forms of hip-hop. Just like I tell ’em, you got all styles of hip-hop, you gotta take hip-hop for what it is. You got your hard beats, you got your gangsta rap, you got your electro-funk sound which came from the party rock sound, you got your Miami bass, you got the go-go from DC.  We was playin’ go-go years ago. . . . All of this was part of hip-hop.

FLASH:  It’s all about different tastes. It could be hard drums like a Billy Squire record. It could be the bass hitting and drums soft like “Seven Minutes of Funk.” It could have the hallway echo effect of “Apache.” (50).

Both Bambaataa and Flash focus on variety in hip-hop, so attempts to reduce hip-hop to one genre goes counter to its central impulse.  In addition, both focus on the cultural mixing that is inherent to hip-hop.  Hip-hop itself is founded on the aesthetic of sampling.  William Eric Perkins writes:  “This technological breakthrough [the mixing and remixing of samples] allowed DJs to exploit an infinite number of samples from vinyl, advertising, jingles, television sitcom themes, and movie sound tracks. It is sampling and mixing that gives rap music its self-renewing character” (8). This means that ANYTHING can be sampled, and DJs were not limited to black music, or even American music. Not only does Bambaataa trace his musical tastes to the likes of Motown, James Brown, Stax, Isaac Hayes, Barbara Streisand, the Beatles, the Who and Led Zepplin, he used this background in his DJ-ing:

When I came on the scene after him I built in other types of records and I started getting a name for master of records. I started playing all forms of music. . . . when everybody was going crazy I would throw a commercial on to cool them out–I’d throw on The Pink Panther theme for everybody who thought they were cool like the Pink Panther, and then I would play “Honky Tonk Woman by The Rolling Stones and just keep that beat going. I’d play something from metal rock records like Grand Funk Railroad. (Toop, 238).

This mixing contributes directly to the global spread and appeal of hip-hop. Tony Mitchell writes, “[Rap and hip-hop culture] are also used as the basis for musical experimentations that combine local vernacular traditions and influences with break beats, scratching, MCing and signifying adapted from U.S. hip-hop” (10).

Because hip-hop is largely about this kind of creative artistry, hip-hop artists use it in various ways. According to the people who make hip-hop, hip-hop allows for that kind of freedom. So socially-conscious hip-hop is not more “true”  than party hip-hop; it’s one of many modes of hip hop. To define all hip-hop by its engagement with social and political issues ignores the aesthetics hip-hop and strips its impact as a global cultural movement.

Hip-Hop and K-pop

So, if hip-hop is not solely the product of the oppression of black people, and if hip-hop itself is a versatile form of cultural expression, then simplistic critiques about the intersection of hip-hop and K-pop need to examined more closely.  For socially-conscious hip-hop, this often translates into something like “only black people can ‘really understand’ the oppression being expressed.  For example, a comment on the K-pop Reddit states:  “The music and the artistry of hip hop is fair game, but the aesthetics which particularly belong to African-American culture aren’t meant to be freely transmitted to other cultures, especially to one which doesn’t share a similar history of oppression!”  Others, like Salima, suggest that K-pop artists can’t understand:  “”The problem seems to be that K-pop groups are quite familiar with the surface of rap and hip-hop culture, but don’t understand the implications of certain images. Rather, they consume the culture without comprehending it, then regurgitate the incomplete leftovers.”

So if your blues ain’t like my blues they ain’t blues? These kinds of comments ignore Japanese colonization of Korea or the devastating effects of the Korean War.  As Jeff Chang notes, hip-hip culture spoke to the experience of Korean youth:  “These Korean hip-hop heads were the first generation to grow up after authoritarian rule. Those before them had come of age on the front lines of demonstrations against American-backed dictators. But these youths lived under relative, if yet unstable, democracy and prosperity.They were also mostly working-class outsiders.” It seems to me that it’s a great generalization to assume that Koreans who are into hip-hop don’t understand the social message that makes up part of the culture of hip-hop.

Are such assumptions based only on high-profile examples of cultural borrowing that may raise an eyebrow? How do you know what someone knows or comprehends? Are K-pop artists solely responsible for the production of these images and the music? Where do producers, managers and executives come in? How much of the critique extends to Yang Hyun Suk, president of YG Entertainment, the company that represents K-pop artists like BigBang, a group that is often the target of charges of appropriation? The same Yang Hyun Suk who was in Seo Taiji and Boys almost 20 years ago, the first hip-hop group in Korea? What do we assume about what Yang knows about black culture?

But let’s go beyond politically-minded hip-hop. Mainstream K-pop gets hit often with charges of “inauthenticity,” but often such groups are measured by some unsaid standard.  In “An Open Letter to Taeyang,” Cynthia writes:  “Look, I am a big fan of infusing different cultures and inspirations together in music, and I’m all about seeing different interpretations of certain styles, when done appropriately.”  In “K-pop’s Disconnect With ‘Authentic’ Hip Hop Culture,” Salima writes:  “In fact, I didn’t consider the “rap sections” in K-Pop songs to be actual raps. Just talky lyrics sprinkled with random, strange, and repetitive English lyrics.”

What is the “appropriate” infusion of different cultures? Without stating the criteria, such sweeping generalizations undercuts the critique. What is “good” appropriation and “bad” appropriation? Is there some other way of talking about appropriation? Who gets to make the decision and what is that based on, especially for a genre of music based on mixing and sampling? In some ways, Cynthia’s position is very subjective, and some might argue paternalistic, reflecting a kind of Western bias to the cultural production by an Eastern culture.  For Salima, “real” rap is not “just talky.” That’s what she thinks, but hip hop artists like Chuck D note the impact of  artists like The Last Poets on hip-hop:  “The thing about the Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron is that they were into a jazz-type approach, doing poetry over a beat. When rap music came along, it was poetry over a beat too, but in time” (Dery 412).  Some might describe The Last Poets’ “Jazzoetry” as “just talky:”

Now calm down, I’m not arguing that the use of rap in popular K-pop carries the same social significance as The Last Poets, but what I am saying is that they are doing the same thing: talking over a beat. So how is K-pop “just talky lyrics?”  We can talk about the significance of the rap, the meaning of rap in K-pop across groups and artists, who may have the best flow, but the critique of mere use of rap in K-pop is a reach.

I’d just like to see more writers show more depth in the way they talk about hip-hop as a mode of black culture and its use by K-pop. Thanks!



“About.” Seoulbeats. Web. 20 Jan 2103.

Chang, Jeff.  “So You Think They Can Break-Dance?” Salon. 26 Jun 2008. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

Cynthia.  “An Open Letter to Taeyang.” Seoulbeats. 15 Jan 2013. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

Dery, Mark. “Public Enemy: Confrontation.” That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 407-420.

George, Nelson. “Hip-Hop’s Founding Fathers Speak the Truth.” That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 45-55.

Holley Jr., Eugene.  “Wake Up, People! How to Get Past African-American Pessimism in the Age of Obama.” Alternet. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

Jen. “K-pop and Cultural Appropriation: ‘Cool’ Culture.” Seoulbeats. 24 Aug 2012. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

Mark. “Aegyo Hip Hop: Cultural Appropriation at Its Messiest.” Seoulbeats. 5 Jan 2013. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

paolo berto. “The Last Poets – Jazzoetry.” YouTube. 8 Sept 2011. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

Perkins, William Eric.  “The Rap Attack: An Introduction.” Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Ed. William Eric Perkins. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. 1-45.

Salima. “K-pop’s Disconnect With ‘Authentic’ Hip Hop Culture.” Seoulbeats. 8 Aug 2012. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

Toop, David.  “Uptown Throwdown.” That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 233-245.

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2 thoughts on “K-pop and Hip Hop

  1. I actually haven’t read this post until today but looking back I agree with a lot of the points you make here. The problem with a lot of the K-pop blogsphere is that it tends to simplify a lot of things in order to cater to their readership (teens and young adults) and many times it comes at the expense of nuance and sophistication.

    To defend my original post and thesis, I was attempting to dissect the cultural baggage that came with the terms aegyo and hip hop but to also do it in a way that would appeal to my readership and to demonstrate how the merger of these two terms may potentially conflict. In retrospect, however, I realize that there is perhaps a bit of an exclusionary sentiment that many readers inferred from it.

    I really like your point about how it’s ultimately futile to assume the level of hip hop knowledge of any artist and use that as an argument for or against the artist’s authenticity. Essentially, who’s to say that 50 Cent (or those who write his tracks) has any greater knowledge of hip hop than Yang Hyun-suk and Big Bang? I’m realizing that a lot of these arguments come from a place of racial territoriality where some may feel that Koreans performing a genre that traditionally belonged to African-Americans is in some ways impeding on the progress and achievements of the genre.

    On the flip side, cultural appropriation is harmful when it dilutes something that is symbolic by using it as an aesthetic. Whether it’s bandanas, cornrows, or Female President, I certainly understand why people find offense in seeing something they hold in high regard being handled with so little care of what symbolic significance it holds.

    Thanks for your thorough research and pointing out the flaws in attempting to simplify the issue. I’ve learned a lot from your posts and I even gave a bit of a shout out in a satire piece I did on the topic.

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