Who Can Speak For K-pop?

While K-pop appeals to a variety to people, often those who are called to speak about it in English are white. The absence of the diversity of voices that make up the fandom and commentators presents a distorted view of K-pop culture, and can limit the kinds of stories we hear about K-pop’s spread around the world.

Because fandom does not exist outside of societies and cultures, the dynamics of race and ethnicity often follow individuals into fan circles.  One need only look at the fan reaction to the way the film The Hunger Games dealt with the representation of characters.

This is pertinent for K-pop because as visual evidence and Internet activity shows,  K-pop draws many different kinds of people.  I have discussed the diversity of K-pop fandom, as has others.   In 2011, XXXtine explained why we should not be surprised at the diversity that K-pop attracts:  “International fans, regardless of ethnicity, tend to reason why they like it so much is because US mainstream music is boring, and that a certain kind of entertainment is missing. ” Ethel Navales made the same observation about attendees at KCON 2013:  “The stage was covered with Caucasians, Latinos, African Americans, and various other non-Asian folk. Not only did East Asians show their presence, but Southeast Asians and South Asians did as well.”

However, media tends to gravitate towards fans that do not reflect this diversity.  Kyung Lah opens her piece for CNN with footage of Eli Alexander, whom she describes as “a white kid from Utah.”   In addition, she seems taken aback when she encounters a group of black K-pop fans at 2012’s KCON convention, stating that “you’re not really the demographic I think of when I think of K-pop.”

When Time ran a feature on K-pop fandom, Lily Rothman focused on one of the smallest demographics in K-pop fandom: the over-40 white male:  “Uncle fans—also called by the Korean word for “uncle,” commonly written in English as “ahjussi” or “ahjusshi”—are defined as male K-pop fans who are 30 or older. One of those fans is Stephen Knight, a 47-year-old Nashville lawyer who runs the website kpopularity.com and was recently chosen to participate in a show about the wide array of K-pop fans out there.”

Of course there are white K-pop fans, but these two stories single out white fans, thereby downplaying other kinds of fans. In doing so, they perpetuate the notion that other people of color are not expected to be K-pop fans.  Not only are there plenty of K-pop fans of color, they are vocal.  Fans of many ethnicities are making reaction videos on YouTube. One thing that you get from non-white K-pop fans often is some attention to the intersection between ethnicity and K-pop. This video by saraseoul alludes to the implications of the non-Asian K-pop fan:

Paying attention to ethnicity also reveals the way K-pop fans experience K-pop culture, which is not always welcoming.  Sometimes fans of color feel K-pop culture sidesteps issues certain important issues related to ethnicity, gender, and Western cultural dominance.    For example, todiedreaming draws attention to the way Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi fame do not talk about the impact of ethnicity or nationality on what they do:

Simon and Martina always talk or “joke” about how people will point at them in the street and yell “foreigner” or how rude ajummas can be; and for two people who have lived in Korea for a considerable amount of time they don’t know Korean, and they always dismiss it because people adjust to them not knowing conversational Korean. So, I finally figured out what bothered me and seemed off to me about Simon and Martina: They are giving their account of living in a foreign country from a white, privileged stand-point, and tend to over-amplify and sometimes over-simplify a lot about life in South Korea.

Simon and Martina are K-pop celebrities in their own right. They are often invited to participate in K-pop events and are frequently interviewed for their insights on and knowledge about K-pop.  James Little of Groove Korea stated:  “Eat Your Kimchi is now the top source of information on K-pop in English.”  As purveyors and beneficiaries of Korean popular culture, todiedreaming points out that they do not address certain subjects.   Given their high profile, one could argue that such a failure may skew the perception of Korean popular culture.  It’s not that white commentators like Simon and Martina are inherently problematic.  However, they are frequently the voices most listened to and those voices obscure other perspectives in K-pop.

When you look to a variety of people to provide information or insight, you get a more comprehensive view of K-pop.   A cursory look at YouTube will reveal a large number of people of color from multiple countries offering responses to K-pop, ranging from humorous observations to critical commentary.  Moreover, there are K-pop media outlets that depend on a variety of perspectives. Green Tea Graffitti features staff from around the world who address many aspects of Asian popular culture, including K-pop. seoulbeats describes itself as “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.” It feature a diverse rosters of writers who provide a wide variety of commentary on K-pop.  This has a direct relationship to the kinds of commentary they feature.  Seoulbeats writers have tackled representations of femininity, the use of English in K-pop, and race.

Having a diversity of perspectives provides richer commentary and wider coverage of K-pop.  These rich sources need to be called upon more often to avoid the perception that the only people who can speak about K-pop are white.


“K-pop Goes Global.” CNNYouTube. 5 Feb 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

“My Opinion of Simon and Martina.” Malisma, coño. nd. Web. 25 Oct 2013.

Navales, Ethel.  “Proof that Kpop Is Not Just For Koreans.”  Audrey Magazine. 27 Aug 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Rothman, Lily.  “K-pop’s Unlikeliest Fans: Middle-Age Males.” Time. 2 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

saraseoul. “For Those Weird Non-Korean Fans of K-pop.” YouTube. 4 Aug 2013. Web. 27 Oct 2013.

XXXtine, “Non-Asians Listen to K-pop (And This Is Not News).” 8Asians. 12 Apr 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

8 thoughts on “Who Can Speak For K-pop?

  1. This was a very well written piece about K-pop and I am very glad that I have stumbled across it. A lot of the points you have mentioned are really similar to my own opinion but the way you have articulated these ideals are a lot more coherent than what I can muster up and it definitely hit the nail on the head. Keep up the amazing work 🙂

  2. Thank you for this article/blog. Your blog is right on point! If non-Asian keep VOICING there true, sincere opinions, ONE DAY THINGS WILL CHANGE.
    I attended Kcon 2013, and I had a great experience out in L.A. I’m glad that I did not encounter any type/kind of bias during the convention. I MUST SAY, IT WAS NICE SEEING WITH MY EYES, ALL WALKS OF LIFE, celebrating K-Pop, and all things hallyu!:)

  3. Couldn’t have said it any better. I have been listening to Royal Pirates Shout Out since it came out in August. The video only had, at most, 40,000 views until it jumped to 100,000 views and I could see the comment section filled with ” Simon and Martina brought me here.” And thus the long and never ending comments of recommendations.

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