How Does It Feel To Be A Question?: That (Black) Girl and K-pop

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.

(Black) Man With The Iron Fists: RZA’s Foray Into Kung Fu Film
Poster of RZA’s film Man With the Iron Fists

This week saw the release of first images and the official trailer of RZA’s long-awaited homage to kung-fu film, Man With the Iron Fists. Not only does the film represent a new chapter in the long love-affair between African Americans and Asian culture, it reminds us how long that love affair has been.

I think some people are anticipating this more than others. In one online community, reaction was distinctly muted.  Some predict that this is  going to be a crappy movie. We all know that if we could really determine if a film was crappy just from an image or a trailer, most of us would have fuller wallets.  Bad films can have talented people attached to them; good films can get marred by the skewed vision of a few.

I’m dismayed by such a reaction, given the trajectory of the Hong Kong film industry, a film industry that owes quite a lot to kung fu films and wuxia, two genres that are routinely characterized as “low culture.”  However, the elite directors over which critics fawn routinely cite their work in and the influence of those two genres.  Poshek Fu notes:  “As Ang Lee recently revealed, the shaping influences of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were the numerous Shaw Brothers costume dramas and musicals he watched as he was growing up in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s” (1).  Let’s not forget where those Hong Kong Bruce Lee films came from.

Not only did some of the most significant Hong Kong film directors get their start in kung fu films at the studios of Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers, they did so in films most of us have never seen. Let’s face it: many of these films are nowhere near Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon material.  But the allowed today’s talent to hone their craft, and created significant followings around the world.

One of the most significant followings is among African Americans in the United States.  Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua notes that in contrast to the American audience for action film, presumed to be “young, white, working-class males,” “the black martial arts audience. . .  complicates, if not transcends, the class, gender and generational limitations of action films’ traditional spectators.  A broader cross-section of the black community is attracted to this film genre” (200).

Cha-Jua refers to film scholar David Desser’s explanation for the appeal:  “He advances two interconnected arguments: First, besides blaxploitation, kung fu films were the only films with nonwhite heroes and heroines; second, they concerned an ‘underdog of color, often fighting against the colonialist enemies, white culture, or the Japanese'” (200).

So we can’t be surprised at the Afro-Asian connection in kung fu films. What may be surprising is what RZA has done with Man with the Iron Fists.  I remember reading when he went to China to film. Not the place you expect to see a black man. Filming a movie. A kung fu movie. If you look at the cast, you see all kinds of folk involved; Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Quentin Tarantino.  If nothing else, this is a new chapter in that it represents, to a certain degree, African Americans articulating their own response to Asian popular culture in film.

Will this film be just another example of what some see as the rampant commercialization and low quality of contemporary Hong Kong film? Maybe. Or maybe it will take all the stuff you love about Saturday afternoon kung fu and raise to a new, ridiculously crazy level. Is it going to push some buttons about race, gender, violence and appropriation? Sure will! Have you seen the trailer?

The poster and trailer invite commentary, but let’s not pretend that any of this is new and, more importantly, not part of the legacy of kung fu films.  C’mon, we all know what we are here for.


Fu, Poshek. “Introduction: The Shaw Brothers Diasporic Cinema,” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,  2008).  1-26.

Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita.  “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation and Kung Fu Films, and challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity,” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,  2008). 199-223.