Not Korean? Say “bye bye” to your K-pop dreams…

Recently, a K-pop boyband called “EXP Edition”, a band made up entirely of white guys, has now moved to Korea to be in it for the long haul, winning a new-comers award there in 2017…. But, not everyone is overjoyed. Foreign K-pop fans condemn the boyband for “mocking” the K-pop culture and being “disrespectful”. It seems that if you aren’t Korean then you cannot become a K-pop star…

…but why ever not?

First, let’s define “K-pop”

Since the main discussion centres around the ownership of K-pop, it makes sense to brush up on its definition here….

Ana Sobu / Ana A Raisin

After 40 years of Japanese occupation, South Korea reveled in Western culture, incorporating elements of it along with Japanese culture. So in the end, K-pop is essentially a hybrid genre influenced by styles and genres from around the world such as experimental, rock, jazz, soul, techno, disco, house, Afrobeats, gospel, hip hop, R&B, reggae, electronic dance, folk, country, and even classical.

As to its Korean side, K-pop is speculated to have traditional Korean music roots, but honestly the only real Korean aspect is in the performance (안무). This includes: synchronized dance moves, “formation changes” (자리바꿈), and “point dance” (포인트 안무, a choreography of hooking and repetitive movements). It is all is meticulously designed and woven together to highlight the message, or lyrics in the song.

Source Music / commons.wikimedia

Experimentation with, and integration of different styles and genres of music has always been a key feature of K-pop, especially from the ’90s.

From the ’90s, groups like “Seo Taiji and Boys” (1992) have helped to expand K-pop’s popularity and push the Korean wave, or Hallyu wave further. In the 2010s we also saw a revival signalled by the appearance of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012.

However, what ultimately makes K-pop so hard to define is the fact that it is not entirely just a musical genre.

When “borrowing” musical styles from around the world, K-pop also imported the idol culture that had previously taken-off in Japan in the late ’90s. From this point onwards K-pop developed into this cult-like subculture. A member from the group EXP Edition elaborated to the BBC that ‘K-pop music itself is less defined by the sounds’ and more about ‘other non-musical elements’ like the intense idol training system, variety shows, and glossy music video productions.

A brief history of “EXP-Edition”

It all started out as a project for sociologist Bora Kim’s master of fine arts thesis at Columbia University in 2014 titled IMABB (I’m Making A Boy Band).

Along side her two project partners, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, Bora Kim had developed a hypothesis about what it would be like to start a K-pop boy group made up entirely of non-Koreans that represented New York. She then recorded the entire process to create a documentary film.

IMABB team

The boyband was was comprised initially of 6 members (as opposed to the current 4). They had no Korean heritage nor spoke Korean and when they released their first song “LUV/WRONG” in 2016, it wasn’t entirely well-recieved because of their aesthetic and weird Korean pronunciation at the time.

Nevertheless, 4 of the 6 members expressed a desire to (the now graduated) Bora Kim to push through to Korea. They had launched a kickstarter and raised $30,000 as well as gained additional investment from a private investor.

On moving to Korea, the real work for the group began…

‘The boys were learning Korean and their dance and vocal instructors were all Korean… They were waking everyday at 6AM to practice. Whenever they talk about those early days they tear up,’ says Bora Kim to BBC Asia.

In the summer of 2017 the group made their Korean debut, releasing a music video, performing live on a Korean variety show, and also recieving the new comers award. In June 2018, they were even invited to the prestigious Roskilde Festival in Denmark as the K-pop representative.

From all accounts, the members appear dedicated and try to show respect towards the idol system, kpop, and the Korean language and culture at every turn. EXP Edition even writes their own lyrics, being experienced in doing so, and have ambitions to become fluent in Korean so they can write all of their lyrics in Korean instead of writing them in English first then getting help with translation.

Check out their latest release if you haven’t yet!

Do Koreans care?

They have a different outlook on cultural appropriation

Honestly, for the most part many Koreans didn’t appear as outraged and were more amused than offended that foreigners were singing in Korean and adopting the K-pop aesthetic. The only fear that they had was that they were just playing a prank (which the group wasn’t by the way).

Really, it appears that Asians are more-or-less aware that K-pop is itself (ironically) a product of cultural appropriation. It brings us to the real question that Bora Kim wanted to put foward in her Masters thesis:

Is cultural appropriation really all that bad?

Crystal S. Anderson, a researcher in transnational American Studies and global Asia, says “no”. Cultural appropriation may be both positive and negative. Indeed, a lot of countries have participated in it when introducing Western aspects into their societies. Bora Kim, when speaking to VICE News, actually goes so far as to say that ‘when you look at K-pop, there’s nothing really that’s traditionally Korean.’

Unexpectedly, K-pop has been criticised for culturally borrowing and using ‘cornrows and bandanas in idol groups‘. Some notable Korean music critics claim that the entire industry was orchestrated by the government with commercial considerations in mind and that K-pop has practically no ties with traditional Korean identity.

Arguably, it is because of the very mixture of cultural influences in K-pop that it has such an appeal in the first place, so many are quite open to seeing a white boyband like EXP Edition in Korea (even though they are sceptical of their grasp of the Korean language).

Many echo Professor (Hongik University) Park Jang-soon’s perspective: ‘They may have a hard time expressing Korea’s cultural sentiments. However, from another point of view, they are certainly pushing the boundaries of the the Korean wave and helping the Korean wave craze last longer.’

Respect for the idol system, academies, and vigorous training…

The only solid criticism that comes to the surface from the Korean side seems to be linked to the fact that EXP Edition has essentially bypassed the torture that practically all idols have to go through before they finally get noticed and make their debut.

Much of the Korean music industry is managed by music company giants. K-pop idols train from a young age in academies before finally getting signed on to be part of an idol group, etc. The Korean idols experience many hardships; vocal practice, dance rehearsals, interview simulations, image management, language classes, and having to deal with low income and the like. Because of this, they are able to dance without fault, be pitch-perfect, and draw in many fans with their stunning looks.

At the end of the day, for EXP Edition, it’s like New York-based journalist and K-pop expert Jeff Benjamin notes:

‘EXP Edition can recreate the sound, the look, the vibe of K-pop acts, but they can’t recreate the literal blood sweat and tears that go into becoming a K-pop star and that is what makes them lack the ability to be called K-pop.’

It is precisely because of their dedicated work ethic and training background that idols are so respected in Korea. When watching all their idol’s intimate moments on screen, fans have come to expect perfection. And this will probably be the highest hurdle EXP Edition will have to tackle.

However, regardless of how much you complain about this, the reality remains. The members of EXP Edition are not teenagers and are frankly unable to go through this same process. They are able to go through the route that failed K-pop idols typically go though though… these routes normally consist of entering into competitions to gain exposure as they did on VICE‘s documentary.

Aware of the pressure, a member of EXP Edition noted to VICE News

‘Now, the only thing we can do is to make sure that we present ourselves and our work in the most respectful way possible.’

The perspective abroad…

Fans feeling a sense of ownership…

A lot of people comment on how a large majority of non-Korean K-pop fans feel the need to play ambassador to K-pop, wanting to “protect” something that is not really theirs to protect.

When EXP Edition first came out in 2016, many foreign K-pop fans were saying stuff like…

It’s ‘different from what I’m used to’!

It’s ‘not what they expected’!

EXP Edition is ‘not where they need to be’!

Honestly, though… why does it have to be so much to do with race!? Don’t worry, this white boyband is not a threat to K-pop or the industry, it’s only a threat to your perception of “K-pop”.

From one side, this reaction is understandable… It can rile up a lot of dedicated K-pop fans to suddenly see a group of white dudes trying to edge into the niche K-pop industry. It can almost seem invasive and rub you up the wrong way since it seems similar to models wearing “black face” and stealing opportunities from genuine black models. It is not uncommon to hear comments such as ‘EXP Edition just should have made their debut as an American pop group instead’ and ‘they are stealing opportunities from a minority’.

I would like to take note that the situation with EXP Edition is different from the issue of models doing “black face”.

K-pop is first and foremost just a musical genre and has absolutely nothing to do with race! The issue of EXP Edition not having the usual background of K-pop idols is also nothing to do with race. If anything, K-pop band actually do something similar. They add in non-Korean idols into their groups in an attempt to diversify!

Because of the language barrier, K-pop idols have been overwhelmingly Asian in aesthetic, leading many K-pop fans being unable to separate the “K” (or the “Korean” race) from the “pop” (the music). It is as Bora Kim stated to #Legend, ‘K-pop has become peoples’ understanding of Korea’. Some speculated on Reddit, suggesting that if EXP Edition member didn’t look all white and perhaps had a more Asian appearance then they might have been better received by foreign K-pop fans… laughably, this might actually just be lowkey racist in itself…

Colonialist past and “glass wall” phenomenon

It all links down to the West’s efforts in decolonialising and impressing upon everyone that our colonialist past was wrong. The racism and discrimination left over from slavery and colonialism has been pushed into almost every area of life, leading to what some might call “white guilt”.

This is kind of discourse with de-colonial roots does not play such a large role in the East. Bora Kim actually said to VICE News that pushing this type of “political correctness” and limiting the musical genre of K-pop to just South Korea is frankly ‘exoticising and deeming’, even ‘orientalist‘.

It just brought to life EXP Edition’s worst fears, which they had expressed to the BBC, saying, ‘I think they thought our intention was to disrespect K-pop – that was always my fear, that people would think we’re here to mock K-pop.’

From another side, it seems odd that many Korean bands who come to into Western music industries are praised, yet if the opposite occurs the Western bands are criticised… I do believe that this might just be linked to how the West sees the Asian race as a minority and as a race to be protected, not just because of the West’s history with colonialism, but also because of how Hollywood has presented Asians in films since the beginning.

Thanks to Hollywood consistently typecasting Asians into geeky roles, perpetually friendzoned and never the main romantic interest despite being intelligent or talented in coding or piano, this feeble view of Asians still persists Today. So, when K-pop groups like “BTS”, “Big Bang”, and “Black Pink” suddenly appear into the Western music world, they appear revolutionary as they are attractive, which breaks so many racial expectations formed by Hollywood. They also appear to be a minority amongst so many Western bands (even though the K-pop industry in South Korea is massive) which also makes fans want to “protect” these revolutionary “endangered” K-pop boybands. They want to protect this image of all Asian boybands.

Ultimately, it just perpetuates this image of the East being behind a glass wall, in a glass cabinet, only to be viewed from afar.

Really, be it before, with Hollywood typecasting Asians in their films, or now, with fans trying to separate the two industries… there exists this “glass wall” wedged in-beetween the two geographical and cultural spheres. Many, caught up in either their anime or K-pop idol fantasies, view “East” through this rose-tinted glass, distancing themselves from it at the same time. And if anyone tries to break this constructed illusion, they are beyond horrified.

The idea that K-pop should be just comprised of Koreans actually only limits the genre and the industry as globalisation intensifies. Bora Kim mentions to #Legend how the ‘market in Korea is too small to keep the system going’ and that ‘they clearly thought about the best way to export it from the beginning.’

So, at the end of the day…

‘Taking members of the majority in America and making them minorities in Korea‘ is sure to create a stir…

Many individuals feel the need to scream at others to “stay in their own lanes” and conform to their view of what’s politically correct, which varies depending on who you talk to.

It ultimately brings us to the discussion of what culture really is and the recent trend that America seems to be leading, to confine cultures to little boxes with their own itty-bitty little labels with definitions written out differently by each individual.

In reality, culture is essentially a fluid concept. For eons, cultures have been fluctuating, morphing and re-morphing, constantly interacting and influencing each other.

K-pop is part of South Korea’s history, and is therefore part of its culture… but since culture is ever-changing, we should stress over putting it into a glass box or defining them completely like we do our political views. We need to accept that the K-pop we see Today will change Tomorrow.

What’s the take-away for the K-pop industry?

  • Given the current climate when it comes to this negative view of “cultural appropriation”, it would be wise to make sure Koreans in the K-pop industry that wish to appeal to a more global audience are aware of when “cultural borrowing” becomes exploitation.
  • Rather than exploiting, Bora Kim suggests that they should simply try to ‘see cultures who consume their products as partners‘.

And, what’s the take-away for those of a more western background?

  • It is helpful to understand that “cultural appropriation” is at its core a neutral term and so can be both negative and positive.
  • Using “cultural appropriation” intermittently with terms such as “racism” weaponises a normally natural process into an tool for hate and exclusion rather than inclusion.

For me, personally, I don’t see why a New York K-pop boyband cannot form a bridge from the American music world to the Korean one. After all, K-pop bands have done exactly this, only the other way round.

So, to those who say “nay” to a non-Korean K-pop band I say “yay”!

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