Hip-hop was first introduced and accepted on a wide-scale basis in South Korea in the 90s when the South Korean artists Seo Taiji and the Boys released "Nan Arayo." "Nan Arayo" was a song that was the first of its kind in South Korea and it incorporated jack swing-inspired beats, upbeat rap lyrics and catchy choruses. This song was so popular that it forever changed the country’s music industry and has helped create what K-pop is today – a hip-hop laden music scene.
While it is clear that the K-pop industry enjoys and likes hip-hop there have been times where their use and incorporation of hip-hop has crossed the line of admiration and appreciation and has entered into the realm of cultural appropriation.
K-pop artists commonly wear grills, braids, cornrows, chains, do-rags, bandanas and other items for their music videos and their performances, and for the most part, the artists seem to wear these as a costume. Many K-pop artists do not seem to have an understanding of the social and historical significance behind these items besides the fact that these items have been worn by Black hip-hop artists nor do most K-pop artists seem to be aware that hip-hop was created to give a voice to an oppressed group (i.e., Black Americans). In fact, there are some K-pop artists who regularly use hip-hop and claim to love the genre but don’t know any of the history behind hip-hop as can be seen in the below clip where BTS gets schooled by Coolio.
Obviously, not all K-pop artists, especially the new generation, are going to know the founders of hip-hop due to the fact that they are so young and because they did not grow up in the original hip-hop generation. However, while not knowing the founders of hip-hop is excusable, to wear cultural items while completely ignoring any possible cultural significance that the items may have, is not. To do so can be incredibly insulting to the culture and can potentially cause the perpetuation and generation of stereotypes.
The following are a sampling of some of the different Korean artists who are guilty of cultural appropriation.
In this clip, CL from 2NE1 sings her debut solo song “The Baddest Female.” The song is an anthem to all of the women who are confident in themselves, who do as they please and who are just overall badass, cool chicks. The way that this “cool” image is conveyed is through the use of a grill (e.g., CL wears a gold grill with elongated canines), chains, large gold hoop earrings, bandanas and through a pair of shoes that are hanging off of a power line. Not so coincidentally, all of these items are associated with Black Americans. Grills, for example, were made famous by the Black hip-hop artists of the 80s; thick, heavy chains were worn by the originators of hip-hop and were symbols that they had made it despite racism and that they had escaped poverty; hoop earrings are an African fashion; bandanas are heavily associated with gang affiliations like the Bloods and the Crips; and shoes that are tied together and are hanging off a power line tend to be associated with urban African American communities and bullying and death (though it should be said that there are multiple meanings associated with shoe tossing and that these meanings can vary depending on the culture and the area).
While using these elements in themselves isn’t so bad, what turns CL’s music video into a moment of cultural appropriation...