“I’m yellow but my soul is black”: Cultural Appropriation in K-pop

K-pop is a music genre that incorporates several genres from the West such as pop, rock, jazz, and hip-hop. K-pop’s popularity has grown beyond the boundaries of South Korea, reaching other countries around the world. In the K-pop industry, articles about cultural appropriation of black culture often spring up. Taeyang, a member of Big Bang, fetishizes black culture when he states in Big Bang’s photobook:

“I’m not black, so I’ll probably have to have more experience and go through more pain if I want to express the sentiments, emotions, and soul that black people have through my music. That’s why I believe that pain and suffering will make my music richer.”

TaeyangBlackStruggle
Taeyang’s full quote from Big Bang’s photobook.

Although Taeyang’s intent is to be open-minded, he is appropriating black culture through commoditization. He wants to experience the pain of black people so that his music can be richer, yet in reality, he appropriates the black culture’s suffering for his own personal gain. bell hooks refers to this as consumer cannibalism which displaces the Other while also denying “the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.”[1]

Zico, another male K-pop idol, stated in his song “Bermuda Triangle” that he is yellow but he has a “black soul.” Fans could perceive this as Zico’s appreciation for black culture but in reality, it is more insidious. Perhaps Zico seeks to claim blackness because it is a “metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries…it invites engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the status quo.”[2] Within the context of Zico and Taeyang, blackness disrupts the status quo of the K-pop industry, lending itself as a selling point in the midst of a competitive industry.

K-pop further decontextualizes black culture through their performance of their image onstage, in music videos, and in photoshoots. Many K-pop idols have consistently used hairstyles taken from black culture for their image. For example, 4Minute used braids in their music video “Crazy” to show off their ‘bad girl’ concept. Through the use of braids, they are able to communicate that they are ‘edgy’ and ‘urban’ but they are not tied to the same negative stereotypes that black women experience. When black women wear braids, they are seen as ‘unprofessional’ or ‘messy,’ but when 4Minute wear braids, they are seen as ‘cool’ and giving off a ‘bad girl’ vibe. As a result, while black women are stuck with negative stereotypes, K-pop idols get away with these stereotypes since they do not suffer the same historical consequences that black people have gone through. Black hairstyles are simply packaged into a concept for a song; they are decontextualized and commoditized.

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A member of 4Minute with braids in the “Crazy” music video.
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Kai, from EXO, sporting braids for the “Wolf” concept.
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Zico sporting dreadlocks.

Why does K-pop commoditize and decontextualize black culture in a way similar to white, American entertainment industry? Angela from Seoulbeats states that K-pop, a representation of the East Asian bourgeoisie, falls in the middle; it does not “have the prestige of the white West, nor the exoticness of developing black and brown countries.”[3] As a result the racial middle reinforces white supremacy by “deluding itself into thinking it can be just like the white if it tries hard enough.”[4] In the United States, black culture is seen as ‘cool’ but low ‘prestige.’ In an effort to mimic American entertainment trends, South Korean entertainment companies utilize black culture as a form of difference that can change the status quo of the K-pop industry. As a result, this decontextualizes and devalues black culture into a mere concept for a K-pop group.


[1] bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 31.

[2] hooks, “Eating the Other,” 37.

[3] Angela, “Fetishizing Black Culture: Taeyang on Being Black,” Seoulbeats (blog), December 20, 2016, http://seoulbeats.com/2016/12/fetishizing-black-culture-taeyang-on-being-black/.

[4] Mari Matsuda, “We Will Not Be Used: Are Asian-Americans the Racial Bourgeoisie?,” in Where Is Your Body? And Other Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 150.

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4 thoughts on ““I’m yellow but my soul is black”: Cultural Appropriation in K-pop

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  1. yangyumin2, I really agree with your argument. I wonder why Koreans especially have seemed to adopt a lot of Western music styles and genres into their own pop culture, or K-pop, in comparison to other Asian countries. Within the realm of decontextualizing and commodifying black culture, I’m really interested in this tension of K-pop trying to assimilate into white culture by incorporating so many different styles and genres but also appropriating black culture at the same time. It seems all too familiar with having Asian Americans being the “middle” or “invisible” race compared to the dichotomy of white and brown/black people. This also reminds me of the internal dialogue of assimilation and difference that Banet-Weiser mentions: “diversity in general and representations of black female subjectivity in particular within the pageant: the strategies of assimilation (the “colorless world”) and eroticizing difference (“craving distinction”) are mutually constitutive processes” (135). It may be different through a international Asian perspective, as Banet-Weiser is talking about an black women model’s experience, but whiteness and white beauty standards are still privileged in Korean culture. K-pop stars always dye their hair blonde, wear hidden heels to make themselves taller, and wear a lot of makeup to achieve the double-eyelid, contoured look. As a result, for some K-pop artists to differentiate themselves from other K-pop stars, they appropriate blackness as the complete opposite. Instead of the cute, innocent girl groups (eg. Girls Generation, 2NE1), these are countered with much more “cool”, “bad girl” aura (eg. 4minute). With these “cool” vibes, black culture is often appropriated and commodified. It is interesting how the tension between assimilation and difference manifests itself in K-pop culture, because so much of K-pop culture is derived from American pop culture.

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  2. I really liked this article because I’ve thought about this issue on and off for a bit (I used to be a K-pop fan in middle school). I remember when Taeyang’s quote came out, it stirred up a bit of controversy because people debated whether he was “appreciating” or appropriating black culture for his own material gain. Taeyang speaks rather flippantly about the “pain and experience of black people” like it’s another training routine or a stepping stone to increasing the “richness” of his music, effectively decontextualizing and making light of an entire culture’s historical experiences.
    While traditionally black hairstyles are appropriated by K-pop stars, anti-black sentiment in East Asian countries such as Korea and Japan is still rampant. This adds another aspect to the appropriation since even though the looks are used to appear cooler or “edgier”, there are still instances of blackface and anti-black tendencies throughout Korean society.
    Another problematic Taeyang example: “Taeyang of K-Pop group BIGBANG, attracted unwanted attention for his anti-Black Instagram post. By using a facial simulation app to impersonate Kanye West, Taeyang adopted a digital equivalent of blackface. He even offered up a few Kanye-esque “huh’s” and wished his fans a “Happy Monkey New Year.”” (https://www.bgdblog.org/2016/02/why-we-need-to-take-responsibility-for-anti-black-racism-in-k-pop/).
    These examples show how Korean pop stars (and their fans) can exoticize the appearances of black people, while still actively discriminating against them.

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  3. This post unsurprisingly reminds me of our earlier conversations about the circulation of “black cool” or “ethnic flare,” such as when we were discussing Kendall and Kylie Jenners’ plastic surgeries or Christina Fallin’s photoshoot with the headdress. As in those instances, here, Taeyang’s admits that black suffering is currency within the K-pop music industry. However, his comment does not strike me as too unfamiliar when compared to the words used to organize multicultural events/collections. It seems pretty standard for allies (regardless of race) aiming for inclusion and diversity in their lives to say, “I know that I am not [insert another racial category], I know that I would have to experience [generalizations about what this perceived homogenous racial group experiences], but I know that this [name of project] will only be enriched and more complete by including this experience.” This is not to say that such a comment, decontextualized, is always wrong or right — but I have heard many students of color name folks who say similar words as “honorary POCs” (no joke), people who are white “with black(/brown) soul[s],” as Zico said. The argument for this naming is often that these folks want to be exposed to diverse media and support less-mainstream people in their industries. This is all to say that such situations are tricky because the people in questoin are unexcused either way; in integrating “more” racialized culture into their lives, they are fighting white hegemony, and in consuming only white media, they are perpetuating it.

    With that said, I am curious of how we can interpret the less overt evocations of the racial “Other,” ones that veer on the appreciative end of commodification. I am thinking of more contemporary rap that I have been listening to that seem to have traces of cultural mixing. From Vic Mensa’s song “Danger” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCy85MfYJzg), which samples a piece that evokes the soundtracks of video depictions of India, to Kendrick Lamar’s Coachella “Kung Fu Kenny” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4ZTK9su9rY) character, the lines between what is culturally black and Asian are blurred in media that does not explicitly mark their presence in the same way as Taeyang did. I am left wondering, are these forms of cultural mixing more acceptable because the artists do not openly admit to their commodification? Or is there a form of cultural mixing, a heterogeneity, that is acceptable and more trusted as appreciation between marginal racial groups? This returns me to the question I always ask myself as an American Studies major… of whether I have the language and appropriate historical context to understand transnational discourses. What the Original Poster, Janis, and Avery have pointed out is that blackness carries its cool even across borders, but I think the ways this takes place should be interrogated more closely than assuming an unaltered transference of meaning from the US to Korea. At the same time, I am curious about how genres of media, like rap, that are closely associated with specific cultural meanings, incorporate traces of the national “other,” the foreign, in ways that are more complex than total commodification.

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  4. “It remains exceedingly attractive and possible in this post-black, postsoul age of black cultural traffic to love black cool and not love black people.” Harry Elam

    yangyumin2, you found that:

    Angela from Seoulbeats states that K-pop, a representation of the East Asian bourgeoisie, falls in the middle; it does not “have the prestige of the white West, nor the exoticness of developing black and brown countries.”[3] As a result the racial middle reinforces white supremacy by “deluding itself into thinking it can be just like the white if it tries hard enough.”[4]

    This statement reminds me of Bonilla-Silva’s redrawing of the color line into what he calls a tri-racial order, where there are demarcations between whites, honorary whites, and the collective black. Different Asian ethnic groups were separated into these different categories, depending on skin tone/colorism, economic capital, and other factors. While Bonilla-Silva’s theory was inspired by Latin America’s racial order and is specifically applied to the United States, the parallels between the tri-racial order and your concluding remarks are striking. In this age of transnationalism and given the international popularity of K-pop, it does not seem unreasonable to extend a tri-racial order-like structure to an international context, as Angela from Seoulbeats does. Indeed, as Angela says, the racial middle functions exactly as honorary whites are theorized to in Bonilla-Silva’s theory – by reinforcing white supremacy in their aspirations for whiteness.

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