Korean Pop Culture’s History of Appropriating Black Culture
The diaspora of hip-hop moved rapidly from its birthplace of the Bronx, through the alleys of each borough, into every marsh of the boondocks, and soon enough, to all corners of the globe. There was no way for DJ Kool Herc to know that what he had spawned would quickly become the voice and religion of his generation, and generations to come. But more often than not, religion gets misconstrued.
My parents put me on punishment for stealing Big Pun’s Capital Punishment. I was barely born when Biggie had me Ready to Die. I entered the 36 Chambers a tourist and exited a resident.
The same friend that lent me that Wu Tang Clan album also recommended me an Uptown album. Uptown was a group of four Korean-American youth who banded together to form a hip-hop collective in South Korea. Sonically they resembled something like Bone Thugs & Harmony mixed with Boyz II Men, who were both immensely popular at the time.
Hip-hop received an immediate welcome in Korea during the 90s as it gained mainstream popularity in the US. But the hip-hop that was being imported into the peninsula was not the same brand of hardcore East Coast bias rap that was prospering stateside.
The Korean tastemakers and influencers of the old knew they had to borrow America’s swagger (hence drafting talent directly from the USA) but mold it in a way as to not make Korea uncomfortable. The players behind Uptown were very conscious of the power of Western influence, and when it became time to put the pieces in place, it was anything but a coincidence that the lead vocalist was mixed Black-Korean (Tasha a.k.a. Yoon Mi Rae) and the lead rapper was mixed Mexican-Korean (Speedy Bullets).
All of the members were Los Angeles natives so, naturally, the aesthetic of the group borrowed from Cholo culture with the the obvious influence of Black Hip-hop acts. It could not be denied that the mixed ethnicities of Tasha and Speedy gave Uptown a certain credibility in Korea that other hip-hop acts there did not have, which made the immigration of hip-hop from America seemingly more organic.
Uptown had its ties to the culture, even though the industry may have exploited those ties for selfish gain– they were ties nonetheless. However, there is an ongoing tale of cultural appropriation when it comes to the hip-hop diaspora because it is such a worldwide phenomenon that doesn’t always require actual passion or understanding of the culture.
It became too easy. The influence of hip-hop became undeniable and with influence comes dollars, and with dollars comes thieves. There has always been money in selling “cool” and hip-hop might be the coolest thing this planet has ever seen; no exaggeration. You could throw anything inside of a hip-hop package and it would sell; and bubble gum K-pop would not be the exception.
Baby V.O.X. (or Baby Voice Of eXpression…) was a popular 90s K-pop girl group who mixed equal parts electronic music and sexuality as a lasso to herd fanfare. One of the most polarizing moments for me as a K-pop slash hip-hop fan was when Baby V.O.X. crudely duct taped a posthumous Tupac Shakur verse onto a track titled “Xcstacy.” Tupac is my favorite rapper of all time. Although I wasn’t the biggest Baby V.O.X. fan, you could imagine my excitement when I got wind of a Tupac feature on a Korean record. This was not what I expected.
Baby V.O.X., Teenage V.O.X., and Senior Citizen V.O.X. can all have several seats for this one. Who gave this a green light? In whose Fast & Furious fantasy was there a Tupac hologram (kind of prophetic, sure) illuminated onto an import Honda headlight? And why does it sound like Pac recorded his verse on a T-Mobile Sidekick? You ain’t got the answers, Sway.
Besides all the struggle that is the existence of this song and video, could the blatant exploitation of Pac and hip-hop culture in general, be more evident? They didn’t care to make good music or push the culture forward. They didn’t care whether this was a good look for Tupac (it wasn’t). They only cared to staple his name to the feature and expect hip-hop to embrace the record. Nah. That’s not how this works.
You’re not going to get propers from the people that matter or have dignified longevity in this culture without a real understanding of it. You might get to dine and dash without getting checked, but then what? You can’t eat at this table again.
Korean pop culture has become an immense commodity within the last few years. The soap opera like dramas have engaged a huge following outside of native Korea and subtitles are being read all over the world. K-pop’s popularity has been emerging for a long time now and has seen a meteoric spike since PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” However, one facet of Korean pop culture that still seems very rudimentary to me is comedy. Maybe I don’t fully understand the subtle nuances of Korean comedy (which I don’t, being that I was born and raised American) but some things are just not funny.
Every so often there seems to be a new report of a Korean sketch comedy show using blackface for a cheap laugh. This isn’t a common occurrence but once would be too common. The homogenous nature of Korea leaves it somewhat lacking in diverse cultural interaction. These heinous acts aren’t necessarily mean spirited but they are ignorant and come from a place of not knowing any better.
This, of course, does not excuse the behavior. These Korean sketch shows still have an air of slapstick comedy which in itself is cheap and underdeveloped. However, the culture does seem to be catching on and the youth are the ones driving the initiative to stop such fuckery through petitions and through being genuinely outspoken about the matter. In a land where people boast their pride in being ahead of the curve, this brand of “humor” cannot last.
The internet has bridged the gaps of planet Earth so the “homogenous culture” reasoning is becoming less relevant. Older generations may have been ignorant but it’s today’s youth that are progressing towards a world that knows more and does better. Korean artists such as Keith Ape and CL have made genuine relationships in America, where hip-hop was born, and have made conscious efforts to study and better understand it as a culture. They do fall under scrutiny at times but hip-hop being only meant for Black America is an outdated ideal as well.
That’s not to say the youth is always right. Mistakes are still being made constantly but it’s on us as a culture to be the gatekeepers of what is allowed in and what is kept out. The world is a much smaller place now and we have the key to access all cultures but it’s on us to walk through the doors.
Race and culture are not novelties that can be put on and taken off when it is convenient. We, as citizens of this planet, need to embrace and make a conscious effort to understand our differences because, yes, we are different.
20 years ago Tasha of Uptown would not be able to make a song about her “Black Happiness” in Korea, but in today’s ever mobilizing society she’s encouraged to embrace her Blackness instead of sell it.
Hip-hop itself is relatively young; when it was first becoming globally popularized, people, and corporations hopped on it as a marketing tool to strike while the iron was hot, not knowing the iron would stay hot. As the culture wove itself into the fabric of history and the youth wore it with pride and integrity, we began to understand that we were the designers of that fabric. We are the ones that decide what is sold and bought. We can call out inauthenticity, and we will. We can applaud genuine understanding and love for the culture, and we will. We’ve heard history repeat itself, but we decide when it’s worth listening to.
Read this article on OogeeWoogee by Danny Chung, Koreaboo’s newly launched content partner. Koreaboo’s partner platform is where celebrities, content creators and our friends share a unique perspective on Korean content to our readers with original content!
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Danny Chung is a rapper, writer, and purveyor of all things cool
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