Call me old, and maybe I am, but I'm just now learning about the world of K-pop, and the degree of which it is celebrated.
K-pop, short for Korean pop, is a popular music genre originating in South Korea that's basically taking the world by storm. It's highly influenced by styles and genres from around the world, such as rock, jazz, gospel, hip hop, R&B, reggae, electronic dance, folk, country, and classical, on top of its traditional Korean music roots.
One of the most impressive things about K-pop, is their loyal fanbase, reminiscent of the early 2000's boy band saga. And like so many others, there's a black following of listeners who have also gravitated to the movement, causing many of its artists to take note. For example, BTS, one of the more popular K-pop bands, took the initiative to show support and label themselves as allies by donating a million dollars to Black Lives Matter--ultimately encouraging their avid fanbase ARMY to match the donation. This was a huge gesture, considering there have been talks of anti-blackness in K-pop fandom.
The appeal is magnetic and we found some ladies willing to discuss just what that appeal is. Here are their stories:
Sequerstin | 23 | Memphis, TN
Courtesy of Sequerstin
I grew up living with my mom and my dad separately. My dad introduced me to the world of video games and anime. I was always the weird introverted cousin, preferring to be alone most of the time, and as my old English teacher would put it, "I was scarily quiet"--the biggest contrast to my loud, outspoken family. My interest in mostly pop and anime made me stand as well. I felt like I didn't fit in--not just in my family, but the black community as a whole. I've grown to not be ashamed of it now.
I discovered K-pop on YouTube one random day. I was searching for Keri Hilson's "Pretty Girl Rock", but instead, I found nine Korean girls dancing to it. The actual music video of Girls' Generation was linked. I was super intrigued, so I clicked on it, and was sent to another one of their music videos. Before I knew it, I was in a hole watching the next music video and the next and the next. I had instantly become a fan.
I loved their choreography, the music, the concepts. It was so refreshingly different from Western artists. The fact that they train for years before they even debut shows on stage with each performance. They also have so many variety shows and you get to watch them doing the simplest of things: cooking or enjoying a water park. It's fun seeing them interact and grow.
Admittedly, I don't participate in the fandom as much as I used to when I was younger. Now, I just enjoy their music, watch performances, vote, and go. There's so many toxic fans, and a lot of them like to stir up drama, I see it up and down Twitter and in Facebook comments. It gotten pretty bad, honestly.
Not only did I sense anti-blackness from the genre, but also non-black K-pop fans. It's a sad world really. For instance, South Korea's beauty standards include pale skin (white as a ghost), skinny, v-shaped jawline, and high bridge nose. It speaks for itself. I've watched Korean variety shows where they made fun of an idol who wasn't as pale, saying they needed to bathe and scrub off the dirt.
When I saw that clip it made me wonder, "Well if they're dark then what am I?" Or "Will my idol consider me ugly?" Sometimes I think they forget international fans are watching, but they continue on or they just don't care.
There's so much cultural appropriation, yet I still read/watch videos of black people facing racism in Korea. International fans are referred to as "Koreaboos", meaning we're trying to be Korean. I can't speak for everyone because there are some out there who try, but most of us just enjoy the music and appreciate the culture. I do find their culture fascinating but never tried to participate myself. I watch from the sidelines.
Oh, and Western media likes to say we're young teenage fans, when a lot of us are grown grown.
At the moment, my favorite group is TWICE. Their concepts are very cutesy, which isn't common in America but it works for them. They're chemistry is amazing. Yes, they were put together by a company, but strong bonds is what keeps them going for so long. And every song they've put out—a bop.
As far as BTS donating to Black America, I'm proud of them. They do nothing but promote peace, loving yourself and others. This is coming from a group that is heavily influenced by black culture. Their discography includes R&B and rap/ hip-hop. They've had a lot of eyes on them since the Billboard Awards and it's only right they lead by example.
Akilah | 29 | Miami, FL
Courtesy of Akilah
I was a quiet and imaginative child. I was always creative and curious and loved putting and making things, but I was never confident to show who I was or be myself. I was the type of girl who followed what her brothers did; from TV shows I watched, all the video games I ever played, to the sports I later played, I grew to love because I was with my older and younger brother. From there, I became immersed into gaming, comics books, cosplay and anime and even falling in love with something that was considered not normal at the time, aka K-pop.
It was really easy for me to get into K-pop since I was already really into watching shoujo anime and listening to tons of J-pop and J-rock artists. But what really made that extra push, was getting into K-drama, or Korean Dramas (Boys Over Flowers, my first K-drama). That's what really opened my doors fully because I got curious to explore more of the music and culture.
K-pop is fun, K-pop is free. K-pop allows you be your best self. Beside the music and the videos, what really draws you in, is the idols themselves. A lot of them you could relate to being different and doing what makes you happy. With that I feel K-pop aids you to find a voice to inspire!
As a fan, I've honestly heard a lot of crazy stuff questioning my blackness. I have a few friends I have met over time from going to different K-pop events and concerts, but a lot of my closest friends are either curious about the music or simply just don't understand. I often hear from non-fans that I must be lost or the music does not speak a message or oftentimes people would jokingly say that "I'm gonna marry a Korean man" or "I fetishize them."
It is never the case.
I grew to understand who I am as a person and not let a language barrier be the factor as to why I can't listen to music. At the end of the day, music is music. And I LOVE music. My favorite K-pop artist would have to be the renaissance man himself, Jay Park! Jay Park really made a name for himself in South Korea with his music. He is a man with drive, a vision, and he keeps going and going. His hustle don't stop! PLUS, I was able to see him live in person and his performance was AMAZING! He carries so much stage presence and confidence. Who wouldn't love a man like that!?
Anyway, K-pop has seriously came a long way with understanding black culture and I feel like K-pop as an industry is still learning. I honestly felt when BTS donated the millions to Black America, it was expected.
BTS is about healing the world and being yourself and loving yourself. If you love yourself, it will heal others around you. I feel it was just of them to do what they did to help spread love and to aid those who need help and that love. Love heals.
Chelsea | 24 | Washington D. C.
Courtesy of Chelsea
I grew up in Plano, Texas, a suburb outside of Dallas. My brothers and I went to a predominantly white, Christian private school that I don't have fond memories of. I struggle to talk about it because I find myself trying to downplay my feelings, trying to "oh, it wasn't that bad" myself into oblivion, but growing up like that was hard. I never felt like a person, I always felt like an Other. I felt unseen and unheard and alone, more often than not. And when I did feel "seen", it was when I was being tokenized, or used, or paraded like a show pony at a circus. "Look at how smart/kind/sweet/articulate/well-spoken she is!" white people would exclaim, as if I was an anomaly. It was weird. It's still weird.
In the summer of 2011, I was up late one night on YouTube and I was recommended the music video for SHINee's "Lucifer". You know that moment when Alice jumps down the rabbit hole? That music video was it for me. I was hooked. I needed to hear every album they had ever released and see all of their music videos and watch all of their variety show appearances. But, at first, I resisted. I told myself that I couldn't like SHINee. I refused to download the song to my phone. I was already getting weird looks for the anime I watched at home and the manga that I brought with me to school. I knew my peers and my family thought the things I liked were strange and I told myself I didn't need the extra attention another unconventional interest would bring me.
I don't remember when, exactly, I finally broke and downloaded the entire Lucifer album, but I'm glad I did. The music and the fandom and the friends I've made through it—I can't imagine these past nine years without any of it. Some of the most loving, genuine friends I have in this life I met because I was listening to K-pop on my phone in public or tweeting about it. The community, when it's good, is amazing.
As far as the music, I love it, of course. I've always been a boy band/girl band person. I loved B2K and *NSYNC, and when I listen to songs like EXO's "Growl" or "Bad Boy" by Big Bang, I get those 90's pop/R&B heartthrob vibes that I'm a sucker for. I love the music videos, too, and I love how conceptual K-pop is. How each album is an "era", and each era brings a new sound, new styling, new hair.
It's also fascinating to me on a scholarly level. Seeing the way Korean culture is being spread through K-pop and how it's interacting with/taking from Black culture is so intriguing to me. So much so that I wrote my senior thesis on it in undergrad!
People outside of fandom can say all sorts of crazy things. I've had people assume that I only like/date Asian men because I listen to Korean music, people insinuate that I'm not Black enough (or Black at all), that I'm weird, that I want to be Asian. And even within fandom, there are stereotypes. When I first got into K-pop, every time I found another person who liked it (which was a rare occurrence back then), when it came time to ask about who our favorite groups were, it was always assumed, every single time, that mine must be BigBang or 2NE1. Because if the black girl is into K-Pop, it must be the rap/hip-hop leaning stuff, right? Not the worst thing in the world, but a hurtful microaggression, nonetheless.
Actually, this is disheartening to admit, but anti-blackness is something I expect from fandom spaces and music genres. K-pop is not exempt. I've seen Mamamoo in blackface, heard Zico drop the n-word, seen him wear confederate flags. Non-black K-pop fans like to appropriate AAVE to hype up their faves, and then turn around and call a black fan a racial slur or tell them to "go listen to rap music" when their opinions differ. It's ugly. It's hurtful. I have a hard time being active in fandom because of it and it sucks to feel like even my would-be happy place is full of anti-blackness.
With that said, I do think it's nice that BTS and Big Hit and other Korean artists like pH-1 and Jay Park and CL are donating and speaking out about the things that are happening to black people—I was especially pleased by CL's statement, where she acknowledged the K-pop industry is inspired by black culture and she encouraged fans and other artists to give and support and show love.
Black people deserve love and support (always, but especially now), and all the black artists that have passed through K-pop idols' lips when they're asked about what "inspiration" deserved their flowers. I am, however, concerned with performative donations with no action or change or any real heat or meaning behind them, but that's a concern that's not just limited to K-pop.
Feature image courtesy of Chelsea Irvin