South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. Therefore, it may come off as a surprise that some K-pop idols aren’t Korean. The nationalities range from Chinese to Thai. However, these few exceptions merely graze the racial boundaries in the industry because they all still belong to one race, which is Asian.
So what happens when people decide to test these boundaries even further? This was one of Bora Kim’s intentions when she created the boy group EXP Edition as her thesis at Columbia University. The group, consisting of four Caucasian men, debuted with their song, “Feel Like This” last April.
Kim was aware of different cultures that come into play in K-pop and wished to “complicate this flow/appropriation” even more. “Cultural barriers or mistranslation are overcome by the shiny framing/packaging of pop. And that’s where I want this project to go in the long run,” she said in an interview. Kim has legitimized her experiment by founding her company in Seoul and bringing the group there to continue their training as K-pop idols.
And Yes I Will Be Dropping A K Pop Single In The Next 4 Months.
— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) April 20, 2017
Even more recently, Jaden Smith has announced his career as a K-pop star on Twitter. The African-American teen has been voicing out his intentions since last year. Fans took it as a joke, considering the celebrity’s reputation for being vague on Twitter. This joke among fans will soon become a reality in four months.
Fans went up and arms against EXP Edition and Smith’s entrance into the K-pop world. Both parties lacked the years of vocal training, rigorous dance practice, and etiquette classes that a usual idol undergoes. Just because they can sing in Korean doesn’t immediately make it K-pop either. But the argument that resonated among all fans was that if they aren’t Asian then it’s automatically cultural appropriation. Both of them use the success of K-pop by labeling themselves as such, disregarding the amount of effort and sacrifice that’s needed.
However, K-pop is cultural appropriation. A single song can include so many different music styles, from electronica to hip-hop all at once. Entertainment companies even outsource producers from different countries, especially the States, to create music for their artists. The problem arises when companies and idols reduce these cultures, especially hip-hop, to certain stereotypes. Blackface or dropping the N word are things that still happen today.
Fans do point out though that K-pop serves as a safe-haven for Asians to have a global platform for their music. Korean-American singer Eric Nam said in an interview with Time on how difficult it was to pursue a career in music in the States because of his ethnicity. Instead, he chose to fly to Korea because the chances of him becoming an artist are way higher. Indeed, Eric Nam evolved from a small-time YouTube cover artist to one of Korea’s most bankable idols.
EXP Edition is now in Korea to continue the training that fans said they lacked. In three months, despite much objection, Smith’s first K-pop single will be released. The racial boundaries that existed in K-pop are slowly becoming more liquid whether fans like it or not.
Kim’s intention for creating EXP Edition wasn’t to gain money but rather to lead to this question: if it isn’t the race of the artists or the lyrics that make it K-pop, then what does?
Photo courtesy of Just Jared