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Steffanie Ling discusses the racism of K-Pop and why capitalism prevents the West from taking a stand.

A televised ritual of celebrity worship and celebration of mainstream music, the 2016 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) is – for K-pop – as big as it gets. Hosted in Hong Kong, and broadcast to my cousin’s living room in Singapore, we were (with millions of others) captive to an indeterminate succession of commercials and celebrity endorsements of beauty creams, hamburgers, footwear, cameras and pan-Asian cellphone companies.

When the red carpet procession begins, young flesh instruments of pop music crowd neatly into the camera’s frame with engineered decorum. Organizing themselves for the press photographers, one boy-group demonstrates their presentation savvy. The tallest member enters from the left side first, but halts before he reaches the backdrop, allowing the shorter members of his troupe file past him, filling the frame. The second-tallest member reports to his posting on the far right, registering a totally balanced group portrait. Their blonde mushroom-cuts and crushed-velvet blazers are more like operations executed rather than styles worn. Their foundation, palpable. Eyeliner, transmitted. Together, the group emits cleanliness and primping of many invisible hands. When the performers are announced, I am committed: “American rapper, Wiz Khalifa will be performing with a special K-pop guest!

KPopHKRB.jpg

K-Pop Cash Money, for the HKRB by Jeremy Simmons

Several performances, mostly by male groups, are elaborately dramatized. One begins with a videogame-like cut scene showing one of the boy-groups undergoing a screening process for cybernetics in a dystopian waiting room and then dancing on stage with tracking devices around their necks. Later, footage of a briefcase being removed from a safe sets the stage for Got7’s performance; Jackson Wong appears in the arena with the briefcase in his hand and walks dramatically towards the stage wearing a paranoid expression. (I think he’s supposed to be a secret agent.) To conclude their set, Jackson joins Jooheon (of MonstaX) and Taeyong (of NCT 127), together opening the briefcase to reveal not as much money as one would expect, but enough to throw a bit in the air for a more gestural than actually dramatic effect.

BTS’s performance for “Fire” begins with V slowly approaching Jin, who kneels before a digital display of a cartoonish haunted house ablaze. Their backs are turned to the audience, and V removes his sequined blazer to show us his naked, scarred back; two long scars down his shoulder blades are what I assume to represent the wounds of a “fallen angel”. And then the camera ZOOMS IN as V kneels behind Jin and covers his eyes with his hands. This skit is an overture of apparent religious rapture and, perhaps, incidental homoeroticism. Following that intimate moment, they descend into the depths of the stage through a trap door — the digital display backdrop changes to a wall of fire, and the rest of the group arrives to perform the song. I guess they went to “Hell”.

American guests included Gallant, who delivered a brief but soulfully unselfconscious performance of his single, “Weight in Gold.” Timbaland took the stage with Korean-American singer Eric Nam, whose pipes sounded like they were on loan from Justin Timberlake, to debut their new track, “Body.

Another hour of routine air punching and crotch grabbing descends. No Khalifa.

My eyes were growing tired from the sheer number of set changes, awards, pop-stars; how much more would I be made to endure before the show delivered Wiz? I started thinking that it was arrogant to presume that anyone could possess this much care and authentic attention for so much of the same physical movements and visual effects. I’ll be the first to profess the inherently mystifying qualities of syncopated repetition (Minimalism, Busby Berkley, concrete poetry, just to name a few arenas), but my MAMA experience had degraded into simply more, and further more, flashy variations of the same thing. Like walking through the most well-stocked, pristinely maintained, and architecturally robust mall in the world, open for extended hours! With my curiosity quashed, but still awaiting the payoff I had simply invested too much of my free time now. I would sleep after Wiz.

It was three and a half hours until he finally took the stage in a limited, but relatively tasteful wardrobe — shirtless under a tone-on-tone black suit with a lattice pattern that reflected the fluctuating spotlights and the audience’s LED-batons. ‘Calvin Klein’ peeked from the brim of his suit pants. He performed “See You Again,” a commissioned song off the official soundtrack for Furious 7 (2015), a tribute to Paul Walker who died in a car accident in 2013. His delivery had the vocal effect of sauntering and both his range and stage presence fell numerous bars and classes beneath Gallant’s.[1] The song ended and he had performed alone (with exception of an ornamental hype man behind a Taylor Gang DJ booth at the rear of the stage). However, no “special K-pop guest” had accompanied him. Despite the camera cutting to elated K-pop stars who stood up from their seats, swaying and passionately mouthing Charlie Puth’s chorus, “We’ve come a long way (yeah, we came a long way)/ from where we began (you know we started),” Wiz Khalifa at the MAMA, was a singularly anti-climactic spectacle, the sleeper hold to an already dizzied state.

In the aftermath of the failed duet, I learned that Wiz Khalifa’s co-performer was meant to be Taeyeon (formerly of girl group Girl’s Generation), a 27-year old singer compared to Taylor Swift in voice and star power by Billboard. Regarding the aborted duet, numerous music blogs and celebrity news outlets reported that Wiz Khalifa addressed the performance on Twitter as a “rejection” from Taeyeon. In turn, she explained to her fans via Instagram Story that it was a matter of misplaced music-file formats and miscommunications about whether or not her part would go ahead. Taking to social media certainly gives further media buoyancy to both parties without providing any insight into why it didn’t take place.

Do the people have a right to know?

Initially, I thought Wiz Khalifa’s MAMA performance was an incident that really contrasted American and Korean work ethics. Wiz Khalifa’s stage name is derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘successor,’ which his Muslim grandfather bestowed upon him because he was, in Wiz’s own words, “good at everything he did.” And although he was a military brat, most (if not all) K-pop talents are recruited by firms at a young age (9-11 years old), and then subjected to intense training for several years, including lectures in dancing, singing, and foreign languages. The recruits are hosted in dormitories and facilities for years before debuting in a group. As extreme as this may sound, this process is not unique to engineering a Hallyu.[2] The Paris Opera Ballet (and probably numerous federal intelligence agencies), have historically employed comparable methods.[3] However, given Wiz’s perception of Taeyeon’s rejection, it might partially explain his lackluster performance. Was it that he was simply out of his element, sabotage? The answer isn’t actually important (or feasible in my purview) but the truth remains: I found myself unexpectedly invested in the celebrity gossip precipitated by a cross-cultural spectacle. Does a globalized pop culture warrant more attention and consideration than continental pop culture alone?

Giving the rise of K-Pop’s popularity a closer look, its activities were conceived by and remain closely linked to the national economy. An article in the South China Morning Post reported on the geopolitical ambitions that came with the relocation and extravagance of the 2016 MAMA: Studies carried out by the Hyundai Research Institute have suggested a one percent increase in the export of cultural products would bring about a 0.03 per cent rise in exports of all consumer goods from Korea, providing a major boost to the country’s economy.[4] It also reported that Mainland Chinese media had banned promotion of the event and all Hallyu content due to South Korea’s decision to deploy a US missile defense system.

Despite antagonism from the Mainland, the event’s official languages are Korean and Mandarin, and while Japanese and English are used in fragments during a few acceptance speeches, Timbaland’s performance reminded us of where we were: “Let’s go Hong Kong, make some noise!” Except, if you are making noise it’s not in Cantonese, which is virtually absent. On the rare occasion it is spoken, it is treated as a sound bite. Hong Kong has hosted the MAMA for the last four years. Recorded incidents of Cantonese were twice in 2013, both by Kris of EXO: once at a press conference, and once more on the red carpet (there exists a video compilation of Kris speaking Cantonese created by a YouTube user who claims not to understand “a single word” but she is “soooo in love with his Cantonese”)[5]; and in 2015 by Jackson Wang (Hong Kong born) of BTS at another press conference.

With recent political tensions and a pro-democracy movement launched against Beijing’s encroaching influence over Hong Kong’s one-country-two-systems autonomy, the survival and circulation of the dialect is an ongoing concern for locals. Though it’s a K-pop awards show that originated in Seoul, their choice to migrate and settle in Hong Kong (after brief stops in Macau and Singapore) without adopting any Cantonese considerations is disparaging. When Cantonese speaking singers and actors appear to present awards or perform, they speak in Mandarin and sing in English. Whether or not the exclusion of Canto at the MAMA is politically strategic, the wheels of the culture industry turn. Thousands of Hong Kong’s K-pop crazed youth turned up, shelling out between HKD $888-2188 to attend.[6]

Since settling in Hong Kong in 2012, the awards show has displayed a distinct effort to acknowledge Western music icons, consistently in rap, hip-hop, R&B, and soul music. In 2013, a ‘special awards’ category was introduced including a “Music Makes One Global Ambassador Award,” presented to Stevie Wonder, who later performed with Hyolyn of girl-group Sistar, and Hong Kong pop royalty Aaron Kwok. The following year, John Legend performed and took home an “International Artist Award.” In 2015, a “World Wide Inspiration Award” went to Pet Shop Boys. This past year, it was an “Inspired Achievement Award” to Quincy Jones.

While the titles of these awards seem to change every year, they are functionally the same — to forge recognition and productive ties with Western powerhouses. The award for “Best International Producer” went to Timbaland, though no award to international producers had been given in the past, nor were there any other nominees. The appreciation is always in earnest, but when given in the form of a previously non-existent ‘special award,’ it functions like a diplomatic gift.[7]

If we look at other trends in K-pop, the MAMA might as well be a serial, prolonged official apology for incidents of blackface and rampant cultural appropriation that sparked a wave of online debates between 2012 and 2013. Articles like “K- pop’s Top 10 Racist Moments of 2013” and “K-POP or KKK POP?” generated a downpour of comments debating the issue.[8]

In 2011, there was a noted case where the group Super Junior appeared on a reality show segment with a comedian in blackface as Stevie Wonder (the future recipient of the “Music Makes One Global Ambassador Award”), for no apparent reason at all. It sounds like I’m making this stuff up as I’m writing it, but there it is.[9] Taeyeon, who was set to perform with Wiz at the MAMA, has also been cited as saying Alicia Keys is “pretty for a black person” on live radio.[10] Also frequently cited is G-Dragon (of Big Bang), who posted a hooded selfie in blackface, causing uproar in his resemblance to similar selfie homages to Trayvon Martin made by Frank Ocean and Diddy. According to GD’s rep, this was “derived by a simple photo shoot where [he] was using different face-paint colors for his upcoming album,”[11] Although this particular incident was covered briefly in Spin and The Guardian, it is important to note that major news outlets have not reported on K-pop’s use of blackface in any depth. Rather, most of the discourse remains on web forums and blog posts generated in 2012 – 2014 authored by netizens (a term describing an avid user of the Internet but that has become synonymous with K-pop’s online fan base), who perpetuate discussions in both ignorant and insightful ways. These were also the years when noted K-pop collaborations took place.

“Offensive Big Bang Masterpost” is a post on problematickpop, a Tumblr site that details (with hyperlinks) all the respective offenses of the individual members in Big Bang.[12] The first hyperlink that caught my attention was, ‘“Daesong did blackface in order to impersonate Snoop Dogg.” Upon googling, my reaction switched from embarrassment to confusion when I found an Instagram post by Snoop himself, @snoopdogg, posing with a blackfaced fan at a media event.[13] Snoop also appears on Psy’s 2014 single, “Hangover”; in the video, he drinks soju while singing karaoke with his new K-pop buddy. G-Dragon, who has been accused of “Omarion cos-play,” collaborated with Missy Elliot on his 2013 track, “Niliria.” It begs the question of whether entertainers care about, are debriefed on, or are troubled by cultural appropriation. Is GD’s recurring blackface a misguided case of “I love black people” and “It’s not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural appreciation”?

However distasteful, the blackface issue hasn’t remotely hindered creative relationships between American and Korean entertainers, which are becoming more frequently hyped by popular media.[14] The Daily Dot, an American media company covering Internet culture, recently published a succinct (un- like this one) piece about K-pop’s cultural appropriation with an eerily apt Parent Trap analogy:

Korea’s K-pop could be a twin of American mainstream media. Think of it like The Parent Trap: the two share very similar features — catchy music, visual appeal, and strong fan bases — but maintain their own cultural identities. But just like in [the movie], they inevitably meet.[15]

American pop culture will not officially persecute K-pop’s racist antics because it would: 1) effect the revenue generating potential of cultural exchange; 2) deter liberal minded corners of the market; and 3) be a hypocritical finger wag in the mirror — e.g. Ke$ha, Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, etc. It would actually be a disastrous endeavor! So, like most cases of cultural appropriation in the West, it leaves the celebrity marked in the cultural consciousness of audiences and critics, but fails to segue into social progress.

In an opinion piece for Dazed and Confused regarding Justin Bieber’s new dreadlocks, Kemi Alemoru writes, “Minorities face much bigger problems than appropriation and when there are real issues that need to be addressed, you know, like murder and systemic racism, I really can’t be bothered discussing Bieber’s dreadlocks.”[16]

There is more at stake than Justin Bieber’s political correctness. When we encounter kernels of potential bigotry, we as critical, thinking, ethical consumers of visual and audio culture make it our civic responsibility to nip it in the bud, but Alemoru has a point. See posters in your neighborhood for an anti-Asian rally? Get in a tiff with some guy over a parking spot and he drives away yelling, “White power!”? That is worthy of some immediate attention. Expressing our anger on the Internet doesn’t stop the entertainment industry from laughing all the way to the bank, in full politically incorrect regalia.

This essay is an edited version originally published in Whitney Houston et al. a collection of essays by writers who were invited to delve into the ambivalence of fandom, mythology, appropriation, and appreciation around popular music. Published in 2017 by Agony Klub (Vancouver, Canada), edited by Casey Wei.

[1]Khalifa’s set lasted one-and-a-half minutes and generated more videos of audience’s reaction than of his actual performance (of which no official footage exists).

[2] The Korean cultural and entertainment industries have been striving to export pop music and other cultural productions from film to K-dramas – collectively known as “Hallyu”, or the Korean wave.

[3] Patrick A. Messerlin and Wonkyu Shin, “The K-pop Wave: A Economic Analysis,” (2003): 8

[4] Vivienne Chow, “Korean music acts tout global ambitions and Hong Kong links at region’s biggest K-pop awards show,” South China Morning Post, December 2, 2016. http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education-community/article/2051285/korean-music-acts-tout-global-ambitions-and-hong

[5] WINWIN MATO, “#WuYiFanFighting – EXO Kris speaking Cantonese compilation”, YouTube, December 4, 2012, https://youtu.be/nECftpRum6A

[6] Canto-pop, despite its popularity in East Asia, doesn’t command the same degree of revenue generating potential as K-pop, and therefore remains relatively obscure to the West. While Korean musicians are on the radar via American producers like Jay-Z and Timbaland, Canto-pop might have an ally in Madonna. During a 2016 concert in Macau, Madge randomly selected a member from her front row (on the merit of his enthusiastic dancing) to join her on stage. This individual was Canto- mega-pop-star, Eason Chan, there with his daughter. Madge handed him a banana as a ‘reward’ and instructed him to ‘lick it.’ Chan accepted the fruit in good spirits but told Madonna that his daughter was in the audience, to which she replied, “You know what to do with it.” After the show, he was seen leaving the venue having the reportedly G-rated snack. Alicia Tan, “Madonna pulls Hong Kong celeb Eason Chan up on stage during her concert,” Mashable, February 26, 2016, http://mashable.com/2016/02/26/madonna-eason-chan/#Tz7WDo9t5Eq6

[7] Diplomatic gifts are a peacekeeping gesture, whereby a visiting politician, leader, or diplomat bestows a lavish and nationally specific object to their host. See: panda diplomacy.

[8] Though dominated by cases of blackface, also included are some instances of brownface, and a Caucasian couple living Korea who “rate the English of K-pop singers” in their reviews of K-pop music videos. Mikael Owanna, “K-pop’s Top 10 Racist Moments of 2013,” Owning My Truth, December 30, 2013, http://owning- my-truth.com/post/71624458912/kpops-top-10-racist-moments-of-2013

[9] Patricia, “Boom does blackface and people are mad,” Seoul Beats, August 30, 2011, http://seoulbeats.com/2011/08/boom-does-blackface-and-people-are-mad-now-wheres-my-soapbox/

[10] Teenace, “SNSD Leader a Racist?” Crunchyroll, January 16, 2009, http://www. crunchyroll.com/forumtopic-439771/snsd-leader-a-racist

[11] Marc Hogan, “K-Pop Star G-Dragon Dons Blackface in Trayvon Martin-like Photo,” Spin, July 31, 2013, http://www.spin.com/2013/07/k-pop-g-dragon-blackface-trayvon-martin-hoodie-instagram-photo/

[12] Offensive Big Bang Masterpost,” problematickpop, September 6, 2015, http:// problematickpop.tumblr.com/post/128509888127/offensive-big-bang-master-post/

[13] Heben Nigatu, “Snoop Dogg Poses For Inexplicable Instagram With a Korean Fan in Blackface,” Buzzfeed, January 24, 2014, https://www.buzzfeed.com/hniga-tu/snoop-dogg-poses-for-inexplicable-instagram-with-a-korean-fa?utm_term=.fxaewnK6NW#.ma6Vv6BYW7

[14] On November 9, 2016, EXO released a special single titled, “Lightsaber” to promote the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens ahead of its release in South Korea, as part of the collaboration between S.M. Entertainment and Walt Disney.

[15] Sherry Tucci, “When K-Pop culturally appropriates,” The Daily Dot, April 2 2016, http://www.dailydot.com/upstream/kpop-hip-hop-culture-appropriation/

[16] Kemi Alemoru and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, “Questioning the chaos of calling out cultural appropriation,” Dazed Digital, April 18, 2016, http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/30670/1/questioning-the-chaos-of-calling-out-cultural-appropriation


Steffanie Ling is a producer of criticism, pamphlets, short stories, essays, exhibitions, reviews, bluntness, anecdotes, shout outs, wrestling storylines, proposals, applications, jokes, readings, minimal poems, poems, dinner, compliments, and diatribes. She lives in Vancouver (Canada), frequenting grocery stores, the Cinematheque, and other air conditioned spaces. Her books are Cuts of Thin Meat (Spare Room, 2015) and Nascar (Blank Cheque, 2016).

Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others.

Please support the HKRB and look out for more essays, interviews and reviews by following our Facebook page and Twitter account.

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