Zico’s Tough Cookie, cultural differences and the internet outrage machine

When Zico released the music video for Tough Cookie and the end of last week, there was a huge reaction from the international fan community when they noticed that the song contained the word “faggot”, widely considered to be a homophobic slur in much of the English-speaking world.

Predictably, it all turned into a bit of a rage fest which ended Zico’s company issuing an apology while giving the distinct impression that they had no idea what was going on.

It’s good to see the company responded to the offence the song caused but the incident also highlighted one of the major issues with the discussions that take place in English when things like this happen. Invariably, there is far too much emphasis put not just on whether the act itself is right or wrong but whether person involved should be entirely written off as a terrible person. What then happens is that what could be a productive and educational debate into an us versus them mudslinging match.

Are you touchy social justice warrior with no sense of humour or are you a braindead fan who will do anything to defend your oppa/noona/unnie/hyung? Pick a side or you can’t take part in the game.

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Not only is this ridiculously simplistic but it actively stops any of us from learning anything from what has happened. When an idol uses an English word with a loaded or offensive meaning or an inappropriate trope of western, actually no, American media, it often tells us as much, if not more, about the way American culture projects itself to the rest of the world as it does about the actual idol themselves.

When I started thinking about this article I realised that I don’t think I fully understand how the word ‘faggot’ is actually used in the US. Here in the UK, the word has only come into public consciousness very recently. I was reminded of this recently when my Canadian flatmate made a slightly shocked expression when one of my other flatmates referred to cigarettes as fags – the most often used meaning of the word in British English.

Understanding the word purely from my consumption of mainstream American media, it makes me think of the bullying jock character in every high school comedy ever. The guy who has to assert his own masculinity by dominating and insulting all the other guys around him. In real life it may be used differently by its use in films, TV and music is deeply coded.

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Most of the time, it is used as much as way for the speaker, whether that be a fictional character, a rapper or a conservative news pundit, to undermine the masculinity of the person they are insulting. It shows how clearly ideas about hegemonic (i.e. ‘normal’ or ideal) masculinity are intertwined with heterosexuality in the West. ‘Real men’ are straight and so questioning their sexuality is a direct insult to their masculinity. As an insult, it as much implies weakness and femininity (note that he said “faggot bitch”) as it does homosexuality.

Within American social context, it is considered to be a homophobic slur but without that context (and US English as a first language) the term is easy to misinterpret.

Does that make it okay? Not at all. The whole premise that a rapper must assert his masculinity to prove his skills is ridiculous and it marginalises the skilled female rappers in Korean hip hop (and queer rappers, if there are any openly queer rappers in Korea).

But we do have to take the time to understand how western cultures are interpreted through American media in other parts of the world in order to have a productive conversation. Just calling Zico homophobic doesn’t get to the root of how he came to use the word in the first place.

Likewise with the racial slur Zico was previously criticised for using in one of his songs. The word is one with a highly derogatory one with a horrific history recalling the long period of time in which black people were treated as sub-human by white people in America and parts of the British Empire.

However in recent decades, some black people have chosen to reclaim the word as their own using it to try and strip it of its awful meaning. It has also found a role in hip hop as a result.

A New York Times article from 1993 explains its change in usage this way:

“Sometimes, the use of the word is simply a flat-out repetition of the street vernacular. In rap and hip-hop music, a genre in which millions of listeners adopt the artists’ style and language, “nigger” is virtually interchangeable with words like “guy,” “man” or “brother.””

This article was written over twenty years ago and it notes that already at that time the word was in common usage in hip hop and in popular culture in America. During and since that time hip hop has become a truly global cultural phenomenon and countries and communities all over the world have developed their own forms of hip hop music and culture.

But American hip hop is still the gold standard. This seems to be particularly true in Korea perhaps because the Korean hip hop community does not have the same history of struggle and oppression that many others do.

You'd have to be living under a rock not to notice  how much rappers in Korea have been borrowing from Kendrick Lamar recently.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice how much rappers and even idols in Korea have been borrowing from Kendrick Lamar recently.

This place of American cultural dominance may be where Korean rappers like Zico are coming from when they use that word. If American hip hop artists are the best and the standard by which we set ourselves and they are using that word about themselves and each other so if we use it, it means we’re real hip hop like they are. In some strange, twisted way, it might be intended as a mark of respect.

Again this doesn’t make it right. No one should be using words they don’t really understand in their music.

It’s also not like the information that this word is not available in Korean. I looked it up on a Korean web dictionary and the definition was ‘Kkamdoongi [Darkie] (a highly offensive word referring to a black person)’. That seems fairly definitive.

However sometimes the information genuinely is not available in Korean. Take blackface for example. Until very recently it was impossible to find any information in Korean about why it is so very offensive. However when I searched on Naver today, I did find two results. One was from a blogger calling herself ‘Black Unnie’ who drew a comparison between blackface in Korea and yellowface in older American media and the other was a reposting of Omona’s open letter about blackface.

But these two posts were created in July and August of this year. Until four months ago there was no easily available information on blackface in Korean. Think about what that means for a second.

There is more writing about the use of blackface in Korea written in English than any kind of writing about the history and meaning of blackface in Korean.

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‘Sikeomeonseu’ was a popular blackface sketch in Korea in the 1980s (suddenly stopped before the 1988 Seoul Olympics)

Of course use of blackface is insensitive and ignorant to some degree even without understanding its racist history. An article about the last Gag Concert blackface incident had the headline “The shocking disappearance of Gag Concert Hong Yeseul’s beauty in blackface”. You don’t need to understand anything about the historical oppression of black people in the west to know that that is racist. It just is. A child could tell you that.

It’s all well and good to say someone should know better but sometimes we need to distinguish between what is universally offensive and what is a misunderstanding based on a lack of cultural context.

Our world is increasingly globalised but it is still experienced very differently depending on whether or not the person experiencing it speaks English. Over half of the entire content of the internet is in English while only around five percent of the world’s population are native English speakers. So when we criticise things as English speakers we often assume that the people who are created these things have access to the same information that we do. This is not true.

Yes, maybe Korean entertainers should pay more attention to making sure the English and the representations that they replicate from western media are not offensive but to what extent are they to blame that the stereotypes perpetuated globally by American media? Where do we draw the line?

Different cultures place value on different things. It’s much more productive to negotiate our understandings of media products from different parts of the world by being critical of both the culture they come from and of our own rather than by simply writing them off. That doesn’t mean it’s not wrong it just means it’s also complicated.

Although it might feel good in the short term to rage online about problematic things idols do, it really helps no one. Often it only reinforces the idea that westerners are enlightened and Koreans are ignorant. There are no easy answers. There will always be things that are misinterpreted or that really are genuinely offensive when there are language and cultural barriers in the way.

And as Nichola from My Korean Husband put it so perfectly in the comments of our Facebook page, you can strongly disagree with something an artist does with completely disregarding them. It’s not all black and white.

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By trying to understand the perspective of someone from a different culture, we can expand our own understanding of the world. It is also my experience that people are much more willing to listen to you if they think you are listening to them.

And if something really offends you? Just turn it off. Life is too short.

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  • baroo

    I feel that My Korean Husband might not understand that Zico does 99% of the producing for all his and Block B’s music? That’s why there’s a little extra rage here on Zico. Other than that point, though, this is a really great article. Have you heard of the comment a “korean fan” left on youtube saying that faggot’s first definition in Naver dictionary is some type of dumpling or meatball? A lot of people are calling bullshit on that but since you mentioned Naver having no sources on blackface I’d like to know how you feel about the Korean resources on what faggot means.

    • http://beyondhallyu.com/ Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

      Not quite, actually. Zico is the co-producer or not a producer for most of their music – he is very rarely the sole producer (he didn’t produce this song). But yeah you’re right that he does have a lot more control than the average idol.

      On the other question, I haven’t checked the search portals but yeah here is the Naver dictionary entry for ‘faggot’.

      The first one is about a meat dumpling, the second one says ‘male homosexual’ and then the third one says something about firewood and the last two are repeats of previous definitions.

      So yeah I saw that comment and the commenter wasn’t wrong but I think most people would probably get which one was the insult. I honestly don’t know what the right answer is here. He shouldn’t be using that word. I’m not here to defend that. It’s about whether we use it to understand cultural differences better so that we can bridge them or just to drag yet another person over the coals.

      • http://beyondhallyu.com/ Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

        Sorry there was supposed to be an image attached

      • baroo

        I’m actually a longtime fan, and I can swear he definitely does most of their music. All of their music credits is to him, Poptime and sometimes Kye Bumjoo. He and Poptime work together in the studio to create everything- he talked about it on his 4 Things Show. He worked on Tough Cookie personally, there’s several clips of him doing so (here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x24v5gd_7ontheblock-mnet-4-things-show-zico-1-4_people) which is part of the level of hate with the situation.

        That’s what most people have said so far- even in context of the rest of the lyrics, the “tough meat dumpling” still wouldn’t make sense because he’s addressing the “lesser” idol rappers. There really isn’t a way to shield him here, he has to have known that it was at least an insult referring to femininity. I still support him, but he’s definitely in the wrong for it. I’m glad this has at least sparked some real cross-cultural dialogue though.

        • http://beyondhallyu.com/ Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

          No you’re right on that but I was just saying he is almost never a sole producer on tracks he works on and often he is just the composer/lyricist (I checked his full back catalogue on Daum music) So yeah he does have a say in everything but there is also usually someone else there working with him so I guess you’re both right!

          Yeah it’s always good when pop culture starts a bit of discussion about cultural differences even when it’s not for a good reason. Someone can definitely do something wrong and still be a good artist. This whole internet culture of someone doing something wrong and being forever labelled as problematic is kind of unhealthy, I think anyway. Everyone makes mistakes.

          Hopefully this might teach a few people to be less ignorant and more accepting in future. That would be nice!

          • Elen

            we have a good exemple of what is culture difference here in my country. Gringo for brazilians = foreigner simply that, but talking with an american friend he thought I was actually saying something bad to him, cause there is a problem with that in US between mexicans and white americans I think. Will I stop using gringo? Of course not, I have no intention to offend anyone but is my language if person have any interest in understand I’ll explaim, but I don’t feel like explaining myself to everybody.

            The problem with faggot in my point of view is, everybody that like american music and get to know that word thru them, get the impression is something u say for someone u dislike and don’t respect, a coward, there are a similar word in my country that is used the same way and not necessary meaning anything towards homosexuals even tho is a way to offend them. Being political correct is complicated, cause we all say some things without meaning any harm but in the wrong way. Honestly I don’t like to label people for saying wrong things I pay more atention to their behave, the way they interact with others, friends, etc.. is very easy to put on a mask and pretend to be something u are not.

            I get scared with how judgemental are people online and thats a horrible habit, wonder what kind of future that will lead. Zico is not better than anyone he talk crap and make mistakes, we all do, we learn a lot when we get married, people talk a lot of crap even being good…. intentions are more valuable in my point of view.

  • Seti Tesefay

    I really liked the article. I was more amused with the “American “stereotypical” gangster rap video that he was portraying here. He should not have said “faggot”, and the company may have now know what the word meant, but he definitely did. I also don’t think he should be burned at the stake though. I am huge VIP and I love Seungri, but i was mad at him when he said that when he was in the states and he accidentally got in the wrong van and their was a black man sitting there and he was scared. This happened a long time ago and he did apologize. However, I understand why he thought that way. Most American movies, especially at that time, portray African American men to be violent. And a lot of rap videos showed the gangster life. There was not a lot of movies or shows that showed that black people are different and come from different socieo-economic backgrounds. People don’t understand that a lot of gangster rap and videos were autobiographical, and there are gangs from all different races. That is also one of the reasons that I cringe when people who don’t come from that life in the states and outside try to emulate that. Also, being scared of black men and teenagers is still very real in American culture too.

    P.S. My problem with Zico. People tried to explain in the past and tell him why he is wrong in saying these words, but he just ignores it. I highly doubt, that is the last time he is going stay “faggot” or “nigga.”

  • gdofmnstrs

    While cigarettes are often called “fags” in the Uk, I think very few call them “faggots” anymore, and I’ve seen the term used as a slur for homosexuals in UK movies and such, so it’s not like the US has a lock on that definition. The whole twig/kindling definition is so old my grandparents might not remember the word used like that. There is the Welsh dish “Faggots”, but few outside of south Wales would know such a dish exists, and I would speculate many in south Wales would rather not know about it. (I don’t know, but it sounds about as appetizing as haggis) I don’t know about these dumplings or how popular or well known they are, but the lyrics were quite clear, and Zico’s company made an fairly typical non-apology apology. The worst part about the whole thing though is that it was just a crappy song. I hadn’t even realized the slurs or the patches or anything else because the song was so shitty I turned it off after the first chorus. I’m not sure why anyone thinks he’s a good rapper. It’s like Hwayoung’s rap in Roly Poly, but for an entire song. (shudders)