BH Discuss: Is cultural appropriation a problem in K-pop?

It seems that every few months or so ‘cultural appropriation’ becomes a hot topic among K-pop blogs. So far we have strayed away from this topic largely because no one seems to be able to come up with a clear definition of what it actually is and, more importantly, what it looks like in K-pop.

Wikipedia (in a surprisingly well-sourced article) provides a good definition of the term:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

But what does that even mean in regards to K-pop? Mostly when cultural appropriation in K-pop is discussed, writers focus specifically on appropriation of black music and/or black culture and/or hip hop culture. Sometimes it in also brought up concerning Native American culture and more infrequently Indian or South Asian culture.


BIGBANG dressed similarly to the Bloods

Mark from Seoulbeats criticised SNSD’s ‘I Got A Boy’ back in January for donning “sideways caps, bandanas, and beanies, with just a hint of graffiti” in an apparent attempt at “aegyo hip hop”. But is this even cultural appropriation?

What about when Kai from EXO wore cornrows or that time BIGBANG dressed like infamous LA street gang the Bloods?

It’s important to note that not all cultural appropriation is negative as Associate Professor Crystal Anderson points out:

Appropriating elements of a culture by taking them out of their original context and using them in a completely different way does not automatically constitute negative cultural appropriation. In fact, suggesting that people “stay in their lane” by not engaging other cultures does more harm to the culture “being appropriated.”

Hip hop has been a global culture for a long time now with different countries and communities having their own hip hop cultures across the globe. But when does the cultural appreciation turn into appropriation?


A recent incident of blackface on MBC’s Quiz to Change the World

Some people conflate the much more nuanced (and not always negative) concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ with the always unacceptable racism. Can you really compare blackface to an idol group wearing baseball caps? Or idols using the n-word to K-pop producers incorporating hip hop beats into their music?

But in reality, is either even a big problem? Don’t we have bigger problems to be dealing with? As Anderson goes on to say:


“Focusing in K-pop’s cultural appropriation of stereotypes in this way also ignores the cultures originating and promulgating the stereotypes around the globe. I suspect that on any given day, there are more instances of blackface going down on college campuses in the United States than there are happening in K-pop. Why not address the continued use of blackface in the country that originated and continues to spread it across the globe? Why not explain where these images come from in the first place, and explore why they seem to still be in popular circulation in our globalized world?”

Where is the line? Where does interpretation of a different culture turn into racial stereotype? Do the same rules apply for Korea’s underground hip hop scene as for K-pop?

Is it even a problem or are their more important things to be thinking about?

Are you just bored of this whole debate?

Related links from Beyond Hallyu and around the internet:


K-pop and the role of race in the Western music industry

Educating a changing Korea: Interview with ‘Even The Rivers’ Director

2NE1 vs. Girls’ Generation: Are we ready for a crossover?

K-pop and 1960’s Americana: More alike than you think


Of Misconceptions About Cultural Appropriation in K-pop

The trouble with kpop

An Open Letter from International Fans for #ChangeInKorea: Blackface

Korean Sociological Image #81: Cultural Appropriation

Sound off in the comments! Let us know what you think.

  • Taintedmemory

    Great article. I have tosay when it comes to music in korea, its not really an issue for me. Every country has it version of a different genre, be it hiphop, rock or other wise. They are genres people from other countries like and to have in ur own language with experiences you can relate to in your life is a plus. But when racial identity ia used for comedic entertainment I take offense personally, race maybe funny for some but to other it bring up very painful emotions to the surface, one thing that seems to erk me is religious comedy on variety shows using the muslim athan(call to prayer) in songs. Music should be universal, as long as its not a complete copying of lyrics and music, and the artist adds their own flair I am ok with it.

  • sophie

    I think the biggest problem I have with these debates is that a lot of the time people who aren’t offended because they are not actually from the culture being appropriated think it’s ok to speak for those people and say “this isn’t that bad” or “I doubt anyone would find this offensive.” That mentality of feeling like you have the authority to speak for other cultures feeds into exactly the kinds of power relations that allow people to think that it is ok to appropriate their culture.

    • kpopalypse

      Actually the people from a completely different culture who go “oh this is so horrible” when the people from the actual culture being appropriated itself find it amusing or even flattering, that pisses me off a lot more. There’s no reason to apologise for it but there’s also no reason to just assume everyone will react the same way. When elements of my own culture get appropriated in a really shonky way, I don’t find it offensive, I just go “oh, look, some idiots who don’t get it” and have a laugh about it, then I think about something else 10 seconds later.

      • sophie

        yeah true, it works either way. the total lack of communication with the culture that is appropriated itself is what makes the debate hit a wall so many times!

  • Angela Parsons

    It isn’t much of a problem. I like what Crystal Anderson was saying about not staying in your ‘own lanes’ and experiencing other cultures. I think the issue people have with hip hop and other cultures being brought in to kpop songs is that the kpop flavour might get lost in the midst of this ,if you know what i mean.

    • Lisa

      True! However, could it be that perhaps kpop is better understood through ‘borrowing’ or ‘lending itself’ through other cultures/imagery such as hip hop for foreign audiences? While kpop does have a distinct flavour, without using hip hop as a concept, groups such as big bang may not have the same appeal to a wider audience. Just something to think about :-)

      • Angela Parsons

        also true! When you think of groups like BIGBANG then you understand that they are quite dependent on other cultures, especially hiphop (they do speak english for about half the song) and this could be partly why they have a global audience but kpop groups like super junior or snsd who have similar global exposure do not always depend on other cultures. I can think of times when these groups also do (SNSD-IGAB) but they usually have a kpop feel to them. but yeah i know what you mean.

  • whateverwha

    Where to draw the line?
    I don’t know, the concept of appropriation is also vague to me, but what I find a bit ridiculous is the borrowing of styles that have nothing to do with Korean pop music. Like dressing like thugs with fake gangstas in the background and cars…this reality doesn’t exist in Korea. Yes, they have a mafia and poor neighbourhoods but not ghettos and gangs like in the States.
    If you are a pop artist and you emulate that, it just shows that you use their hype to make a buzz (or impress fangirls) while looking obviously disconnected to that reality AND enjoying the hype without having the flipside that comes with hip hop (bad guy, drugs, struggling to make your music out there -the underground scene, etc). You’re not credible to me. Apart from that, I don’t have a problem with it.

    If you are a hip hop rapper then using these stereotypes should be smartly done (knowing what the codes mean and adapt the concept to your own culture and style) and NOT automatic…falling into the caricature makes you lose credibility especially if it is done to compensate your lack of talent or creativity.

    As for what Anderson said about blackface in the US being more frequent than in South Korea, African-Americans already do what they can to complain strongly about it and make their voices heard. I also don’t think they have the power to destroy “institutional” domestic racism. I really agree that more explanation and contextualization is the way to go when people use the term “cultural appropriation”. However I’m not sure what explaining could really do outside of the kpop fandom. It’s not going to make it right to me.

  • Tiffany

    I almost didn’t read this article as I was hesitant to see yet another pointless run around of cultural appropriation in kpop, but I’m glad to see this wasn’t the case at all! :). As a black 20 y.o. female, I’ve been disrespected badly enough not to take kpop cultural appropriation as anything but silly kids playing dress up. It doesn’t offend me, but it certainly doesn’t do the music any favors either. Honestly, I think it’s fine to borrow elements of another culture to enhance your own music, but it seems a lot of SK groups are going about it the wrong way.

    When I see a kpop video where idols are dressed up in saggy clothes and chillin with boom boxes at their ears calling themselves “hood” I just laugh. Especially considering that their next video will probably feature lots of cute clothes and aegyo. That’s not how you adopt a style to improve your own-it’s merely a caricature, a joke. And then it’s easy for people to get offended if they horrible themselves to be the butt of a joke. I think the artists and labels should be more true to themselves and their own culture when appropriating. Don’t sing about and act like African American gangsters when you don’t have any and a majority of your audience wouldn’t have had much firsthand experience with them.

    I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying “stick with what you know” as I think it’s great when people want to try new things and are interested in my culture. And so things like adopting clothes to fit your image and style at fine. It’s when the artists act completely different from their normal image that I see a problem as that’s when they perpetuate stereotype of how someone who looks, dresses, or sings that way acts. If you’re going to do it, do it all the time and not just for fun once. Just stay true to your music and image and for the most part it’ll be fine.

    • haohaohao

      I think the thing is for a country pretty far removed from the Western world like South Korea, anything derived from another country or culture is essentially just a caricature or a stereotype. An American style = cowboy, or hip hop, or dressing up Hollywood style. UK = Victorian style lacey clothes. French = Romantic. African = Playing drums and bongos. And you can’t blame em cos they don’t know better! Even in a globalised age, it’s fair to say most of Koreans haven’t seen the world; even the artists themselves have probably lived their whole lives in Korea.

      And it works both ways doesn’t it. Think of Korea and you get maybe 2 caricatures: 1) Perfectly formed plastic surgery enhanced idols 2) Maybe some traditional person in a hanbok. So it’s quite natural to think this way, especially when you haven’t had the chance to live in and immerse yourself in another country.

  • Aja Nile

    Yep….. They’re pretty bad. I used to get really mad and now I just laugh at their attempts.

  • zsc

    Talk about missing the point.

    Either intentionally or not, this article ignores an important aspect of cultural appropriation: one culture (maybe not the dominant culture, but *always due to* the dominant culture) getting “cool points” for engaging with what the originating culture gets shamed for.

    Miley Cyrus can be shown to glorify smoking pot, wearing grills, twerking, blah blah blah, and she is seen as just a kid establishing her new adult identity. Trayvon Martin is shown smoking, wearing grills, etc, and those images are used to prove that he was nothing more than a “thug” that was asking to be shot. White women can do West Indian winds and twerk and they are “cool”, “street”, etc. Black women do the same and they are “trashy”, “video hoes”, etc.

    Using the kpop fandom for example, in America, the k-(and j-)media fandoms think it’s cool to sprinkle in random Korean/Japanese in their speech, but when people from East Asia speak their own language in public, Americans go on about how they should speak English because that’s “America’s language” (it’s not), or they just side-eye them because they can’t guarantee that they aren’t talking bad about them (Americans can’t stand not being privy to all conversations).

    Yes, so when non-black people (mostly white people, honestly) get perceived as cool for wearing dreads and cornrows, but as a black woman I can’t even interview for a job in cornrows (or sometimes dreads) because the style is seen as “unprofessional”, yes, that needs to be addressed (one young black girl got kicked out of school for her dreads not too long ago). When Macklemore gets played on radio stations that say they don’t play “rap” (code for black people), that needs to be addressed.

    To bring it back to kpop, when kpop idols have their fans creaming themselves over their “street” images when these same (mostly white) fans complain about how “violent”, “sexist”, “vulgar” black hip hop/”thug culture” is, that needs to be addressed.

    As time as gone by, I blame the actual idols for this less and less, and begin to look at the real problem: that due to racial discrimination by white people and international negative representation by the white media, these cultural memes are shamed and objectified nearly all over the world. Even between people of color (like black and Korean people), we do it to each other, due to what the dominant white culture tells us about one another.

    And “we have more important things to worry about” is NOT profound. It is flippant, dismissive, and a harmful view to take. Where do you draw the line? When it stops offending people, obviously.

    • haohaohao

      I would consider your usage of contrasting examples to be quite cherry-picked, to be frank.

      Taking just one of the examples you listed (Miley Cyrus twerking): I think it’s fair to say while some of her fans appreciated her “street-style”, she did in fact receive huge flak (rightly so) for her outrageous and culturally insensitive performance, for the very reason that listed in the article: cultural appropriation.

      Similarly, it’s not fair to say that white people w/ cornrows are seen as cool, and black people with em are seen as thugs. I think you’d agree that depending on the audience and perspective, a white person with cornrows may often be seen as “wannabe hiphop”, and certainly not cool as you mentioned.

      That is not to say I disagree with you that racism and unequal expectations is a big matter! I just wanted to point out the unfairness in standards you have commited yourself. And with regards to “cultural memes” and stereotypes, I think it’s fair to agree that they exist globally and arise from each society semi-independently. Blaming it on whitey ain’t exactly fair. For example, living in South-East Asia, my stereotype of a white person is probably very different from yours (wherever you come from).

    • Saisyet

      I think Miley Cyrus was largely criticized for her overtly sexual performance at the awards. And hip hop culture is largely performed by black artists which Korean artists are now copying so why are you blaming white people for it?

    • Nemesis

      I don’t understand black people. They bitch about everything. Americans, specifically Whites, telling other people of other cultures to speak English? I never heard such bullshit in my life. I am not White, but i would appreciate it if people come to America to know some English would be a positive thing. If someone goes to country not knowing a single thing about the main language then what’s the point of you living there? It’s not an American language, you’re right, it’s a worldwide language. You’re a typical delusional black person “blame the whites.” I don’t know how your kind can get through life with such negative attitudes.

      And O.M.G, the trayvon martin case? Really? Do you not know your facts? That kid was bigger than the Hispanic (precieved as white, sad. You guys look at his color but not his origin, typical) person. He got attacked and he shot the kid. There could’ve been a better way for him to handle it, but it wasn’t due to race. Didn’t you hear that the Hispanic guy saved a homeless black man before?

      When do white fans complain about the black culture? I thought you said it was appropriation. So are the complaining about it or using it? It’s ironic how black people accept how “thug, violent, sexist, vulgar” their culture is and then calls it appropration. Because you guys are proud of such culture. The irony. If you people don’t like how you guys are viewed then change your culture. You can’t tell me it’s a fact that most black people are in prison or commit the most crime. You can’t tell me that they don’t have male dominant, vulgar, violent music. Is that not true. Get over yourself.

      Most of your examples don’t make sense. Dreads and cornrows are cool for white people and then you use it in an example for getting a job? DO YOU SEE ANYONE WITH THAT HAIRSTYLE DESPITE WHAT RACE THEY ARE? Do you see a white person with that hairstyle get a job? And I don’t see any white people with cornrows or dreads. The likelihood of seeing that is low. It’s just some bullshit example like the twerking one. Twerking has been changed from the African American culture and became Americanized by your own kin aka the hood. Your people ruined how it was orginally and made it into a ghetto dance. Who the hell thinks a white girl twerking as not slutty. As far as I can see anyone who has twerked was looked down upon.

      You only have a bunch of racist views. You are the racist one. And you are the one of many that will always have something to bitch about. It’s ironic how you bitch about white culture but you fell into watching My Little Pony Friendship is Magic. Voiced by white people. And you missed the point of the show haven’t you.

      Hatred is strong within you. Live life.

      • zsc

        “Hatred is strong within you” preceeding a speech that started with “I don’t understand black people. They bitch about everything” and some other xenophobic crap.

        You’re a joke.

  • fuckyoukpopfans

    i thought this was an onion article. korea is making big money through black culture whilst simultaneously using bleaching creams, demonising thick hair and dark skin. saying that we have bigger problems to worry about that the cultural appropriation in kpop is like saying “why do you care about white people making asian jokes, asian people are racist towards white people too you know”