It was great to be a part of the “Black Popular Music and K-pop” panel at #KCON17LA. The session was lively! In light of that discussion, here are three things that may be useful as people continue to think about the session or for those who could not attend. The session was important, not just for black K-pop fans to voice their experiences, but for ALL fans of K-pop, since we are getting joy from the influence of black popular music on K-pop.
What is Cultural Appropriation….REALLY?
Cultural appropriation is a term that comes from academia, used in a variety of scholarly fields, where it was a neutral concept. In Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, James O. Young notes that it has since come to mean something different:
It does not necessarily carry with it any moral baggage. Someone might prefer to use the concept of cultural appropriation to designate an objectionable class of transactions. Such people would distinguish cultural appropriation from cultural exchange or cultural borrowing, which could be unobjectionable. (5)
Young goes on to apply the concept “to any use of something developed in one cultural context by someone who belongs to another culture” (5). This is neutral. However, when people use the term in relation to K-pop, they often tend to do so to point out negative appropriation, where the cultural use is objectionable.
BUT, appropriation is inevitable when cultures come into contact with each other. Young says, “Almost all artists engage in some sort of appropriation in that they borrow ideas, motifs, plots, technical devices, and so forth from other artists (4).
So how can we tell the difference between the inevitable cultural exchange and negative appropriation? I like Elizabeth Jaikaran‘s three questions to pose when wondering if something is negative cultural appropriation in “The Discussion We Need to Have: Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation:”
Is the cultural element that is being used exclusive to my own cultural tradition?
Is the institution using this element a truly problematic one that is harmful to my culture’s dignity?
Based on the answers gleaned from 1 and 2, is this appropriation or appreciation?
This may be helpful for K-pop fans trying to make sense of what they may perceive as negative appropriation. This involves not only using an element of black popular culture, but doing so in a way that mocks or demeans. So, you can have feelings about some uses of black popular culture by K-pop, but it doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of negative cultural appropriation.
The Interracial Roots of Black Popular Music
Some people feel some kind of way about the influence of black music on K-pop. Black popular music been used by those who did not always acknowledge the source of the music, but it has also been made and appreciated by those outside of the culture. Black popular music itself appropriates (in the neutral sense!) from other cultures and it has operated as an inviting site where everyone is welcome. For example, Robin D.G. Kelley notes that anyone can have soul:
Soul was a euphemism or a creative way of identifying what many believed was a black aesthetic or black style, and it was a synonym for black itself or a way to talk about being black without reference to color, which is why people of other ethnic groups could have soul. . . . It was almost never conceived by African Americans as an innate, genetically derived feature of black life (26-6).
To say that only black people can like, enjoy or participate in black music is essentialist and contradicted by the history of black music. Black popular music in the United States historically provided a space where black and white musicians could come together to make some of the most memorable music, including jazz, rock, R&B and hip-hop. The documentary Muscle Shoals shows how white musicians from Alabama provided the instrumentation for some of the most soulful records ever produced during the segregation era. Def Jam Records, iconic in American hip-hop, was founded by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, a white music producer who began as a college kid running music production out of his NYU dorm room.
Moreover, black people are very involved in the production of K-pop, including Ebony Rae Vanderveer and Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer of InRage Entertainment, who were instrumental in bringing the “Black American Music and K-pop” panel to KCON. Looking at the production credits for K-pop music reveals a plethora of black music producers who have solid credentials in American R&B and hip-hop.
The heart of black popular music is not exclusionary and K-pop artists do recognize the roots of black music. This can be seen in recorded radio show appearances by K-pop artists like Starry Night, Kiss the Radio, and Shimshimtapa, where they often talk about their influences or through interviews.
A New View on Authenticity
At the heart of the discussions at the panel at KCON was the notion of authenticity, but authenticity can be subjective. It can be impacted by how much knowledge or actual experience a person has. John L. Jackson warns of the limits of authenticity when it is based on “guidelines for proper and improper behavior, for legitimate and illegitimate group membership, for social inclusion or ostracism” that ultimately function to “delimit individuals’ social options” (13). In the case of K-pop, calls for limited forms of authenticity could result in actually excluding people if they do not conform. Different people have notions of what is real, so one person’s opinion that a K-pop artist is being “real” may differ from another. What if one person’s notion of authenticity is based on wrong information? Who gets to decide who is authentic?
Jackson poses an alternative, suggesting that we use the concept of sincerity which recognizes subjectivity and avoids exclusion: “Sincerity privileges intent . . . allowing for the possibility of performative ad-libbing and inevitable acceptance of trust amid uncertainty as the only solution to interpersonal ambiguity” (18). Instead of starting from suspicion and accusations of theft, sincerity leaves room for the possibility that people do not mean harm. A person can be sincere and still get it wrong. Jackson suggests that we leave open that possibility.
Jackson, John L. Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Yo Mama’s Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press, 1997.
Young James O. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi: 10.1002/9780470694190.ch1
3 Useful Things To Know About Cultural Appropriation and K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.