Whether K-pop fans are praised political activists or denigrated as delusional enthusiasts, both characterizations reduce K-pop fans, especially Black fans, and fail to recognize their value beyond politics.
Up until recently, K-pop fans had a questionable reputation. On March 19, 2020, I did a search for K-pop fans, and these are the search terms Google offered:
This is what today’s search (June 24) for K-pop fan brings:
In the span of a few months, the perception of K-pop fans has changed, largely due to several events with political ramifications, including overwhelming the Dallas police iWatch Dallas app, taking over the #whitelivesmatter hashtag, and most recently, disrupting President Trump’s Oklahoma rally. Coverage by mainstream media outlets have praised these actions, suggesting that K-pop fans now have value because they are politically active.
However, others are pointing out that calling K-pop the newest wave of political activists is not as positive as it seems. Abby Ohlheiser does a really great job of explaining the complexity surrounding K-pop fandom and why the sudden characterization of K-pop fans as activists is problematic:
Some stans, and the academics who study them, say that while it’s great to see fans use these platforms for good, the rapid veneration is overshadowing the more complex dynamics underlying K-pop fandom. And, they say, the newfound reputation for anti-racist heroism largely ignores the voices of black K-pop fans, who have struggled with racism and harassment within the community.
The K-pop fan-as-activist is the other side of the K-pop-fan-as-crazy coin. Both are imposed by the media and narrowly construe K-pop fandom. K-pop fan activity did not suddenly become important or significant just because it intersects with the political arena or because major outlets say so. Fans were always important and significant, in and of themselves. K-pop fans’ ability to organize and mobilize for a cause can be seen as early as 2012, when fans of Seo Taiji, often credited with being the first major figure in K-pop, fundraised to create the “SeoTaiji Forest” in Brazil to support conservation. It’s the same organizing used to support groups when they promote. But it’s also scores of smaller, collaborative projects that collect information in informal archive projects. K-pop fans have always been proactive in producing culture around K-pop.
This has a particular impact for Black K-pop fans. While Black K-pop fans have been part of K-pop fandom since its early days, they are increasingly being brought to the fore solely within the context of K-pop activism around Black Lives Matter, or increasingly, to articulate their negative experiences within the fandom. While both are important in understanding the experiences of Black fans, they are not the only way to understand those experiences. Raising Black K-pop fan voices only to tell stories of racism and discrimination suggests that Black fans cannot talk about just being a fan, who they like and why. It excludes Black fans from having a voice on any other aspect of K-pop and silences them under the auspices of giving them a voice.
Black fans, and Black people in general, have a complex experience one that includes joy. Imani Perry recently wrote for The Atlantic: “My elders taught me that I belonged to a tradition of resilience, of music that resonates across the globe, of spoken and written language that sings. . . . The injustice is inescapable. So yes, I want the world to recognize our suffering. But I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.” Calling on Black voices only confirm their negative experience with ignoring their opinion on everything else in the fandom excludes them from being fans in the truest sense of the word. If the only way the public sees Black fan is as a tragic victim, we reduce the Black fan.
K-pop fans in general, and Black K-pop fans in particular, are having characterizations imposed on them by entities that do not have the best track record on K-pop coverage. This narrative of activism is being generated by mainstream media outlets rather than the fans themselves. As a result, it continues the age-old tendency of the media reducing K-pop fans to the simplest of terms.
Abby Ohlheiser. “How K-pop Fas Became Celebrated Online Vigilantes.” MIT Technology Review. 5 Jun 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/06/05/1002781/kpop-fans-and-black-lives-matter/ (Accessed 24 Jun 2020).
Imani Perry. “Racism Is Terrible. Blackness Is Not.” The Atlantic. 15 June 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/racism-terrible-blackness-not/613039/ (Accessed 24 June 2020).
Kim Rahn. “Fans Name ‘Seoetaiji Forest’ in Brazil.” The Korea Times. March 2012. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2012/03/113_107088.html (Accessed 24 Jun 2020).
The Once and Future Fandom: How Media Shapes Perceptions of K-pop Fans by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Veteran “idol” group g.o.d (Groove Overdose) is the first K-pop artist explored in-depth in Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop. When writing the book, I always knew that g.o.d formed the foundation of understanding the use of R&B rhythm and vocals for later “idol” groups. Their consistent use of funk rhythms and vocals, especially gospel-inflected vocals over their decades-long career allows for an exploration of their sound over time, which remains remarkably consistent. The group’s engagement with black popular music ranges from soul ballads to upbeat dance tracks. Below find a collection of the best examples of g.o.d’s engagement with black popular music. (*Tracks marked with an * are explored further in the book).
- Observation, Chapter 1 (1999)* | 2. So You Can Come Back to Me, Chapter 1 (1999) | 3. With Little Men, Chapter 1 (1999) | 4. Promise, Chapter 1 (1999) | 5. Love and Remember, Chapter 2 (1999) | 6. Dance All Night, Chapter 2 (1999) | 7. Friday Night, Chapter 2 (1999) | 8. Five Men’s Story, Chapter 2 (1999) | 9. 21C Our Hope, Chapter 2 (1999) | 10. One Candle, Chapter 3 (2000)* | 11. Need You, Chapter 3 (2000) | 12. Lie, Chapter 3 (2000) | 13. Dance With Me, Chapter 3 (2000) | 14. Road, Chapter 4 (2001) | 15. The Place You Where You Should Be, Chapter 4 (2001) | 16. Let’s Go, Chapter 4 (2001) | 17. Report to the Dance Floor, Chapter 5: Letter (2002) | 18. Lately, Chapter 5: Letter (2002) | 19. The Reason Why Opposites Attract (Bandaega Kkeulrineun Iyu), Ordinary Day (2004) | 20. I Don’t Know Your Heart (Ni Mameul Molla), Into the Sky (2005) | 21. It’s Alright (ft. G-Soul), Into the Sky (2005) | 22. Crime (Mujoe), Into the Sky (2005) | 23. Change, Into the Sky (2005) | 24. Sky Blue Promise, Chapter 8 (2014)* | 25. Stand Up, Chapter 8 (2014) | 26. Saturday Night, Chapter 8 (2014)* | 27. G’swag, Chapter 8 (2014)
Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (September 2020, University of Mississippi Press) is a scholarly book that examines the ways that Korean pop (“idols), R&B and mainstream hip-hop of the Hallyu (Korean wave) era incorporate elements of black popular music and how global fans understand that influence.
As a senior scholar in transnational American Studies and Global Asias and writer on K-pop for the past 10 years, I thought a book on black music and K-pop should be the follow-up to my first book, Beyond the Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production. It’s a labor of love and it has something for everyone.
What’s In It for Fans
It talks about people you know. It covers K-pop as a 20-year-old music tradition with genres that have developed over time and significant musical acts. It recognizes the development of “idol” acts ranging from veterans to their successors as well as the Korean and African American music producers behind the music, including Yoo Young Jin, Teddy, Teddy Riley and Harvey Mason Jr. It explores Korean R&B singers and groups as well as mainstream Korean hip-hop artists. Musical acts covered include g.o.d., Shinhwa, 2PM, Wonder Girls, SHINee, TVXQ, Rain (Bi), Fly to the Sky, 4MEN, Brown Eyed Soul, Big Mama, Park Hyo Shin, Lyn, Zion T., Wheesung, Dynamic Duo, Epik High, Primary, Jay Park and Yoon Mirae.
What’s In It for Scholars
It critically engages K-pop through an interdisciplinary lens. Soul in Seoul draws on popular music studies, fan studies and transnational American studies to examine the intertextuality at the heart of K-pop music, an intertextuality that includes African American popular music and distinct Korean music strategies. This intertextuality sounds different through time, across genres and among artists because it draws from a variety of aspects of black popular music. At the same time, the book highlights the critical function of fans, who are responsible for its global spread and function as its music press. It places African American popular culture within a global context, thereby disrupting the homogenizing tendencies of globalization that obscure the impact of an African American popular culture with a complicated relationship to the West. The book is accessible to undergraduate and graduate students and suitable for courses in music and ethnomusicology, ethnic studies, Asian studies, African American studies, American studies, popular culture and media studies.
What’s In It for Everybody
Soul in Seoul is about the music, so it is for anyone who is curious about the ever-changing phenomenon that is K-pop. Look for the Soul in Seoul Playlist leading up to the book’s release in September 2020 on KPK: Kpop Kollective to hear what all the fuss is about.
Writing the Book I Wanted to Read – Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Wheesung (Choi Wheesung) debuted with boy group A4 in 1999 and as a solo artist with YG Entertainment in 2000. Although his roots are in rock, he is known as a solid R&B artist. Wheesung also uses the stage name Realslow, and named his company such when he started it in 2017.
“Girls” is from Wheesung’s 2010 CD Vocolate (an almagam of the words “voice” and “chocolate”). This album also highlights the continuing hallmark of Korean music artists working with African-American music producers: Vocolate features collaborations with Rodney “DarkChild” Jerkins and Ne-Yo. I was originally introduced to this song via Jonghyun (he was a fan of and worked with Wheesung). “Girls” made a recent showing on my YouTube random play. Add it to your work-out list to keep you going through those next-to-last rotation squats or that final treadmill level-5 incline run.
Wheesung-Topic. “Girls.” YouTube. 14 July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gte–D_eLS0 (Accessed 9 Mar 2020).
Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, M.S.L.S.
University of South Carolina Lancaster
Artist: Jonghyun (Kim Jonghyun)
Album: 좋아 (She Is)
Album Release Date: May 24, 2016
Caption: Press Play to Hear “Aurora” by Jonghyun.
Album: Brown Sugar
Album Release Date: July 4, 1995
Caption: Press Play to hear “Lady” by D’Angelo.
ELEMENTS OF NOTE:
- Clapping and jazz percussion
- Syncopated lyrics
- Lower vocal registers for stanza performance, falsetto for ad-libs and chorus
- Use of two- or three-part harmony
- Background vocals feature artist
- Both songs discuss willingness and confidence of being the best choice for the love interest and in turn, that the love interest represents his ideal (see English interpretation of “Aurora” lyrics)
- D’Angelo’s strong bass-line vs. Jonghyun’s use of bass drum and modulated guitars and bass.
- D’Angelo’s use of a catch-line (“I can tell they’re lookin’ at us”) to interrupt the traditional song composition vs. Jonghyun’s traditional lyric-chorus-lyric-chorus-bridge-chorus composition
- D’Angelo’s piano chords vs. Jonghyun’s synthesizers
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
pH-1 (Park Jun-Won, also known as Harry Park) is a Korean-American rapper on H1GHER Music Records, which also houses GroovyRoom and G.Soul. While people want to make harsh distinctions between K-pop and K-hip-hop, I actually found out about pH-1 from the K-pop sub-Reddit. From the 2019 release Summer Episodes, this is one of those songs that you LOVE upon first hearing. It sounds like summer.
pH-1. “You Don’t Know My Name (Prod. Mokyo).” YouTube. 23 Jul 2019. https://youtu.be/PJux2vLbQMw (Accessed 6 Mar 2019).
TVXQ! (also billed as Dong Bang Shin Ki/DBSK in Korean and Tohoshinki in Japanese) was a five member group from 2004 to 2010. In 2011, the group continued with two members (Jung Yunho – U-Know, and Shim Changmin – MAX). The group is known for their harmonies and sensual dance moves, and “Rising Sun” choreography is one of the group’s more dynamic musical and visual accomplishments.
“Rising Sun” is from the group’s second Korean studio album and was also featured in an American film. In a review of the album, Pop Reviews Now asserts that “Rising Sun” “is one of DBSK’s most technically-challenging and most remembered songs and for good reason.” Every member’s vocal or rap ability is highlighted, with Changmin’s signature range/ note-holding on display. As a note to the longevity and importance of this song, the two-member group continues to perform it live.
View the visuals and hear the vocals of five-member TVXQ’s “Rising Sun”:
And two-member performance, as well:
DBSK – “Rising Sun.” Pop Reviews Now. 28 Jul 2014. http://popreviewsnow.blogspot.com/2014/07/dbsk-rising-sun.html (25 Feb 2020).
Kpopcorner2. “DBSK [Mirotic Concert] – Rising Sun.” YouTube. 10 Feb. 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bLxrl5NRfM (25 Feb 2020).
laura bustamante. “TVXQ! – Rising Sun – Special Live Tour T1STORY in Seoul.” YouTube. 15 Jun 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEQ7ICbYhYg (25 Feb 2020).
Mamamoo is a girl group well known for its vocal talent, but the members also show themselves to be musically versatile. The group performed “Destiny (우린 결국 다시 만날 운명이었지)” for its finale on the music competition show Queendom, and the track was later included on the 2019 album Reality in Black. Kpopmap notes that “It is hard to pinpoint a specific genre as the track seemed to have a mix of various tempos and rhythm, causing listeners to get surprised time to time.” Those unique elements include the prominent guitar and the staccato vocals during the repeated breakdown.
Mnet K-pop. “[ENG sub] [최종회] ♬ 우린 결국 다시 만날 운명이었지(Destiny) – 마마무 @ FINAL 경연 컴백전쟁 : 퀸덤 10화.” YouTube. 31 Oct 2019. https://youtu.be/i0bHc8k-FdM (24 Feb 2020).
“Mamamoo ‘Destiny’ for Mnet ‘Queendom’ Has Fans Confused For It’s Genre.” Kpopmap. 25 Oct 2019. https://www.kpopmap.com/mamamoo-destiny-for-mnet-queendom-has-fans-confused-for-its-genre/ (24 Feb 2020).
It is notoriously difficult to find in-depth information about 015B in English. What Wikipedia and some other sites seem to agree on is that the group started out with four members and later became a duo, brothers Jeong Seok-won and Jang Ho-il. However, listening to several of their albums reveals that they are keen to try just about any genre under the sun, and they do it well. Case in point: “Lost Temporarily” featuring Shin Bo-kyung (also known as Boni) from the group’s 2006 album, Lucky 7. As Jung Bae points out, the track has “no frills on the arrangement, just a slow and soulful beat, and Shin sang the chorus with skill and conviction beyond her years.”
015B debuted in 1990, merely two years before the appearance of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992. They avoid the kind of spotlight we see “idol” groups bask in, but the ease with which they play in multiple genres foreshadows the kind of mixing of genres that will become a staple in K-pop.
skys0802. “015B Feat 신보경 잠시 길을 잃다.” YouTube. 23 Feb 2010. https://youtu.be/nkrqNKbFoBc (3 Feb 2020).
Jung Bae. “Album Review: Boni – Love.” hellokpop. 24 May 2015. https://www.hellokpop.com/review/album-review-boni-love/ (3 Feb 2020).
What We’re Listening To: 015B, 잠시 길을 잃다 (feat. 신보경)[ Lost Temporarily feat. Shin Bo-kyung/Boni] by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.