This past weekend marked the third annual KCON New York, the East Coast branch of the world’s biggest convention dedicated to Korean pop culture.
Every year, fans across the US make their pilgrimage to KCON (whether in Los Angeles, New York, or, as of this year, Mexico City) where they can unabashedly geek out over Korean culture and, most importantly, see their favorite K-pop acts perform in person.
It’s a very joyous occasion where a group of people, many of whom are young women, with a very niche interest can enjoy all the aspects of Korean culture they enjoy and of course see their “biases”—that is, their preferred K-pop stars.
But on Saturday morning, fans came together for a panel called “Cross Cultural Clashes in Hallyu” (“Hallyu” refers to the Korean pop culture wave) that addressed something a bit more serious: the problematic racial politics of K-pop. The issue has created a lot of emotional labor for American fans, particularly fans of color who have to reconcile their own identity, opinions, and fandom with K-pop’s ignorance of America’s particular racial landscape.
K-pop’s burgeoning success in the U.S. is not all that surprising, considering that much of it is a reflection and repackaging of the global behemoth that is American music. But there are often a few cultural missteps that happen in this cross-pollination, especially when it comes to rap and black culture.
It can seem like some kind of racism or appropriation scandal is almost a rite of passage of sorts when it comes to K-pop stars. “I feel like it happens to every idol,” Lai Frances, a journalist and producer who moderated the panel, told me.
Stars like CL, Keith Ape, and the group 4Minute have all been accused of appropriating black style and imagery. Artists like Zico, Bobby, Jay Park, and others have been called out for sporting dreadlocks. Earlier this year, Mamamoo apologized for wearing both brownface and blackface makeup to recreate Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” video. Jackson Wang, a Hong Kong member of K-pop band GOT 7, also came under intense fire for posting a picture of himself in blackface.
And it doesn’t stop at black culture. T-ARA caught a ton of flak for their music video for “Yayaya,” which appropriated stereotypical images of Native Americans, as did MC Mong for his song and video “Indian Boy.”
Frances and others attribute K-pop’s frequent racial blunders to the lack of cultural context and understanding in South Korea. As one of the most ethnically homogenous places in the world, the country operates in a unique cultural vacuum that separates exported images from their legacies. If your understanding of American culture has no connection to American history, then you probably wouldn’t see a problem in wearing a jacket with the Confederate flag—as Zico did in his music video for “Tough Cookie”—especially when Kanye West wore a very similar jacket in 2013.
“Maybe they don’t know about it, maybe they weren’t educated about it,” Cortney Marbury—who reviews K-Pop videos on the popular YouTube channel 2MinJinkJongKey and who appeared on the panel along with her co-host, Jasmine Thomas—told me. “They haven’t lived that life, that’s not their concern, they don’t see it that way.”
All of this puts an extra, complex burden on fans of color. It’s easier to forgive a K-pop star’s missteps than, say, those of Katy Perry. They’re in a much bigger cultural bubble, engaging with a market that wasn’t built for them. But that doesn’t make the offense any less real. Fans of color not only have to deal with other fans about what went wrong. They must grapple with themselves as well, asking if this is the thing that tips the scales, if they can still support an artist who either made a mistake or just doesn’t care (or both). For something manufactured to be so easy to consume, actually enjoying K-pop can be very complicated.
Marbury and Thomas understand this all too well, having made a name for themselves not only as major K-pop fans but as black K-pop fans. They described the responsibility they felt in educating Korean idols on the boundaries of American culture. “It can sometimes feel like you’re yelling in an empty room,” Marbury said.
Given the general messiness and intensity of the internet, the situation can get sticky very quickly. Marbury and Thomas have both been the targets of enraged fans accusing them of “being mean” to their favorite idol.
“They’re not taking into consideration that it’s a cultural issue,” Thomas said. “Like, I’m not coming at your man! It’s what he did, not him.”
Still, progress can be made—a woman who described herself as “a privileged white woman” approached Thomas after the panel to thank her for showing her how people of color actually felt about appropriation—and Marbury and Thomas said their work is ultimately rewarding.
“The best part of being a fan of color and a YouTuber is fans connecting with us and saying ‘You made me feel like it’s okay to be a fan of color and like this music,’” Thomas said.
Overall, K-pop fans do seem more lenient than others when it comes to cultural appropriation. Often an apology is enough to quell the anger of the fans, who are quick to deem whatever transgression a mistake—so long as it’s never repeated.
“I think it works with fans when they call them out on social media,” Frances told me. “Idols tend to sympathize once they get called out, and they realize what they’re doing.” If the idols express remorse, the fans forgive them, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of how a culture inundated with American images might make some mistakes in replicating that culture. Although I suspect it probably speaks more to the power of dreamy boys who can sing and dance well.
And as Korean artists continue to pry open the American market, the feelings K-pop superfans have towards them will continue evolving—with the hope that their idols can evolve too. “I have a few problematic biases, I do,” Thomas mentioned while speaking on the panel. “And I still like them. I feel bad and I shouldn’t like them because I know what they did was wrong, but I still like those people.”