Over the past year, fans of Kpop saw the unexpected rise and success of the group Bulletproof Boy Scouts – aka Bangtan Boys, aka (and henceforth as of writing this) BTS. Few rookie groups of 2013 were able to compare with the levels of critical and popular success that BTS reached in such a short time. But what is it that makes BTS such a whirlwind in the Kpop scene? Let's consider their placement, somewhere between the mainstream commercial interests which drive Kpop, and the rebellious images and concepts that run counter to it. Branded as one of the best Kpop groups to come out of the industry in recent history, BTS is a refreshing mixture of hip hop and contemporary Kpop styles. However, BTS is also ideally placed to raise questions as to the legitimacy of Kpop as a cultural agent, and not merely empty entertainment.
[There is a crucial dialogue that needs to take place in the context of Kpop's alleged appropriation of hip hop culture, whether or not this is racist, and how this affirms negative stereotypes of certain peoples. In this particular article, I want to offer my own perspective to this long-standing debate. I have chosen a more controversial argument, in that I believe the addition of hip hop culture to Kpop is beneficial even if the methods of doing so are still naive. I will discuss these reasons below.]
[ENG SUB] 140724 BTS American Hustle Life Ep 1 by minsuga
Almost all Kpop groups are required to participate in some sort of variety show. BTS' program is called American Hustle Life. The premise is that BTS lives in Skid Row, LA for two weeks under the guidance of several producers and the one and only Coolio in order to educate them about hip hop life. I see where there are problematic ideas within this premise. For example:
- Situations where “black people are scary” and the members are frightened by them because they are “real” hip hop
- Living in a “ghettoized” area
- Producers and editors treating hip hop as a style/fad/clothes/shoes/otherwise materialistic endeavor and emphasizing “swag lessons” instead of the political roots of hip hop culture
But even though some have decried the show (and by extension the group itself) as culturally appropriating attitudes and lifestyle, American Hustle Life is a positive step forward for Kpop culture.
I won't launch into the history of hip hop because that has been covered numerous times by very thorough sources. For many, hip hop can be boiled down very simplistically to the music of a political movement, encouraging oppressed peoples to raise awareness about their unjust environments. No, of course the struggles of Korean youth cannot be compared to those who lived during the 1980s “ghetto” culture, who endured drug epidemics, political corruption and major government dissolution. But the same is true vice versa. We do not and cannot begin to understand the struggles of others unless they are shared with us from their unique viewpoints. Korea is especially vulnerable to this due to their last thirty years of strict isolationist policies. By historically refusing to open their gates to international cultural products, the nation has relied on itself to develop norms and ideals about society.
There is no doubt that Kpop has an appropriation problem, sure. (Recall the terrible insensitivity with T-ara’s “YaYaYa.”) I hesitate to say all of South Korea has this problem, because the only experience I have is from an outsider's viewpoint. Admittedly, my interests lie in Kpop and politics, which often overlap. But the point I'm making is that we can't make any assumptions about how Korean culture evolves without being a direct part of it. And this is true for those that create Kpop or are involved in it. Yes, Korean media is notorious for blackface and insensitivity, and, no, I'm not excusing these acts. I'm saying that Korean culture lacks the same historical and political context that North America does in terms of race relations. This limits the ability to judge what is appropriate when there is nothing to base that judgement on. While some (not all) aspects of hip hop culture present the symbolism of blings, rings, and girls, a culture that is not familiar with this understanding is bound to interpret these images differently. They do not have the same tools and understandings that decode these symbols. They are bound to misinterpret them.
For example, on variety shows idols are often required to showcase a special talent. Regrettably, this is often called “talking black.” The connotations of this are inherently negative. Talking black refers to speaking in a way that resembles African American Vernacular English. Simply speaking, this dialogue refers to the way that “black ghetto” people speak. This dialect is not restricted to African American peoples, nor any other ethnic group. But through unfair stereotypes it has seemed to stick to hip hop artists primarily. “Talking black” is perhaps a lack of understanding on how to approach the dialogue of cultural sensitivity. By lacking the proper discourse to talk about these issues, they revert back to stereotypes. We see this as glaringly obvious when, during the second episode of AHL, Coolio punishes one of the members for throwing out the phrase “turn up” without knowing its connotations.
[ENG] 140731 BTS American Hustle Life Episode 2... by ArmyBaseSubs
This is exactly what makes American Hustle Life so interesting. BTS, known and made popular by their attempt at a more “genuine” hip-hop image have adopted some of this mentality. Kpop has been no stranger to bad boy images. There have been a multitude of groups that have adopted hip hop style both musically and visually. Groups like B.A.P, Block B, 2NE1 and M.I.B have all weaved aspects of hip hop into their group fabric. However, BTS has proven to be a unique contender in this ring. When Big Hit debuted BTS, they did so in a decidedly unexpected way. Instead of presenting the “bad boy with a soft heart in love” image, they threw all the punches. BTS' debut, No More Dream, featured lyrics such as:
grown-ups and my parents keep instilling confined dreams to me [...]
rebel against the hellish society, dreams are a special pardon
What we see is a direct challenge to the strict, traditional values of South Korean culture, namely those of the educational institution. BTS is calling out to its listeners to pay attention and decide their own paths. This is a considerably courageous move for their parent company which has to balance commercial interests with artistic freedom. (The debate between hip hop/rap and mainstream interests has been documented by various other sources and is not strictly restricted to korean pop music. This is a timeless and global debate.) Yes, BTS is wearing chains, snapbacks, and sports jerseys, which are all symbols of hip hop. But I do not see this as a threat or the group trying to assert its dominance over hip hop cultures. They are appealing to a mainstream market, while using those symbols to convey a message.
There is an aspect to BTS' music that is beyond “girls, dates, and first loves” and for that reason they display a more political attempt at hip hop. This is not to say that “true” hip hop does not incorporate these themes. The very genre of rap and hip hop itself is comprised of dozens of varying styles with just as many purposes. Therefore, it is inappropriate to claim that “genuine” or “true” hip hop is limited to politically-charged protest anthems.
We must remember that Kpop is only a small facet of the culture of South Korea. What is popular in mainstream music may not apply to a broader public. And that's okay too. American hip hop is part of popular culture, but it does not constitute the whole. There is a give and take aspect to the music where it is influenced by everything else, and culture takes some cues from the styles. Kpop, for the most part, is still considered to be a manufactured, “fluffy” market for youth with disposable incomes. It may be on the verge of becoming a legitimate genre, but that debate is neither here or there.
[ENG/FULL] 140807 American Hustle Life Ep: 3 by bangtansubs2
What this argument boils down to is how willing are the participants to be versed and educated in racism and their (potential) faults as hip hop artists? Suga, Rapmonster, and Jin cut their teeth in the world of underground rapping before joining with Big Hit and formng BTS. While “idol rappers” are a manufactured element to fill a gap (the member of the Kpop group who can't sing) more legitimacy is given to rappers who have had experience with underground culture, music, and genres. Thus, they are more able to understand what it is they are speaking about. To write off all Kpop rappers as ignorant is inappropriate. Taking time to learn about hip hop culture from members of that community is healthy and humbling. The BTS rappers are in a better position to absorb what they are being taught and take it to heart as a lifestyle, instead of just music.
BTS could be the beginning of the second generation of idols, a new consciousness of what constitutes and defines the mainstream and underground. But this debate has raged on forever and probably will continue to do so. BTS has burst onto the scene with a critical look at Korean cultural policies. This is a step taken in the right direction that lies parallel to the roots of hip hop. We can only hope that as they continue to grow, they expand lyrically and are able to lead an evolution of Kpop.
'L' lives in Ontario, Canada. She is a pop culture and media junkie and has helped organize kpop parties and events across Ontario. Her biases are BTS, Block B, M.I.B and Infinite.