Hip Hop and its Complications in BTS' 'American Hustle Life'

BTS Bulletproof Pt 2

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. 


  1. Great article! I love that you have your biases, but still able to comment so critically about KPOP, fads and all! :) It's true... Kpop is just a small portion of society in Korea but it's still able to influence many. This step that BTS/their company has taken perfectly illustrates a situation where all the perfection, glitz and glamour of Kpop is challenged.

  2. It was Rap monster ,Suga and Jhope that did underground rapping. Jin is a singer. :)

  3. Suga and Rap Monster did underground rapping while Jhope did underground dancing :D

  4. Your article was really nice and objective. It is always nice to see a non-biased opinion on BTS and kpop in general :D It was a good read. By the way;Suga and rapmon did Underground rapping. J-hope also did underground rapping, dancing and singing :)

  5. I spit out my tea when I read 'Jin' did underground rapping. And then I just thought, "ah, maybe he means J-Hope". But tbh this article is great, I can see you put great thought in this, for that thankyou very much :D

  6. LOL, its a pretty ridiculous argument. Korean people are able to appropriate American culture to a tee. Who is teaching them this. Who is teaching the dances, the moves? Who is teaching the style of dress? Who is even teaching them the phrase "Talk black". Once you realize that the Koreans saying the most offensive things and racist things are ones who have either lived in USA or Canada, like wendy and brian, or ones who've been called out on it multiple times before like g dragon.. It becomes clear this isn't just some person who never heard of racial stereotyping. Its something that is far more vicious and calculated. How can Korean "Rappers" and k-pop stars manage to copy and emulate every negative western stereotype about blacks like black face and blacks are violent, sassy and aggressive if they truly have no understanding and are just copying a style.

    1. THANK YOU SO MUCH ! All these idiotic stans will continue to swallow their raicst bs

    2. It seems as though BTS actually took out the time to understand hip hop culture with this show...as a person of color (black to be more specific) I really respect them because they sound different than any other kpop group I've ever listened to. Their beats, their lyrics, the melodies... I canust relate to them a lot. If they lived in America I would want to hang out with them because just watching their videos makes me realize how much we have in common, especially when it comes to the music we listen to. So maybe other kpop stars are "racist"; but I would have to say BTS is deff not one of them. I even have more respect for especially Rapmon because he basically studied Hip Hop...&he taught himself English so that's a major plus! It can be frustrating seeing how much people outside of black culture "appropriate it"; but with everything happening in the world right now, BTS is deff not appropriating. They seem to have a genuine connection with hip hop, they appreciate it for what it is & dont just "do it for show" (I think Rapmon & J-hope are really inspired by hip hop when it comes to them rapping/dancing). I appreciate their dedication to understanding hip hop

    3. Rap Monster has been known to say racist remarks tho.. from the time he commented that when he first met the other members of BTS he couldn't see them because they were so "dark" to the time when Rap Monster said he could "talk black." Rap Monster definitely isn't perfect but we have to address these issues so he can learn from them instead of letting them go and making the excuse that, "Korea isn't as diverse as America so we can't blame them for their racist remarks" because BTS does have to realize that they have international fans and things like that does hurt a lot of fans.

    4. True that, BTS does have some histories of making accidental racist remarks. But up until now, I think they have learnt a lot especially from AHL and start to respect more about the culture. Like Rap Monster admitted for being ignorant about the culture once in an interview. I don't know the details and what racist remarks he have done but the fact that he owned up to his mistakes means that probably BTS had learn something from AHL in the past.

    5. ppl who are talking about Rapmon's racist remarks tho.. do you even know the difference between a racist and colorist? and yes, he did said some colorist remarks years ago, but since then he had stopped using them which shows improvement... i don't know about other kpop artists but Rapmon owned up to his mistakes.. he had learned and moved on from it, but some ppl aren't able to let go.. it makes me question these ppls' motives in bringing it up even years after it had happened...

    6. ~Rapmon's not racist he's just colorist~ Please. As if the latter has absolutely no influence on the former. I have no dog in this fight, but if people don't want to forgive him for an ignorant statement he made, that's perfectly fine. Especially if they don't believe he's changed. It's not hard to apologize without meaning it. Instead of coming in here and crying about how people are ~so mean~ to your fave, you should be trying to understand where those people are coming from.

  7. Good article ! i agree with everything you stated! x

  8. I really respect what you are saying and listening a rational unbiased view of BTS and KPOP is nice.

    I think when you said Jin I think you meant J-Hope. He did a lot of underground rapping and dancing. He did a bit of singing too. He does a lot free styling that is so cool.

    But like I said I mostly agree with what you are trying to say and it is completely rational

  9. Well written and insightful. I would like to point out that although BTS took the time to experience and immerse themselves for a short period of time in the world of hip hop, they are not, by any means, exempt from the discussions and criticisms that kpop artists have faced with regards to appropriation of hip hop culture. I do appreciate the notion that as native Koreans, the insight and understanding of racism is not the same and very limited as they have very different experiences to what people of color live through in more diverse settings such as the U.S. But nonetheless, with the adoption of a style of music that is rooted in such deep sociological and cultural relevance, there is undoubtedly a huge responsibility for any artist (wherever they are from) to understand the implications of emulating black hip hop in all of its forms and variations. I agree that on a certain level, BTS (or whoever produced AHL) has done something that is quite commendable in terms of making an effort. But it is not enough. Hip hop in the Kpop mainstream has itself been a major form of cultural appropriation and may imply a huge need for readjustment of the direction that the Hallyu wave has gravitated towards in the past decade.

    1. Though this article is highly insightful, I find it strange that anyone would be critisized for incorporating hip-hop into their music. I don't see it as political, I simply see it as the mixing of genres to create new types of music, which is a good thing in my opinion. Sure, there are dangers with this when they do not fully understand the culture and may make ignorant mistakes, but that's how people learn. I find it hard to comprehend that people could get seriously offended by other cultures adapting their culture into music - as an example, if another nation started singing variations of Afrikaans music (South African), I would be amused and curious to hear what they are doing, but I certainly wouldn't be offended, unless they literally insulted my culture (mocking or ridiculing etc).

      Conclusion: let music mix and evolve to find new and interesting styles/sounds. As unlikely as it sounds, rock 'n roll developed out of variations of blues. If we let styles mingle, they may produce glorious outcomes. Maybe this is the start of another musical revolution.

    2. Adapting is not the same as appropriating though, which is what you're seeming to say. Using the negative traits of an ethnic group is in and of itself racists and when Kpop idols do that in regards to black people and hip hop culture that's the main issue. That isn't adaptation. Adaptation would be if the boys when they did AHL had came to America, spoke with and worked with black and Latinx artists in the genre to learn about how to use their own experiences as blueprints for their music. Using black men, seen as inherently violent and thuggish due to size, to fake kidnap the guys was a bad look. A lot of time these critical articles, and this one is a few years old, don't take into consideration intersections. They may deem things such as history of the West influence in Korea, antiblackness in Korea to black Koreans as well as black expats, as nothing more than just footnotes when in fact those things intersect and form a whole.

  10. Applaud this article. Very insightful, informative and balanced arguement.


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