Chalk this one up as another questionable victory for netizens. Seven Seasons have capitulated to fan outrage over the lyrics in Zico’s recent release, “Tough Cookie.” If you haven’t heard the song yet, give it a spin. The offending bit comes at 2:59, when Zico uses the phrase “faggot bitch” during his rap. There’s also a confederate flag and some misogyny thrown in for good measure. But what do you think? Did Zico do anything wrong? The answer is more complicated than it might seem.
Part 1: Culture, and Who Owns It
Before we ask if Zico has offended, we need to understand who is crying foul, and why. The netizens claiming offense are, by and large, fans of Kpop, a genre well-known for its clean-cut image and severe censorship. And compared with releases from other popular Kpop groups, “Tough Cookie” is clearly pushing boundaries.
But is “Tough Cookie” part of Kpop? For years, listeners of Kpop have willfully ignored traditional music genres when referring to Korean artists. All this accomplishes, however, is the creation of a hyper-racialized and stereotypical system of classification. Asking a single genre to contain Girls’ Generation and “Tough Cookie” is an impossible task. Zico is not making Kpop music, he’s making rap. His ethnicity and his preferred language are irrelevant. Yo-Yo Ma does not create Chinese music, he creates classical music. As long as we insist on classifying every Korean artist as “Kpop,” we are bound to sow discord and create scandal.
The distinction of genre is important as a means to determine the lens through which it should be viewed. And “Tough Cookie,” when viewed as a rap song, doesn’t offend. Or, rather, it would be more appropriate to say that it offends much less than the standard rap song, to the point where it appears inoffensive by comparison. Kpop netizens may be up in arms, but a rap fan would look at this scandal and ask, “that’s all he did?”
And no, a culture of offense does not make it okay to use the term “faggot bitch.” It is a hateful phrase. But perspective is needed. We should ask the more difficult question: what is an artist’s responsibility, and who is he or she responsible to? Instead of reaching for our Kpop pitchforks, a more productive avenue would be to take a critical look at rap and the culture of permissible offense it sustains. Censoring Zico won’t change any of that. The next Korean rapper will use the same language and make the same misogynist overtures so long as rap culture remains unchanged.
Part 2: The Apology Makes it Worse
It wouldn’t be difficult to make the argument that Zico has no idea what “faggot” means. Just look at the actual English lyrics in the song:
- I made it
- Fuck I ain`t no
- No thanks
- Drunk man
- Draw attention
- Cause I’m a tough cookie
- You`re such a faggot bitch
- Let me see you piece
The majority of these are basic enough that they betray no real familiarity with the language. But it’s a specious argument that simply does not hold up. To suggest that a rapper wrote his lyrics without bothering to understand the words he was using is to suggest that he lacks basic access to the internet. More than that, it suggests Zico is a very poor craftsman indeed. So why would Seven Seasons suggest this in their apology?
Quite simply, they caved under pressure from netizens. And that apology, if that’s what you want to call it, is just as big of a problem as Zico’s offensive language. The apology is corporate-speak at its finest, the majority of it regaling us with the history of the word. As if Zico accidentally picked up an Old English dictionary and thought it might be prudent to call yon rap adversaries a bundle of sticks, bitch. Seven Seasons, don’t insult us with your apology. Don’t insult Zico’s intelligence and artistry by suggesting he is incapable knowing what he creates.
Which brings us back to the troubling classification of Kpop. Seven Seasons, just like the netizens who complained, want it both ways. They want Zico to create rap music and they want to categorize him as Kpop. It doesn’t work that way. If Zico is serious about rap, if he wants to be part of rap culture, he doesn’t need to apologize to Kpop fans. Zico hasn’t offended Kpop, he’s offended homosexuals, which, if you’ve been following along, is also not a genre of music. Zico has a responsibility for what he creates. He has a responsibility for the culture he is part of. But in this case, it’s got very little to do with Kpop.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.