K-Pop, a Melting Pot of Cultures?

Using other people’s culture as aesthetic, commodifying it and selling it, packaging it away and manipulating it in a way that wasn’t the original intent, and stripping away its original meaning — it’s the hot word that seems to be everywhere on Twitter — cultural appropriation. Cancel culture follows right behind its heels — and recently, it made its way into K-Pop, a genre of music in Korea that has become a worldwide phenomenon, and in an effort to become more global, has attempted to adopt different styles, both fashion and in music from different cultures. But where is the line drawn that their art styles, both musically and in fashion, is offensive? Who gets to decide its cultural appropriation and is intending to demean another’s culture? To what degree is this art, or commodifying another’s culture?

An often hot topic in K-Pop and its “cultural appropriation”, is the fashion style more than music style, but we’ll be getting into that more afterwards. Fashion styles in K-pop draw upon many different cultures, and entertainment companies, stylists, and the idols themselves often face backlash. For example, the girls in the image depicted above are posing in a photoshoot for their upcoming album, which often try to depict the theme of their music. Many people (on Twitter, as usual), hopped on the cancel train, blaming the girls directly for cultural appropriation and trying to imitate Native American culture and to make money out of it, while completely missing the entire point of the culture. To reference a YouTube video talking more about Native Americans reacting to K-Pop styling, people form different tribes like the Lakota and the Navajo, were shown images like the ones above with the girl group in different outfits and poses. The feathers in the hair, the colorful clothing with a myriad of designs, and the overall theme were what especially caught them under fire for cultural appropriation. In response to the feathers in the hair, one of the guest speakers, Erika, mentions feathers in the hair aren’t exclusively Native American, and in their culture, their feathers are never fake and can’t be compared to plastic in their hair. In regards to the buckskin, it’s more of a fashion choice and not a direct reference to Native American culture to anger them. The second photo I’ll be referencing is the one with white paint marks on her face — once again, they said it would actually be offensive in this case if people called this Native American culture because comparing these simple four lines to the depth of meaning and what is cherished in that culture would be like not acknowledging Native American’s complex war paintings and distinct face paint. The third photo showed was a man in the headdress posing next to a motorcycle. In this photo, cultural appropriation was a lot more obvious and actually there — this headdress references directly to Native American culture and takes away the voice of their culture to something that isn’t art, but is commodifying and demeaning one’s culture.

Other types of fashion style in K-Pop that aren’t tagged as cultural appropriation are when they only wear clothing specific to Asian culture — not even just South Korean culture only, but when they wear clothes that people from South East Asia, or from China, or from Japan wear. Those who usually join the cancel train and start a riot online seem to fail to acknowledge the fact that Asian cultures are all very different as well, so why do they only get angry when K-Pop adopts fashion from obviously different cultures like Native American cultures when they also use fashion from different Asian cultures? It’s as if people don’t regard different Asian cultures as In my opinion, as long as the fashion and music style isn’t attempting to demean or strip away the other culture they are adopting it from, it is art that makes a fusion, transcending the boundaries of culture.

I personally cannot say with 100% certainty that K-Pop adopting from cultures different from my own in which I actually am familiar with, but unless those online cancelling K-Pop idols have done immense research, by creating a cancel train and getting others worked up online without pressing the point of doing more research first to see if this is just a new art form combining different types of culture or cultural appropriation, it starts unnecessary trouble and actually makes people do their research less. Labeling something immediately as cultural appropriation detracts away from the original intent of wanting to expose true racism or cultural appropriation.

To delve more into K-pop and its possible cultural appropriation in terms of not only fashion styles and how it relates to its own art form, I’ll go more into music styles as well and draw upon the popular K-Pop boy group, NCT (standing for Neo Culture Technology). For their teaser photos for their title track “Make a Wish”, there were many mixed reactions, from appreciating culture to appropriating it. The photo above consists of a design set with a resemblance to mosques and Middle eastern culture. The music line that repeats throughout the song is a whistle, complete with dance moves of putting one hands together as if in prayer, but to emphasize their title line, “making a wish”. The concept can be compared to an almost Aladdin theme, with the boy group singing lines like “make a wish, I’ll give you anything, I don’t get exhausted, I’m ready to ride, let’s start, we gon’ fly”, almost like they’re the genies in Aladdin that can make a couple fly in the skies on a magic carpet and fulfill any desires. In the music video, the boys are shown disappearing and flickering again in a fire, almost like how genies disappear into a bottle. The set where they dance and sing on again depicts mosque-like architecture with Persian rugs and the constant whistle in the background which sounds vaguely Middle-Eastern inspired.

In my opinion, this was fine and is their own unique art style that combines both Korean music and culture with Middle-Eastern culture, but as this is not my culture, I can’t speak for them. The true controversy with NCT began with them performing live on the South Korean music show Inkigayo where they were dancing on a set designed to look again like a mosque, but instead, it was an actual mosque with religious text on the shrine. Fans (and nonfans) who were of Islamic faith (and some not) instantly took action, trending hashtags on Twitter like #CancelNCT. The shrine was the Imam Husayn Shrine, which is both a mosque and the burial site of Husayn ibn Ali, who is the third leader of Shia Islam and who was a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Seeing as to how specific it is, the set was referencing on purpose, that culture. Whether to actually demean it or not won’t ever be known, as the entertainment company has yet to make any sort of comment. To make it worse, the religious text was a phrase from Ziyarat al-Nahiya al-Muqaddasa, a prayer recited on Ashura by Shia Muslims. To give some context of Ashura, it is a day of mourning and love, and is a phrase roughly translated into, “wishing peace on those who were saturated in their own blood”. While the NCT band members themselves aren’t at fault in my opinion since they didn’t design the set themselves and choose the phrase, the art style the set designers were going for to express the theme of the music, song, and dance, were truly cultural appropriation because it didn’t attempt to convey the depth of the meaning of this part of culture they are referencing. It reduces the culture to be the backdrop of a set design without acknowledging how much meaning it holds for those who are actually from the culture.

Okay, so at this point I think I’ve stated my opinion already about what is truly cultural appropriation by giving multiple examples in K-Pop and testimonies from people from that culture to give diversity to my points of view — but how do the people in South Korea feel about all this? Do they think this is cultural appropriation, and how do they feel about international fans blaming them and indirectly their culture for being ignorant and people who should be “educated”? As I’ve seen online frequent, Korean fans, also known as K-fans, are starting to lash out because this type of cancel culture and jumping aboard the cultural appropriation train has painted Korea as an ignorant, homogeneous society, which seems ironic considering K-Pop is attempting to become more global. In reality, yes, South Korea in my opinion is an extremely homogeneous culture. That is just how it is, and we can’t expect them to be aware of everything going on in other cultures. However, for an entertainment agency (SM entertainment in this context where NCT is under) and is attempting to become more global, should be aware of this.

To sum it up, K-Pop adopting different cultural styles as an influence for music and fashion is nothing wrong — it’s creating a different style of art, as long as it isn’t trying to blatantly disregard the depth and meaning of their culture.

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Faith Goh

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