by Chris Lee
Last Monday was the start of the Lunar New Year, which marked a transition from the Year of the Sheep into the Year of the Monkey. For many of us across the Asian diaspora, Lunar New Year is a big deal. It’s one of the largest and longest public holidays celebrated across a number of East and Southeast Asian countries and people take time off to visit their families.
Celebrities also take the opportunity to reach out to fans on social media for the Lunar New Year. One Korean celebrity in particular, Taeyang of K-Pop group BIGBANG, attracted unwanted attention for his anti-Black Instagram post. By using a facial simulation app to impersonate Kanye West, Taeyang adopted a digital equivalent of blackface. He even offered up a few Kanye-esque “huh’s” and wished his fans a “Happy Monkey New Year.” There are many ways that K-Pop can be problematic, and a K-Pop star speaking through a photo filter of Kanye’s face is only the beginning.
In Chinese astrology, those born in the Year of the Monkey are considered to be witty and mischievous. But for anyone conscious to histories of colonial and racial violence, monkeys symbolize how people of color and specifically black people have been dehumanized. Historically, scientific racism has drawn comparisons between primitive primates and Blackness to justify that keeping Black people in bondage was ethical. All of this is to say that this particular K-Pop star, by taking on the likeness of Kanye West and then saying “Happy Monkey New Year,” waded into some very deep shit.
The backlash was swift enough for Taeyang to take down the video and issue an apology. But for many K-Pop followers, his apology could not erase the long history of racism within Korean popular culture. Like all other non-Black people of color, I have the privilege of brushing off K-Pop’s anti-Black tendencies, without experiencing the direct impact of the anti-Blackness that they broadcast.
This certainly isn’t the first time Taeyang has been embroiled in a racial controversy, nor is he the only K-Pop star to be accused of racist messaging. Most of K-Pop’s brightest stars have found themselves involved in racially fraught incidents, and they happen regularly enough that some observers have suggested renaming K-Pop as KKK-POP. There are in fact whole sites dedicated to documenting K-Pop’s racist exchanges.
I want to participate in K-Pop culture while maintaining a critical stance on K-Pop’s many problems. How can we, as K-Pop fans, be more vigilant about addressing the anti-Black racism within K-Pop, while balancing our attachments as fans?
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As an Asian American, queer, and first-generation immigrant, my interest in K-Pop wavers between uncritical and critical positions. On the one hand, as Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted, “We all deserve icons in our own image.” I want to see myself reflected in a popular culture that isn’t dominated by white men. But on the other hand, there are many huge problems with uncritically bumping K-Pop in all of its anti-Black glory.
My difficulty outright denouncing Taeyang is a personal problem. His songs and his group, BIGBANG, were among the first to attract me to K-Pop in the first place. BIGBANG has a huge presence in the Korean music industry. As one of the few groups to be crowned the Kings of K-Pop, BIGBANG’s latest world tour stopped in fifteen countries, including four cities in the US. In October of last year, I traveled some three hundred miles to see Taeyang perform in New Jersey. I have no hesitation in calling his actions racist and ignorant but I’ve still supported him, directly and indirectly, by claiming BIGBANG as my K-Pop bias.
But because I’ve grown frustrated by the racist incidents within K-Pop, I now refuse to see these incidents as accidental or naïve. For uncritical fans, dismissing K-Pop’s problems is as easy as boiling down anti-Black racism to cultural difference; the idea being that K-Pop stars simply don’t know any better because racism doesn’t apply across national contexts. This argument ignores the fact that Korean society has its own issues with colorism and racism and that Black people indeed live and travel there.
Like the argument that attributes racism to cultural difference, dismissing and documenting K-Pop as KKK-Pop does little to recognize the problems of a transnational popular culture that bounces off global imperialism and white supremacy. In other words, writing off K-Pop as a problem of remote racism, confined to Korean contexts, pushes these incidents away even as fans across K-Pop’s global reach have a role in taking responsibility.
What would it mean to be an anti-racist K-Pop fan? And what would it mean to hold Korean popular cultural accountable to the global fanbase it profits off of?
As a sometimes not-at-all-professional DJ who enjoys playing K-Pop, I exclude music videos falling under a personalized category called “NO”: this means, absolutely no blackface, no cornrows, no casual ornamentalization of Black bodies and aesthetics. I don’t make these decisions to perform ally theater but rather to recognize the space we as fans have in creating a fan culture that accommodates both enthusiasm and accountability. When we as K-Pop fans suggest ignoring racial controversies, we ignore our own complicity in the racism we seek to avoid.
If I just decided that K-Pop was the product of a hyperracist society, maybe I’d rest a little easier. But then I’d be denying my own involvement in consuming and stanning for Korean popular culture. I’d also be ignoring the very real presence of multiracial and Black artists within K-Pop such as Lee Michelle and Yoon Mi-Rae, artists who have directly addressed colorism and racism in their music.
Fans of K-Pop worldwide (and especially non-Black fans) are responsible for creating a fan culture that is receptive to racial justice. Excusing K-Pop’s racist tendencies for lack of global knowledge ignores the fact that K-Pop is generated to be both a national culture and international export. Problematic faves are everywhere in K-Pop, but how we choose to respond to their actions still matters.
Chris Lee won’t tell you where he’s really from. He’s a queer, multiracial Aries who is reckoning with his Cancer Moon. His biases include zine-making, hair-bleaching, and postcolonial theory. You can send him stuff at @cresppp.
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