Black K-Pop Fans Come Out of the Closet
MisterPopoTV is dressed in what he sarcastically terms the stereotypical look for a black male like himself, “with a hoodie on, looking like I’m about to rob some bank or stab a couple of people.”
His real name is Michael Smith-Grant and he’s a K-pop—Korean pop music—vlogger on YouTube. MisterPopoTV is known for “reaction” videos, where he offers opinion on new jams as he watches them, and “unwrapping” videos, where he records himself opening CDs and other merchandise. But mostly, MisterPopoTV’s the mind behind “Black People React to K-pop,” a series that plays off the idea that it’s unexpected for African Americans listen to K-pop. His subscriber count is almost 45,000. Not bad for his first year on YouTube.
Smith-Grant’s ambitions, however, are a bit loftier than just YouTube views. He hopes he can make Koreans see beyond their stereotype of black people as cartoon gangsters, and dispel the false notion that African Americans can’t be into K-pop.
“There’re many closeted black fans out there who will listen to K-pop, but when their friends come around, they’ll switch to hip-hop or something else,” he says. “They’re afraid of being bashed for liking something that people don’t understand.”
In the past five years, K-pop has developed a loyal following in America, with leading acts like Girls’ Generation and EXO performing sold-out shows on both coasts. In 2011, 15,000 people attended a Madison Square Garden gig organized by record label SM Entertainment, which featured Girls’ Generation and other popular artistes like Super Junior and SHINee.
A recent graduate of New York University, Smith-Grant was introduced to K-pop a few years ago by a friend who told him about a four-member girl group called KARA. Typical of K-pop girl groups, KARA’s appeal lies in its rainbow-colored, larger-than-life music videos, featuring impossibly good-looking and identically dressed women—often enhanced by plastic surgery—performing perfectly synchronized choreography that highlights the girls’ aegyo, a Korean term for the unique cuteness or charm of a young woman. In fact, MisterPopoTV was named after one of KARA’s songs.
MisterPopoTV isn’t alone in his mission. Donte Jefferson and Nia Jackson, freshmen at Louisiana State University, founded a Tumblr group called Black K-pop Fans in 2011. At its inception, the blog had about 300 followers. Today, that number has grown to over 3,500.
An anime fanatic in middle school, Jackson thought to herself one day: “Hey, maybe I should try watching real people.” She soon found the popular Korean drama Full House, which featured one of the nation’s biggest stars, Rain, a 31 year-old actor who has appeared in American films, most notably 2008’s Speed Racer.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, Rain, you’re very attractive,’ so I looked him up, and found that he could sing and dance,” Jackson recalls. “I thought, ‘There might be more Korean stars like you.’”
Jackson says that at first, her parents thought it was strange and discouraged her from getting into Korean pop stars. But they’ve since come around to the idea.
“My parents noticed that there were these people on my computer screen who were all Asians,” Jefferson says. “They didn’t say anything for a while, but one day, my dad came to me and was like, ‘So, what’s going on? There’re a lot of Korean people. What’s happening here?’I told him it’s just music. It doesn’t matter what language it’s in.”
For most African-American fans of K-pop, the genre’s hip-hop influences act as a gateway drug. K-pop fans who want to expose the genre to their friends typically introduce them to Korean hip-hop-influenced groups like Big Bang or Block B, Jackson says. With beats that resemble American hip-hop, the only hurdle possible converts have to get over then is just the unfamiliar language.
“Some people, especially black people, say that I have hatred for my own race because of the music that I like,” Smith-Grant says. “Seriously?”
K-pop’s relationship to hip-hop goes back to the early 1990s, with the emergence of the band called Seo Taiji and Boys. The group rocked the previously conservative Korean music scene with its incorporation of diverse elements of American music, like gangsta rap, breakdance, and even rock. Seo Taiji’s seminal song is “Come Back Home,” and it begins with a fast-talking, high-pitched rap. If Seo Taiji weren’t rapping in Korean, you would’ve thought that “Come Back Home” was a Cypress Hill song.
“Seo Taiji and Boys brought a certain kind of authentic-sounding, harder gangster rap to Korea,” says Michael Hurt, an African-American Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley’s Comparative Ethnic Studies department. Hurt moved to Korea 12 years ago to work on his dissertation on Korean national identity and how that evolved in response to the country’s swift economic growth. He now lives in Seoul, where he teaches at Hongik University and also works as a freelance fashion photographer.
Seo Taiji and Boys was a breakout success in South Korea, and the group’s music—rap interludes, ultra-catchy choruses and dance breaks—became the template for future K-pop acts. After the group disbanded in 1996, band member Yang Hyun-Seok went on to found YG Entertainment, one of the South Korea’s “Big Three” record labels. Today, top YG acts like Big Bang, 2NE1, and Psy still produce American-by-way-of-Seo Taiji music, complete with flashy dance videos.
Consider a song like “Crayon” by G-Dragon, a member of the boy band Big Bang. Take away the Korean lyrics (the song also feature lines in English, as many K-pop songs do in an attempt to appeal to international audiences) and you’re left with pulsating synths and heavy beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on American radio.
K-pop stars have also done several high-profile collaborations with African-American artists in the past few years. Missy Elliott, Kanye West, will.i.am, and Chris Brown have all either featured on or participated in the production of K-pop tracks.
To be clear, hip-hop music and culture have become an influential force all across the globe, so Korean pop stars are hardly the only ones copying it. But Korea appears to have taken it to another level, says Darren Zook, an expert in the Korean Peninsula who lectures at the University of Berkeley.
Many K-pop stars have proclaimed their love for what is perceived to be black culture. When asked about the type of music his group does, Bang Yong Guk, of the boy band B.A.P. (an acronym for “Best Absolute Perfect”), told the Korea website AllKpop, "All the members love African-American music filled with soul. If I can be born again, I'd like to be born as an African-American and do music."
“If you go to South Korea, there’s all sorts of dance studios with signs that say: Learn b-boy dancing here, and all the pictures in flyers will show African Americans, even though you won’t actually find any African Americans in the dance classes,” Zook says.
“Korean breakdance groups have embraced the image of African American breakdance culture—the dress, the attitude, the hand gestures. But the problem is that the issues that generated breakdancing in the U.S. don’t’ exist in Korea,” he continues. “K-pop has the image of inner city life, but its lyrics are very harmless. Nobody’s talking about oppression by another group and nobody is talking about gun culture.”
Zook’s critique of K-pop is similar to the way white rappers like Macklemore have been criticized in the U.S. for appropriating the “glamorous” aspects of what is perceived to be African-American hip-hop culture. In the same vein, K-pop stars have also “become very good at mimicking the superficial coolness of black cultural products,” Hurt notes.
“I’m pretty sure most of the Korean rappers come from nice families in the suburbs, not, from the ‘hood’ or anything like that,” Jackson says.
“I guess they’re inspired by their favorite singers and rappers and they just want to rap or dance like them, whether they understand what they’re listening to or not,” Jefferson adds.
But Hurt argues that a K-pop star wanting to rap or dance like African-American artists is problematic because there isn’t a genuine desire to connect with black culture. “What’s really happening is that they are trying to take on the accouterments of blackness in the way they understand it, and add that to whatever they’re doing,” Hurt says.
He cites the example of “heukhyeong,” which started popping up in Korean online communities in the mid-2000s. The Korean term literally translates to “black bro.” While it is commonly known as a term of affection used to describe black people who are good at sports or music that Koreans admire, it is still a stereotype.
Hurt believes this phenomenon is another way Korean culture “wants to mimic or superficially connect with what I think are superficial aspects of black culture.” Heukyeong, he says, actually refers to the aesthetic that is commonly ascribed to African-American hip-hop culture—“this really big, cut, masculine sexual predator-ish image of a black male. That’s what hyeukyeong really means in a Korean’s eyes.”
To Koreans, Hurt, even though he is black, wouldn’t be considered a heukhyeong. “I have experiences where people say to me, ‘Yeah, I want hang out with black people,’ and I think: I’m obviously identified as black. I think Americans would know I’m a black person,” he says. “But for Koreans, black people look like people they see in the music videos. I don’t look like that, so I think people see me as just racially Other.”
In March, hip-hop group Bangtan Boys (BTS) covered a song called “T.O.P” by the Korean boy band Shinhwa. The song includes the line "Y'all n***** better know." The BTS’s Rap Monsta didn’t censor himself on live Korean television.
When Snoop Dogg was in Seoul for a meet-and-greet session with fans last year, a young man came dressed in blackface, with a big-haired wig and posed for pictures with Snoop. And two years ago, MBC, a Korean television network, uploaded onto YouTube a Lunar New Year show in which two female comedians painted their faces black to impersonate Michol, a black character from a popular Korean cartoon, Dooly the Little Dinosaur.
Incidents of blackface and other similarly offensive events happen so often in Korean pop culture that one might attribute it to some sort of cultural naiveté or ignorance of historical context.
Hurt doesn’t think so. “The cultural naiveté excuse, which I do think is a small factor, starts becoming a big excuse to hide behind, because they should know better today,” he says. He cites the example of the Bubble Sisters, a four-piece girl group that made its debut in 2003. On their album cover, their faces are painted black and they’re wearing braided wigs and baby pajamas.
“Their image is essentially that of pickaninnies and jigaboos—a very specifically historical image of infantilized black people,” Hurt says. “To say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know it was offensive,’ doesn’t make sense, because in your research, you’d have come across the fact that this look is from an offensive genre in American pop culture.”
Jackson agrees. “If SNL decides to paint a white person yellow, tape back their eyes, and have a bowl cut and speak Engrish, Korea would go batshit,” she says. “So I don’t think it’s a legitimate excuse to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know it was offensive.’”
The central tension underlying K-pop’s racial issues, Zook says, is that the racially homogenous Korea is still uncomfortable and struggling with globalization and the import of not just African-American culture, but any foreign culture. “Korea is the same stage of globalization as America was in the ‘90s, where it’s about consuming other cultures, not connecting with them,” Hurts says. “When I was teaching at Berkeley in the ‘90s, the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ wasn’t in the cultural vocabulary at that time.
“In terms of race, the only way the mainstream Korean media can frame the issue is: ‘Oh, a Korean K-pop fan said offensive thing to piss off black people. Black people now hate Korea. This is a problem.’ Koreans are stuck at: ‘Well we like black people, why can’t we look like black people? I make my face dark, its cool right?’ No, it’s not."
Earlier this year, Smith-Grant visited Seoul for the first time. He stayed for five days. “People stared at me all the time,” he says. “Probably because I’m a big black guy.”
With the success of his MisterPopoTV, Smith-Grant’s series of videos now show up as the top results when you search “Black People React To” on YouTube—pushing all the other videos that perpetuate racist stereotypes down. “For the first five pages of search results, you get mainly all my videos. And given the attention span of people on YouTube, no one is going to look past page 3,” he says with pride.
On the comments sections of his videos, K-pop fans of all nationalities and ethnicities leave comments in English, Korean, and several other languages. Some find Smith-Grant’s videos interesting. Some hate them.
No matter for MisterPopoTV. For him, it’s important that the comments discuss the music, and nothing else. “Just as it should be,” he says.