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February 1st marked the beginning of Black History Month. The annual celebration, originating in the USA, seeks to recognize the contributions of Black people to society. Celebrating Black history was first proposed in 1926 with 'Negro History Week' to honour African-Americans and raise awareness of their history. A month-long celebration became official in 1976 under President Gerald Ford. Since then, Black History Month has spread to several countries like the UK and Canada that recognise the contributions of Black people. In order to join in on the celebration of Black History, join us as we zoom in on South Korea, taking a look at how Black culture has impacted the K Hip-Hop scene as a follow up to our video on the topic.
When most people think of Hip-Hop today, they usually think of the genre, however, Hip-Hop is actually a social, cultural and artistic movement. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the Bronx, New York in the 1970s. During this time, New York was facing an economic downturn which created a chasm between the rich and the poor. Black Americans living in minority neighbourhoods felt the brunt of this. They found themselves marginalised, lacking economic and recreational activities which only compounded upon the racism and violence they faced. In an attempt to express and entertain themselves, youth from these communities took to the streets. DJs and MCs inspired by Caribbean culture set up sound systems in public to play music which resulted in the birth of block parties. These parties grew in popularity and saw everything from deejaying and emceeing to B-Boying and graffiti art. They became a symbolic place for Black youth to turn their struggles and anger into a creative art form that could both educate and socialise persons.
The 80s and 90s saw the further growth of the movement and the beginnings of it going global. Rappers and crews like Native Tongues, Dr Dre, Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. are just some of the seminal people who helped bring Hip-Hop into the mainstream leading to globalisation of rap. Their drive to go against the status quo and express themselves freely inspired marginalised youth across the globe who grew desirous of sharing their own experiences through music. Perhaps this freedom of expression is what appealed to the early Korean consumers of Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hop and moreover African-American culture was first introduced to the Korean public through American imperialism. American GIs stationed in Korea frequented the club scene, particularly in Itaewon, and brought with them Hip-Hop tapes and CDs. They also helped establish the B-Boy scene in the country, marking one of the first cultural exchanges of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop, and in particular K Hip-Hop bloomed in Korea during the 90s due to the Asian Financial Crisis which saw the country being severely affected. Many young Koreans studying abroad were suddenly forced to return home due to a lack of finances. In their return, they brought with them an influx of American and Hip-Hop culture. Amidst socioeconomic struggles, Korean youth, much like the Black American youth, turned to Hip-Hop as a creative outlet to express themselves.
In the 90s, there wasn’t such a clear distinction between K Hip-Hop and K Pop as there is today. Both genres borrowed pieces of beats, rap tones and themes that were present in American Hip-Hop. It began as a sort of adaptation, even imitation of what was being done by Black youth. The best example of this is with Seo Taiji and Boys. Being one of the first Korean boy groups and widely credited with creating the foundation for K Pop, they drew on elements of Hip-Hop and incorporated them into their music and performances. This signalled the start of a professional fusion of Black and Korean culture. Further aiding this, and the spread of Hip-Hop in Korea, on the whole, were Korean-Americans like Drunken Tiger and Yoon Mirae. Drunken Tiger was also responsible for forming one of the first crews in Korea, The Movement Crew, modelled after the likes of Native Tongues and Wu-Tang Clan. The crew created a network of promising Korean rappers at a time when K Hip-Hop labels were non-existent, leading to the formalisation of the genre.
Within the last few decades, Hip-Hop has spread rapidly throughout Korea. Korean youth have managed to create their own versions of Hip-Hop that reflect their social reality. As rapper Dumbfoundead stated, Hip-Hop became a creative outlet for Asian minorities to express themselves freely, embrace their ethnicity and be themselves unapologetically. Several artists have also helped with the growth of the genre. For example, Verbal Jint brought new elements of rap, and The Quiett and Dok2 helped further formalise the scene with the establishment of Illionaire Records and brought American Hip-Hop's flex culture to Korea. Special mention also has to be made of Jay Park, as the first Asian artist to be signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, he is a notable figure both in Korea and the US. Moreover, his establishment of AOMG and H1GHR Music also aided with the globalisation of K Hip-Hop and has given the genre more exposure and acceptance in Korean society. Hip-Hop has allowed artists to defy the somewhat rigid norms of Korean society and has also helped make them more socially aware.
Social factors aside, even today, K Hip-Hop still draws on clear influence from Black artists. Within the genre, many popular styles of Black music are often adopted by rappers. In recent years, Boom-Bap gained more recognition through nafla, who drew on inspiration from Wu-Tang Clan while, Trap artists like Travis Scott seem to have influenced the likes of Sik-K and CHANGMO. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West also see elements of their rap style and beats in the music of Jay Park and JUSTHIS respectively. Rapper Koonta draws on elements of Reggae from Bob Marley in his songs, and recently AfroBeats inspired by Burna Boy has become trendy in Korea through artists such as PENOMECO and Lil Cherry. This highlights that not only African-American but Black culture on a whole continues to inspire Korean artists in the ways that they create music.
Some argue though, that this calls into question the authenticity of the genre. Many times artists who are inspired by or borrow from Black creatives often neglect to give proper credit for things that are deemed as new and innovative in K Hip-Hop. This is concerning as it de-links the art from being associated with Black artists and strips away at Black culture. However, this trend seems to be changing recently as more artists have begun crediting the Black creatives who inspired their styles. The most recent of these has been PENOMECO. In August of 2021, he released his song 'BOLO' which quickly garnered attention due to its distinct AfroBeats nature. Many Black fans were concerned that this would once again be another rapper using a Black style without giving credit. Thankfully, PENOMECO cited Burna Boy as his source of inspiration. While it is a small instance, it is proof that there is a budding sense of accountability within the scene.
When discussing accountability, the topics of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation naturally come up. The former was seen in PENOMECO's case, an artist who was clearly inspired, wanted to try something new and gave credit where credit was due. However, as many Black fans know, this usually isn’t the case. They often see their culture appropriated, with artists playing into narrow stereotypes of what they perceive Black people and culture to be. For example, recently there has been rising popularity in the notion of being from the hood. Many popular artists try to pride themselves on being "from the hood" to create rags to riches character arc. While there is no disputing that rappers may come from low-income backgrounds where they struggled, to profess that they grew up in the hood is entirely different. The hood or ghetto is a brutal place that isn’t to be idolized which is what some of these rappers do. There are also many artists who casually drop the N-word whether it be in their music or in conversation, despite being seemingly educated on the sensitivity of it. ZICO, HOMIES and LeeHi are just a few of the ones that come to mind. In their attempt to imitate Black culture, they latch on to elements of the Black experience and use them to fit into their own narratives without having ever lived it.
Black culture has also been appropriated in K Hip-Hop in terms of fashion and appearances. While elements of Black and Hip-Hop fashion has been popularised worldwide in the form of streetwear, generally there are certain elements that non-Black people know to stay away from. These mainly include hairstyles such as braids and dreads, as well as protective items like durags. However, in K Hip-Hop, this is often neglected by countless artists from the likes of ZICO to Dbo to Groovyroom's Hwimin. While many suggest that they simply appreciate the culture and want to emulate it, it is both harmful and unfair as they cannot truly understand the cultural significance nor the rampant discrimination that Black people face for these exact hairstyles. There are also rappers like Trudey and Jessi who attempt to make themselves physically appear Black through skin tanning, hairstyles and mannerisms. Jessi is also known for her constant use of AAVE(African-American Vernacular English) or "blaccent".
One of the most recent and prolific cases of cultural appropriation was seen in the music video for Jay Park's 'DNA Remix'. Though it was a remix of YLN Foreign's song 'DNA', it reminded many of Kendrick Lamar's 'DNA' due to its similarities in terms of name and rap style. The track aimed to highlight promising rappers in the scene, though when the music video dropped, many were in disbelief as they saw Jay Park and other rappers wearing Black hairstyles. There was a backlash leading to his apology, but even that in itself felt like an insult to the Black community as he said that he wasn't trying to "be Black" and that issues were never raised when Black artists appropriated Asian culture. However, the apology never really addressed the issue at heart and this wasn't the first instance of him doing so. The music video was eventually taken down and re-shot and released to feature Korean culture instead. However, this case is important as Park is a major figure within the scene that influences a lot of other artists and sets the standard. Yet, with certain issues he avoids being educated.
This isn't new though as Black people wishing to educate K Hip-Hop artists about cultural appropriation are often met with hostility. Not only do artists refuse to hear their concerns, but so do their fans. Fans online often bully, harass and even dox Black people who speak out and face no repercussions. Cultural appropriation is dangerous as it often involves people playing into stereotypes. When this occurs in K Hip-Hop, it almost feels as though Black people are being viewed as commodities and caricatures, simply there for entertainment and to be imitated without recognising the struggles they face. Artists comfortably use black art, yet, draw the line at respecting Black people. This is a precedent that needs to change as Korean artists have had enough exposure to Black culture to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Moreover, Black fans have a right to hold artists accountable and not have their voices silenced while their art is manipulated for profit.
Thankfully, in certain ways, there seems to be the sensitisation of some artists to issues impacting Black people. Notably, following the horrific death of George Floyd, H1GHR Music, Dumbfoundead and other artists voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Although it took some time, DPR and Lee Youngji also added their voices, calling for an end to violence and discrimination against Black people. While this is just one instance, it shows that artists are beginning to move in the right direction and understand that as both creators and consumers in the Hip-Hop scene, they also have a responsibility to respect and stand in solidarity with Black people.
Undeniably, Black culture has had a significant impact on K Hip-Hop. The Hip-Hop movement spearheaded by the Black community created a space for not only Black people but other POC minorities worldwide to share their experiences. This created the opportunity for Korean youth to express themselves through K Hip-Hop. While Black culture has aided this, there still exists the issue of Black people not being given credit and also having their culture appropriated and their voices silenced. Though this is still a major issue, there are small signs that the K Hip-Hop community is becoming more aware and are willing to stand with the Black community.
- Anais Khan-George