Megan Thee Stallion with BTS (2021)

K-Pop’s Legacy Needs to Acknowledge Its Black Origins

Nowhere is Black culture as apparent yet unacknowledged as it is in K-pop.

Be it fashion, music or aesthetics, Black culture has set the template for an overwhelming array of mainstream trends. From the rise of hip-hop to the popularity of “clean girl beauty,” the influence of Black American culture is omnipresent. But nowhere is Black culture as apparent yet unacknowledged as it is in K-pop. 

Korean pop music took the world by storm with catchy songs, synchronized choreography, and memorable style. It paved the way for a bubblegum pop renaissance in the West, as witnessed by the success of artists like Sabrina Carpenter. K-pop’s relationship with Black American music goes back to its very inception in the early ’90s. Namely, the ascent of Seo Taiji and Boys, a trio heavily inspired by rap, hip-hop and R&B. One of its members, Yang Hyun-suk, went on to found YG Entertainment, a “Big 3” entertainment company in South Korea, known for creating supergroups like BIGBANG, 2NE1 and BLACKPINK. In fact, a hip-hop heavy style is considered YG’s signature sound and aesthetic. 

Black Culture and K-Pop: Seo Taiji & Boys
Seo Taiji & Boys

Despite being instrumental to K-pop’s very establishment, very little credit has been given to its Black American origins. K-pop appeals to a global audience by offering music that’s sonically familiar but aesthetically unique to Korea. It could further be argued that the virality and success of K-pop is in large part due to the pre-existing familiarity of hip-hop and R&B around the world. Bang Shi-hyuk, founder of Big Hit Music and the Hybe Corporation, said as much at a 2017 press conference. He credited Black music as being a key component to BTS’ success overseas: “The members like hip-hop and Black music,” he said, according to Soompi. “These two things lowered the entry barrier to western markets. K-pop is unfamiliar to westerners, but they are familiar with hip-hop and Black music.”

“Black music is the base. Like when doing many genres like house and urban; there’s no change to the fact that it is Black music.”

— Bang Shi-hyuk, The Wings Tour: The Final 2017 Press Conference

Even the idol training system that is now synonymous with K-pop was originated by Berry Gordy, who founded Motown, the American label associated with a diverse array of artists like Marvin Gaye, Akon, Michael Jackson, Quavo, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, etc. This was further confirmed when in 2022, JYP mentioned that his company (JYP Entertainment) and its artist development was greatly influenced by Motown Records.

Korean pop music is only about five generations old and each of these generations had artists who borrowed heavily from their Black contemporaries in America. “Be Natural” by S.E.S (2000) could’ve easily been an Erykah Badu song and Tamia’s “Officially Missing You” (2004) seems to have provided the blueprint for many K-pop songs with reference to its vocal layering and song structure.

Black Culture and K-Pop: Wonder Girls
Wonder Girls performing “Nobody”

“Nobody” by Wonder Girls (2008) seems to have taken a leaf out of Whitney Houston’s discography and the music video itself alludes to retro Motown-style concerts. It holds the distinction of being the first song by a Korean artist to reach the US Billboard Hot 100 (entering at #76 in 2009). The discographies of groups like f(x), SHINee, TVXQ and 2PM reveal the stronghold that ’80s and ’90s R&B and hip-hop had on the Korean music scene of the time. 

RM and Zico engaged in their now-iconic rap battle at the 2014 MAMA

A Growing Impact

The debut of third generation K-pop groups coincided with the emergence of social media, which would go on to play a significant role in making K-pop what it is today. Rap competitions, including the highly popular Show Me the Money, along with the evolving style of choreography and hypebeast-esque, streetwear-heavy “K-pop fashion” are all further proof of the continuing impact of Black culture on K-pop.

For example, BTS’ highly successful 2018 track “Idol” features elements of South African Gwara Gwara dance. MAMAMOO’s 2020 track “Aya” takes inspiration from traditional African styles like Shaku Shaku and Zanku. Many Black songwriters, producers, and choreographers have worked behind the scenes to create numerous iconic hits. Tayla Parx has worked with artists like Normani, Ariana Grande and Panic! at The Disco in America and collaborated with TWICE, Red Velvet and BTS in South Korea. Adrian McKinnon is behind some of the biggest K-pop hits of the last decade like “Jopping” by SuperM, “Obsession” by EXO, and “4 Walls” by f(x). Dem Jointz, who has worked with artists like Rihanna, Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Wayne has collaborated with several of the biggest names in K-pop including j-hope, NCT 127, BTS, EXO and SHINee. Choreographer Kany has worked with Key, VIVIZ and SHINee. And these are just a few examples. 

While credit is occasionally given, a large-scale cultural amnesia seems to blind both K-pop artists and fans when it comes to acknowledging K-pop’s Black origins and influence.

CL, leader of 2NE1, shared on Instagram in 2020:

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first album my dad bought me. Beyoncé’s Dangerously in Love was the first CD I bought for myself. Janet Jackson taught me the power of movement of dance and expression. Missy Elliott is why I am so obsessed with my video visuals. Lil’ Kim was one of fashion’s pioneers that taught me how to be fearless in how I tell stories through clothes. Aaliyah is the reason why I still wear baggy pants and combat boots on stage … Some of the biggest inspirations for 2NE1 were Destiny’s Child and TLC … Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-pop industry are all inspired by Black culture whether they acknowledge it or not. I would like to encourage all the K-pop fans to give back and show their love and support for all that we have received from Black artists.”

JYP revealed in a video that numerous rooms in his company’s building are named after Black artists he’s inspired by. Two of his three studios are named after Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown. Artist spaces within the JYP enclave feature homages to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Quincy Jones, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, and Babyface. The recording studios are all named after iconic artists like Whitney Houston, Prince, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder. Such a public display of Black excellence by one of the biggest entertainment labels in South Korea is a testament to how influential Black music and artists have been to the domestic music scene. 

This doesn’t negate the fact that JYP once performed with backup dancers in blackface or that his 2021 collaboration with Rain, “Switch to Me,” sounds like a blatant rip- off of Bobby Brown’s 1989 track “Every Little Step.” 

j-hope in a vlog with Tinashe as the wallpaper on his laptop

The New School

Tinashe has been cited as inspiration by numerous K-pop groups including BTS, GOT7, aespa, and NCT 127. It’s not hard to see how her choreography, vocal performance, and musical style have influenced the discographies of all these groups. In fact, her 2016 track, “Superlove,” seems to have heavily inspired, both sonically and visually, DIA’s 2018 comeback track “WooWoo.” 

Tinashe herself is influenced by artists like Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, who inspired the sound of many yesteryear Korean girl groups. As she effortlessly blends R&B with pop while singing and rapping with delicately layered vocals and powerful performances, it’s easy to see why Tinashe’s music is a contemporary blueprint for many girl groups. This influence is apparent in tracks like TWICE’s 2022 song “Basics.”

Fatou (right) with former BLACKSWAN members

When Fatou Samba made her debut with the girl group BLACKSWAN in 2020, she became the first fully African idol to do so. She received immense vitriol, which sparked numerous discussions about culture, music, and race. Some fans were of the opinion that K-pop should “remain Korean,” which conveniently overlooks the presence of non-Korean idols from other parts of Asia but also brings about the question, hasn’t K-pop always been Black?

K-pop and Black culture share a deeply intertwined relationship.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that K-pop as we know it today would not exist without the works of many legendary Black artists and creatives. This is why cultural sensitivity is all the more necessary within the K-pop sphere, both from the artists and from the fans. The erasure of K-pop’s origins and the overlooking of undisguised racism and cultural appropriation perpetrated by artists whose legacy rests on the shoulders of Black excellence leaves one feeling sour and indignified. The spirit of all creativity is collaborative and the purpose of all art is connection. It is, then, in everyone’s best interest to inspire and be inspired from a place of mutual respect, love, and harmony.

Header: Megan Thee Stallion & BTS (Source)

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