With artists and groups like PSY, Girls Generation, BigBang, 2NE1, and Block B staking a piece of Billboard charts for themselves lately, there is no doubt that Korean pop is becoming more visible and popular than ever. Part of what makes K-pop “international” is its appropriation of some cultures, such as hip hop, into its marketing and image for various artists.
Appropriation is the act of taking something for one’s use, often without permission, but in fashion, it is when what is taken is and put into a new context which can give it a different meaning. Sometimes, this is done to the point where it no longer recognized for its original source and garish to the point of caricaturization.
There are countless articles out there about the rise of hip hop, the emergence of hip hop culture, and consequently the fashion that comes with it, so I will only provide the necessary basic summary.
In Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson states that “…fashion is freed to become both an aesthetic vehicle for experiments in taste and a political means of expression for dissidence, rebellion, and social reform” (pg 8). This means while fashion is often a way to express oneself, it can also be the reaction to what is currently happening socially.
This is how hip hop was born. Hip hop music and culture emerged in the 1970s in the Bronx, and really made its mark in the 1980s by becoming a creative outlet for many black youths. It was a form of self-expression, and a way to provide commentary on the grief and hardships that the black community faced. By the 1990s, hip hop and rap were part of the dominant genres in American music industry, competing alongside pop. Following the fathers of hip hop such as The Furious Five and Grandmaster Flash, artists like Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and the Wu-Tang Clan are examples of the leading frontmen for hip hop at this time. Their clothing style and accessories from baggy pants, to tank tops, beanies, and bandanas, became means of identifying those in involved in the culture.
Korean pop appropriation of hip hop takes the culture into a new context and gives it a different meaning. Hip hop is usually associated with being “cool”, “tough”, and “bad” due to its roots in surviving the hard times experienced by the black community in the 1980s. Furthermore, K-pop idols are typically known to be especially flashy in their performances and outfits because this helps cultivate their image.
Combining the above results in extremely exaggerated outfits and costumes that are used to put on a show or performance.
In his discussion on drag, Esther Newton states, “By focusing on the outward appearance of role, drag implies that sex role, and by extension, role in general is something superficial, which can be manipulated, put on and off again at will. The drag concept implies distance between the actor and the role or ‘act.’ But drag also means ‘costume’….role playing is play: it is an act or show” (pg 109).
Similarly, by incorporating the surface associations of hip hop into their performances and styles, these elements in combination with a Korean idol face and sweetheart personality are used to present the image or role of a “bad boy/girl with a heart of gold.” While the K-pop artists have the ability to present a lot of attitude and toughness, they can easily “take it off” or remove themselves from the culture, and refer to American music artists as their sources of inspiration and influence for that particular performance.
While this is a brilliant strategic move for the Korean pop music industry, here is where appropriation causes hip hop to lose its meaning. Of course, I do not intend to condemn the K-pop industry, as this especially has been a problem in our own music industry with success of white rappers such as Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. However, I believe that light should be shed on the issues that come with appropriating another culture.
In the article “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”, Bell Hooks discusses how by appropriating a culture can be compared to consuming food. The one that appropriates ingests the nutritional benefits while the one that is being appropriated is left as nothing more than the bare bones of what it used to be.
Likewise, when the features of hip hop are taken out of context, those who are not familiar with hip hop history have no background as to why these characteristics exist. As a result, all is left is a cardboard cut-out labeled “hip hop” in the form of a Korean pop star with no ties its political roots, thus undermining its power. Nothing but the meaning of being tough and cool are now associated with the fashion.
This also transforms the meaning of the style. Although seemingly harmless when observed individually, when viewed on an overall spectrum, the garish caricatures of hip hop culture in K-pop portray it in a very specific way: full of gang bangers, thugs, groupies, and violence.
By appropriating the culture, K-pop stars can reap the benefits of hip hop (being cool, have attitude, being “bad” etc.) without having to deal with the negative and stereotypical connotations that come with it.
At the end of the day, appropriation is not inherently “wrong,” however it is the after effects that can be deemed detrimental to the culture that was appropriated. If no context is given, history and knowledge of the fashion will be lost.
One thing to keep an eye out for, however, is the current rise of collaborations between Korean pop stars and the American music producers. As K-pop groups such as 2NE1 work to make music with American hip hop artists like will.i.am, what does this mean for the definition of appropriation? As K-pop continues to extend into other music genres and cultures thus merging them, will the use of their fashions still count as appropriation?
Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003. Print.
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. “Role Models” University of Chicago Press, 1979
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” South End Press, 1992