On the capitalisation of Black culture in Korea

Writer Nyasha Oliver opens up about her experiences in K-Hip-Hop Spaces as a Black woman.

Imagine going to a Hip-Hop club in Seoul, madholic or nb2 to be exact. You enter and notice a Black person getting the attention of the DJ and other clubbers. The DJ starts playing Hip-Hop tunes from the ’90s and early 2000s, signalling to the Black person and their entourage – ‘this is for you’. Their dance moves and fashion style are so influential to the people around them, that they are recorded in the hands and eyes of the other clubbers. But the Black person doesn’t care, they’re just having a good time as they dance with their friends whilst onlookers, ask for a picture or exchange compliments with them saying ‘I love your hair’ or ‘You’re so cool!’

This is how I see Korean Hip-Hop, also known as K-Hip-Hop. Like a branch off a tree, the subgenre has grown into its own from Western Hip-Hop. But it still needs hydration. Thus, K-Hip-Hop replicates its authenticity by imitating aspects of Black culture to the max.

Just look at heavily scripted shows such as Unpretty Rapstar and Show Me The Money also known as SMTM, for example. Although there are standouts like Jessi and Loco who are barely affiliated with these programs nowadays, the shows paint K-Hip-Hop as ‘entertainment’ and ‘trendy’ from the viewer’s perspective as you can see in the performances below:

Show Me The Money
Unpretty Rapstar

The influence of these shows and their theatrics that can be seen amongst the public with tattoos becoming popularised, trendy dances, and copy and paste counterparts,  from the deep fake rapping voices to the use of AAVE e.g. Sik-K, a rapper from Seoul, heavily resembles Travis Scott’s Rodeo concept particularly in Alcohol and YellowS Gang.

On top of this, Snoop Dogg and Timbaland showed up as guest judges on SMTM 4 and SMTM 5. Because who wouldn’t see these legendary giants and not see their appearances as a seal of approval to viewers and contestants? 

The reason K-Hip-Hop has such an impact, even on its Black fans, is its familiarity to African-American music and its aesthetic over the years. You hear it in the way rappers like Changmo rap in Selfmade Orange, the songs that BewhY produces and the way crews like DPR present themselves. 

It’s not all like this within the genre. Don’t get me wrong, my perspective has been majorly positive in Korea. People have asked me why I liked Korean Hip-Hop and what brings me to the country but I’ve never been kicked out of any bars, clubs or events despite the feeling of estrangement, and I’ve met several rappers in the scene from Jay Park to Dok2.

When I was a teenager, I discovered Yoon Mirae (who is also known as Tasha), a rapper and singer of African-American and Korean descent. Her song, Black Happiness and the experience she rapped about was an eye-opener for me. She was one of the few representations for teenage me to see someone of Black descent living out there. Quickly, I got an idea of how someone who looked like me would be treated in a homogenous country like Korea – to expect the worst if you are not the physical standard despite someone like Yoon Mirae having more reliability to what it’s like growing up in the country. 

Black Happiness

Blackness is viewed differently in Korea, it is negatively depicted in society and also capitalised on for profit. For some, Western Hip-Hop is an image and the only lens they have to experience how Black people are perceived is social media first, media stereotypes second. Identity definitely comes into play too. While not all Black people are viewed as ‘army brats’ or ‘video vixens,’ as much as ten years ago, the preconceptions and generalisations are still prominent.

And just like many other encounters with Koreans, it felt like my presence in nightclubs in Seoul was less about me being seen as an individual, and more about how my identity was reflected from a Korean person’s lens forged from Hip-Hop. In 2017, I frequently attended the events and performances of rappers, namely Cass Blue Playground in Jamsil and a SMTM 6 concert in Yeouido Park. I got a taste of how they perceive and treat Hip-Hop and Black culture – performative, counter-cultural zest with a lack of cultural appreciation. 

While there are spaces and events that present K-Hip-Hop to be inviting for Black people like me, most are not, you’ve just got to walk into it with confidence despite it being a pull for many to go to Korea. In some K-Hip-Hop fan’s eyes, it’s for Koreans first, foreigners second, and at best the latter can come only if they fit the representation of what a Black person is. But it’s ironic that people want to gatekeep K-Hip-Hop within a society that imitates its predecessor. Even my Korean friend said “Koreans are great at imitating.”

Eung Freestyle

More often than not, I think to myself that in the past when I attended the nightclubs in Seoul, did the general public see my identity as a Black woman (like Yoon Mirae) reflected through Hip-Hop? When I got approached by guys, who were showing off their best You Got Served moves or invited me to their table for free drinks, did they think they were in the music video fantasy they had always wanted?

Whether people see the subgenre as a separate entity from Western Hip-Hop, it’s clear that aspects of Black culture are the driving force behind K-Hip-Hop and in a time where cultures and trends are intertwined because of the internet, the imitation is replicating at a faster speed. More than ever, a lot of Black fans love K-Hip-Hop and support the artists in any way they can. So the only thing I want for the community is to create spaces that gravitate towards the appreciation and impact of Black art instead of seeing it as a collective free grab to turn into their own craft.

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