A Little Respect: An Examination of Representation, Double Standards, and Gatekeeping in Kpop & Hip-Hop

There’s something that has really been grinding my gears lately (amongst the million other things that have made the past year more than trying). Admittedly, it doesn’t take a lot to make me agitated (s/o to my fellow fire sign friends), but there have been slights about a particular music genre that has seemed to increase in volume as of late.

I’m talking about Kpop.

You may have heard it. Western coverage on big groups like BTS (who just became the first Kpop group to be nominated for a Grammy in a major category) have been on the rise since 2017, when the Korean group became the first Kpop act to perform on a major American awards show. Performing their then single, “DNA,” the group wowed just about anyone that was completely unaware of them.

Personally, I had no idea about who these guys were or what their music sounded like. I tuned in with a peaked curiosity that was satiated far past expectations. It was more than their sound, or their ability to sing and rap…more than their charisma or their impeccable style. It was their aura. There was an overwhelming sense of passion that exuded from them that was undeniably alluring.

The next day I decided to play their recent release, Love Yourself ‘Her”, on my commute to class. I re-listened to the song, “DNA,” bopping along as I crossed the bridge to my destination, but what ultimately sealed the deal was the track, “Intro: Serendipity,” performed by one of the members, Jimin.

The best way to describe the song would be to personify it as the feeling of finally finding someone or something and euphorically falling in love. For instance, my euphoric moment would be my first true discovery of music. There are no words to explain that feeling because it’s just that—a feeling. So, flashback to my car commute…I hear this song…and I experience that feeling again. Without warning, I fell in love again, and I realized that those three letters, “BTS,” were more than an acronym.

“Intro: Serendipity” – BTS

But we’re not here to talk about just BTS or Kpop for that matter. Instead, I want to impart a broader lens on the bigger picture of music, culture, and entertainment between the western and eastern world, two worlds with so many differences, but even more similarities. And because I don’t want to bore you to tears, this will be an ongoing series because I got a lot to say. So sit down, get comfy, grab a drink (preferably water-stay hydrated), and get ready to have a much-needed discussion on some things.


Hip-hop. We all know it and love it (at least, most of us do). And when we think of hip-hop, what culture do we immediately associate it with…black culture. And nothing is inherently wrong with that, right? Because hip-hop has been a part of black culture since that first Bronx basement party in 1973, thrown by DJ Kool Herc. Hip-hop is to black culture as black culture is to hip-hop.

So what happens when other cultures latch onto arguably one of the most defined, prominent, and influential music styles of time?

Of course, there are going to be emulators and inspired artists; good music is supposed to move people and create some sort of manifestation of influence. With the decades of hip-hop and rap, there’s bound to be a major movement of others feeling the need to express themselves in the same way.

So picture this – It’s the 80s, and the top-charting pop songs in your country are placid, “safe” ballads with predictability waiting around every verse and chorus—this was the case for Korea. The country had what they called “healthy songs,” songs that were non-controversial and patriotic wrapped up in a pop-ballad formula for the mainstream airwaves…the only airwaves. With limited access to other various styles of music, the hunger for something different swelled, leading to a much more significant result than imagined.

Flash forward to 1992. Trio, Seo Taiji and Boys enter the scene with a loud western presence. I mean these guys were wearing the baggy clothing, breakdancing, and owning the stage with a charisma that rivaled any American performer. So you can imagine how the older generation felt with apprehension and confusion filling the minds of many—a classic case of the “moral panic.” That same group would continue to pave their way towards becoming one of the first coined Kpop idol groups for Korea, further spurring what would become known as the “Korean Wave” or Hallyu.

Seo Taiji and Boys

But what really drives this event home (at least for me) is their unapologetic fervor to speaking and expressing their truth. 1995 track, “Come Back Home,” a song about the enduring, societal pressures facing the younger generations, presents hard-pressed questions like, “What am I trying to find now?” or affirmations like, “My rage toward this society/Is getting greater and greater/Finally, it turned into disgust/Truths disappear at the tip of the tongue.”

What they did was bring an element of connection and catharsis into their music that seemed to be lacking from previous Korean pop music. They spoke their minds and expressed their feelings allowing for a space of connection and dialogue to occur amongst the younger public. You could say that “Come Back Home” was the Korean equivalent to 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five—a very pivotal song in the history of hip-hop and social commentary.

This brings us to the two main topics of discussion—representation and cultural appropriation.


Representation and Double Standards

Whether we realize it or not, all forms of media have had, and continue to have, outstanding implications and influence on our daily lives (think the Arab Spring protests and the BlackLivesMatter movement). At this point, you may be asking, ‘Why are we talking about this? I thought we were talking about hip-hop and Kpop?’ Well, as the lovely subtitle above says…this is a section on representation and double standards, much of which is very reliant on entertainment and media.

For example, the late 19th/early 20th century introduced a western portrayal of Asian immigrants through film with roles that were meant to degrade and subjugate. Belittling generalizations like fictional character, Fu Manchu, depicted Asian people as cunning invaders biding time until achieving global domination, furthering the perception of Chinese immigrants as the evil “yellow peril.”

And yet on the other end of the spectrum, fictional characters like Charlie Chan would paint Chinese immigrants as passive and intelligent but socially inept with a poor grasp on the English language. Rest assure, however, that there was more to add to the representation package of Chinese immigrants with coveted roles that included playing servants and prostitutes. For the cherry on top, these characters were performed under the guise of “yellow face.”

Consequently, these stereotypes defined Chinese immigrants as either sinister masterminds or buffoons, inevitably leading to a distasteful amount of xenophobia and nationalism.

So how does this relate to today? As many like to say, history repeats itself, and while things are arguably better, there are still insinuations of the past that linger in a more covert manner. Enter the stage—double standards. New York Times piece, “Why do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television?” by Thessaly La Force, speaks on the persistence of worn-out prejudices towards Asian-Americans with tired tropes depicting them as smart and hard-working, but boring and plain.

I mean c’mon…we all know we’ve heard or said something along the lines of Asian people being so good at math or the martial arts. We never, if rarely, see Asian actors consistently occupying a prominent part in a feature film – nor do we see them ever playing the roles they were originally written for (e.g., Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange), until recently with films like Crazy Rich Asians. And sure, we have classic martial arts films like Enter the Dragon, but there’s more to Asian people than just martial arts—their identity is as dimensional as anyone else’s.

Furthermore, Asian artists in the music industry are not taken seriously in comparison to their peers of non-Asian descent. Groups like Far East Movement experienced xenophobic insults and harping on social media during the height of their career in the United States. 2010 single, “Like a G6,” took off and launched the collective to become the first Asian-American group to reach #1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. Yet, that wasn’t enough for some American consumers as condescending comments aimed at the group “to go back to Asia” filled social media.

Which brings me to a more recent example from the 2019, “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special. BTS was scheduled to perform during the night’s festivities, something that many fans were excited about, me included. It was an opportunity for more representation on a program being watched by about 7.2-10.7 million viewers, but with one step towards progression are two steps backward. CNN correspondents for the night, journalist Anderson Cooper and Bravo TV reality host Andy Cohen, couldn’t help but make snide comments about the Korean artists as they proceeded to talk throughout the entire performance.

It’s remarks like these that make me wonder what else Asian entertainers can do to gain the respect of the western world? Breaking all of the records possible or achieving the unthinkable are all great and fun, yet seem to never amount to anything in the western gaze. Maybe that’s the lesson in all of this – they don’t need the approval of others…they’re surely accomplishing much of what they set out to do, regardless. But I can’t help but think about La Force’s words, “And that is why we will never be compelling enough to be the hero in your eyes.”


Gatekeeping

Cultural baggage…what better way to start this section than with those two words. Cultural baggage is in the words we hear… the songs we sing… the thoughts we think. Like anything else in this world, it’s complex.

For this section, the words “cultural baggage,” mean the long, long years of history that have resulted in the suppression of black voices. I’m talking about the years and years of thievery against black artists and the black identity. As a result, there may be a better understanding of why there is an expressed need for gatekeeping within the hip-hop community, consequently ensuing discussion on what counts as cultural appropriation.

While writing this, it really dawned on me how interconnected moments in time really are. The year 1900 may seem so far away, but when you really analyze it, you start to realize that underneath it all, some things (a lot of things) really haven’t changed. Frankly, it uncovers the interpellated state that really all of us are in for most of our lives, that is…until we start to question.

Growing up, I was inundated with all kinds of music, ranging from merengue to disco to grunge rock to R&B; there was no genre untouched. I remember one artist in particular that my little, Hispanic grandma loved, Elvis Presley. Growing up during his heyday, my grandma was a big fan, so naturally, I thought he was cool because my grandma is cool—duh. There wasn’t really a specific moment in time when I found out that Elvis sung songs that weren’t his, the realization just kind of accumulated throughout the years.

Songs like “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” originally written for and performed by Big Mama Thornton, were “culturally cleansed” to appeal to the masses—the white consumer. Where once existed a drawl and lag of ache and soul, came a sterile, clean, upbeat version with plain accentuations and musicality to dazzle the uniform minds of white America. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything innately wrong with enjoying the Elvis version over the original. Music is subjective after all, and some people may prefer a cleaner pop sound as opposed to a grittier, soulful sound. That’s fair.

The gripe resides in the fact that so many black artists of that time delivered really good, authentic music, but because they were black, that owed success was never met. Elvis was just another symbol of appropriation…another symbol of control over the life of the black individual. He was the ultimate signifier that, ‘Yeah, you’re good…you have talent…but you’re black. But this guy over here? This guy has got good looks, can carry a tune, and he’s white.’ Of course, this sentiment was carried out in a more subdued manner, but you get the gist.

Yet some black artists had nothing but respect for “the King.” Artists like Little Richard to James Brown respected Presley and Presley, in turn, praised the many black artists before him. But like I said, the gripe was never fully against the individual—it’s always been against the system. The system that has been against black people since the beginning. Detailed accounts of minstrel entertainment in the mid/late 1800s to early 1900s proves that this notion of “theft” has been around for longer than many would like to admit. However, in this case, the theft wasn’t solely music-related but instead immersed in the stolen sense of identity.

Minstrel entertainers like Thomas Dartmouth Rice (also known as “Daddy Rice”) or the Virginia Minstrels were all the rage for white Americans who lauded at the overly dramatic, blackfaced performers; meanwhile, black slaves toiled away to survive, nevermind live. If our translated emotions of hardship into sounds of raw expression weren’t enough to take away, then the identity of who we were would surely solidify the feeling of humiliation that was meant to define our status in life—our status in the system.

Thomas D. Rice dancing in blackface

So you can see WHY gatekeeping in hip-hop is almost a means to survival—it’s ingrained in the nature of the people who created it, who lived and breathed it, who depended on it. It’s more than a fad or a trend…it’s more than fame and accolades…more than a genre or a simple name. It’s one of the few things that hasn’t been totally capitalized by others outside the black community—in a way I think it’s almost sacred. When you have the public and music industry saying your sound is “too black” to be considered country (e.g., Lil Nas X – “Old Town Road”) or your simple blackness is “too sexual” (e.g., Little Richard – “Tutti Frutti”) it gets old…fast. And that kind of gatekeeping is still prevalent today. Like I said…some things haven’t changed.


Wesley Morris’ “For centuries, black music…” instilled in me perhaps the most resonant revelation in the matter of this entire piece; “Americans have made a political investment in a myth of radial separateness, the idea that art forms can be either “white” or “black” in character when aspects of many are at least both.” What’s wild about this WHOLE thing is that we have all, to some degree, fallen victim to this idea that music ever belonged to one race.

Why is it that music has been categorized into an ignorant, social construct? Why was there even such a thing as “race music” in the 1920s-1940s? Why do black kids get made fun of for listening to “white people music”–in other words, rock–from their own community? Give me a break. Music, in its purest form, is a feeling…an expression of emotion…an outlet of happiness, anger, joy, pain. Morris states that it’s more complicated than any word could define. The term “appropriation” only skims the surface of what we are really talking about here.

So where does that leave us? I think we would all be doing ourselves, and music, a disservice by falling prone to these invisible boxes of delegation. That’s not to say that respect shouldn’t be given where respect is due. All of the Chuck Berrys, Sister Rosetta Tharpes, Sam Cookes, Rakims, and Notorious B.I.G.s (the list can go on and on) should undoubtedly be given the respect they deserve—because, at the end of the day, it all comes down to a level of respect and understanding.

The most important takeaway from all of this is the transcendence of music. Music transcends all languages, expectations, judgments, skin colors, ideologies, wars—it transcends all.

You see it in songs like the 2000s-esque, R&B “Lookin 4” (Crush feat. Devin Morrison and Joyce Wrice), trilingual homage “Chicken Noodle Soup” (BTS’ J-Hope feat. Becky G), or bias challenging “FSU” (Jay Park feat. GASHI and Rich The Kid); all songs that bring various representations of culture and flavor under one umbrella.

“Chicken Noodle Soup” – J-Hope feat. Becky G

Again, I stress that that isn’t to say that respect shouldn’t be given where it’s due. Many love to take and suck all that they can from black culture—from our music, to our clothes…even to our hair; yet, they fail to show that same appreciation and respect to the people behind that culture—black people. It’s, unfortunately, seen countless times in Kpop, and as we move forward it is my hope that the respect will become second nature to artists and labels of that industry.

Being a homogenous culture, it’s a work in progress but recent events have shown that there is solidarity and respect with Korean artists like BTS, Jay Park, Crush, Tiger JK, GOT7, and others showing their support through statements and donations towards the BlackLivesMatter movement this past summer. Crush aptly said, “Many artists and people around the world get so much inspiration by black culture and music, including me. We have a duty to respect every race.”

That level of recognition and awareness is key to moving forward into a realm where respect is formed and nurtured through conversations between one another from different cultures. Korean YouTube channel, DKDKTV had a segment on cultural appropriation in Kpop, imparting the valuable lesson to “not fall trapped in our own world…to engage in conversations with people from different cultures…to widen [our] views of the world.” It’s so simple, yet unbelievably overlooked.

And with that, I hope the main thing you get from all of this isn’t me telling you that you should listen to Kpop because I think it’s good. Rather, I implore you to take a quick minute of introspection and look at your own biases—whether that be in music, culture, food, WHATEVER IT MAY BE. Because it’s in those moments where you may realize that we all aren’t so different after all.

Hank Willis Thomas Reanalyzes Everyday Black History

by Shannon Jay

Based on a lecture Hank Willis Thomas gave at the Chrysler Museum in 2015

Hank Willis Thomas’ interest in studying how black people are represented in media begins with Deborah Willis’ exploration of how they were portrayed in photographs. Then a teen skimming through a Philadelphia library, his mother stumbled upon “Sweet Flypaper Life,” featuring poems by Langston Hughes and photographs by Roy DeCarava.

“Sometimes I See Myself In You” by Deborah Willis, 2009

“This was the first time she saw images of African Americans as she had seen them – as everyday people,” Thomas recalls, noting this is when Willis realized “photography could be used to tell different stories, and to humanize.”

After not being able to find much else on the history of blacks in photography, Willis decided to write her first of several books on the subject entitled “Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography.” She went on to win the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow for her research, and revive a previously unwritten history of the Black experience previously buried.

“Priceless #1” 2004

“I came to photography and came to appreciate it through her”, Thomas recalled. “Our relationship is very much this conversation between her research and my work as an artist.” This bond is illustrated in a piece entitled “Sometime I See Myself in You,” a melding of the mother and son’s faces to create three different portraits. 

Thomas uses the language of advertising, one he believe to be the most powerful in the world, “to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about.” After the impactful murder of his cousin Songha Willis Thomas, Thomas discussed the “irony of picking the perfect casket for your son being a priceless experience.”

Years later, he revisited photographs taken from his cousin’s funeral with this familiar tagline from MasterCard ads. He describes this particular image in his photo series, “Branded,” as “a way to talk about how, even in mourning, we’re still being marketed to.” Other works in the “Branded” series steer away from taglines and Thomas’ personal experience, shifting to examine the correlation of logos in what he calls an “age of branded consciousness.”

“Logos as our generation’s hieroglyphs…because they are imbedded with so much meaning, that they can actually be used to tell different stories.”

He does this through eye opening imagery, like Nike swooshes scarred several times on a man’s chest, to the shoe company’s Jordan logo hanging from a Timbaland tree. In these pieces, Thomas parallels the branding of slaves to logos currently lining black bodies, or black bodies hanging from trees to hanging from basketball hoops – in the sense of both being a different variation of black men as a spectacle.

Advertisements relating to the history of blacks in America are apart of what Thomas described as, “this way in which [he] can look at an image of one thing, and turn it into a reference to so many other things.”

“Absolute Power” 2003 & 2016

Photos featuring the Absolut vodka logo explore the “creation of blackness…by Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing people.” Thomas recognizes the Us vs. Them mentality categorizing race breeds, noting that, “we’re still allowing that kind of language to define us.” These images tackle the history of institutionalization, from slavery to the prison system.

“I recognize race as a fiction, something that is untrue but dictates so many of our lives.”

While “Branded” reinterprets logos though Thomas’ art, his series “Unbranded” removes these logos and taglines to allow art in advertisements independently tell a new tale. “I’m interested in how things that were status quo at some point shift,” Thomas continued, “and they also change history and how we relate who belongs where and what place.”

Ads from 1915 to present day have all marketing language removed, leaving mainstream depictions of women and African Americans and the “amazing story that’s happened in the images that we buy and discard.”

“Because [women and blacks were] asking for more opportunities,” Thomas noted, “[these ads] keep them in a certain place.” This project, along with all of Thomas’ consumerism commentary, encourages the viewer to always consider how images we buy into on a daily basis affect our deepest ideologies. 

Much of Thomas’ work is the analyzes old images to give new context. A series of bronzed hands cropped from photographs taken throughout history, Thomas said, “draw to defiant voices and gestures in moments of protest when so much is at stake.” 6 months after its completion, one sculpture in particular took on a whole new meaning with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Raise Up” is a row of bronze arms, inspired by a cropped shot of South African boys being stripped search.

“All of a sudden, something that was based off a moment of subjugation 50 years ago is speaking to a moment of uprising and defiance in the 21st century.” 

While commentary of the black experience is prominent in Thomas’ work, his broader focus is any change of perspective, epitomized in his collaborative works. In works like “Zero Hour,” a collaboration with Sanford Biggers, the viewer moves side to side of a frontally blurry image to see it clearer. “I like that idea of work where you have to change your own positioning to see it,” Thomas said. 

The “Truth Booth” visits Bamiyan Bhudda, blown up by the Taliban in 2001

He played with the idea of different perspectives in a collaboration with Jim Ricks and Ryan Allexaim called “Truth Booth.” Premiering in Ireland, this interactive piece allowed viewers to tell a camera what Thomas refers to as “their own version of the truth.” “Truth Booth” later traveled around the world to Afghanistan, South Africa, Miami, and even a presidential debate.

The attempt to tell the untold stories of the silenced throughout history is evident in all of Thomas’ work, no matter the medium. Whether it’s removing logos from ads to let the imagery speak for itself, retelling stories from old photos by cropping portions and breeding them with bronzed new life, or even welcoming folks to voice their own point of view in Thomas’ interactive installations, viewers walk away considering a fresh, new perspective.

Even if they remain unchanged, at least they looked at things a little differently, if only for a moment.
 

Stranger Side of Cult Classic Celebration

In mostly everyone’s “Recently Watched” section of Netflix, Stranger Things is surely listed. The show is fueled by the culture of nostalgia, and in a short span has garnered a cult following. For most films, like Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room, this takes at least a few years to gather steam and harbor very specific demographics. However, within the month that Netflix released Season 1 of Stranger Things last year, nearly 15 million Americans from every age range were already hooked. 

Promoters have certainly taken notice, and every major city seems to have a Stranger Things party every few months. Charles Rasputin, party planner extraordinaire, has two sold-out such themed parties in Richmond and Norfolk this month  (just pre-sale – don’t worry, you can still stand outside for hours to get in).

Popscure asked him about the power of nostalgia, and how streaming has changed our relationship with TV, somehow finding unity in asynchronous consumption. 

WHY DOES NOSTALGIA SELL?

“I think nostalgia functions in several ways to intrigue viewership but two are very specific to the phenomena of Stranger Things. The show provides familiar details and context for those who have experienced the 80’s first hand, but it also allows digital natives to see the rise of the digital age. There are parallels to coming of age in the 21 Century within this group of folks from all age groups facing the unimaginable.”

 Trumpogorgon
Trumpogorgon

Rasputin brings up a good point here. We live in a time, surrounded by inventions that were once impossible feats solely existent in science fiction. Who would’ve thought we could have a wealth of knowledge, camera, and telephone within one device at our fingertips? The past few decades have seen increasingly rapid and fantastical changes; it’s almost as surreal as the Upside Down.

Unimaginable still is how much time has passed and how much society has stayed the same — as far as racism and sexism that still torment everyday life of minorities, which just now in 2017 is being divulged. Our president is reality’s Demogorgon — monstrous and too ridiculous to be true.

HOW HAS BINGE WATCHING CULTURE CHANGED OUR RELATIONSHIP TO TV SHOWS?

“I think binge-watching has created a form for digesting visual media that is very much like reading a book, rather than time released episodes featuring advertisement-driven sequences.  One’s excitement for a story can manifest in watching all of it immediately and not being forced to slowly process at the pace of the network or the calendar.”  

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE SHOW & WHATS THE BIG DEAL?

“I think the show is great, and I’ve loved seeing it grow from a one-season concept to embrace the need for multiple seasons. I also love that it’s exciting for adults and for younger viewers who didn’t necessarily grow up in the 80s. The thing that drove our team to produce a dance party inspired by the aesthetic of Stranger Things was the thoughtful simplicity of the art direction and the accessibility for materials and settings to replicate the vibes of the show itself.

The culture of fandom is largely driven by cosplay and the ability for people to insert themselves into a character or story. Stranger Things is rich with characters and costumes that are relatively easy to assemble and the ability to create an immersive version of the story is a breath of fresh air that the “80s dance party” vibe desperately needed. We were excited to see the second season so well received on Netflix, and we knew we had to bring it back for a second round in Norfolk at O’Connor Brewing.”

Whether it’s your goofiest version of Barb or classiest prom-ready 80’s garb, bring your spirited wardrobe out Friday night at O’Connor Brewing Co. and dance the night away.