BTS is making Grammy history. Will it pave the way for racial diversity in K-pop?

Sarah Raughley explores the genre's long and complicated history with Black culture.

Sarah Raughley explores the genre's long and complicated history with Black culture

K-pop group BTS is nominated for best pop duo/group performance at the 2021 Grammy Awards. They are the first K-pop group to earn a Grammy nomination. (Getty Images; graphic by CBC)

Last summer, K-pop sensation BTS's song "Dynamite" was everywhere. You may have heard your neighbour blasting it, or maybe you saw the group perform it on what felt like every American late-night show currently airing, from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to The Late Late Show With James Corden. "Dynamite" dominated the summer, spending three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Now it's nominated for a Grammy, making BTS the first ever K-pop group to earn a nomination. 

But Black people share in that success in many ways and not just because of K-pop fandom's strong Black component. It may not seem like K-pop and Blackness have much in common at first, but the two are inextricably linked.

The combination of visually bombastic performances and the rise of social media technology in the past decade has helped make K-pop hugely successful in North America. K-pop fandom is now massive, transnational and multicultural. But while the Korean entertainment companies that create blockbuster idol groups like Blackpink and NCT differ slightly in some of their business practices — for example, their business operations with respect to revenue from sales and TV appearances, their policies on dealing with scandals, and their management of social media — the shadow of Black music culture is one of the similarities they all seem to share.

American military occupation after the Korean War introduced American music to South Korea in the '50s and American music itself has largely been founded upon African-American musical traditions, despite the U.S. music industry's history of anti-Black racism and Black disenfranchisement. The K-pop sound is hybrid — a result of circulating cultures — drawing upon African-American and Korean musical sensibilities. 

Not only have many K-pop entertainment companies hired Black talent to produce their music, but they are also known to be inspired by Black fashion and choreography. K-pop groups have even collaborated with popular Black artists, like girl group SNSD and Snoop Dogg, Big Bang's G-Dragon and Missy Elliot, BTS and Nicki Minaj, and the list goes on.

The biggest and most foundational entertainment companies of the K-pop industry have long discussed the influence Black artists have had on their production of stars and music. This includes Big Hit Entertainment, the company that formed and currently manages BTS. Big Hit made a statement last year acknowledging the ever-present link between K-pop and Black artists in an article they produced discussing BTS's odds of winning a Grammy. In it, they argue that BTS, whose music is rooted in Black culture, face similar racist pressures to Black artists within the American music industry. 

It's true that BTS's sound is based on Black music: BTS's 2014 reality show, American Hustle Life, in which the boys go to L.A. to learn hip-hop culture from famed artists like Warren G and Coolio, makes this clear. Whether Big Hit should have used the more-than-a-century-long plight of African-American musicians to advocate for BTS's Grammy nomination, especially considering the many anti-Black racism scandals K-pop groups are constantly under fire for — that's still a debate. As the K-pop industry's connection with North America continues to march forward, the relationship between K-pop and Blackness may soon see a change.

Last month, in a joint conference, Big Hit announced that they will collaborate with U.S. record label Universal Music Group (UMG) to debut a new L.A.-based K-pop boy band in 2022. Big Hit will use their K-pop star-making apparatus to train the idols, while UMG will produce an American audition program with U.S. media partners — a first for K-pop. 

It's not surprising that this project would be based in the U.S. As Michelle Cho of the University of Toronto explains to CBC Music, although K-pop companies acknowledge Canada and smaller Western markets, in terms of achieving Western success, "the companies extrapolate American fans and tastes as representative of 'Western' international tastes." 

Arguably, BTS's well-studied meteoric success in the American music industry has paved the way for its company to be able to network with American music groups and fund localization projects, further targeting the lucrative U.S. market. So what new cultural and even racial shifts in the industry will these new projects open up?

More specifically: will young Black artists become more integrated into the K-pop sphere as idols in K-pop groups rather than just as choreographers, songwriters and producers that work behind the scenes?     

Black artists have debuted within the Korean music industry over the years. Insooni, a half-Korean and half-Black singer debuted in 1978; Yoon Mirae, another half-Korean and half-Black artist debuted in the hip-hop group Uptown in 1997 before emerging as a solo rapper and singer. Other artists include singer-rapper Lee Michelle; Alex Reid, former member of the girl group Rania; Fatou of Black Swan; and Lee Man Bok who debuted in 1993 with the group INK. But with few exceptions, many Black artists are either from older generations, work in Korean music markets outside of the K-pop idol industry, or have found limited success as K-pop idols.

With how globally-consumed Black culture and stars are, it begs the question if adding more Black idols to K-pop groups, particularly those aiming for the Western market, might increase the international fan appeal of the K-pop industry as a whole. Certainly the New York Times has suggested that more Black idols in K-pop might at least appeal to Black K-pop fans and this isn't something to ignore.

Black fans show so much love for K-pop and just want to know that K-pop loves them back.- Alex Reid, a former K-pop idol

Black K-pop fans are important in a lot of ways. According to Crystal Anderson, affiliate faculty in Korean studies at George Mason University and author of Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop, "Black audiences are an overlooked demographic for entertainment in general, yet historically are very involved in consuming popular culture." And Black K-pop fans seem to have a special role within the industry: "Black fans are well-represented in social media like Twitter and YouTube" and if this viral K-pop dance challenge spearheaded by three Chicago teens is any indication, they have a pivotal role, as Anderson says, "in influencing the perception and spread of K-pop."

In a 2017 piece discussing the popularity of BTS, the New York Times asked a Black K-pop fan "if they could change anything about K-pop, what would that be?" She answered: "They take a lot of things from Black culture [...] but I never feel represented in K-pop." 

As Cho explains, "There's a sense in the industry that having diverse fandoms means that K-pop has been accepted as a form of global youth culture, rather than just being an East Asian youth culture." 

Fans cheer as K-Pop group BTS performs in Central Park, May 15, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

"Black fans are seen as approving or authenticating Korean groups' adaptation of [Black] musical forms," Cho states. K-pop companies don't necessarily feel the need to court them. In fact, Anderson goes further to note that Korean agencies tend to focus on a white, middle-class, urban American mainstream instead. "This is the reason you see Korean artists appear on nationwide media as opposed to smaller, more niche outlets," she says.

As far as Black fans go, Anderson warns not to treat them as a monolith. "Some fans [who] feel that they want to see themselves in K-pop argue that K-pop has 'taken' from Black culture," she notes. "This line of thinking reminds me of the '50s and '60s, when you had white artists who covered Black music, stripped it of its Black esthetics, repackaged it as original with no reference to the source material. For these fans, actual representation in the form of Black bodies is important."

Not all Black fans feel this way, though. While K-pop is heavily influenced by Black culture, Anderson argues this doesn't necessarily mean K-pop agencies have an obligation to include Black artists in their group.

"Calls to force Korean agencies to include Black idols, especially if they come from Black American fans, could be interpreted as a kind of cultural imperialism." Unhappy Black K-pop fans, then, are "perfectly entitled not to support K-pop if it does not include Black idols."

Alex Reid, an African-American K-pop idol in the girl group Rania from 2015 to 2017, offers a different perspective, having once been a working Black K-pop artist within the K-pop industry. "Black fans show so much love for K-pop and just want to know that K-pop loves them back," she argues. "I had no one to look up to in the industry, so I never even dreamed it would be possible as a teenager. And then once I was actually there doing it, I didn't have a guide to help me navigate — sometimes, I only half believed in myself."

Many fans, including Nat Thomas, Black Canadian co-host of the K-pop podcast Not Your Average Netizens, have noted that Reid was not treated equally to her peers and this may not bode well for future Black K-pop idols. 

"I feel that Korea's treatment toward non-Korean idols is an indication that they would not be accepting of a Black idol," Thomas says. "I don't think I would want to put a Black child or young adult in that type of environment because it's already hard enough for Koreans and non-Korean Asians due to xenophobia. The Korean public already seem to have a hard time supporting biracial children who are born and raised in Korea. It is getting better, so my feelings can change on this subject but right now, I don't need it."

Things certainly weren't easy for Reid. According to the former idol, it's inevitable that Black idols will have it tough in the K-pop industry no matter the circumstance.

"It felt like I was barely keeping my head above water a lot of times. But then Black fans would break down crying, thanking me for inspiring them and giving them hope that their dreams could come true and it felt incredible, like I was doing something right. Being that example for people like me was the best part of being an idol. When things were hard and I wanted to quit, I read fan letters and remembered our talks and it gave me a purpose to keep going."

Black fans and idols may not be a priority for the K-pop industry even as agencies make bold strides to expand globally. But as Thomas argues, one way for agencies to honour the inseverable link between Black culture and K-pop music is to respect the culture and artists who have made their global appeal possible.

I beg that these companies start educating their idols and preparing them for the heightened Western exposure.- Nat Thomas, host of the K-pop podcast Not Your Average Netizens

"Diversity training is a must," Thomas says. "I beg that these companies start educating their idols and preparing them for the heightened Western exposure. Calling out racist fans would also help. I also want them to pay Black writers, producers, influencers, choreographers, etc., properly. They do not need to debut Black idols as long as they admit that they would not have this billion dollar industry without us."     

Though Big Hit and UMG have made no mention yet on whether or not there are racial and national requirements for their joint, L.A.-based group, the global popularity of the K-pop industry ensures that fans from all over the world will still be interested in each new venture that comes out of their favourite K-pop entertainment companies. And as fans all over the world tune in on March 14 to see if BTS makes history at the Grammys, we could be in for K-pop's biggest turning point yet.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.