Music

What makes a K-pop group? The complicated debate over non-Korean groups

South Korea's BTS is one of the world's biggest acts. It's natural that others want to replicate that success.

South Korea's BTS is one of the world's biggest acts. It's natural that others want to replicate that success

Band BTS performs during the 2020 MTV VMAs in this screen grab image made available on August 30, 2020. (Viacom/Reuters)

Growing up, Joe Rascal kept his love of K-pop a secret. Afraid of what his grade-school friends would think of this style of Eastern music, Rascal, a Korean-Canadian who grew up in uptown Toronto, would often retreat to his bedroom with his headphones plugged into his Walkman to listen to groups like the mid-2000s breakout act Big Bang, who were once-dubbed "kings of K-pop."

This is a fairly common experience among second-generation immigrants whose cultures can be othered and judged by North Americans, both intentionally and unintentionally. But K-pop — a bright and bombastic mix of hip hop, pop, electronic and more — is no longer a hidden or guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a global sensation. 

At the turn of the millennium, the internet and streaming services helped break down barriers for international genres like Latin pop and K-pop. Suddenly, non-English genres began to find audiences around the world, attracting listeners who both did and didn't understand the language, but were drawn nonetheless to the sounds and visuals of these artists. Early K-pop groups like Wonder Girls, Super Junior, Girls' Generation and Big Bang were already big successes in Asia, but soon, they found their footing in other markets like Europe and North America. 

Most historical accounts of K-pop point the genre's origin to the early '90s hip hop/pop trio Seo Taiji and Boys, but the term "K-pop" is believed to have been coined by English media around 1999. More than two decades later, though, its definition remains amorphous, sometimes simply referring to Korean popular music and other times encompassing the larger industry that produces K-pop acts. Musically, K-pop has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality, a maximalism that crams in multiple styles and key changes into one song.

But as Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea told South China Morning Post: "K-pop is essentially a mixture of American and Japanese music, which means it is not completely original." 

"Nowadays, because K-pop is so big, I just want to share it with the world," Rascal tells CBC Music, changing his tone in the years since his shameful school experiences. In fact, he is now one-third of Uptown Boyband, a group that sings in both English and Korean, and proclaims to be "Toronto's first alternative K-pop band." 

What is authenticity in K-Pop? 

In 2019, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's Music Listening report listed K-pop as the seventh most popular genre in the world. Groups like BTS and Blackpink are now record-breaking acts and household names. In 2018, BTS became the first K-pop act to reach no. 1 on the Billboard 200. Earlier this year, Blackpink earned three Guinness World Records with the release of its single "How You Like That." And six of YouTube's top 10 most-viewed videos in its first 24 hours belong to BTS and Blackpink, thanks to their dedicated worldwide fanbase. 

K-pop has now ballooned into a $5 billion industry and is an integral part of South Korea's economy, but with the globalization of K-pop in recent years, other countries are now itching to get in on that success. This can mean a myriad of things, from booking K-pop groups to tour in their country to hosting K-pop conventions as cities like Toronto and Vancouver have done. But it's also natural for artists to want to create their own music inspired by K-pop — and that is where questions of ownership, appropriation and liberties begin to arise. 

Uptown Boyband may not necessarily consider themselves K-pop, but the members do see their use of that title, combined with the word "alternative," as a way of embracing their Korean heritage.

"We take a lot of inspiration from K-pop," member Roc Lee clarifies. "We understand, in K-pop music, it blends multiple genres into one song and the standards they have are on another level. So we look at that and we're like, OK, let's take the aspects that we like from it and blend it into our own music. Let's mix that with the western music that we also grew up listening to in Toronto." 

K-pop doesn't have a clean-cut definition.- Tamar Herman, author of BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears

Third member Justin Trash adds: "When we attach the 'alternative' title to it, we're taking an alternative route. We're not in that K-pop structure. We get inspired by the work ethic and the aesthetics, and we're just trying to drive those principals into our group as well." 

As an act that is not native to or based in South Korea, to call yourself a K-pop act in any way immediately draws the attention of K-pop fans, and the reaction can be divisive. Whether it is deemed authentic or not is contingent on your definition of K-pop, and that can vary from person to person. For example, Tamar Herman, a K-pop reporter and author of the book BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears, doesn't see K-pop as a genre.

"K-pop doesn't have a clean-cut definition," she says. "I consider 'K-pop' an industry, so the idea of being a K-pop group or not depends on proximity to the industry." 

That industry Herman refers to is a large, intricate system that has been perfected over the years by South Korean music executives. This includes auditioning, intensive training, and a 360-degree construction of an artist or group's identity, including music, styling, videos and choreography. While some have been critical of the controlling nature of such a system, this has become a signature of K-pop culture. So what does it mean for a group to not only form outside of that industry, but to do it in an entirely different country? 

A brief history of controversial K-pop groups

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is EXP Edition, widely known as the first non-Korean K-pop band — and also one of the most controversial groups. Formed in 2017 by a woman named Bora Kim, EXP Edition — composed of four American men singing in Korean — came out of a documentary art project Kim worked on at New York's Columbia University. Wanting to find a way to explore social issues and the K-pop industry, Kim told Hashtag Legend, "I found that perhaps making a group was the best way to learn about the industry rather than reading a lot of misinformation." In order to pull off the operation, she brought on two partners, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Y. Shao. 

EXP Edition has since relocated to South Korea and its members have adapted to a demanding training schedule akin to native idols. They have even learned to speak Korean, although critics of the group have pointed out problems with their pronunciation. 

Upon debuting, EXP Edition members were faced with an onslaught of hate. Some believed the group was trying to capitalize on the popularity of K-pop, others thought it was a parody. Many noted their broken Korean as a reason to dismiss them, but some argued that the music itself was bad. According to some who have learned to accept EXP Edition, the group's efforts and engagement with the industry could qualify it as a K-pop act. EXP Edition has even been able to grow a Korean fanbase.

In a 2018 documentary by Vice, Kuroda pushed back against those who police what K-pop can and can't be, especially global fans who reside outside of Korea.

"There is definitely a sense of ownership K-pop fans have," she said. "It's so interesting because they themselves act as if they're an ambassador of K-pop, so when they see something threatening it or something that they think is threatening it, they are very outrightly trying to protect it." 

EXP Edition member Sime argued in that same doc that K-pop is going through a similar transition as older musical genres: "I think this is a type of situation that a lot of artists have been in before. It happened with jazz, it happened with hip hop — when a certain genre becomes so globally recognized, it is only natural that more and more people from different backgrounds are going to become a part of it." 

And EXP Edition isn't the only band that has attempted to take on the K-pop industry and label. In 2018, an all-Chinese group called Boy Story made its debut under Tencent Music Entertainment and JYPE China. This past April, a girl group from the UK named Kaachi made its debut and of its four members, only one is Korean. Later this year, an all-Japanese girl group called NiziU will make its debut after forming on a competition reality series. All of these groups have already attracted an equal amount of adoration and skepticism. 

So can you be inspired by K-pop?

As fans continue to debate the ownership of the K-pop label, more non-Korean acts will likely emerge and Uptown Boyband's Roc Lee encourages others to follow in their footsteps.

"If you want to join or make an alternative K-pop group, that's all up to you," he says. "It just depends on how much hard work you want to put behind it, what kind of music you want to make, and for us, we have the opportunity where nobody else can define us but ourselves."

While naming yourself K-pop and being influenced by K-pop music are two different things, Herman believes the latter is absolutely possible. "The quality of K-pop productions are really where it stands out from other global music scenes at the moment," she explains, noting that even though Uptown Boyband's sound pulls more from K-hip hop, their aspirations and ideas of pulling elements from K-pop illustrate how K-pop has influenced their group.

K-pop fans are some of the most progressive, politically aware, curious and smartest fans of all time.- Maria Sherman, author of Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands From NKOTB to BTS

Maria Sherman, author of Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands From NKOTB to BTS, is a little more suspicious of this phenomenon of non-Korean K-pop acts, citing "clear appropriation." While she, too, agrees that there is a way to be inspired by K-pop, "labelling your group as K-pop and not actually participating in the K-pop machine seems concerning to me. In general, it's really sticky territory."  

Sherman also identifies another big factor in K-pop labelled acts that don't come directly out of South Korea's industry: success and reach. "I don't think any of those groups will pop off in the same way that proper K-pop groups will," she suggests, indicating the amount of support outreach and visibility that being part of the K-pop system affords a group. 

Ultimately, this issue will always fall on fans and their reactions. And in that case, Sherman says K-pop fans will remain diligent and, yes, protective.

"K-pop fans are some of the most progressive, politically aware, curious and smartest fans of all time," Sherman contends. "And if something smells fishy, they're willing to call out their artists or call out the culture." 

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