Asian hip hop: an homage to a genre or cultural appropriation driven by racism or ignorance?
The proliferation of Asian hip hop stars wearing ‘urban’ clothing could be a symptom of Asia’s lack of sensitivity toward other cultures. Or are they just dressing up and emulating their musical heroes?
Over the past year, China, Japan and South Korea have all had their own instances of blackface on national TV. During a televised Chinese New Year national gala in February, a Chinese actress appeared in blackface during a skit where she played an African villager. In Japan, during a 2018 New Year’s Eve countdown special, an actor appeared in blackface as African-American comedian Eddie Murphy.
It’s quite bizarre to be seeing this, given the widespread popularity and increasing prominence of hip hop and African-American culture in Asia.
Over the past decade, the emergence of hip-hop culture in East Asia has led to the rise of a new group of entertainers and influencers. With stars such as Chinese social media influencer Jin Jun, best known for his baby dreadlocks, former EXO boybander and Rap of China judge, Kris Wu, whose catchphrase on the show was “You got a freestyle?”, and South Korean K-pop star RM from BTS, underground trap rapper Keith Ape, and Tokyo-based rapper KOHH, hip hop has exploded into mainstream popularity.
Hip hop began as an underground subculture in the late 1970s in the Bronx in New York City. While the genre has since spread to become a global movement, in Asia, it is most notably led by the South Korean K-pop industry, where urban and hip hop-influenced acts like Big Bang, CL, and TV shows like Unpretty Rapstar have proven popular over the past few years.
But while hip hop and African-American culture influence lifestyle trends in East Asia, there is little actual understanding of identity and culture.
In many cases, celebrities and influencers are criticised for borrowing from other cultures without acknowledging the history and heritage behind them.
Two years ago, I attended a fashion show held by a popular South Korean fashion brand. The show opened with a musical performance featuring a relatively famous Korean language reggae performer named Skull. He walked onto the catwalk with his long dreadlocks, and no shirt on – the sight was shocking not just because this was in conservative South Korea, but because Skull, who was born and raised in South Korea, conducted himself like a caricature of how he thought black artists performed.
After the show, I went backstage to ask the designer about the collection, which was worn by all-Korean models. “My collection this season is based on the spirit of the Rasta[farian] culture,” he said. “I was inspired by the Africans who revolted against slavery.” Which cultures would that be, I asked.
“All black people in the world,” he retorted, unhappy that his concept was being questioned.
Unfortunately, embodiments of hip hop and perceptions of African-American culture are more reflective of stereotypes and diversity in countries like China, South Korea and Japan, where widespread discrimination and negative stereotypes about people with darker skin continue to exist.
“In Korea, music and street fashion have definitely been influenced by African-American culture. While many never directly say so, they often mask their cultural influences by calling their inspiration ‘urban’ which is basically a euphemism for African-American culture,” said Alexis Jones, an African-American student studying fashion in South Korea, adding that “hood” and “gangster” fashions feature heavily in K-pop.
One example is Henry’s I’m Good music video, said Jones, where a number of people were seen dancing around in urban street wear in colourful braids and locks.
Superstar K-pop group Big Bang is another offender. “Big Bang was called out during one of their performances when the group dressed like Bloods gang members,” Jones said, referring to an incident in 2012 where G-Dragon and bandmates dressed in head-to-toe baggy ’90s hip hop looks.
At the time, Big Bang member Taeyang responded to the controversy by saying: “I’m not black, so I’ll probably have to have more experience and go through more pain if I want to express the sentiments, emotions, and soul that black people have through my music. That’s why I believe that pain and suffering will make my music richer.”
“His ideas suggest that in order to successfully replicate and profit from black culture he must a endure certain level hardship,” said Jones. “It’s a very limited perspective of black culture.”
In 2013, G-Dragon posted a photo of himself with his face painted black, reminiscent of the iconic photo taken of Trayvon Martin, whose murder was one of the events that catalysed the Black Lives Matter movement that same year. G-Dragon’s camp has since claimed that the singer was not in blackface and attributed it to a “Huge misunderstanding”.
More recently, Chen from superstar boy band EXO came under heavy criticism last month when a video of him joking about looking like an African character while wearing dark lipstick surfaced. “Isn’t this Kunta Kinte?” he said, referring to a formerly enslaved Gambian character from the novel Roots: The Saga of An American Family.
There is a lack of understanding of the diversity and complexity of black and African cultures, says Emily Chow, an African studies postdoctoral fellow at Hong Kong University.
“What I see is that most people find it convenient to crystallise the African and the African-American diaspora and their cultures into merely a phenomenon,” says Chow.
“What most people do is excavate a musical genre or a fashion trend from very diversified people of distinct cultures … It’s an act that collapses the complexity the people, their history and cultures.”
While depictions and understanding of African and African-American cultures remains limited, some critics hope things can change with education and raising awareness. “I have Korean students who only recently for the first time met people of African heritage,” one scholar told me.
“I realise that on many occasions, some Asians have never seen or have had limited interactions with African-Americans,” said Alexis Jones. “Most of their viewpoints of us come from what they see through the media which may not always be the most flattering portrayal. If I am able to communicate with the individuals, I engage in conversation with them to educate them of my culture and create an understanding between us in hope that they learn that there is more to us than what is seen through different media channels.”