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Blackpink’s Lisa apologised for wearing a braided hairstyle during an online call with a fan. Photo: YG Entertainment

Blackpink’s Lisa and Cravity’s Allen Ma among K-pop stars starting to talk about the dangers of racism and cultural appropriation

  • Largely ignored by K-pop in the past, such issues are being increasingly voiced out by the industry’s stars, often after being called out themselves
  • P1Harmony’s Keeho says he’s taken it upon himself to educate the group’s other members because he grew up in a more diverse community than they did
Tamar Hermanin United States

During a recent online call with a fan, Blackpink member Lisa apologised for wearing a braided hairstyle that some fans said was culturally insensitive and derived from hairstyles over which black individuals across the world have faced racism and hate.

Lisa is one of several K-pop stars over the past few years vocally addressing concerns from predominantly overseas fans of appropriation in the South Korean entertainment industry, after many years of artists and entertainers largely ignoring the issue.
K-pop has a history of drawing on other cultures and ethnic identities, especially black culture, and of stars wearing culturally distinct garb or using religiously sensitive trappings for decoration. Lisa’s conversation with the fan was a rare example of an artist directly addressing something many perceive to be wrong.
Some fan call-outs of K-pop stars are addressed quietly to minimise public attention. Last year, for instance, Blackpink were accused of exploiting Indian culture and religion when they featured a figurine of a deity in one of their music videos. No formal apology was ever provided, but the video was edited to remove the statue.

Apologies do sometimes happen. Mamamoo and Stray Kids, for instance, have publicly apologised for appearing in blackface, and Ateez, like Lisa, have apologised for wearing braided hairstyles that are seen as appropriative.

In September, Allen Ma, a Taiwanese-American member of the group Cravity, apologised for not being careful with his words after he told Buzzfeed he thought that K-pop “appreciates, not appropriates, many different cultures”, which prompted a backlash from fans for his apparent dismissal of the issue.

K-pop band Cravity.

The apologies from Lisa, Ma and others have typically followed fans asking their favourite stars to better educate themselves.

As conversations about racism and appropriation become more commonplace, some artists have become advocates of change. BTS, for example, donated US$1 million last year to the Black Lives Matters movement, which fans matched within 24 hours.

In an interview with the American entertainment outlet Variety, the group’s members shared their thoughts on taking an active stand against racism.

“I think it’s very simple really – it’s about us being against racism and violence,” said rapper-producer Suga.

“Most people would be against these things. We have experienced prejudice as well ourselves. We just want to voice the fact that we feel it’s the right of everyone to not be subject to racism or violence.”

BTS have become advocates of change regarding racism and cultural appropriation. Photo: AP

Other K-pop artists are also attempting to educate themselves and others about culturally sensitive issues and racism.

The debut of boy band P1Harmony last year was very nearly derailed when racist comments allegedly made by Korean-Canadian member Keeho (aka Yoon Kee-ho or Stephen Yoon) on social media came to light just before their first single dropped.

At the time, Keeho and the band’s company FNC Entertainment offered an explanation and apology (he was allegedly sharing an account with others, and didn’t write the posts) and he has since been very vocal about denouncing racism and appropriative situations.

Keeho from P1Harmony. Photo: FNC Entertainment

Keeho told the South China Morning Post that the group’s music, especially April’s Disharmony: Break Out EP, is focused on the idea of speaking up for yourself when you have something important to say, and so he felt it was particularly important to live that message.

“It’s almost a responsibility for us to speak up and educate ourselves,” he said. “I think especially our title track, Scared, reflected this.

“A lot of people are scared to talk about taboo topics, especially when you’re a victim. For me, when I was younger and grew up in Canada, because I was in such a diverse community I saw a lot of microaggressions and casual racism, but I was scared to speak up and talk about my problems, because we were so conditioned to believe that sort of casual racism is OK and just a joke.

“Don’t be scared to really do what you want to do and say what you want to say, otherwise nobody will know what you think.”

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Keeho said he’s also taken it upon himself to educate the group’s other members because he grew up in a community more diverse than them, who grew up predominantly in South Korea or Japan.

“It was very surprising to me [how the other members responded] because not everybody takes it that seriously,” he said. “But ever since we were trainees, I talked to the other members about cultural appropriation and other racial issues, and they tried to educate themselves when we spoke about them.

They were really open and if there was something they didn’t understand, they’d ask me and we’d have conversations and learning about these topics and issues.”

“Growing up in Korea, I never really was aware about these issues,” said bandmate Theo. “Hearing about them from someone like Keeho, it was really surprising and it was an eye-opening experience for me to learn about all these issues.”

K-pop band P1Harmony. Photo: FNC Entertainment

Beyond learning from Keeho’s own experiences, the group has also attempted to learn about the roots of the music and art that inspires them, which more often than not is based in non-Korean cultures.

“I grew up learning hip-hop from the Korean industry’s perspective, but we have a limited knowledge about it,” said Intak, who is one of several rappers in the group. “But Keeho has helped me realise a foreign perspective and learn more about cultural knowledge.”

Some labels are also starting to take note about the need to educate their artists before an incident happens. Last year, a now-disbanded pre-debut team of trainees known as Yours, under the company Deep Studio Entertainment, shared a video of the members in a class learning and having discussions about racial sensitivity and the dangers of cultural appropriation.

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Though all of their content has been scrubbed from the internet, and Deep Studio did not respond to interview requests from The Post, the cartoonist known as Yerongss, whose content the band used for educational purposes in the class, shared a still of the video on her social media.

“In September last year, Deep Studio Entertainment trained idol trainees called ‘Yours’ about cultural appropriation reasons with my cartoons. Korean culture is becoming globalised,” wrote Yerongss, whose art has become popular on social media for its attempt to familiarise South Koreans with issues surrounding cultural awareness and racism.

“That’s why we have to learn various cultures and history and improve ourselves. Efforts such as this entertainment are needed.”


The conversation surrounding non-black musicians benefiting from appropriating elements of primarily black American culture has grown in recent years.

Just last week, Jesy Nelson, formerly of English girl group Little Mix, faced a backlash following the release of her solo single Boyz with Nicki Minaj from fans who felt it brought to light Nelson’s history of allegedly blackfishing: a non-black individual attempting to pass as black or racially ambiguous to benefit and gain cultural capital.