K-pop as a genre and industry have evolved significantly since 1992 when the first K-pop group Seo Taiji and The Boys debuted and became the pioneers of K-pop. K-pop’s global outreach also known as the Hallyu Wave in the 90s and mid-2000s have increased the accessibility of Korean music, introducing an exciting new music genre and industry to Asia. K-pop’s huge popularity overseas and in Asia inspired people from all over the world to audition to join companies in hopes of one day debuting as a k-pop star. K-pop acts like Twice, NCT, GOT7, WJSN, Blackpink, EXO, Pentagon, G-IDLE, IZ*ONE, and many more groups have members who are not Korean.
White people debuting is not new to the K-Pop Industry. EXP Edition, an all-white K-pop group from New York City, debuted in 2014 as a thesis project by Columbia graduate student Bora Kim and her project partners Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao. On EXP’s Kickstarter page that helped fund the group’s first mini-album, it is stated that the intention behind the project is to talk about “how gender is performed in pop culture, and how it relates to many other issues in our globalized society”. When it was later time for the group to disband as Bora and her colleagues had gathered an adequate amount of data, the boys decided they would continue, and later moved to South Korea to continue releasing music as a K-pop group.
When EXP Edition debuted, K-pop fans quickly took to Twitter, k-pop forums and Instagram to discuss their hatred for the group and posted YouTube videos that showed their open confusion over an all-white group debuting in K-pop.
Lana, a Russian idol, debuted under HiCC, a record label in South Korea, as a soloist on June 27, 2019, with the single “Take The Wheel”. Before debuting, she had already made appearances on Korean variety shows like Abnormal Summit as a representative of Russia, and Welcome, First Time in Korea? where she had friends from Russia take a holiday in Korea. Despite Lana’s debut garnering much attention due to her being Russian and for her visuals, she garnered much backlash from the K-pop community on twitter, specifically from K-pop fans who are of color.
As a K-pop fan, I can’t help but not support the debut of white people into the K-pop industry. When Alexandra Reid, the first African-American to debut in a K-pop group, joined BP RaNia’s lineup, she was mostly gaining support from international fans on Twitter. When she debuted, it was quite obvious that her company was using her to garner attention for the rest of the group, as she would often stand on the side of the stage when it wasn’t her part to rap in the song. She later left the group in 2017. Asia, in general, supports European beauty standards and dictate that having a lighter skin tone is more beautiful or acceptable. Seeing the racism Alex faced for being a black K-pop idol made me question if K-pop was a space for black idols. Of course, idols who have a lighter complexion and Eurasian features often benefit the most when entering the K-pop industry.
Michelle Lee, a half Korean, half-African-American artist who was ridiculed and bullied for her darker skin. Her incredible voice and her appearance on season one of K-pop Star resulted in her being under YG Entertainment, one of the top Korean entertainment companies, for a short time, it’s a wonder why she never reached a high level of popularity or visibility in K-pop. Michelle Lee’s song “Without You”, which was released under her current company, DIMA Entertainment, touched upon how she felt growing up in South Korea, and how she felt isolated for being black. She had stated in a TV appearance on the show Hello Counselor, that while growing up in South Korea, no one wanted to sit next to her on the bus, and a friend’s parent had told their child not to touch her because she was dirty.
Z-Boys and Z-Girls, two groups under the project Z-POP Dream, recently debuted the first Indian K-Pop idols, Priyanka and Sid. They were quick to be dismissed as a group, even though both singers are Asian. Both idols are currently making history, but they are being ignored by the Korean public.
Samuel, a K-Pop idol who is half-Korean and half-Mexican. He joined season two of Produce 101, a prominent reality show and competition that focuses on debuting the next global K-pop group. He was an automatic favorite among the international audience as well as the Korean public due to his incredible talent and great personality. However, when international voting was later removed from the show and the Korean audience learned that he was half-Mexican, he went from consistently being in the top 10, to being dropped immediately.
K-pop, in general, is one of the few music industries that fully support people of color, and where their success is not blocked by white singers. As white people, they have the privilege of being comfortable in the fact that their skin color can never deter them from reaching their full potential as artists. Knowing that they can succeed anywhere, I can’t help but be annoyed that they choose to debut in an industry that has become a safe space for Asian music and artists. Lil Rhodey on Twitter made a great point about how K-pop benefits so much from black culture, often having hip-hop influences in their music.
(it’s interesting that the door is locked for dark-skinned asian and black idols despite how influential black culture is on kpop, and how often kpop idols appropriate black and south asian culture but y’all don’t want me going off on a tangent) pic.twitter.com/dzXO0A93wY
— lil rhodey (@neyogotmyback) June 28, 2019
The Korean music industry is one that “supports” artists of color, but there are certain standards that these artists must meet to be uplifted in this industry. Black and brown idols like Alex Reid, Michelle Lee, Priyanka, and Sid are outcasted and rejected due to the color of their skin, removing any chance of the singers becoming stars in the industry. At the end of the day, I feel that non-people of color have no place in K-pop, especially since idols who don’t identify as fully Korean or Korean at all, face backlash from media and the public. K-pop as a whole should remain a space for people of color, but as an industry, it must remove its prejudice against people who are black and brown. The K-pop industry cannot benefit from the multitude of cultures it steals from and continue to bar those who claim those cultures as their own.
Featured Image Credit: HiCC