A Look At K-pop’s Black American Influence And Activism During Black Lives Matter – Here And Now

Earlier this summer, American K-pop fans mobilized support for Black Lives Matter using their massive and collective power on social media.

Big Hit Entertainment, the record label behind BTS — one of the first K-pop groups to gain popularity in the U.S. — responded to the outpouring of solidarity by donating $1 million to BLM in early June.

But the move was an outlier within K-pop — other industry groups and solo artists weren’t so eager to speak up. Fans wanted more support from their favorite artists, known in K-pop culture as idols.

Crystal Anderson, affiliate Korean studies faculty member at George Mason University and author of the new book “Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-Pop,” says it’s because Korea has always pushed for its outward-facing artists, especially the pop stars, to maintain a positive image for global fans.

Anderson has been researching how Black American culture has a significant influence on K-pop music at large. When K-pop first began, groups drew on hip-hop and R&B artists of the 1990s, she says, and that trend has continued through today.

For example, she draws comparisons between K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” to 2PM’s “Wanna Love You Again,” a K-pop group tune.

When she was digging through 2PM’s discography, “I kept coming across these R&B ballads and they were R&B ballads with no qualifications. And I thought that that would be a really great comparison to K-Ci & JoJo” she says. “And so you can hear very clearly those similarities.”

Brown Eyed Soul, a Korean R&B group, has experienced lineup changes. But their founder, a musician at his core, has remained throughout, she says. Brown Eyed Soul’s music, Anderson says, “shows that K-pop doesn’t just draw from the contemporary music of its time. It also reaches back to older genres of Black popular music.”

She compares their hit “Can’t Stop Loving You” up against Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”

And for hip-hop, she likens Korean artist Primary’s “2 Weeks” to The Roots’ “The Next Movement,” where live instrumentation can be heard on both.

Primary “does very little sampling, just like you have that live instrumentation in ‘The Next Movement.’ You have the rhythms of R&B and you have rap all over that as well,” she says.

The influence of Black American artists on K-pop is just that. Anderson makes the distinction that K-pop musicians tap into hybridity as opposed to what many white artists have done in the past by taking ownership of music by Black Americans.

“One thing that we can see in those instances is that often those songs that were initially written and performed by African American artists were covered by white performers to achieve popularity,” she says.

But those covers were often “watered-down versions of the original” to suit the white mainstream’s taste, she explains. Black originators of the songs were often not given any credit, she says.

K-pop is different, she says, because they utilize the concept of citation and don’t hide the connections.

“Much like you cite your sources for a news story or for a research paper, K-pop artists are citing the R&B music tradition, and they’re doing so through authentic performances, she says. “And [author and culture critic] Brittney Cooper has used this term to describe this idea in relation to popular music, that the idea is to point the listener back to the original.”

K-pop creators often work with Black artists and producers to create their music, she says.

There are a few hurdles for K-pop when it comes to sustaining a fan base in the U.S. and becoming part of the musical landscape on a deeper level. One of the obstacles includes language barriers, she says.

“The other challenge, though, is related to the history of the United States — and its history with immigration, with Korea as a country, with the racial history in the United States itself — that colors the way that people perceive the cultural production of other countries,” she says.

Yet she argues that other kinds of cultural products in the U.S. do become popular in subgroups. While they may live within non-mainstream subgroups, she says these products are still significant.

“I think that you always have a subculture that’s interested in K-pop, just like you have a subculture that’s interested in Bollywood, in anime and Chinese martial arts films,” she says. “But the degree to which they infiltrate the mainstream, I think we just still have to see whether that’s going to be sustained.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.


By Crystal Anderson

Crystal S. Anderson. (Courtesy)

Rhythm and blues as practiced by Motown represented cultural work because it effected a cultural change by shifting pop music itself. It was initially positioned opposite pop music. Going back to the 1950s, pop music initially included songs by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, whose style Martha Bayles (1994) describes as “smooth, polished vocal music set to an orchestrated background” (108). On the other hand, rhythm and blues represented “black oriented” music that mixed elements of swing and the blues with vocals derived from gospel (Bayles 1994, 111). This new form of music threatened pop music, as an article in Variety from 1955 shows: “The established pop vocalists are finding the current rhythm and blues phase of the music biz to be tough sledding. . . . The major diskers are not finding it easy to crack the r&b [sic] formula. . . . The kids not only are going for the tunes and the beat, but they seem to be going for the original interpretations as well” (Brackett 2005, 77). Rhythm and blues not only represented a different mode of music, it also provided the foundation for rock and roll and changed the pop music scene by introducing soulful vocals and rhythm-driven tracks that promoted dance and choreography in ways that continue today. Fitzgerald (1995) identifies Motown’s role as an innovator in the development of pop music itself and points to how the musical team of Holland-Dozier-Holland “elevated rhythm to new structural status,” creating “a new style of mainstream popular song . . . where the hidden architecture supporting the melodic/lyric hook is now primarily rhythmic” (8). After this point, it is almost impossible to talk about pop music without recognizing its R&B foundations, an influence that went beyond the black people who initially created it or its initial black American audiences. Rhythm and blues influenced pop music so much that “in late 1963 Billboard discontinued its rhythm & blues chart for over one year, apparently because it was similar enough to the more general Hot 100 music chart as to be redundant” (Ripani 2006, 81). Pop may go by a plethora of names, but much of it still retains the elements of R&B within a pop context. Ward (1998) suggests that Motown “forged a flexible house style which appealed across regional, racial and even generational boundaries” (262). That influence in pop music not only represented a measure of mainstream success, but also a recognition of the craft behind the musical production that made African Americans the envy of all.

Similarly, Korean music producers, who have great influence on the sound of K-pop, are known for high-quality music production and, when coupled with images, undertake cultural work. G.-S. Park (2013) observes that the Korean mode of music making relies on a particular kind of production that is local: “Thus far, however, only Spanish and Korean singers have been able to generate such wide success without relying on the global ‘track guys’ [melody composers who create popular music] indicating that these countries have been able to localize their music in a way that other countries cannot easily emulate” (29). Foreign producers who attend music camps in Korea sponsored by Korean entertainment agencies also recognize the quality of this distinct form of Korean pop music. Rodnae “Chikk” Bell describes the difference between American music production and Korean music production: “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies” (Leight 2018). Kevin Randolph adds: “The one-loop beat doesn’t work over there. . . . You definitely get to stretch. No other style of music has that many parts in their songs” (Leight 2018). This high music quality is inextricably linked to the image of Korean pop artists, who engage in the kind of cultural work we also see in Motown. The casting and training system makes it possible for Korean artists to use quality music as a springboard for parlaying their image. For example, government agencies and non-profits call on such artists to promote causes that produce a positive image of Korea. In 2015 the “idol” group MONSTA X was selected as ambassadors for Girl Scouts Korea because of its image: “We chose MONSTA X as ambassadors due to their diverse talents and charms. Their active and healthy persona fits Girl Scouts’ image” (K. Do, 2015). Beyond Korea, the “idol” group BTS delivered a speech at the United Nations as part of UNICEF’s Generations Unlimited initiative. The focus on image and music quality makes this possible.

Moreover, like Gordy, Korean agency CEOs promote an image of their own making rather than one thrust upon them by others. Given the experience of events like Japanese colonialism, this was sorely needed: “The experience in the Japanese schools engendered ambivalent feelings towards their own language, history and culture” (Eckart et al. 1990, 263). Rob Wilson (1991) details a number of instances of “a grandly orientalist rhetoric of Korean misrepresentation/ underrepresentation”: “If Asia is a territory of vast misrepresentation subject to recurrent tropes of Western orientalism, Korea remains more simply an enclave of sublime forgetting. . . . North/South ‘Korea’ still comprises for postmodern Americans a forbidding and forgotten landscape of belligerency” (239). In other words, Koreans face a global context where the image of their country remained distorted by others. Image has thus become a mechanism where Koreans create their own version of themselves. As Seabrook notes, “Hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchee, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life” (Seabrook 2012). While this is often described as soft power, it also represents a specific, ethnically informed strategy of cultural work. Korean agencies mirror Gordy’s strategy to rehabilitate the image of Koreans globally. Korean CEOs like Lee Soo-man want to represent Korea well: “What I set forth was the idea of ‘culture first, economy next.’ I believe if the culture of a country becomes known to foreign people first then the economy of that country would thrive through those people. The same dream that shared with the artists, fellow employees and staff members is no longer just a dream. Now our dream has finally become reality” (“Korean Entertainment Agency Takes Its Acts Globally” 2011).

Korean CEOs, and black music producers like Gordy who preceded them, used the casting and training system and the quality of musical production to achieve crossover. Crossover includes the impact of image, combatting reductive ones and replacing them with ones based on work ethic, virtuosity, and quality of performance and music. Korean pop music uses the image of talented and hard-working performers who make and perform high-quality music to dispel the view of the country as weak, unstable, and lacking leadership. Korean entertainment agency CEOs seek to use Korea’s culture to project a self-determined image onto the global stage. It ties its creative and commercial cultural production to its national image through cultural work that worked for Motown decades earlier. By making music that simultaneously emulates and enhances the R&B tradition, CEOs and their pop artists become a global branch of R&B.


Excerpt from Crystal S. Anderson, “Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop,” Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2020, pp. 85-88.