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When They Refuse to See Us: K-pop and the Continued Erasure of Black people.

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

BY: Nat | NYAN Host & Blog Writer Feb. 7, 2020 | 3:00 PM

Hello Asia recently posted an article titled, “BTS Are The World’s Most Revolutionary Artists Right Now: Here’s Why It’s Making People Uncomfortable,” as a collaboration piece. While there’s no doubt that BTS is the world’s biggest boy group and that they pen deeply personal and evocative lyrics, to call them revolutionary is up for debate. Far too many voices--both for and against BTS--have brought forth valid arguments on the motivations for the “Love Yourself” movement; however, my disgust with this article does not concern itself with which side is correct.

Anastasia Giggins, Wallea Eaglehawk, and K-Ci Williams, the authors who collaborated on this article, write about “the West'' as this imperialistic and elitist body that only looks to judge and gate-keep. And my question here is: who exactly is “the West?” Are all the people living in the Western world a monolithic body with the same access, beliefs and power status? If BTS are revolutionary, is “the West'' who they’re revolting against?

My biggest gripe with this article is that the authors spend most of it lambasting “the West” but fails to define exactly who makes up “the West”. This leads the reader to believe in a one tone western world where everyone is exactly the same and perpetuates racism and xenophobia in exactly the same way. But if one rejects this notion of a single body of people living in “the West” (and you should), then it becomes clear that in order to make the point that “the West” is out to discriminate against and deflate the BTS bubble, one has to erase marginalized voices, whose very existence destroys this premise. Specifically, one has to erase the voices of Black people. In my opinion, that fact then unravels and delegitimizes the thesis of the article. Because while I can allow for 1 or 2 not quite factual facts, if your thesis only works through erasure of people like me then any goodwill I generally offer is off the table.

About those “not quite factual facts,” let’s start with this point pulled from the article: “[f]or example, take their new world record for most albums sold in a pre-sale; their upcoming Map of the Soul: 7 sold 3.24 million units in the first seven days, making this album one of the highest selling of the century, and it has not yet been released.” To clarify, “the album surpassed 3.42 million stock pre-orders Jan. 9 through Jan. 15 (Billboard 1).” These are not units sold, but rather anticipatory stock for future sales. It’s definitely still impressive, but for different reasons.

Then, there’s the discussion about the intersection of art and music, which is not a new concept in the history of art and/or music. The synergy of both working to motivate and inspire each other has existed prior to BTS Connect and will continue to exist after BTS are no longer relevant. The authors state,

“[i]n the lead up to their industry defying comeback, the group has continued to set new markers for success as they move from being musicians and performers to international artists who not only make art, but curate, and make other art forms which are not traditionally accessible, freely available to a whole new generation,” as if access to art appreciation needed only a single Korean pop band to open the gates. In fact, Kanye, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Taeyeon, Mino, David Bowie, John Lennon, and many more would like to be included in this conversation.

Andy Warhol was a huge name in the world of art pop. Warhol also managed and produced Velvet Underground during the production of their album The Velvet Underground & Nico, a highly regarded album (Wikipedia 1). The avant-garde method used by Warhol shaped the album’s production, and the banana used on the album cover has been time stamped into the history books of contemporary art. Here’s 22 examples of the banana’s ever-present influence on the world of contemporary art.

Contemporary artist Takashi Murakami was appointed the director of art for Kanye West’s Graduation and has collaborated with many Western artists (IMDVB 1) along with fashion brands and musicians. Murakami is known to “effectively eliminate the line between pop culture and high-art (Grailed 1).

Lastly, Beyonce’s Homecoming was not just an audible love letter to the Black American experience, but the entire visual theme was based on the art of HBCU homecoming events.

There are so many examples of art and music joining artistic forces to create and curate new forms of each genre in an accessible manner. Beyonce’s Homecoming was not a homecoming experience that she lived, but her desire for it motivated the show which was shared with many who would have never had the joy of living it in my home country. Andy Warhol’s influence was not limited to The Velvet Underground, he also “strongly influenced the new wave/punk rock band Devo, as well as David Bowie (Wikipedia 2).” These were important artists of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, whose music was more accessible to the youth of the time who would have likely not known or cared for contemporary art.

BTS are not breaking ground in this area as pop artists have been aligned with art for decades. As a Korean pop act this can be seen as a rare feat but T.O.P. 's penchant for buying art pre-dates BTS’ foray into the art world. In 2016, “in partnership with British auction house Sotheby's, he curated a collection of contemporary art as part of a special charity auction in Hong Kong (Allkpop 1).” Just last year he was the “first idol to be listed on Gorgeous Magazine for list of 200 Art World Influencers (Allkpop 2).” Gain’s album Hawwah and the title track “Paradise Lost” were also influenced by the epic poem of the same name by John Milton. The music video was highly influenced by Christian themes while the choreography included contemporary snake movements as a reference to the snake in the poem.

If the not quite facts about the album sales and BTS being pioneers of combining art and music were my only issues with this article, I would have shrugged and promptly forgotten it. But there’s a glaring problem that completely derails everything else. Worse, it is truly offensive how the authors navigate this problem willingly. The truth is that this article is rife with anti-Blackness at its core. Not only through the conflating of “the West” as a single autonomous body, but also through the co-opting of Black terms and struggles with total erasure of Black people.

First and foremost, these Western elites do not include those that are marginalized. It cannot by nature. Black bodies continue to be over-policed and over-imprisoned while gentrification has pushed us out of our communities and into the unknown. Black women need laws to be put in place for them to be able to have their hair out. Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water and the government has shown an unwillingness to do anything to fix it. White supremacy, an ever present force, has become louder, braver, and more willing to do what it can to maintain the status quo. How can Black people or other marginalized people possibly be gate-keeping K-pop and Korean culture?

Were we the one’s preventing BTS from having a solo performance at this year’s Grammy Awards? Are we the one’s downplaying the magnificence of Parasite at Western film award shows? How could we, who also live and breathe as non-whites within this system of white supremacy, “delve so deep into our own intelligent minds that we come up with all the hard-ball statements that encapsulate our anger at Korea, Asia, and those deemed as other.” Are we not also othered?

The apex of dissonance, however, is the statement that, “The West still favours its ‘So White’ fantasy (see: Oscars So White), so why should it be any different with music?” The authors name drop the ‘Oscars So White’ movement, without any context, while stating that “the West” favours a “White fantasy” and uses this as further proof of the xenophobia and racism against BTS. I’ve already deconstructed the flaw in this idea of a single hive mind in the Western world. It is egregious that the people who put their time and effort into writing this article also worked equally as hard to erase Black people, not only from their own terms (‘woke’) but also their own movements (‘Oscars So White’). Why would you mention the ‘Oscars So White’ movement, which was created by April Reign (a Black woman) (Variety 1), only to use it to reinforce the absurdity of a “White fantasy” that “we all seem to desire”? It has to be deliberate and that is what dismantles every single valid point made in this article.

Clearly we exist since BTS and many other non-Black artists make music HIGHLY influenced by Black people, Black culture and our movements. It is aggravating enough to see the constant anti-Blackness that the Asian community shares with non-Black bodies worldwide (for example; Chinese museum accused of racism over photos pairing Africans with animals), to then read an article that works overtime to erase Blackness outside of lumping us with our oppressors in order to uplift a pop act is where I draw the line.

Black people have been at the forefront of civil rights in the US and that has trickled throughout the Western world. Black artists crooning that “This Is America” and asking ladies to “get in Formation” are much more revolutionary and present than an international art show funded by Big Hit Entertainment--especially when you look through the BTS Connect website and the faces of this project are Asian and white. The only darker skinned bodies that were present were in the art itself. Isn’t it interesting that the racist, xenophobic, intelligent elites are also the only faces of this “woke” project?

Sadly, that is a conversation that the Kpop community does not like having as it forces both the artists and fans to face themselves and their inner workings. That level of self reflection and honesty has proven to be beyond what these people want to endure even if facing their anti-Blackness would make them better people.

In the authors’ own words, the Kpop world is “finding it hard to stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves: Persona, who the hell am I?” I ask: Who the hell are you indeed?


**All quotes not included in the footnotes are taken directly from the article this is in response to.

(Sources: Billboard 1; Wikipedia 1, 2; IMVDB 1; Grailed 1; Allkpop 1, 2; Variety 1)

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