EXP Edition: A Discussion of Culture, Race, and Ownership in K-Pop

EXP Expedition. I remember hearing about this all-white K-Pop debut about three years ago. I watched a clip of their music video, and honestly wasn’t sure how to react. Something about it felt strange, like these white guys were pretending to be Korean. To me, it seemed disrespectful. I witnessed an absolute landslide of criticism from K-Pop bloggers and Youtubers, and I agreed with most of them. However, the majority of the criticism wasn’t based on the quality of the music or its lyrics. It was mostly just, “What do these white boys think they’re doing?”

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Photo credit: Aminoapps.com

Since then, I hadn’t given the video or the group another thought. When I saw minority report “The World’s Most Controversial K-Pop Group” by Vice, I was not only reminded of my initial judgement, but also forced to rethink my perspective. (Video linked below)

One of the main topics Vice discussed was the underlying question that garnered so much hatred for EXP: the question of ownership. Who owns K-Pop, and who has a right to participate in it?

One of the main attacks on EXP was that K-Pop music belongs to Korean culture, and therefore foreigners had no right to “own” it. However, this wrath came from international fans, many not of Korean descent.

To me, the most notable of these complaints was when a non-Korean critic questioned what white people were doing in “my K-pop”.

I was intrigued by the paradox of non-Korean people saying, “This genre belongs to Korea, and therefore I have a right to judge the appropriateness of these non-Koreans”.

In doing so, these foreign critics were deciding the “rules” of the genre, attempting to exert their own influence over it. By stating that EXP Edition could never be a real K-Pop group, weren’t they defining the genre’s connection to Korean culture on their own terms?

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Kim Bora and her colleagues. Photo Credit: The Korea Times

Vice explored these questions with Kim Bora, the founder of EXP Edition and CEO of IMMABB Entertainment. Kim argued that there is nothing about modern K-Pop which is deeply rooted in Korean history or culture. In fact, while K-Pop represents Korea’s unique music industry, the modern genre actually began with inspiration from the U.S. For example, Lee Soo-Man was directly inspired by American pop and hip-hop when he founded SM Entertainment; Korean stars often weave traditionally hip-hop connected hairstyles, dance, and musical elements into their work. From this point of view, is it so different for fans from around the world to in turn be inspired by K-Pop?

From the band’s perspective, they have taken every possible step to respect Korean culture and follow in the footsteps of K-Pop bands before them. They speak Korean in interviews, write their own Korean lyrics, and work with K-Pop producers. In other words, they took painstaking effort to make their band about cultural appreciation, rather than appropriation.

I feel that their efforts at authenticity should not be neglected. Take David Lehre, who goes by the stage name Chad Future. He is a caucasian American who declared himself the first star of a new genre, dubbed “American K-Pop”. His lyrics were almost entirely in English, intermixed with brief Korean phrases; his music featured collaborations with Korean artists and many  compositional styles for which K-Pop is recognized. Similar to EXP, he was heavily criticized for attempting to alter and assert ownership over the genre. The manner in which he took elements from K-Pop and tried to redefine the genre was very distasteful, in my opinion. However, his actions should not automatically be considered the same as EXP’s genuine attempts to join an existing K-Pop community.

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Photo Credit: Star2.com

After all of EXP’s effort, international K-Pop fans still criticized them for “pretending” to be Korean. As Vice pointed out, these same critics admitted that if the band did as they suggested and “stopped pretending to be something they’re not”, EXP would be accused of imposing Western culture on Korean music. This implies that, no matter how EXP went about it, critics felt that the group could never fully appreciate or participate in K-Pop. Instead, they would always force Western culture on others in some way.

The root of this dilemma may be that critics were focusing solely on the band’s race- not on their cultural background or understanding.

While critics leaped to fend off this invasion into Korean culture and the Asian race, Kim Bora pointed out that the group hasn’t received such hate in Korea. In fact, they have attracted a following there. When interviewed, Korean fans said they found joy in people from around the world embracing their culture.

The contrast between foreign hate and local interest intrigued me. How could foreigners claim that the genre belonged to Koreans and “a set of conventions”, and yet define it on their own terms? Why would they instantly jump to the protection of the Korean people, when most of them don’t feel threatened at all?

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Photo credit: Kore.am

These questions especially dogged me as a foreign fan, who had initially laughed at the thought of an all-white K-Pop group. After all, I have become more and more involved with the community surrounding K-Pop. Does my participation in K-Pop somehow detract from its “Korean-ness”? If it doesn’t, then why does that of EXP? If K-Pop actually is becoming more accepting of international fans and participants, is that an inherently negative thing?

 

I wish I had more answers to these complex questions, and appreciate that Vice left me with so much to contemplate. I will explore these questions’ deeper implications in the future, hopefully in a way that is respectful to everyone’s viewpoint.

 

Part Two Coming Soon

 

Vice Video: The World’s Most Controversial K-Pop Group

 

 

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