Respect must be earned: BTS’ journey towards gaining its stripes in black America

When I first wrote my article about BTS coming to the AMAs, I was quite excited to see this infamous K-pop group I’d heard so much about in the days leading up to the awards show. I was very happy that they got the chance to perform on a big international stage like the AMAs, which will, I think, only serve as the biggest stepping stone yet towards K-pop’s eventual domination of the American airwaves. As I wrote on Twitter after viewing BTS perform (and seeing the crowd, especially the fans, whipped up into a frenzy), it felt like what seeing the Beatles for the first time must have been like.

So far, BTS has been on a roll since their big AMAs debut; they’ve already hob-knobbed with R&B it-boy Khalid and have already released a track featuring Desiigner and Steve Aoki,”Mic Drop”. Everything’s going well. For BTS, anyways.

The rest of K-pop, however, still has a lot of hurdles to climb if they want to get to Beatles-esque levels in America. While there are many reasons K-pop hasn’t yet made it to top-tier status in the States–language barriers, stereotypes about Asian performers held by music execs, general American disinterest when it comes to international music that isn’t British or Canadian–the biggest reason is because K-pop, as a whole, has a race issue.

Throughout K-pop’s history, there have been instances of anti-blackness, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, such as wearing blackface in a way that’s similar to the ganguros of Japan, who self-identify with the black rapper image so much that they darken their skin, blurring the line of wayward appreciation, fetishism, and straight offense. There has been colorism, such as some members of groups poking fun at other group members’ tan skin. There’s intense fetishism, one of the defining traits of K-pop. It colors how K-pop idols–K-pop male idols specifically– interact with black men; an association with a black man can be perceived as getting an “all clear” or a “black card” without a true understanding of the culture they love and mimic. It also colors how the male idols interact with black women. Yes, many K-pop idols, male and female, love Beyonce, Rihanna and Tinashe, and some male idols even claim to prefer black women as romantic interests. But are black women–rappers, dancers, and fans–seen as just hypersexual objects or are they seen as legitimate collaborators in a larger conversation in music and culture?

The other overriding factor of K-pop is the exoticism of the Black Rap Image, such as dressing in the “black rapper” style, affecting a “blaccent,” and mimicking notable rapper mannerisms. As shown by such has-beens like Iggy Azalea, being blatantly fake will only get you so far.

In short, K-pop has a credibility issue as well as a sensitivity issue. Can K-pop fix these two problems and get firmly on the road towards American domination? It seems like if there’s any group to do it, BTS is definitely the one most prepared for the task. Through a trial-by-fire in the form of a reality show three years ago, BTS has gained the knowledge necessary to possibly become the first K-pop group to actually go beyond the mimicry of other acts and develop a brand that openly and honestly respects its black musical forefathers and foremothers in a way that could win over black America, and by extension, the rest of the country.

Fakery Versus Reality

Screencap from BTS’ “Drop the Mic” music video

It is unclear what people expected from BTS when they arrived for the AMAs. But from every interview they’ve done for the week they were in L.A., it’s apparent that they succeeded in winning hearts. With how they presented themselves, winning hearts and changing minds were their top priorities.

From what I’ve learned about BTS so far, it seems they’re a K-pop band that understands the racial hurdles the best. They came with the knowledge of how the Asian diaspora is stereotyped in America, especially if you’re trying to make it in the music business.

BTS group leader and rapper RM (formerly known as Rap Monster), seems particularly astute to what the stakes are, since not only did he have to act as the English-speaking spokesman for the group during their time in America, but he also knows enough about America’s stereotypes against Asian performers to comment on how the AMAs treated the band with respect.

“The AMAs didn’t treat us as a curious novelty from Asia, but showed us respect and treated us as an important part of the show,” he told Metro UK. “They put our performance right before Diana Ross, and we were introduced by the Chainsmokers, who are very popular in the United States. It was clear in many ways that they knew a lot about us and had prepared for our appearance for a long time.”

RM is different from what many Westerners perceive the K-pop idol to be. Aside from being highly intelligent–he has an IQ of 148–he’s introspective and, as you’ll read later in this post, actually seems to apply the lessons he’s learned from some of his more haunting mistakes. Also, his journey in the music industry, coupled with his personality, has imbued in him an “anti-mainstream” sensibility.

On top of that, he also has a rap cred that’s hard to come by if you’re a singer or rapper that has come up through idol school. Unlike some of the other members of BTS, RM and fellow groupmate Suga cut their teeth in Korea’s underground rap scene. If you work your way up from the grimy bottom, you’re bound to learn some things an idol class won’t teach you, both from personal experience and self-education. He’s already had to prove himself worthy to be called a rapper because of his decision to join a boy band; he’s already taken on other rappers who have tried to start beef through his cover of Drake’s “Too Much,” which features RM talking about being perceived, as reported by Noisey’s Blanca Méndez, “a sell-out.” In fact, many of the songs RM has written for the rookie band feature “the inner conflicts that Rap Monster, Suga and J-Hope have as idol rappers.” His 2015 mixtape continues the thread of exploring the duality of himself and his inner and outer conflicts.

It’s this grounding in underground rap that could prove to be part of BTS’ secret weapon for breaking out of the confines of Korean popularity and into the international stratosphere. What will also come in handy is an experience other K-pop groups might not have had–a military style bootcamp on the history of hip hop and rap from none other than one of the legends of rap, Coolio as part of a 2014 reality series, American Hustle Life, in which the boys get on-the-ground training from legends in R&B and hip hop in LA, the home turf of West Coast rap.

Screencap of RM with Warren G in the music video for “P.D.D. (Please Don’t Die).” Warren G produced the track for RM after getting to know him through the reality series “American Hustle Life.”

As Méndez wrote in 2014, one reason many Americans–particularly black Americans–don’t really see it for K-pop, at least initially, is the amount of fakery that defines its performers. That fakeness comes down to not understanding blackness at all.

Though Rap Monster and his groupmates may be relatively well-versed in current hip-hop music, it’s hard to understand the music without fully understanding the culture. It’s even harder to do so in a place so far from the source, especially since, for a country that consumes and repackages hip-hop culture as much as it does, Korea has some serious issues with anti-blackness.

As it stands now, K-pop is a touch-and-go situation for many American pop and rap fans, especially if you’re black. Because Korea’s homogenous culture can perpetuate an ignorance of (or in some cases, an unwillingness to learn about) black stereotypes and offensive words (such as the power of the N-word and blackface), and because of the K-pop machine’s rigorous M.O. of flawlessly copying without completely understanding of the culture its imitating, there’s a weird, virulent strain of fetishism, exoticism, and anti-blackness running throughout K-pop as a cultural entity.

Even BTS, early in their formation, couldn’t escape some of the same egregious mistakes that have befallen other K-pop idols. The group has had their own brushes with the N-word, which had courted extreme controversy. A younger RM would run off at the mouth about how talking black was “a talent” he was good at. Up until their education with the actual rap greats themselves, BTS was like any other K-pop group: problematic. Some fans even labeled them “racist.”

But what’s the difference between abject racism–which is apparent in Korea as in the rest of the world–and plain ignorance? Ignorance certainly isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, especially since there are several K-pop idols who were actually born and raised in North America and should be adept at understanding the racial implications of playing black, as it were. But ignorance is certainly something that has to realized and reckoned with.

Much of K-pop, from my viewpoint, is similar to watching a non-white boy discover rap for the first time. Everything about it is cool. It’s a culture that seems so cool, that the kid becomes obsessed with knowing every lyric (even the bad ones) and mimicking every cool movement. The kid doesn’t realize he’s parodying the culture he idolizes. The only time he does realize this is when he goofs in front of an actual black person in public. Whether he gets beat up over it or simply lectured to depends on the black person he goofs in front of, but regardless, the boy comes out the other side a different, and hopefully more aware, person.

BTS got a similar wake-up call during the first American Hustle Life episode, in which they found themselves in front of Coolio for the first time

As Méndez wrote:

Coolio gets right down to business, asking BTS some basic questions about the origins and history of hip-hop. Whether it’s because they’re nervous or clueless or both, the room goes quiet. But it’s not long before Coolio is interrupted by class clown V, who chimes in with a “turn up” that makes Coolio pauses his pop quiz to get the kid in line. He asks V if he even knows what “turn up” means, to which V replies, “Let’s go party?” Some of the other members chuckle, the others shake their heads in embarrassment. Coolio is not amused. He orders V to do 25 pushups, and the group’s eyes collectively widen. Shit just got real.

“Do you even know what that means?” is a fair question to ask of k-pop stars, or idols, who often talk the talk without really knowing what they’re talking about. This is not to say these stars aren’t genuine or talented artists, but the k-pop industry is about selling a package. Idol groups are formed by finding raw talent and the right look that can be preened, polished, and trained to deliver that package. When forming a hip-hop group, it’s not as important to know and respect hip-hop culture as it is to be able to sell it.

The group continued their education with rapper/producer Warren G, one of the pioneers of the West Coast hip hop scene and renowned vocal coach and music consultant Iris Stevenson, who served as the inspiration for Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act 2.

Yes, if you watch the reality series, it starts out rough–the boys are “kidnapped” by the guys who will eventually become their L.A. brothers from other mothers–and a lot of the series is edited for laughs. But surprisingly, there are big chunks of the series that do show that the boys are taking their lessons seriously and actually come away with a deeper appreciation of the artform and for the people behind it. It’s especially apparent when the boys who took Stevenson’s singing lessons come away visibly changed–not just because of the new skills they’ve learned, but because of Stevenson’s patience, kindness, and maternal spirit. They respect her as a master of her craft. To them, Stevenson, or “Iris seonsaeng (teacher)” as they called her, is one of the newfound fans they hope to impress the most.

Warren G is another seonsaeng they hope to impress throughout their idol journey. Coolio acted like the hardnosed drill sergeant and quizzed them on deep hip hop history that they should know if they plan on being R&B/hip hop stars. Warren G, on the other hand, calmly taught some of the more nuanced aspects of the racism and negative stereotypes that hip hop is wrongly defined by. He also taught them the true meaning of hip hop.

As RM told HipHopPlaya in 2015:

I wanted to ask Warren G a lot about hip-hop. Like Warren G stated, things like ‘shooting guns, doing drugs, robbery’ aren’t things that are hip-hop itself, but a negative side that’s included within hip-hop. It’s like an uninvited guest that shoved its way into hip-hop, but people said that that’s hip-hop. He also told me that hip-hop is something that’s open to everyone despite what race you may be or what language you may speak. I heard a lot of great things from him besides those as well. Although it may seem like a very obvious thing, but the weight of it just felt different when Warren G said it. And after everything he would say, Warren G attached “It’s all Good.” When I heard those words from the side, then my mood felt really good. Should I compare it to the feeling of a grandfather telling good stories next to you (laughter).

RM espoused on more of Warren G’s teachings in another interview, to the point where he actually taught the interviewer a thing or two about hip-hop:

Interviewer: You recently released a collaboration song with Warren G… But I had the thought that thoe who are more interested in Rapmon than in Bangtan would really enjoy that song. How was it like working with Warren G?

RM: There are two things that Warren G told me that I will never be able to forget. The first is, hip-hop is open to any one. Despite what your race is or where you’re from, hip-hop is a type of music that is always ready to give you space for anyone who enjoys hip-hop. So, don’t restrain yourself behind any type of prejudiced thought, and the other one was you’re doing well, so no matter what others say, believe in yourself and do what you want. Although it’s something that anyone says, I think it touched me even more because he was the one to say it to me. He has a habit of saying, “It’s so good.” But I think that it became a sort of spell. Someting like Hakuna Matata. ‘It’s so good’, when I think of that phrase lately, my hearts becomes at rest a bit more.

Interviewer: Although hip-hop is a genre of music, it seems like a type of religion and philosophy. Just what is hip-hop? Just what is it that guys seem to go crazy over it?

RM: Defining hip-hop is the same as trying to define love. If there are 6 billion people in the world, then there are 6 billion definitions of love, and like that, each definition of hip-hop is different for each person. Of course, it’s possible to give a dictionary definition. In 1970, there was a person called DJ Herc in South Bronx. At a party that he was hosting, he set breaks on a beat and during that break, someone would be rapping, someone would be dancing, and someone else would be doing graffiti… That’s how hip-hop was born, and they call that the 4 elements of hip-hop, but dictionary definitions like these is something anyone knows, but to explain that spirit… In one word, it’s something that can’t be explained. It’s a way that expresses me as well as being a meaning for freedom and rebelling. Because it’s something where people play and have fun with, it can have messages of peace and love placed in it. If you compare it to a Pokemon, it’s like a Ditto. Personally, hip-hop to me is the world. The world that I’m living in… It’s difficult, right? To be honest, it’s still hard for me too.

Interviewer: Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about hip-hop, but there are many aspects of hip-hop culture or clothing that I’m unable to understand easily. The hanging gold necklaces, gun fires, images like that… I also don’t really understand the term ‘swag’ that is used often.

RM: The culture of shooting guns and doing drugs is not the actual self of hip-hop. It’s just become a by-product that appeared around hip-hop music, it’s not the actual self of hip-hop. Although there’s a certain image that pops up clearly when you think of hip-hop fashion, that’s also becoming something that’s more broad. Look at A$AP Rocky or Kanye West. They don’t wear pants that drag around any more. To understand ‘swag’, you need to understand what kind of meaning ‘making it on your own’ has in hip-hop. Making it on your own is a very cool and important concept in hip-hop. I’ll use Jay-Z as an example. Jay-Z was a drug dealer. He’s someone that sold drugs on the rooftop of a very large stadium called Barclays Center, but he succeeded and bought that building. After buying that building, he dressed up in hip-hop and then went up to the rooftop and looked down at that building. Then they took a picture of that and posted it. After seeing that, everyone died. Kya… Just how cool is that? Jay-Z had a song a long time ago that was called ‘99 Problems’, but he raps “I’m someone with a lot of problems, but I don’t have any problems with women? [actual lyrics]”, yet he ended up marrying Beyonce later. Isn’t that amazing? Starting off as a drug dealer, becoming the best wealthy person, and marrying the most amazing woman in the world. I think that gives dreams and hopes to men. Showing that off and revealing it to the world is called ‘swag’. Even when they show it off very openly, you can’t hate or dislike it. Because they started from the bottom and made it on their own.

Screencap of RM in his “Do You” music video.

Whether RM was interested in black music and black messages outside of rap is something I don’t know. But it’s definitely apparent that everything shifted for RM in particular after his time in LA with rap greats and, to be blunt, actual black people (the group would regularly be immersed with average black denizens of LA, whether it was while touring Warren G’s neighborhood, chilling with their LA mentors/big brother figures, or befriending a random guy on the bus).

For instance, when RM put out his mixtape, a series of songs that reflected his own inner turmoil, loneliness, and stress from rival rappers doubting his credibility, he cited India Arie’s “Just Do You” as a source of inspiration.

“It’s a song that gave a lot of comfort to me when I felt confused,” he said to HipHopPlaya. “I believe that the message of this song gave a lot of influence towards this mixtape. That’s why the song that represents the entire message for this mixtape is ‘Do You’.”

India Arie is a deep cut even by American standards–even though she was once mainstream with her 2006 hit, “I Am Not My Hair,” her positioning has since become more indie and low-key–but she’s an especially deep cut by Korean standards, especially in K-pop, which only uses people from the Top 40 charts, like Beyonce and Rihanna, for reference.

It also seems that the RM of now is definitely not the “black is a talent”-spouting RM of the past. At some point between then and his time in LA, RM put out a video apologizing for his past mistakes, regretting that some of his words might have caused his fans pain. He said he had to come to terms with the fact that his words might have been hurtful, and seemed resigned to having to accept that he can’t change the past; all he can do is go forward. Most importantly, he said he holds himself responsible for what he’s done.

Finally, it seems a K-pop group is understanding the sensitivity they need to take when diving into the world of black culture.

Along with learning cultural sensitivity, it would also behoove K-pop as a whole to know about issues facing black people today. What with Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, #BlackLivesMatter, and police getting off scot-free after killing black men and women, there’s a lot that K-pop can (and should) comment on. To be real about it, the stars of the K-pop machine, out of any Asian group aiming to make it big in the States, should be at the forefront of supporting black lives–the lives of their fans–regardless if they’re traveling in America or if they’re on a game show back home in Korea. If a group plans on indoctrinating themselves in a culture like blackness, it doesn’t do well to just focus on the marketable aspects.

What many stars and management execs don’t realize is that to adopt blackness in any form is also to adopt the issues that affect black people. Black people didn’t gain their unique swag just by happenstance; the ways we express ourselves come from centuries of finding alternative ways of keeping our dignity through unspeakable horrors, of figuring out how to express ourselves in sly, inventive ways. Our culture comes from the little we were able to retain from crossing the Middle Passage. Blackness is, in a nutshell, achieving greatness amid struggle and constantly finding ways to achieve success in a society that hates you. Through pressure and stress, unexpected diamonds were created. But our diamonds–our culture–are things we are not willing to have mined without reciprocation. To get in the vicinity of these diamonds, you have to earn it.

Interestingly enough, BTS seems aware of even this fact. The group is dedicated to having the socially-conscious aspect of their brand down. They makes sure most, if not all of their songs, deal with things socially relevant to their audience.

“Our song lyrics are not 100 percent based on our personal experiences. However, a lot of the lyrics have been influenced by our experiences,” said Suga to Soompi’s E.Cha. “…We’ve tried hard to tell the stories of our generation and our age group in present-day society.”

Much of that deals with topics that aren’t normally expressed in K-pop. As Billboard‘s Tamar Herman wrote when describing RM’s single with Wale, “Change”:

“Though most K-pop acts shy away from politicizing their music, or even touching on seemingly controversial topics, the Rap Monster-led K-pop act has addressed politics and cultural issues in their songs on multiple occasions, with a particular focus on youth-related issues such as mental health, bullying and suicide. The atypical approach has made BTS fan favorites in the U.S., leading to them becoming the highest-ranked K-pop act ever on the Billboard 200.”

Speaking of that track with Wale, “Change,” which was released this March, not only features RM’s commentary on Twitter bullying, but it also features Wale commenting on the state of black America, such as the amount of police shootings and injustices there have been against black people. As Herman wrote, “With the duo currently criticizing the ‘alt-right,’ Twitter’s ability to ‘kill,’ ‘racist police’ and declaring ‘no faith in the government,’ the unrestrained hip-hop track is one of the most progressive songs yet from the socially aware boy band BTS.”

Screencap of Wale and RM in their “Change” music video.

According to what RM told Teen Vogue’s Taylor Glasby, the collaboration was Wale’s idea, which shows the power of BTS’ relevance.

“When he suggested the collaboration, that was a real shock,” he said. ” thought about it, [and was] like, should we do a party song? But I wanted to something different. The title is ‘Change’–in America. They’ve got their situations and we’ve got ours in Seoul, the problems are everywhere and the song is like a prayer for change. He talks about the police, and problems he’s faced since he was a child. I talked about Korea, my problems, and about those on Twitter who kill people by keyboards.”

The group also has a good cause attached to their name. The band has partnered with UNICEF to create the LOVE MYSELF campaign, which will “be used to protect and support child and teen victims of domestic ad school violence as well as sexual assault around the world.” The two-year campaign will also “provide an education to local communities for violence prevention.” Another arm of the initiative is #ENDviolence, a joint global campaign between BTS, [BTS management] Big Hit Entertainment and the Korean Committe for UNICEF, which is “primarily aimed at protecting children and teens from violence and encouraging preventive measures.”

Overall, the partnership with UNICEF has cemented BTS as a standout group among other K-pop groups thanks to their philanthropy.

“The members expressed their willingness to become the first artists in Korea to raise funds as part of a social fund for global campaigns and to donate a portion of their income from album sales and 100% of all profits from the sale of goods to numerous social programs–inclusive of violence prevention against children and teens as well as support programs for the victims of violence,” states the website.

Setting the precedent

BTS performing at the AMAs. (ABC/Image Group LA)

It would seem that BTS is on the right track towards learning from K-pop’s past mistakes and heading into the international realm on clean, even footing. I’d certainly love to know more about their education process when it comes to getting immersed in the finer points of black cultural history, since, despite the show’s goofiness, it seemed the band really took their LA bootcamp experience to heart. At the very least, a leader like RM can keep the group on the straight-and-narrow path as they break down more glass ceilings in America.

But BTS could also set a precedent for other K-pop groups, if everything goes right and if BTS is heavily committed to earning their stripes with black audiences. The group has the potential to be that special group that teaches their fellow K-pop idols a thing or two about what true respect for hip hop looks like.

Just take what one of the black LA mentors they became the closest to during their hip hop bootcamp, artist and musician Tony Jones, said to Soompi in 2014.

I thought every other group and artist in Korea that did K-Pop was like that and that talented. I was wrong. Not to talk about any other group, but they’re just different. BTS has so much to offer. They really studied hip hop culture. I want to meet the person behind them because the producers and the directors are finding the beats, and everything they’re doing is really American. I also really think that they can come over to the U.S. and do music if they can learn English in the future. They’re that good. They’re that talented. Afterwards, people were like “Look up BAP, look up EXO, or G-Dragon,” and all these groups. I checked them all out, and it wasn’t the same for me, you know. They’re talented as well, but it wasn’t the same reaction that I got.

…They took from New Edition, from Boys to Men, they also took from A$AP Rocky. They just took everything and put it together. I don’t know if that was the plan or the boys were that talented but it’s lucky they came together. It’s brilliant. I really think that K-Pop will blow up more and it won’t be a local thing anymore. It’s going to grow because of BTS.

…Those boys and the staff really studied American culture and they do it very well. I’ve seen people from different countries try to mimic it and try to replicate it and try to rap the same, sing the same, and act the same, but it’s not happening. Those boys really studied and really got good at it. They’re all talented from top to bottom. There’s not a weak link in the group. So it’s very interesting. They’re really good.

Warren G is right–anyone can rap. But not everyone has the dedication to the craft or the willingness to learn about black history and culture. This could also be what separates BTS from its more formulaic K-pop cousins and propels them into the stratosphere. If that’s the case, hopefully the other groups will get the hint.

What BTS’ success in the States depends on, ultimately, is how black America views their journey to the people they are now. Initially, I was immediately charmed by how professional and committed BTS conducted themselves during their AMA press week leading up to the AMAs performance. After diving into the world of K-pop, I won’t lie and say that I haven’t come away with some emotional calluses. The world of K-pop can be a Matryoshka doll of racism, colorism, fanaticism, fetishism and exoticism, surrounded by a core of complete and (sometimes genuine) ignorance. To dig through those levels as a black American can be tiring. To try to put it in perspective–to put yourself in someone else’s cultural shoes–can be even more tiring. Throughout this post, I’ve battled with myself as to if I was giving BTS too much wiggle room or not enough. I did what every black person interested in BTS is going to have to do–judge the group based on where they started to where they are now. From where I’m sitting, the group has had its hard knocks, but they’ve learned and taken responsibility, and taking responsibility for your worst mistakes has to count for something.

Where they started was rough, speaking honestly. But the potential for BTS comes out of how they’ve grown from their initially problematic start. It appears they’re working on making peace with their past transgressions and, thanks to their mentors, have truly understood what it means to make great hip hop. As RM said, even if there is a dictionary definition for hip hop, the true spirit of hip hop can’t be explained. Hip hop isn’t about affectation and it isn’t about pretense. It’s about being real and being true to who you are.

Is BTS’ education on black America done? On the contrary: it’s far from over. In fact, it’ll never be over for the group, who are bound to make a new set of mistakes the more they fight for U.S. dominance. They will always have to learn more about their black audience and unlearn anything else they need to unlearn as they gain American popularity. But being true is probably the biggest lesson BTS has taken away from their experience, and it shows in a new, broader-reaching, and more culturally responsible sound and outlook. If being true to themselves is something BTS can learn, then the rest of K-pop can learn, too. ♦

FURTHER READING: Hip Hop and its Complications in BTS’ ‘American Hustle Life’ | CriticalKpop