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Behind BTS’s $1 Million Donation to BLM: K-pop Influenced by Black Culture

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Seven K-pop men with various colors of hair, and various jackets and plaid shirts sit on a turquoise monkey bar set in a turquoise background.

Recently, the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death drew great attention from the public. Back in the last year, the massive Black Lives Matter movement caused by George Floyd’s death won a lot of support, including a lot of K-pop idols.

Several K-pop idols, including Eric Nam, BM from Kard, Mark Tuan from Got7, and many others, also took to their social media pages to support the movement. 

BTS Donation: $1 Million to Support BLM

Most notably, the chart-busting superstars, BTS, donated one million dollars to the Black Lives Matter movement. Along with the huge donation, BTS also expressed their support for Black Lives Matter via their Twitter account: “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLives Matter.” BTS has 26 million Twitter followers. 

Those unfamiliar with K-pop stars may not know that BTS is the best-selling music group in South Korean history. Additionally, BTS has always been practicing the duty of social welfare. For example, In 2014, BTS donated $100,000 to the families of victims of the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol. 

For this case of Floyd, because of the huge influence of BTS and other K-pop stars, a wave of mourning and solidarity was also spreading among ordinary South Koreans. A Twitter user set up an account (@blmkorean) with information about the incident, translating various materials in Korean, including reports on how black civil rights groups tried to keep the peace during the demonstrations, and the history of the black civil rights movement. At the same time, there was a peaceful march in central Seoul condemning racial discrimination and showing solidarity with the American demonstrations.

BTS Stans Matched the Donation

Prior to their donation, K-pop fans, or as they are more commonly known, K-pop stans, took to Twitter to urge BTS to donate and use their platform to speak out about the movement. And, within two days of the BTS donation, their fans matched the donation.

These K-pop stans often faced backlash from other K-pop stans, who believed BTS and other K-pop artists did not have a responsibility to speak out and donate towards the BLM movements. Fans who stated otherwise were bombarded with a variety of counter-arguments which claimed that the police brutality was that “an American issue”. 

K-pop artists did not have to publicly express their stance on the issue.

Some also stated that the artists themselves were not to be blamed for not speaking up or not donating, but instead were blamed for the “strictness of their management.” However, these counter-arguments are not valid. The Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality are not just “American issues.” 

K-pop and Black Culture

K-pop idols openly expressing their support towards the BLM movement is necessary due to the highly influential role black culture has played in the music, dance, and fashion of the K-pop industry. 

Many people are not aware of the close relation between K-pop and black culture. K-pop is heavily influenced by Western mainstream pop music and black hip-hop culture. Of course, K-pop is featured with Korean local cultures. The language Koreans are familiar with, coupled with the dynamic black hip-hop culture, has made K-pop very popular among the young generation. How does K-pop relate to black culture? These are three aspects of the K-pop industry that have been influenced greatly by black culture:  

1. Music

Hip-hop, a genre that roots from black culture, has heavily influenced the music of the K-pop industry. In fact, Seo Taji and Boys, the group that paved the way for K-pop as we know it, was heavily influenced by Hip-hop and RNB. Within every K-pop group, there are always two to three rappers. Thus, almost every K-pop song includes multiple rap verses. Within K-pop albums, there are even tracks that solely feature the “rap line,” or rappers, of the group. 

The influence of black culture and black artists on K-pop is not merely an observation that fans have made regarding the industry. During a live broadcast with fans, RM mentioned that the song “Intro: Singularity” falls into the Neo-Soul genre. Additionally, in interviews, such as one with the Hollywood Reporter, BTS mentioned that some of the artists who inspired them as children were Nas, Usher, TI, and Jay-Z. BTS is not the only group that claimed inspiration from artists. SM Entertainment’s supergroup, NCT, was asked by Apple Music K-pop to contribute to a playlist called NCT Influences

Each member contributed a song that made them dream of becoming an artist. Four of the members included songs by Michael Jackson, Jorja Smith, Usher, and Stevie Wonder. While two of the 127 NCT members have come out in support for the BLM movements, there has still been no official statement in support of the movement. 

Within the K-pop industry, there are also two major sub-genres: K-RNB and K-Hip-hop. Notable artists of these genres include Hoody, Crush, and Jay Park, who was the first Asian American to be signed to JayZ’s ROC Nation. Once again, while these artists produce original music, as the name of the genre suggests, the roots of their music lie in black music culture. 

Many of these artists have more freedom due to the fact that their companies are less strict and portray less of the pristine, clean-cut image of their counterparts in mainstream K-pop. However, still, with the exception of a few K-RNB artists such as Jay Park, LOCO, and Crush, very few K-RNB stars have come out in support of the BLM movement. Zico, a former member of Block B and current hit rap star, has not yet posted a single message that supports the BLM movement despite having once rapped the following line in the song “Bermuda Triangle”: “We’re yellow people, but I got black soul.”

2. Dance

Choreography is one of the most defining features of the K-pop industry. Once a music video is released, idol groups typically perform impressive live performances with their epic choreography. Fans then take the time to learn choreography and often create cover dances. A few colleges even have K-pop dance clubs where they learn and perform these songs. 

However, just as K-pop music is influenced by black culture, a great amount of the choreography is also influenced by black culture. Seo Taji and Boys heavily used breakdancing, which was originally founded in the 70s by black youth in Bronx, New York. A more recent example of black culture’s influence on K-pop choreography is apparent in PENTAGON’S hit song, “Shine.” The song went viral within the K-pop community due to an iconic dance move during the chorus, which clearly drew inspiration from ZaeHD and CEO’s viral dance to BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot.” 

Their dance was released in 2017, and Shine was released in 2018. This move was also used by Blackpink’s “older brother group,” WINNER, in their track, “Everyday“. This music video even included black back-up dancers, but their company has still refused to make any public comment regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

3. Fashion

Black culture is an integral part of K-pop fashion. There have been many examples of black cultural appreciation regarding the fashion within the K-pop industry. For example, much of the clothing and accessories worn in K-pop music videos are inspired by streetwear, a style of clothing that has roots within black fashion culture. 

In BTS’s hit video, Mic Drop, they sported bucket hats, puffy jackets, and track pants similar to the 1970s b-boy style. Similarly, girl group G-Idle also wore streetwear-inspired outfits in their video, Uh-oh

A notable example of this was apparent in supergroup EXO’s song, “Ko Ko Bop.” This song was released in the summer of 2017. The concept of the song was a summer bop using tropical beats, synths, and a catchy electric beat drop. The members looked dashing in their Hawaiian button-downs, but there was one look that caused a surge of controversy. Kai, the main dancer and center of the group, wore dreadlocks in his hair. This look was not something that was limited to the music video. 

EXO’s style team continued to style Kai’s hair in this fashion throughout the rest of the promotions. There was no official apology given by SM entertainment, Kai’s company. In fact, they continued to use this style on other artists within the company, such as NCT member Winwin in their hit song, “Limitless.” SM Entertainment is not the only company that has used dreadlocks as a style statement. Other big companies, such as JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment (yes, Blackpink), and Big Hit Entertainment (yes, BTS), have used dreads as a style statement. 

Dreads are not the only form of black cultural appropriation within K-pop. CL, who was the leader of YG Entertainment’s girl group 2NE1, wore grills and gold chains in her 2013 single “Baddest Female.” She also enlisted the help of the New Zealand-based ReQuest dance crew for another solo release, “Hello Bitches.” While none of the women from ReQuest who appeared in CL’s video were black, that didn’t preclude the attention given to the tanned skin, cornrows, and twerking.

K-pop, the industry that has taken the world by storm, would not exist without the influence of black culture. The industry has used the black music culture to its advantage through cultural appreciation as well as cultural appropriation.

No wonder so many K-pop idols were so supportive of the BLM movements.In fact, these K-pop idols showed their respect for the black  culture they idolize and profit from.

“Many artists and people around the world get so much inspiration by black culture and music including me. We have a duty to respect every race,” said K-RNB artist, Crush.

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