South Korea (hereafter "Korea") is a supreme cultural appropriation machine and CL is its prophet. CL, née Lee Chaelin (hereafter, CL), is a master of appropriating African-American culture with apparent impunity, on two levels. First, on the basic level at which the term "cultural appropriation" is often tossed around in public discourse on hip hop and rap music as performed by non-black actors, there is the level of the semiotic symbols and other concrete bits of hip hop-ricana that associated with the deliberate signification and invocation of authentic blackness within genre products or cultural products that strive to be included within the genre. A second, more subtle mode of appropriation is at the level of signifying authenticity or even a mode of authenticity signification itself. Modes of signification themselves are what is being appropriated, as opposed to mere objects or discrete signs piece-by-piece:
Modes of Authenticity Signification
Universal modes (inbound)
a) fictive criminality
b) field mastery
CL-specific hybrid modes (outbound)
c) symbolic misogyny
d) mock ebonics (in Korea, specifically, Kebonics)
Beginnings and Motivations
I am not a K-pop fan. This is not to say that I do not occasionally enjoy songs that bubble to the top of the genre's popularity, but I generally do not keep up with any particular acts nor keep track of the artistic trajectories of its most popular performers. While I was indeed struck by the virtuosic qualities of CL as far back as her 2ne1, girl-group days and her solo hit "Bad Girl", I engage with CL as a rap artist in the context of my far older status as a rap fan from the time of my childhood and the time of the genre's popular quickening in the mid-to-late 1980s. As a fan, my priorities have always been lyricism, swagger, and musicality, in about that order, meaning that foundational male acts such as Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, the Fat Boys, and Run-DMC form the outlines of my hip-hop habitus. When it comes to female MCs on the mic from that era who met my set of musical standards and priorities, acts such as Salt& Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah informed the development of my musical tastes and preferences, especially as they find gendered form in my choices to purchase or otherwise consume their musical products. This is the way I end up engaging with CL as a rap performer, even in Korea. So her lyricism, swagger, and musicality played a big role in determining that I would really connect with "Dr. Pepper" when it came across my desk in 2015.
This article asserts that CL is charting a strategically wise, semiotically deliberate path out of the figurative building of K-pop as a genre and Korea itself, even as she utilizes "street cred" gained by recognition in the core of authentic hip-hop in the US market as the center, which thereby gives her even more "street cred" back home in the Korean hip-hop periphery. To paraphrase the words of the immortal Rakim, one of rap and hip-hop culture's founders, "CL gets stronger as CL gets bolder."
But what is the source of her boldness? I assert that indeed, as CL engages more directly with non-K-popped, foreign elements of the musical genre in which CL is seen -- even (and especially) in Korea -- to function, as in the underground form known as "trap" music, she bolsters her perceived level of hip-hop, foreign-originated authenticity. this is most clearly seen in her 2015 video "Dr. Pepper."
A big question, beyond what's going on in a single CL video, in how Korean popular music gets away with so much “cultural appropriation” without rebuke or much pushback from hip hop fans who often point out the inherent contradictions in the process of appropriation. Why Korean cultural appropriation of African-American culture in K-pop seems to work without arousing much ire in the United States is because it is a fairly obvious borrowing, in which the borrowing itself is always inherently attributed, and instances of this borrowing is constantly linguistically and culturally marked. Instants of faux ebonics-inflected Koreanized English -- what this paper will call "Kebonics" -- deployment mark both Derridan différance and a connection with a semiotically-defined, authentic Black Hip Hop imaginary. This différance is underlined also by the status of South Korea's relationship with the United States, it's important to remember that this is not a case of a white American overculture borrowing African-American cultural forms and calling them its own, which is why its so irksome and an issue in the USA, but borrowing any aspect of black culture and using it in a Korean context is different because the act of borrowing is obvious as the borrowing isn't perceived as just African-American, but rather American, and hence a part of the neo-colonial US-Korea relationship. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down the power hierarchy, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down the power hierarchy, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. Another interesting semiotic strategy employed in CL’s videos that aid in the appropriation of African American music culture while also bolstering the perceived authenticity of the text as part of the same conversation with it, is the way she employed the same “fictive criminality” that US rapper Ice Cube and NWA demonstrated in declaring their own mastery of the field and art, as well as over female bodies, is by the linking of said fictive criminality with the objectification of said female bodies as a sign of their virility and male power. Indeed, this is not very different from many videos in the genre, or from what CL does in her own videos. This is what helps establish her as authentic, both in Korea and outside.
Here, I take Kembrew McLeod's cogent and useful discussion of the notion of authenticity in hip-hop from his article "Authenticity WIthin Hip-Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation" as a point of theoretical departure. Mcleod says that "...invocations of authenticity..." occurs not just in relation to hip-hop but can "...also take place in other cultures that, like hip-hop, are threatened with assimilation by a larger, mainstream culture." (Mcleod, 134) It is here that I would make a departure by way of making additions to his ideas while also linking the definition to the Korean case. I would add that Korean hip-hop not a culture dealing discursively with assimilation into a larger mainstream, but necessarily functions within the context of the Korean historical concept of sadaejuui (사대주의), as part of a constant struggle to prove itself as legitimate both to Koreans at the periphery and American hip-hop at the center.
Power, Politics, and Sadaejuui
What one must know about Korean culture vis a vis hip-hop is that certain key socio-historical frames of thinking frame the way Koreans approach the genre. Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been affected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and officially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justified and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do them was not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power.
The semiotic language of sadaejuui is one that CL speaks well, as she constantly works to establish and maintain her popularity by linking herself to both people and practices from the (African-)American center. Indeed, CL is fluent in the literal and semiotic "language of power" that Khip-hop must speak in order to be viable not just outside its borders, but within Korea itself.
CL's "Dr. Pepper" video is again instructive here. . A lot of different keywords and bits of theory could be invoked here, several of which have recently entered the popular discourse and theoretical imagination: objectification and commodification of the female body, the heterosexual male gaze (even if it isn't employed by a male heterosexual), and sexual fetish totems. Structurally, CL in "Dr. Pepper" is no different from how Ice Cube and NWA demonstrated their mastery of the field and art, as well as over female bodies, by linking fictive criminality with the objectification of said female bodies as a sign of their virility and male power. Indeed, this is not very different from many videos in the genre. Behold, a classic example from the genre and anothet exemplary work, NWA's "Hello":
For CL to utilize American authenticity modes that in her videos, such as she did in "Bad Girl", could potentially be too much for a Korean audience, yet utilizing women in the same way in her video is still (perhaps paradoxically) still a natural fit. This semiotic deployment of the woman's body is both uncannily unfamiliar yet eerily familiar. It is a display of her mastery over her sector of the rap field, and the use of dominated female bodies seems pretty semiotically familiar to a South Korean audience that is quite used to this formula as it evolved in the United States, the culture in which the form originates.
What I point out in the CL video above is the degree to which it successfully appropriates all kinds of cultural elements that are indeed alien to anything going on in Korean society and are loaded with meaning from value systems that are at least somewhat to completely incompatible with Korean society. Having a gold "grill" (with fangs, no less!), lascivious play with and display of a riding crop, which is a mainstay of S/M culture, the obvious nod to chola culture with the lowrider bicycle and the apparent moment of arrest by the police, which all adds up to a nod in the direction of LA gang culture, as well as urban life in LA, especially as punctuated by the allusion to actual biker gangs, then the performance of a dance "gang" with masks and apparently "dangerous" wear and moves. It is all topped off by a shot of Adidas shoes tied together and thrown over a wire, which is a staple in urban, gang culture as a monument to someone dearly departed. None of these elements are familiar to the average Korean viewer and in fact likely feel quite foreign objects that mark foreign practices from foreign -- nay, American -- cultural contexts.
The fact of the foreignness of these objects is not lost on a Korean viewer. Indeed, in the overlapping historio-psychological modes of Korean thinking of sadaejuui and modern Korean post-coloniality, it is the particular way in which they are foreign that is important. This is the key way that Korean hip hop at the periphery approaches the American center. As non-black potential approriators, Koreans are coming at the center from the figurative and literal bottom and from the far outside, whereas someone like Eminem comes into the field from above, and from the inside of a culture that is already sensitive to the issue of whitely-raced appropriators.
The "Global Fetish"
And yes, Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid. And it was within that general historiopsychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national deveopment took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, many Koreans like to conveniently forget), while that development process founf internal validation through external markers. Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the "global" has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible "global fetish" that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent "Premium Korea" ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a "global fetish" (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself.
Put simply, Korean people are quite used to bright and shiny, obviously and incongruously foreign things sticking out from Korean cultures, aesthetics, and things; indeed, from Koreanness itself. And the way the sticking out happens is, for the most part, shot through with positive feelings, positive connotations. Ever since the beginning of Korean modernity itself -- and one shouldn't forget that the very ideas of progress, enlightenment, and modernity themselves were initially foreign concepts from outside, mostly filtered through Japan -- foreign things have always been associated with things that were generally understood to be good. (reference Andre Schmid's Korea Between Empires here.)
Then Korea enters its quite accidental encounter with America in the 1950s and ends up under the control and in the thrall of the notion of America and her things. American technologies, buildings, fashions, music, aesthetics, ideas, and even American English. And things American are not only obviously superior, but they are good.
Americans, on the other hand, are generally used to a different relationship with foreign otherness within the realm of popular culture and aesthetic concerns. Americans generally don't like to watch subtitled films, listen to pop music in languages they don't understand, or wear fashions that obviously come from specific other places. Now, when one adds on the historically specific encounter with an entity such as Frenchness, the feelings become suddenly, starkly (and perhaps even viciously) negative. The French language itself sounds effeminate and offensively foreign to American ears in a way that Italian or Spanish do not (those languages are a whole separate set of stories), the idea of sporting French fashions seems pompous and even ostentatious, and one must consider the way that the descriptor French itself carries the notion of something done wrong or even perversely. The "French kiss" is a lewd, tongue-filled verson of a normal, decent kiss, since the French were known for doing things more lasciviously and decadently --immorally -- than Americans thought of themselves as doing. This is the particular way that Americans constructed Americanness against this particular other. Whatever the reasons or particular examples, the general Korean cultural attitude toward a certain kind of otherness vis a vis the great powers that have at different times exerted great influence over Korea has historically been one of deferential respect, especially as other great powers have carried with/through their influence ideas such as Enlightenment, Progress, or Modernity. Clear examples of how certain attitudes and positive "gusts of popular feeling" rode along with the concrete objects or technologies that marked these concepts were the Newspaper, the idea of National History, and the Department Store, respectively. In fact, one can argue (as scholar Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has brilliantly talked about in an essay called "Dining Out in the Land of Desire: Colonial Seoul and the Korean Culture of Consumption").
Indeed, as several top Korean Studies scholars of modernity in Korea have argued elsewhere, even the very notions of modern identity and subjectivity themselves found expression and focus through now-seemingly-mundane things/places/concepts such as the department store, the radio, the movie theater, the public school, or even popular notions, such as the "modern girl" or "culture" -- and it should not escape the astute reader's notice that many of these concepts revolve centrally around new forms of modern media and modern modes of economic consumption. None of this relationship between what "historical materialist" historians such as the infamous Karl Marx call the fundamental and concrete, economic base of society (you could think of this as one might the hardware of a computer, which is one way I tell my students to think about it) that largely creates/controls/influences the malleable, less concrete stuff atop it (one might think of this as the "software") called the superstructure has changed much. This is what Cultural Studies folks believe, and how such scholars think -- that the stuff in our heads, or that comes from our heads, such as found in ideas or beliefs (ideology), things with messages such as novels, movies, and music videos (cultural texts), or even practices (say, like bowing to one's elders, trends in popular dance) all exist within the bounds of social norms (rules to live by) that support the smooth operation of the base.
Yes, even -- and perhaps especially -- everyday fashion. If say, one lives within an economy defined by consumer capitalism that encourages -- nay, relies upon -- people consuming things to keep the fires burning and the wheels turning, and one of the popular impetuses of buying is argued to be that one's identity can best be defined through what one buys (such as in cell phone cases, t-shirts, or even the clothing one buys that define "looks" that identify our affinities, such as in "punk" or "goth"), it is easy to see why this kind of behavior bolsters a value that helps keep all kinds of consumption happening and seen as a positive social good. This is a Cultural Studies way of looking at say, Korean street fashion as a cultural text, as a social and economic activity that helps keep the machine of the base humming and thrumming and helps everything in society just make sense.
In this video made by BIGBANG, one can see the particular Korean expression of this semiotic language of masculinized mastery in therap field in not only the rappers' domination of all the women in the video as servile sexual objects, but also in the way nationality is employed in this process, as the fact that modern versions of the Korean traditional hanbok are being worn by the Caucasian, western women as they playfully indulge the men their sexual flirtations is one lost on nary a single Korean viewer. This is a semiotic wink to the strong message here that a masculine Korea has dominated the West as symbolized by the sartorial domination of its women, as they wear the feminine hanbok even as the men wear exaggerated forms of western dress. Indeed, the Korean male dominating the women of the metropole is as significant to the solidification of their assertions of internationalized male mastery as it is to the vainglorious drive to be seen as an internationally recognized Korean musical act. It all kind of blends together. It is here that I am reminded that there is an entire genre of pornography dedicated entirely to the idea of power play through clothing, with abbreviations such as CMNF (Clothed Male Naked Female) and ENF (Embarassed Naked Female).
But back to CL's video here: I think she's also channeling the attitude of Trina, who is definitely "da baddest bitch" and is indeedis the archetype of contemporary rap female baddassery in the rap field in the United States. She sings the anthem of a masculinized mastery in rap that has truly been flipped onto its back and thrown in the face of the men who have antagonized her.
Trina here does it in the way that Americans can accept and let her get away with, but CL could never go this far, at least not in Korean culture, unless it becomes a runaway hit and she can get away with overt rejection of male supremacy in Korea under the protection of the global gaze, in the same way that PSY got away with murder here with his own runaway hit videos.
Trina is someone with whom CL must surely be familiar, especially in that her own music video "the baddest girl" seems to be functioning in the same mode (and even share the same music video titles) of social pushback against traditional male-defined roles of femininity.
But of course CL could never take her assertions of sexuality and throwing that back in the face of male sexual power in quite the same literal and direct way, which is why it's channeled through traditional symbols of sexual ownership, namely the barely clad girls writhing in front of the camera in her Dr. Pepper video at the top of this post, as ubiquitous symbols of her mastery.
Semiotically, there's actually quite a bit going on here. One thing that strikes me about this video is the fact that she is the only woman amongst every female in the video who gets to wear high heels, which is very symbol of female sexual power. It strikes me that all of the other women, the backup dancers on the ground, are shown without their faces and stripped of any symbol of female sexual assertiveness. In a way, the only women who are stripped of that power and opened to the mastery of others as represented by the heterosexual male gaze, are the women writhing on the ground, and this imagery makes it very clear that the women who are presented semiotically as signs/accoutrements of male mastery, very much does not include CL, who literally stands on top of things, performing and laying down the raps with the other male rappers featured in the video. She is not a girl who gets fucked but does the fucking, along with the men. IN this sense, the aesthetic deployment here is one found in CMNF (Clothed Male Naked Female) pornography. Such an aesthetic was not lost on Robin Thicke in his photo shoot for Treats! Magazine, a photo shoot and set of semiotic, sartorial ideas that was the inspiration for his music video "Blurred Lines."
Indeed, the interplay between clothing and power is apparent in Thicke's final video, in which he is clothed in the ultimate embodiement of male power, in a classic dark gray suit, open-collared black shirt, and aviator glasses. The women are obviously objects of his gaze and control, and are conspicuously unclothed. CL employs this mode of sartorial domination in her Dr. Pepper video, to great effect. This mode of semiotic employment is one not lost on the viewer, even if the particular points of its deployment are not consciously obvious. Indeed, the meta-argument in the symbolic empowerment of the men in the actual defrocking of all the women in Thicke's video speaks to a visible, visceral sexual domination of women in that video, and is a semiotic mode that CL deploys quite well in her own video.
On "Cultural Appropriation"
But a big question, beyond what's going on in CL's video, in how Korean popular music gets away with so much cultural appropriation without rebuke or much pushback from hip hop fans who often point out the inherent contradictions in the process of appropriation. Why Korean cultural appropriation of African-American culture in K-pop seems to work without arousing much ire:
It's an inherently conscious cultural appropriation.
It's a fairly conscious process, in which the cultural borrowing is always inherently attributed. In the case of South Korea's relationship with the UNited States, it's important to remember that this is not a case of a white American overculture borrowing African-American cultural forms and calling them its own, which is why its so irksome and an issue in the USA, but borrowing any aspect of black culture and using it in a Korean context is different because the act of borrowing is obvious as the borrowing isn't perceived as just African-American, but rather American, and hence a part of the neo-colonial US-Korea relationship. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole.
A Point of departure
A point of departure for CL, as well as a turning point in K-pop....