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. Modes of signification themselves are being appropriated, as opposed to mere semiotic symbols and other concrete bits of hip hop-ricana. This article will take CL's video work as a point of departure and metonymic symbol for semiotic trends in Korean hip hop. (113 words)
Modes of Authenticity Signification
Before even beginning the explication of key, theoretical notions of authenticity in this paper, I want to first set forth a framework of understanding how CL successfully situates herself as a rap performer ostensibly within the genre of K-Pop but as an authentic performer of t(rap) music. She in fact appropriates not just aspects of (African-)American culture but modes of authenticity as a rapper that function within the America-based (original) form of the genre itself, namely the modes I choose to call "fictive criminality" and "field mastery." Yet, CL also creates her own modes of authenticity that situate her as authentically foreign-enough to gain authenticity as a virtuosic force back at "home" in K-pop itself. These modes CL-specific, hybrid modes utilize acts of symbolic misogyny and "mock ebonics" (McLeod, 134) that I will call "Kebonics."
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." but she wasn't the first to figuratively reach for this useful tool as a way to assert us-based, American authenticity in the Korean hip-hop genre.
Universal modes (inbound)
a) fictive criminality
b) field mastery
c) fictive foreignness
CL-specific hybrid modes (outbound)
c) symbolic misogyny
d) mock ebonics (in Korea, specifically, Kebonics)
The "Global Fetish" and Sadaejuui
Before even getting into the specifics of K-pop, Khip-hop, or discussing any Korean pop culture text, it is important to first background the it all with some history, especially in terms of how Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, had to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid, as it were, before engaging in the construction of any project, tangible or abstract, in Korea. And it was within the general historio-psychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national development took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, while that development process found internal validation through external markers.
Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected 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 andofficially 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.
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. (Schmid)
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.
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.
Metonymic Blackness and Crosscultural Cooning
In 2006, Korean broadcasting network SBS's sketch comedy show "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) debuted an act/troupe called the "Know-Nothing Family (나몰라 패밀리). The act was comprised of several members dancing in a single-file, advancing march formation, African-American step show-style, to a heavily remixed and redacted sample of Sir-Mix-a-Lot's 1992 megahit "Baby Got Back." It was an apropos sample, denuded completely of cultural context, it sounds unmistakably American and black. Yet despite the fact of the sample's complete contextual denuding in his program, it was even more contextually useful and actually quite wieldy than its Korean appropriators knew. "Baby Got Back", as a 1992 song that was largely a battle cry against the semiotic violence of toxic whiteness, wore its oppositional blackness on its sleeve and amped up its most semiotically aggressive codes and markers. From repeated male call-and-response sequences evocative of amped up black male fraternity step show performers or the most "turnt up" moments of the dancing in a 1990s African-American nightclub. Indeed, this makes perfect sense in the Korean context, in which the main contact with blackness and black people is relatively recent, superficial, and heavily mediated without much representation by actual black people in society. John G. Russell addresses just this set of societal circumstances in his astute essay "Authenticity, Mimesis, and Racial Performance in the Transcultural Diaspora", which focuses on blackness in Japan:
In Japan, blackness and black culture are seldom perceived as existing beyond what its media and popular culture provide through the global marketplace. First and foremost, blackness is embedded in performance, in showmanship. Like their counterparts in America, popular black tarento (television celebrities) in Japan are enlisted and paid to expertly enact local expectations of racial difference. (Russell, 65)
In the Korean context of "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사), the performance of socially unusual, extreme blackness appears as a metonymic marker of highly interesting foreignness that undergirds a humor unfamiliar to the general Korean audience.
Most important to consider here is, indeed, a blackness, as it is presented to the Korean audience, as one "embedded in performance, in showmanship." (Russell, 65) But if this blackness is, as I argue, a metonym for extreme foreignness, this makes even more perfect sense given the specific origins and performative deployments of the representations that mark their comedic lineage that goes back to the original parodic song by Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and the comedic parodies of Lil' Jon that shows up in the performances of the "Know Nothing" crew, which obviously appropriated it from Chappelle's Show, which was popular in syndication, a bestseller on DVD, and a well-known comedic meme around when the Korean comedy show aired in 2006.
Indeed, even taking the apparent crosscultural cooning not at face value, and even analyzing it intersectionally across the binary boundary line of Korean/other, there is nothing to suggest that there is anything above the level of pure farce and existence as the comedic foil for an uncritical, superficial disregard for black culture and the people who constitute it. Black people aren't the punchline, but are part of the joke, the humor itself. Unlike an appropriative, possibly even offensive representation of otherness that can be in any way transgressive, such as in the "performative possibilities" (Johnson) found in Antoine Dodson's forced stardom in legendary social media meme status ("Bedroom Intruder"), the humor found in "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) is as uncomplicated and flat as it is denuded of context, and in the end, any point of humanity that could bring the audience closer to the culture the performers have appropriated from. This is what makes the antics of "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) coonery.
Mastery and Fictive Criminality
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":
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.
Fictive Foreign Spaces
I'll just say from the beginning that I'm not mad at Rain. I know he's gotten a lot of flak since the release of his most recent video, but I don't think it's really Rain himself that's the problem. I don't find his most recent video especially problematic in and of itself, actually.
The real problem lies in the fact that the video is emblematic of the way that what I call “fictive foreign spaces” are used in Korean media, especially as found in Korean music videos and commercials, which are designed to communicate a message in a very short period of time and therefore rely a great deal on facile signs and symbology to communicate quickly and efficiently. Basically, it's one way in which foreigners and representations of foreigners, as well as foreignness and representations of foreignness, are used to bolster Korean imaginings of the self, especially as it has to do with selling an idea or product.
I first began noticing this in Korean television commercials. In certain Korean television commercials, the backdrop for representations of a an idealized and perfect mode of middle-class comfort and domesticity is the archetypical American-style house, complete with white picket fence and windowsill upon which to place Mom's freshly baked apple pie to cool. Since Koreans are also consumers of American media and the American dream, they are familiar with the signs and symbology of that image. Unfortunately, because of the specific social, historical, and real landscapes of South Korea, such houses and specific places simply don't exist. Unfortunately, I can't recall the specific television commercials that I'm thinking of here, so it's called to offer an example here on YouTube. But I can offer such a context in terms of the first Korean music video that I recall invoking such fictive foreign spaces against which to place the music and the artist into an authentic context. those of you who are true, diehard Korean pop fans will recognize the video below, which isn't structurally very different from what's happening in Rain's video.
In this, the seminal musical stylings of Seo Taiji and the Boys, which hip-hop fans will quickly notice, owes quite a bit to the legendary American hip-hop group Cypress Hill, the 1st verse starts out with images of Seo Taiji leading a Western-style house that was symbolic of what could only be a middle-class fantasy to most Koreans, especially at that time in 1995. That multi-story middle-class house with a fence just simply doesn't exist in South Korea, but it's quite familiar as a symbolic tool since Korean media viewers have always been heavily steeped in American signs and symbols, and even in the pre-Internet South Korea, was a metonymic symbol for "home." and this, despite the fact that the actual homes in which South Koreans lived at the time or even now don't at all resemble that kind of American-style, independent, multi-story, Walnut Creek California "home." but Koreans perfectly understand the comfortable, domestic, middle-class fictive space that he is leaving. What I find even more interesting is how Seo Taiji representative the cold, unfeeling world outside in the bear industrial spaces in which he did his dancing in snowboarding year, a fictive cold “outer space” landscape that was punctuated with Korean style high-rise apartment buildings. to me, that was a much smarter and subversive music video. Of course, being a subversive wasn't the point of Rain's song, but it certainly was for Seo Taiji. in fact, I think today that one of the reasons they got into so much trouble with the censors and the terrestrial broadcasting networks at the time was because the viewer can pick up on this subversiveness in a general sense, but it is difficult to place the locus of its expression. in addition to the fact that my host family didn't have cable television at the time, I think that uncomfortableness with this video back then is one reason I never got to really see it very often, despite it becoming one of the most popular songs in the country and one you would hear at least 20 times a day upon walking out your door.
But back to Rain. Beyond the specific symbology of pneumatically enlarged butts and breasts, which others have obviously picked up on, what I find more insidious and possibly more problematic is the ways in which the faces and spaces symbolically linked to people of color in the United States have become the backdrop for Rain's musical stylings and wildings. It's about cultural appropriation, peopl, and I think people are feeling a bit bothered because now, the Koreans have gotten good at it. People forget about Psy, who is Korea's most famous "rapper," but he didn't get into deep trouble because as a rapper who is truly KOREAN in his mode of representation and apparent set concerns, he doesn't function in the American form of the genre, which is dominated by a certain aesthetic, from Eminem to Ice Cube. Psy doesn't function in that space, but in a specifically Korean one, where he is talking -- as he always has -- about class and gender relations. Gangnam Style, hello? What is more problematic about Rain is the way he self-consciously performs the most extreme forms of already highly performative African-American pop culture blackness. That is what he is fairly good at, his audience gets this as way of getting (and buying) his claims to an authentic connection to American, hip-hop-originated Africanity, and is precisely what American tend to find most odious and oversimplifies by labeling this "cultural appropriation" in public (often online) discourses.
And let's remember—this is not the 1st time that foreigners and even foreignness itself have been used by Korean musicians to define a fictive outerspace in which to step out of the confines of Korea and Koreanness itself. the perfect example here is obviously going to be “Itaewon Freedom.” `
Those familiar with South Korea's domestic music scene, and the physical terrain of South Korea and Seoul itself, will know that Itaewon, as the de facto “foreigners district” in South central Seoul, right next to the American military base there, has long been associated with threatening foreign people, things, and ideas. But as scholar of Seoul city Kim Ji Youn has aptly described it, this foreignness is also constructed as a commodity to consume, control, and mimick in terms of a "commodification of foreignness" that has specific uses. (Kim, 112) These modes of employ can be both commercial or aesthetic. As it came up in the song bearing that neighborhood's name, Itaewon was obviously styled by those in the apparent know as the place where one can truly relax and let down one's hair, free from the constrictive social rules and roles of Confucian Korean society. It was basically defining a fictive foreign space within Korean society, but interestingly, one that wasn't so fictive. Itaewon Has actually long been a place where the more open-minded and freethinking partiers insole would go to escape the midnight curfew limitations of other party places in the city, and with the fact of all night partying that came with the legacy of a neighborhood that was generally left only to be patrolled by American military police and generally outside of the eyes of official Korean-dom, the neighborhood had actually, place where in-the-know Koreans knew there was a certain kind of social freedom. Considering that until the gentrification of the neighborhood just several years ago, Itaewon was the actual and symbolic locus of Korean racial and xenophobic fears, the image of the neighborhood has come quite a long way.
But let's be real: the employment of extras of color as the authenticity decorations in Itaewon Freedom's imagined foreign landscape was far more offensive than anything in Rain's music video. I mean, JYP was skirting blackface and telegraphing pretty offensive ideas of black people with the wigs and testicle-grabbing. The only difference is that this video was made for domestic consumption while Rain is aiming at the international market. And in his use and construction of what I'll now call “fictive foreign spaces", Rain and his people have become adept at playing the oldest game in town: the complete , disingenuous appropriation of not only ethnic musical styles but actual ethnic people into the commercial efforts of an outside artist who hails from a culture that is completely hostile to those very people. Let me remind you of what that means and why Rain is really guilty of the Korean music industry finally getting up to speed on true cultural appropriation skills that finally allow for the incorporation of members of the group in question. This is something that k-pop was really not capable of before, when the genre was about simply aping and reproducing styles that came from African-American culture, with the only way of highlighting that connection being that of pointing it out with inappropriate forms of racial comedy -- indeed, the "coonery" that John G. Russell aptly describes in Japan -- that utilized heavily charged (racist) racial symbology borrowed from the host cultures such as found in the case of the Bubble Sisters, who debuted in 2003 with a series of music videos and stage performances that went beyond mere blackface in the sense of darkening skin and simulating African features, but which directly duplicated the specific looks of the jiggaboo and pickaninny.
Hence, one could make (or hide behind) the argument that they were ignorant of what the signs represented, despite having done enough homework to dig them out of relatively obscure racist histories of another culture. The problem here is that certain producers were trying to pull the fast one of American blackface being something one could just accidentally stumble across as simply darkening the skin to emulate a darker skin tone. The problem with that is that something like that, were it true, would be easily forgivable and understandable. The smoking gun for the Bubble Sisters was defined by the level of detail in reproducing the look itself. The pickaninny hair and other infantilizing symbols such as the pajamas and other baby accessories come from a very specific look in a racist genre of music and comedy in American history. So the very look of the Bubble Sisters was impossible without having done some very specific research. And the main problem with that group and its performance styles of blackface was that itis pretty much impossible to reproduce American blackface to the level of detail they did without picking up any information about the cultural context they came from and its very loaded meaning at the time.
So Rain's new music video has ruffled feathers mainly because Korean pop music has come such a long way since nobody really cared about it at all just a decade ago. It takes place within a much more global context and in front of a truly global audience, as opposed to the imagined one that South Koreans were always hoping was there but never really was. That being said, the watchful eye of the world wasn't there as it is today, digitally and enabled by YouTube. So Rain, with his music video that demonstrates just how far Korean artists have become adept in the game of cultural appropriation vis-à-vis African American pop culture, demonstrates the extent to which the world is indeed now watching, as well as the fact that the Korean music industry, in being regarded as a world-class producer and reproduce or of songs that could be considered R&B, rap, or just about any other kind of “black music,” is now being held to similar higher, international standards that any other songs in the genres would be anywhere else in the world.
To put it simply, this is a sign that what's going on in Korean pop music now matters to other folks in the world, and yes, there actually watching now. So those in the industry should take the buzz and even criticism related to the racial symbology in Rain's recent video as evidence of the fact that Korean pop music has indeed, come a long way, baby, and from now on, it's time to be a bit more careful, considerably more thoughtful, and a lot smarter about the way Koreans represent not only themselves but also the people from other places and races who walk amongst them.
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 this way, the kebonical styizing practiced by CL and many other Korean performers operating withing genres universally thought of as American or at least foreign, is similar to the linguistic stylings of Asian Americans who utilize African American Vernacular ENglish (AAVE) as literal authenticators of cool and "to lay claim to participation in an urban youth style." (Reyes, 511)And yet, although the case of Korea is vastly different from that of Asians living in America, the positionalities are quite parallell. Vis a vis an (African-)American center and authority of authenticity, Asian performers of blackness make claims to connectedness with blackness, absent of the ability to lay claim to it directly as direct members of the group. And in a Korean context in which even using English words is a strong marker of large amounts of embodied cultural capital, making that connection with AAVE cum kebonics make the claim as seemingly natural or organic as it is, in actuality stilted or forced, i.e. performed. Given Korean society's long-held condescending or even derisive attitude towrards actual black people, this fraught and inherenetly contradictory process of lauding-while-insulting while borrowing from African-American culture is reminiscent of Ur-black comedian Paul Mooney's famous quip that "Errybody wanna be a nigger but don't nobody want to be a nigger."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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