In recent years, South Korea has seen the solidification of hip-hop in mainstream pop culture. Such a movement has been aided and abetted by the increasing popularity in hip hop based reality television programs such as Show Me the Money, which is set for its seventh season this summer, and High School Rapper, the youth counterpart to Show Me The Money that is currently garnering widespread media attention. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past few years (or is not over the age of 40) has felt this cultural surge, and the craze can be observed from classrooms of Korean high school students, to imitations on social media platforms, to even commercial advertisements which have capitalized on this exponential trend. As for myself, I have appreciated and enjoyed this development immensely and have followed the movement almost religiously. However, I have also noticed a glaring problematic nature within this budding culture.
Some call it appropriation. I see it more as a cultural detachment that keeps Koreans who actively engage in this movement oblivious to what their mannerisms actually entail. Whatever you decide to call it, the offense is clear: Korean hip hop attempts to emulate the aggressive, started-from-the-bottom mindset exuded from Western hip hop in a superficial way, ignorant of the cultural austerity that justifies it.
To truly understand this issue, one must look back to the origin of hip hop, and where many of its intricacies derive from. The musical genre originated in the 1970s within the heart of South Bronx’s black ghettos, communities razed by drugs, poverty, and crime. Such communities also epitomize the original identity of the movement; rappers like 21 Savage don’t just rap about death, they grew up watching people get shot to death. They spit out their anger and frustration through music: how much they suffered, how they survived, how dangerous they are as a person. In other words, the genre expresses the fierce realities of the particular locality that individual rappers are situated in.
There are no drugs, no guns, no ghettos like the Bronx in Korea. Most South Korean rappers, especially the high school students on High School Rapper, receive allowances from parents and a proper education, and don’t have to worry about being shot on a Sunday evening. Most likely, they fell in love with hip hop not as a coping mechanism in a life surrounded by crime and poverty, but as a hobby through the internet. So when I see Korean rappers, many times young, flashing gang signs or firing off finger guns the same way a rapper from Compton would, I get the feeling that there is an issue with the adaptation of a trend––a context-practice mismatch. Such rappers as a collective try to recreate US ghetto music without having a space to call a ghetto. Therefore, when hardcore, macho lyrics are ushered in without a specific purpose, the spirit of the text is mutilated. Only the superficial signifiers remain alive as a musical style and cliche. A Korean middle class student emulating a gangster by spitting gun onomatopoeias and pointing finger guns at the crowd can thus be seen as disrespectful or ignorant to someone who has been raised in a community full of drive-bys and hit-and-runs.
On the other side of things, it’s important to note that this issue is not just localized in Korea; there is a big issue of appropriation all over the world––even in the states itself. A classic example: Rick Ross attempted to solidify himself as a crime kingpin in Miami, only to be revealed as a former corrections officer with good behavior––a contradicting persona to who Ross was touting himself to be. However, when instances of problematic appropriation occur in the States, thanks to a general understanding of the harsh culture that birthed hip hop, such actions are generally quickly deterred and shut down. Such check and balance mechanisms aren’t really present in Korea. Koreans as a collective may not be aware of the implications of a culture on the other side of the planet, so they find it acceptable to copy-paste overarching themes and motifs of American hip hop without consideration to what it might represent.
That is not to say that there are plenty of Korean rappers that have adapted hip-hop to fit their own unique context and issue. A prime example is Drunken Tiger, whose songs, such as Beautiful Life, often advocate mental health awareness and suicide prevention––a problem quite endemic in South Korean society. However, it is overall becoming increasingly imperative that more of those who get directly involved in this trend make a more conscious effort to understand the culture, instead of simply appropriating the appealing parts while ignoring the harsh context that surrounds it. Especially as Korean hip hop is beginning to be consumed on an international basis, the pioneers of the movement need to be mindful of understanding the culture they are adapting.