Is K-Pop Beginning To Address Appropriation Honestly?

An image of Keeho with the words, "A new day in K-pop?"

K-pop has had a long-standing issue regarding racial appropriation. But is P1Harmony member Keeho’s latest statements proof that there’s change happening in the industry? (Canva illustration)

K-pop seems like it’s changing with regard to its relationship to cultural appropriation.

P1Harmony member Keeho has talked on a recent radio show about how K-pop must be aware of racial appropriation.

In the video, he talked about how he and his other group members are mindful of how appropriation might come into their music, lyrics, and even stage clothes.

“I believe it’s a responsibility and I also feel like if you’re gonna have that big of a platform, you need to be able to respect and appreciate all cultures without appropriating them…Whenever it comes to, you know, our styling, our music or whatever, it’s always a sensitive topic that we always have to think once, three times, four times, about,” he said.

“In every step of the way, like visually, musically, or the language itself. Obviously, there’s AAVE and a whole bunch of other things like cultural stuff that is very sensitive,” he continued. “So, we need to respect that. And I feel like it’s a responsibility, too, so I feel like [it’s] definitely something we’re always thinking about.”

Keeho is from Canada, so he’s already hyper-aware of conversations happening on the North American continent about appropriation. He also knows about North America’s history of slavery, since it extends to Canada as well (in the sense that many runaway slaves ran to Canada for freedom). Of course, being from North America doesn’t mean you’re going to actively campaign against appropriation. BUT, Keeho’s decision to do so is part of a change that I believe is happening within the K-pop industry.

According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) last year, Blackpink’s Lisa apologized to a fan for wearing a braided hairstyle that could have been considered appropriation. Her talking directly to a fan is a little unprecedented in the K-pop world–issuing corporate apologies about appropriation is one thing, but for a K-pop star to converse directly with a fan is something completely different, and definitely more personal.

Other groups, including Stray Kids and Ateez have apologized for appropriation or, in the case of Stray Kids, wearing blackface. Indeed, even Keeho’s current position as P1Harmony’s resident appropriation expert came after he was accused of racism for some social media posts. While he claimed he didn’t write the posts, clarifying that his account was handled by other people, he still apologized and has used the moment as a way to keep himself and his group on task when it comes to potentially offensive behavior.

BTS, who I’ve written about extensively on my site, famously set a precedent for K-pop groups by giving $1 million to Black Lives Matter in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, citing how they want to take an active stance against racism.

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As Suga said about the donation, according to SCMP, “I think it’s very simple really–it’s about us being against racism and violence. Most people would be against these things. We have experienced prejudice as well as ourselves. We just wan to voice the fact that we feel it’s the right of everyone to not be subject to racism or violence.”

Even more incredible is that the industry is gearing towards making their trainees take classes in appropriation in an attempt to keep them out of hot water. Instagram account @yerongsss featured the now-defunct trainee group Yours learning about cultural appropriation through Yerongsss’ cartoons.

According to AllKPop, fans commented positively about this moment.

“This is what all companies should be doing: educating their trainees,” wrote one. “I’d really love it if you girls could talk about Indian culture, native American culture, middle eastern culture (and maybe African culture) who are highly culturally appropriated in K-pop, especially Indian culture these days. Thank you so much!”

“I’m glad you’re educating yourselves about this. It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” wrote another. One other commenter wrote, “This cool that they are making them aware of cultural appropriation.”

“Korean culture is becoming globalized,” she wrote. “That’s why we have to learn various cultures and history and improve ourselves. Efforts such as this entertainment are needed.”

Keeho told SCMP that he felt that it’s a “responsibility” for his group to “speak up and educate ourselves,” bringing up his childhood in Canada.

“For me, when I was younger and grew up in Canada, becuase I was in such a diverse community I saw a lot of microaggressions and casual racism, but I was scared to speak up and talk about my problems, becaues we were so conditioned to blieve that sort of casual racism is OK and just a joke,” he said. “Don’t be scared to really do what you want to do and say what you want to say, otherwise nobody will know what you think.”

He said that he’s talked to his group about appropriation since they were trainees. He also said he was surprised at how some of the other members initially responded to learning about appropriation “because not everybody takes it that seriously.”

“But ever since we were trainees, I talked to the other members about cultural appropriation and other racial issues, and they tried to educate themselves when we spoke about them,” he continued. “They were really open and if there was something they didn’t understand, they’d ask me and we’d have conversations and learning about these topics and issues.”

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When a K-pop group or member happen to get caught doing something offensive, many fans are apt to give the excuse that the person or group didn’t have enough cultural knowledge. Indeed, Korean culture is still very insular, despite it becoming a more globalized culture.

While South Korea is quickly learning about other cultures, including having shows such as My Neighbor Charles, which features the everyday lives of immigrants, and shows like Itaewon Class, Squid Game, Search WWW and other shows featuring main and/or background characters of different races, there is still a lot of misinformation and, to be honest, missing information about American history.

As P1Harmony member Theo told SCMP, “Growing up in Korea, I never really was aware about these issues. Hearing about them from someone like Keeho, it was really surprising and it was an eye-opening experience for me to learn about all these issues.”

One of the rappers in the group, Intak, also talked about his lack of awareness, saying he only learned about rap “from the Korean industry’s perspective.”

“But Keeho has helped me realize a foreign perspective and learn more about cultural knowledge,” he added.

As I’ve written about in the past, BTS, the current international K-pop juggernaut, had their own journey regarding appropriation and offensiveness. A key moment in their development as a group came during their reality show, American Hustle Life. During the show, the group were exposed to the history of rap–at least the West Coast side of rap’s history. Sessions with Coolio, Wale and others opened them up to learning about rap on the ground level from the people in the culture, not from corporate algorithms and think tanks.

With the guidance of rap legends, who told them directly to be themselves when they rap instead of what they believe they should be, they became different artists. Instead of keeping up some of their bad behavior from the past, the group became much more responsible of the work they were putting out and how it could affect their international fans.

What I hope is that we see more videos like this P1Harmony video coming from other K-pop stars. We need more K-celebrities opening up about their experiences with learning about appropriation. The more it becomes a standard in the industry, the more fans can feel included and, of course, the more dollars the K-pop industry accrue.

But aside from monetary value, K-pop groups and their fans will be engaging in something spiritually beneficial than money–an honest and respectful exchange that can increase compassion, empathy, and connection across cultures. And learning how to be in concert with each other is paramount if we want to strive towards cross-cultural peace.

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