Culture

Is K-Pop Guilty of Appropriating South Asian Culture?

We try to understand whether K-pop groups using Vedic prayer chants or an idol of a Hindu god happens because they're ignorant or indifferent.
July 9, 2020, 2:25pm
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The earlier version of Blackpink's new song "How You Like That" features a bust of Lord Ganesh in the background, placed there for no reason whatsoever.

On June 26, one of the biggest groups in the K-pop music industry made their long-awaited comeback. Blackpink, a four-member girl group, released their single "How You Like That" and its accompanying music video after over a year, breaking several records. It became the YouTube video, as well as the music video, with the most views in a day at a whopping 86.3 million. But as fans rejoiced about their favourite group’s comeback, another corner of the internet outraged. In yet another incident, K-pop idols were called out for misappropriating South Asian culture and religion.

In a scene that has now been removed, one of the members could be seen rapping sitting beside a sculpture of Lord Ganesh, a Hindu god. South Asian K-pop fans expressed their anger at the fact that the bust was just used for aesthetic purposes on the set—which had nothing to do with Hinduism. In Hindu religion, the elephant-headed god is invoked at the beginning of prayers, important undertakings, and religious ceremonies. Fans not happy about seeing the deity being used as prop then spoke out against cultural appropriation in the music industry, lashing out against it on social media.

The story of kpop being mired in controversies related to flippant cultural appropriation is much older, though. K-pop has had a long history of appropriating Black culture, but it is only in the recent past that fans have started to notice appropriation of South Asian culture as well. In 2017, Korean idol Lee Hyo Ri came out with a song called “White Snake”.

The song was just one of the thousands that K-pop idols had released that year, except for the one thing that made it stand out: It had a stanza of the Gayatri Mantra, a Sanskrit chant that is said to be one of the holiest mantras in Hindu culture. It is a Vedic prayer, associated with the divine and the pure. So obviously, when South Asian fans saw her perform a seductive sequence to it, they weren’t very happy, to say the least.

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A screenshot of the comments thread of "White Snake".

Since then, what has followed is multiple instances of Korean idols using South Asian aesthetics in songs, videos, and attires. And this has only increased in the last couple of months.

Naturally, South Asian fans who have been following these artists for years feel slighted. “Honestly, appropriation of desi culture by non-desi artists has been a problem since forever and K-pop isn’t innocent of it, either,” says Shreya Juyal, a student of Hansraj College at the University of Delhi, who has been following K-pop for a long time. “The problem is that the same people who scorn at Indians smelling like curry turn around and use bindis, maang tikas, and bangles for aesthetics, or mudras for their dance steps, because it’s ‘ethnic and hip’.”

All of this desperately begs the question: Does the K-pop music industry have a South Asian cultural appropriation problem?

“The term ‘Cultural Appropriation’ means taking something from another culture and making it your own,” says Harmandeep Kaur, assistant professor at the School of Media and Culture Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to VICE. “And it becomes extremely problematic when there are irregular power relations between one community and the other; or when it is very reductive—reducing the identity of one community to one aspect of their culture; or when they fail to give credit where it's due and don’t acknowledge where it has come from.”

But is this appropriation intentional, and even if it isn’t, should it be pardoned? “Koreans are not yet sensitised to the fact that appropriating imagery, clothing, accessories such as bindi, and some musical samples could be a problem—that some of the iconographies that they are playing with are religiously or culturally coded,” says Cedarbough Saeji, visiting assistant professor in Korean Culture at Indiana University and scholar of Korean contemporary culture in media and performance, to VICE. “In the case of the U.S., it's hard to see how Koreans can claim ignorance, but in the case of South Asia, it is more plausible that people simply do not know enough about South Asia to understand. It is often intended to add some exotic or unique element to the music/dance/imagery and very rarely meant to be intentionally disrespectful.”

But perhaps that exactly is what makes it a problem. While you can’t deny that the West, especially the U.S., has automatically held a culturally significant position globally, it is worth questioning why South Asians are not offered the same courtesy. “It isn’t much of appropriation as it is ignorance,” agrees Riddhi Chakraborty, a writer and producer at the Rolling Stone India magazine, who frequently covers K-pop in India. “Either it is the butt of a joke or just for aesthetic purpose—the problem is that there isn’t enough knowledge.”

But why is there such a lack of information and awareness about South Asians? South Asians are practically one-fourth of the world’s population, so obviously it is not because there’s a lack of our presence. And as we ease into more culturally sensitive times, is it really all that unfair to ask people from entertainment industries to be more culturally aware? “In the past, they could be as ignorant as they wanted and thought they could get away with it—which they did back then—but now with their fans especially being so global and K-pop growing worldwide, it is not possible for them to casually get away with this ignorance anymore,” affirms Chakraborty. “There's no excuse for being ignorant anymore.”

While Kaur doesn’t essentially agree to the use of bindis and maang tikas being an appropriation of South Asian culture, it is important to investigate why others think of it as problematic, she says. “The boundaries of cultural appropriation are not very black and white and you can’t generalise appropriation,” says Kaur. “But one thing to think about is why these K-pop stars are choosing to represent themselves in attire from this particular region. How are they projecting their identities through the use of South Asian attire, when they aren’t from the region?”

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K-pop idols in traditional South Asian attire and jewellery. From left: Sandara Park from 2NE1, Seungyeon from CLC, and Arang from Pink Fantasy

As Saeji said, while they don’t mean ill, it is often just to add exotic imagery. But this exoticism, while some might say is the highest form of flattery, can actually be problematic and cause othering of the very cultures they borrow from. South Asia—and in fact, even the Middle East and Islamic culture—has always been subjected to exoticisation by the West. Intricately made mathapattis, bewitching classical dances, and traditional attire can seem very artistic at a first glance, and mysterious at the second, if you are not familiar with its cultural significance. So, for someone who doesn’t belong here, it can appear very “hot” or “exotic”. But, Kaur says, we are looking at things from a Eurocentric perspective and that itself is a problem. “Because if you think something South Asian is exotic, then that itself is exoticisation—because you are looking at it from a Western perspective which sees the East as ‘exotic'.”

The problem is, using just a selective few elements of the culture generalises and reduces all South Asians to a stereotype. While some might think of this arbitrary borrowing of elements as exciting, it does well to place it against the context of our colonial history that has led to internalised inferiority about our culture. Which means that instead of being pissed off, we are only too glad to see others using elements from our culture without giving us due credit, finding validation on the way for what is originally our own.

“It's a problem when K-pop groups use it as an aesthetic because it is “hot” or “exotic” on these non-Indian women, but when the same is worn by us outside of the region, it is seen as weird or extra or non-conforming,” adds Juyal. “We’re so busy trying to be the ‘model minority’ and scorning at our own culture that we forget most of them aren’t laughing with us, they’re just laughing at us. The same people will turn around and reduce us to a nation of nothing more than snake charmers, wheat farms, and curry eaters who all do Bharatanatyam and live in the jungle.” And that is evident in instances where you see idols casually mimicking mudras from classical dances on even passing mentions of India. Even in advertisements or songs, India is reduced to the country with the Taj Mahal and the curry—such as the time girl group Oh My Girl performed the “Curry” song, which is infamous for its blatantly racist lyrics.

But who exactly do we blame for this lack of initiative and awareness? Would it be the K-pop groups themselves, their managers, their agencies, their choreographers, their producers or the industry at large? “Everyone involved is responsible,” answers Saeji. “Artists could question these aesthetics. Producers could, agencies could.” When the artists and the staff involved in the production are old enough to create, it is natural to have expectations about them being aware about what they possibly use to create. “Everyone has access to the internet,” adds Chakraborty. “The Korean fandom in South Asia has never been this large before and K-pop idols or agencies can no longer sweep it under the rug. Globally as well, there is more awareness—especially among the younger people—about culture and what is and isn’t correct. So, it is naturally expected that they do the bare minimum.”

Contrary to popular notions, and far away from the screaming girls' stereotype, K-pop fans have always been very involved in cultural and political activism. In this case too, K-pop fans have always very rationally explained why it is a problem for them, and even informed the agencies responsible for the artists—through the use of well-crafted email templates. But that doesn't mean speaking out on stan Twitter—the very vocal community of Twitter users that post opinions related to music, celebrities, TV shows, movies and social media—does not have its own problems. Twitter can end up acting as an echo chamber where stans only amplify what they like hearing, even if it isn't essentially the truth. Then also comes the aspect of fan-wars online—between fans of different artists—where the issue can snowball into an argument about something trivial, taking attention away from the issue at hand. And in this particular case of South Asian appropriation, there is also the problem of South Asian fans always depicting South Asian culture with what is just specific to just the north of India.

But speaking out online has led to changes too, as is evident with the Blackpink video. “Cultural appropriation or disrespect of other cultures can make fans question their K-pop fandom,” adds Saeji. “And if it happens repeatedly, it will cost the artist fans.” While they didn't issue any apologies, the agency did remove the scene people were angry with—indicating that this online activism by the fans wasn’t a futile venture.

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