Music by VICE

Take a Seat North America, It's Global Pop's Time to Shine

As BTS, the ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack, Bad Bunny, Charli XCX, and more show, we should be optimistic about a future where everything popular isn't in English.

by Phil Witmer
Feb 20 2018, 6:25pm

Illustration by John Garrison

You could argue that the social dystopia of the late 2010s is fueled by a general rejection of a collective humanity. A study in February 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh showed that American adults who spend more than two hours a day on social media felt twice as closed-off than their peers. Of course, the fact that feelings of isolation are expressed in a planet that’s never been more connected is a paradox. As people and nations regress into themselves, culture has become a wide-ranging exchange of new ideas online . Some of them, especially in music, aren’t originating in North America. It’s clear that Latin music and K-pop have made serious headways into primarily English-speaking markets. Last year, BTS scored the first Billboard Hot 100-charting singles by a Korean group with “DNA” and "MIC Drop," while there are no less than seven reggaeton songs crushing Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart at the time of this writing. Maybe the commercial value and cultural cache of music worldwide is no longer directly proportional to how North American it is or how much of it is sung in English.

In the past, albums like Paul Simon’s Graceland and Vampire Weekend’s self-titled have drawn from other cultures, but they were still criticized as “cultural tourists” appropriating without context. The African elements are an exotic novelty, no matter how reverent the musicians are (they were still benefiting from white privilege, too). What’s being marketed here is an otherness. Music from Africa or Asia or Latin America exists in opposition to the established “normal” of western identity, which is the key to its appeal in that part of the world. For decades, music with centuries of history has mainly been marketed and consumed in bad faith as “world music.” But as the internet has allowed pop music from other countries to disseminate more easily, that's no longer the case.

The self-described “K-pop trash” fandoms could give a flying fuck about whether or not the boys in BTS or the girls in Red Velvet play into their predisposed fantasies about East Asia. They’re in it for the music and the personas of the band members. Plus, K-pop is still mostly sung in Korean, so the sheer miracle that famously language-averse North American audiences are meeting these artists on their own terms is rather remarkable, and representative of a more open-minded musical consumption. In this emerging world, it’s not just diasporas listening to their respective musics, though those groups play an enormous part, especially the substantial chunk of the US that speaks Spanish as their first language.

And yes, there is the Latin explosion: trap, reggaeton, maybe funk carioca. Latin pop might have the best track record of not being exoticized; Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez started something of a Latin wave in the late 90s through more subtle incorporations of their Latinidad—horns and extroverted singing styles—into otherwise ordinary mainstream pop devoid of cliches other than the instantly dated, glossy production style that plagued the era. In the present, Bad Bunny scores millions of YouTube plays on every single he even features on, representing Puerto Rico in his uniquely aching sing-rapping. Elsewhere, Camila Cabello cleverly translated the percussive pianos of her Cuban musical heritage into “Havana,” a worldwide megahit, while also tackling indie-leaning synthpop and acoustic textures on her debut album. Spanish is America’s unofficial second language, so it’s about time that the music sung in that language became a commercial and critical force without adhering to played-out salsa or mariachi tropes.

All this means North American music fans are starting to be okay with having their everyday music not sung in English and listening to music from East Asia or Latin America is no longer tied to a pseudo-intellectual or academic expanding of the palate. It’s just cool and enjoyable to a wide audience, and that’s why the niche has been shattered. Recently, there have been three albums that seem to be pushing for a musical globalization of sorts. Here, non-North American artists are presented as themselves without being subject to humiliating novelty branding as an “other.”

More Life, the mixtape/”playlist” that Drake decided wasn’t worth sending to the Grammys, may be the Torontonian’s most noteworthy release outside of his quasi-classic Take Care. It highlights music from West Africa and the Caribbean while letting those performers take centre stage (even if Drake did sort of screw over artists like Burna Boy). That exhibition has allowed Afrobeats and dancehall to begin a gradual bleed through to the hip-hop sphere, especially whether it’s fusion artists like J Hus or long-deserved looks for Nigerian superstars Mr. Eazi and Davido. However, this hasn’t always mean enormous success America-side: Wizkid’s attempted crossover album Sounds from the Other Side only peaked at 107 on the Billboard 200, but it is an exemplar Afrobeats release, nonetheless. Similarly, Americans bristled at the inclusion of the English rapper Giggs on More Life, memeing his unorthodox performance style while expressing their annoyance at the very concept of UK hip-hop. Drake’s enormous profile undercut his intentions, preventing this crossover from fully taking hold.

A more successful take on the African cultural exchange is—surprisingly—on a big, glossy movie soundtrack. Black Panther: The Album is an objective big moment for Kendrick Lamar and his parent label Top Dawg Entertainment, but relatively unadvertised was the prominence of several artists of South African origin. Gqom singer Babes Wodumo duets with Zacari on the effervescent highlife of “Redemption,” while rapper Saudi holds his own—spitting in the Zulu language, no less—against 2 Chainz and Schoolboy Q on the hard-driving “X.” Music like hip-hop, gqom, and Afrobeats (though the latter is somewhat absent from Black Panther) are representative of where the African continent and its diasporas are at in the present, having moved past the important yet traditionalist commercial breakthroughs that artists like Fela Kuti and Youssou N’Dour made back in the 1970s and 1980s.

The underground scale of our third global-pop party album perhaps makes it the most successful of all, however. Charli XCX’s Pop 2 is another digital-only album, just like More Life. Also similar to Drake, Charli (herself a mixed-race child of the Indian diaspora in Uganda) plays curator of an international cast: artists from South Korea, Estonia, Brazil, Finland and more make meaningful and idiosyncratic contributions to the album’s cosmopolitan future-pop. None are marketed as an “other,” nor are they melted together into a faceless Euro/North American identity. Everyone stands out, whether it’s through their accents, inflections, or—in the case of Pabllo Vittar—singing their entire verse in Portuguese. The only way these artists fit in together is through the union of Charli’s vision, but none seemed to have been picked because they were exotic or appealingly foreign. They’re here because they’re good (and more than a few are queer, but that’s another, equally important topic of discussion). It’s also worth it to mention that less than half of the featured artists are Americans. Pop 2 is as anti-hegemony as it gets.

Who seems to be something of a prophet of all of this is M.I.A., who treated the dance music of several different cultures as her personal playground well before any of these waves. Her early works, Arular and Kala, foresaw a world where Bollywood numbers rub up against Brazilian funk which rubs up against Caribbean soca which rubs up against… well, you get the picture. If she were a new artist, emerging now, she’d be hailed as a hero rather than consigned to one-hit-wonder status with that truffle-fry-featuring NYT interview. She’d also have avoided being saddled with the “worldbeat” label that followed her throughout her prime. But M.I.A.’s legacy as someone who saw that international music could be appreciated in its contemporary, danceable forms rather than as commodified exoticism still stands.

It’s very, very tempting to read hope into all of this, and one should. That being said, acceptance through capitalism (as seen in the post-”Despacito” reggaeton boom) is still part of the capitalist monster, vulture-like and uncaring about the actual moral good of representing the underrepresented. But perhaps it’s better to focus on the good in all of this. The consumers of K-pop and Latin trap are young, using the internet in its platonic ideal to spread music from their diasporas and nations to others. Sometimes these others, now North Americans, find the music themselves out of genuine curiosity for what’s going on outside of their tiny pocket of culture. A head-nodding track later, and they’re connected.

Phil is on Twitter.