On Tuesday 2 June, Grammy award-winning songwriter and music artist Tiffany Red returned home from a trip to her local mall, where she had encountered the national guard armed with large rifles, an experience that left Red “traumatized”.
Exactly one week before, George Floyd had been killed in Minneapolis, and tensions in the country were rising as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest. Tuesday 2 June was also #BlackoutTuesday, a global “social media moment” that grew out of the music industry’s #TheShowMustBePaused, an initiative created to “hold the industry at large” – including major corporations and their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people – accountable.
Still processing her experience at the mall earlier that day, Red opened her inbox to find a message from her South Korean music publisher, Ekko Music Rights, regarding a $66 payment for a song she had written for one of K-pop’s most popular groups, NCT Dream – a straightforward business transaction with zero acknowledgment of what Red, a Black American woman, may have been going through given the news cycle then.
For Red, who has worked with artists such as Zendaya, Jennifer Hudson and Jason Derulo, this was a final straw. She had already decided to stop writing K-pop music because she felt she was poorly compensated, but Ekko’s aloofness spoke to a continued concern she harbored about the industry at large: that despite K-pop’s reliance on Black music and culture, the industry didn’t actually support Black lives.
Today, a striking number of K-pop hits are written and produced by Black Americans and a significant percentage of K-pop fans in the US are Black. As K-pop grows in popularity worldwide, many international fans are waiting for the industry to develop a more sensitive, globalized understanding of race.
Within K-pop, blackface, mouthing or saying racial slurs, and purely aesthetic uses of Black culture and hairstyles are still common. In recent weeks, as the media has painted K-pop fans as politically active and engaged for overwhelming racist hashtags with videos of their favorite acts and reserving thousands of tickets to artificially boost expected attendance at Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally, official statements of support for Black lives have trickled in from a handful of groups and idols.
Arguably the most well-known K-pop group in the world, BTS, and their parent company, Big Hit Entertainment (whose CEO has stated publicly that “Black music is the base” of the septet’s musical identity), were some of the most vocal, and the only group to donate money – $1m – to Black Lives Matter. But many contend that the industry overall has failed to show unified support for the movement. Now, Black creatives and fans are holding them accountable.
SM Entertainment is one of South Korea’s three largest entertainment companies. It is credited with producing the first K-pop idol group, H.O.T., in 1996, which established the “SM performance” style that the brand still employs today: a combination of impressive visuals, dance, rock, rap and hip-hop that took inspiration from Black American artists of the MTV generation. Songwriter and producer Micah Powell attended six SM songwriting camps between 2015 and 2018. At one camp, he wrote a song called Devil and created a dance move to go with it, which he then showed to SM executives. “The entire staff lit up,” Powell says of their reaction.
Devil became the lead single of SM group Super Junior’s 2015 album of the same name. When Powell watched the music video for Devil for the first time, he was shocked to see that his dance move, a hip tap and high clap combination, had been used as part of the song’s chorus, without his permission, and without credit or compensation. Powell’s background vocals on the track had also been used without payment or credit.
“I had to hunt [SM] down,” he says, and was eventually paid $200 for the vocals which he had recorded in Korean, a language he does not speak. Powell says the industry’s lack of action is “a microcosm of a bigger issue, part of a bigger puzzle of inequality”. K-pop looks to the west for inspiration and “this is exactly how white people see us. They use our culture, they love our culture, they’ll take everything from our culture, but don’t pour back into our culture.”
More than two weeks after Red posted her frustrations with the industry on Instagram, SM Entertainment, the “sister company” of Ekko Music Rights, released a statement that read: “We stand with our Black collaborators, friends and fans” and added that “we are new to this conversation”. Red’s frustration is palpable as she scoffs at this: “You aren’t new to this conversation, you are a part of this conversation. We are the people who make your music. Why would you ever think that you’re excluded from this?”
“I am Black before I am a K-pop stan,” says Ellie, 19, who prefers to use her first name to avoid the harassment some K-pop fans face when they speak out against popular groups, “and when I was first discovering NCT 127, the Limitless video really offended me.”
Limitless, a 2017 single from the SM group NCT 127, was produced and composed by a handful of successful Black American producers. In the song’s music video, the company styled some members of the group in hairstyles typically worn by Black men and accessorized them in clothing that directly referenced Black hip-hop artists.
Ellie notes that while styling like this is what’s been deemed “unique and fresh” within the industry, it’s “all been seen before within the Black community”. She is a huge supporter of NCT 127 and has slept on the street three times to see them in person during appearances in New York City. She also danced with the group when they made a surprise appearance last year in Washington Square Park.
In 2019, NCT 127 reportedly made over $24m touring in US arenas, many filled with Black fans (maybe as much as 18% according to a recent fan poll). And yet the group and SM itself “rarely ever show any remorse when they offend [those] fans by culturally appropriating, and continue to misstep”, says Ellie, most recently by styling an NCT 127 member in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt with the Confederate flag on it for a music video. Fans of NCT 127, or “NCTzens”, have tried to call attention to these concerns through organized outreach to SM but “despite being emailed, tweeted at and called out [the company] continues to harm Black fans” with their choices, Ellie says.
K-pop fan Davonna Gilpin, 27, who lives in Los Angeles, has been following Korean music for 12 years and hosts a pop culture podcast called Melanetizens with a fellow Black K-pop fan. She says that this is an industry-wide problem. “I’ve noticed during my time [as a fan that] the concerns of others are almost always acknowledged, but not the concerns of Black people.” For example, YG Entertainment recently edited out a depiction of the Hindu god Ganesha from a Blackpink music video because it had been deemed offensive by many Hindu fans. Just last month, SM publicly apologized for styling that included a pin with a Japanese slur. Within days of receiving complaints, the company not only delayed the release of a music video but also issued a reprint of the entire album so that the pins could be digitally removed. And yet, Gilpin notes, the Confederate flag remains visible to the public. Given that, “I can’t help but think they’ve seen all the concerns and critiques and choose to ignore it,” she concludes.
After seeing Red’s Instagram posts, Ellie, Gilpin, and fellow fan De’Andra Johnson, 23, who lives in Inglewood, California, organized #SMBlackout, a hashtag event “to bring awareness to the importance of Black fans and Black creatives in SM’s roster”.
Gilpin says: “I’ve skipped lunch to save up to go to multiple NCT 127 tour stops and buy albums and merch. So on top of how disrespectful it was [for SM] to not speak up for their Black employees and collaborators, I felt it was also disrespectful to their Black consumers. If Black lives don’t matter to them then Black dollars, Black music and Black fashion and style shouldn’t either.”
One week after the #SMBlackout event, SM released its official statement. Ellie says those six sentences, which were only posted in English and did not lay out a plan of action, “did not hold any weight”. Gilpin adds: “I was confused by the ‘we’re new to this conversation’ part because we’ve been trying to have this conversation with them for years and they decided they didn’t want to listen.” She says that if they are truly interested in creating change, “now is the best time for them to come forward and actively participate, especially since the industry has been moving into a huge global spotlight. To me, it’s not a political or controversial stance. It should be a no-brainer for anyone, any company, any industry to stand for human rights and equality.”
Johnson notes that she is still waiting for statements from YG and Pledis, which produce a handful of chart-topping groups she also likes. Other K-pop fans are waiting on action from the companies that manage their favorite acts, including JYP, whose CEO has incorporated blackface into his performances as a solo artist and also named practice rooms at the company facilities after Black artists he admires.
For Red, this moment is the beginning of a new personal mission: to bring change to the music industry through activism. “It’s needed, it’s missing. There’s no one protecting the artists and there’s so much to protect us from,” she says. She will continue producing her solo music at home in Los Angeles, but doesn’t have any intention of writing for others any longer.
“I’d love to see what would happen to K-pop if we all stopped [writing for the industry],” Red says. “I would be a liar if I didn’t say that I didn’t participate in helping them steal our culture. We didn’t make the system, but it’s all of our responsibility to fix it to make it better. Black people are not the only people who will benefit from that system changing in K-pop. Everyone will benefit from that. It’ll create a whole new system of accountability.”