What It’s Like To Love K-Pop While Black

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Is it possible to see past the appropriation within the genre?

Vlogger Michael Smith-Grant first became interested in K-pop after watching KARA’s “Break It” video. He became a fan fan a couple of years later when he discovered more hip-hop leaning groups like B.A.P., a band which, Smith-Grant emphasizes, came before the wildly popular BTS.

Smith-Grant got a lot of shit originally for liking a genre that wasn’t authentically hip-hop and also wasn’t in English, he says. Which is why he started his own YouTube channel to dispel the myth that black people can’t be into K-pop. “A lot of people don’t understand half of the mumble rappers in the industry today or the lyrics to ‘Despacito,’ but did that really stop them from listening?” he asks. “A lot of people get really hung up on the fact that K-pop is a ‘thing’ today, when it's just pop music in Korean. You don’t judge a book by its cover, so you shouldn’t judge music by its language.” 

But, you can judge music by the way it's presented, which Smith-Grant also understands. People—black people, in particular—have taken an issue with K-pop, thanks to some of the genre's artists engaging in problematic behavior. 

What does “problematic” mean here? Well, it can mean extremely racist, like when recently K-pop band Mamamoo wore blackface to imitate Bruno Mars. (This is just one of the many instances where other K-pop artists have done the same.) Or it can mean engaging in inappropriate cultural appropriation, like rocking cornrows and grillz in music videos. 

“Every genre of music has its set of problems—its Achilles' heel,” Smith-Grant says. “And for K-pop, that will always be with the issue of cultural appropriation.” Recognizing this, he decided to start Seoulwave, a “social entertainment company,” about four years ago with his friend Kayla Justiniani. Through videos, they address the many problems within the genre they adore and, as Justiniani says, “take the stance of being real and upfront about all issues in coordination with the music, and try to tackle issues on culture, as well.”

Justiniani first became interested in K-pop around seven years ago after staying with a family member who was into the genre. She had listened to bands like Wonder Girls and 2ne1 before, but once she heard a remix of a Lady Gaga song from the now-disbanded group Rainbow, she was hooked. There were a couple of things about the genre that held her interest: “My music taste has always been ‘worldly,'” she says. “I’m a big Brit-pop fan, I listen to Japanese pop and rock, Swedish, Spanish, anything that I connect to. So, K-pop is no different.” But it was also the production of the bands that kept her coming back. “You’ve got extremely good dancing and singing. Plus, I’m just a big girl group head, so it was like taking Girls Aloud and Danity Kane and adding slick moves and some pretty decent rapping.”  

She, like Smith-Grant, doesn’t pretend to not see the problems that come with a lot of the artists.“The majority of music borrows from black culture, and a good chunk straight-up steals from it,” she says. “So, it’s kinda something you go into not being surprised that it’s happening.” That doesn't make it okay though. When approaching the topic, she makes a point to distinguish between appropriation and appreciation, an area upon which a lot of bands toe the line. “It can be problematic, and a lot of it is,” she says. "When you do things without sincerity and appreciation, things can get bad fast. I don’t categorize every little thing as appropriation, a lot of it can be labeled as ignorant. But if you continue to do the same thing over and over, then it’s appropriation.”

Speaking of ignorance, that’s what a lot of artists profess when they do receive flack for their offensive behavior. In Mamamoo’s apology, following the backlash of their performance, they write that they “were extremely ignorant of blackface" and that they “did not understand the implications of [their] actions.” This is understandable to a certain extent. South Korea is very much a racially homogenous country, and many artists aren’t familiar with the detailed racial and political history of America. “A lot of these artists have international dreams with their companies but no proper global representative to coach or prepare them for the different cultures of the world,” Smith-Grant explains. 

And, of course, not all K-pop artists are guilty of this; most don't have this problematic behavior at all. “Just because some people refuse to learn and grow doesn’t mean there aren’t artists who take both the black culture and their own culture seriously,” Justianini explains. “There are artists that happily marry the two and make something worth consuming.”

But as K-pop continues to garner international attention, artists—and their managers—are going to have to be more cognizant of the images they put out there. Especially if they have any hopes of breaking into the American market. “The artist who attempts to crossover with appropriation in mind won’t break the barriers, they’ll be rejected—rightfully so,” Smith-Grant predicts. “There will be more artists and groups that will have success—like BTS, Wonder Girls, and Girls Generation—within the mainstream media.” He lists hip-hop and R&B artist Jay Park as another making waves. “If people can like ‘Despacito,’ which is a Spanish hit, then people can like ‘Drive’ by Jay Park. It’s not fair to group the entire genre based on the actions of a few.”

In the meantime, Justiniani says the best thing to do is keep calling out the artists who are being problematic. That’s the only way things are going to improve. “You can’t change things for the better if you keep allowing ignorance to prosper—you call it out, you keep the conversation going. You don’t see past it. You educate and help change happen. That way, we can all enjoy what we love on a better, more balanced level.” 

Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

Sounds fake, but okay

In a new interview for Australian Vogue, Kendall Jenner makes the claim that being associated with the Kardashian name was a setback in her modeling career. Hmmm, that's funny, because power and influence usually works in their holder's favor.

In the interview, Jenner addresses skeptics who doubted that she would make it as a professional model. "A lot of people assumed that because I came from a 'name' that it was a lot easier for me to get to where I got, but actually it's the completely opposite," she says.

"I've always been the person to prove [critics] wrong, even when I was younger," she says. "I've always been a hard worker: that's in my blood. My parents raised me and my little sister to be that way and the rest of my sisters, too." In the profile, it's revealed that Jenner used to attend castings "simply as 'K' or 'Kendall' to distinguish herself from her famous family."

But keeping her name off her portfolio wasn't going to fool anyone, really. Her face has been on television for years, and it seems unlikely that a casting agent wouldn't know who she was even if Kendall didn't come out and say it. Perhaps Jenner was more closely examined and more readily criticized by people who doubted her, but I'm not sure I believe that she had a harder time gaining a modeling platform or booking big jobs, even if she didn't use her last name.

After all, Jenner was likely able to get into those big casting rooms right away because of her family's connections, and she was able to devote her time to pursuing that career because of the wealth they have. She would've had a much harder time making a name for herself if she didn't come from an influential family. She probably wouldn't get to be so selective about which shows she walks, and she definitely wouldn't be the highest paid model in the world.

Screenshot via Hulu

Introspection is not a bad thing

In Look Back at It, we revisit pop culture gems of the past and see if they're still relevant and worthy of their designated icon status in our now wildly different world.

"It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something, for no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it's even you?"

Iconic '90s show My So-Called Life is filled with existential questions and observations like this, with many, if not all of them, voiced by high school sophomore Angela Chase (Claire Danes). They're delivered with a familiarly annoyed tone, as if Angela can't believe things are the way they are, and that they're unlikely to change.

Angela lives with her parents and sister in a comfortable home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and spends her time navigating the social scene of Liberty High School. She's undergoing a big change, having switched friend groups and fallen in with a cooler crew, namely Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). Thanks to them, Angela dyed her hair from blonde to a "Crimson Glow," and is encouraged to indulge in her obsession with Jordan Catalano (a pre-Gucci Jared Leto), the kind of guy who's constantly applying Visine and has a limited chance of actively graduating.

From the first moment of the first episode, Angela's voice is pure, unadulterated teen angst. The melodrama can, when watching as an adult, feel like it's too much. And then there's other times, like when Angela talks about the agony of Sunday evenings, that it feels unnerving to relate so much to a 15-year-old:

"There's something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself, especially if you've just been totally made a fool of by the only person you'll ever love, and you have a geometry midterm on Monday, which you still haven't studied for because you can't, because Brian Krakow has your textbook, and you're too embarrassed to even deal with it. And your little sister's completely finished with her homework, which is just, like, so simple and mindless a child could do it. And that creepy 60 Minutes watch that sounds like your whole life ticking away."

Angela is nothing if not an over-thinker, preoccupied with very teenage problems like zits and gossip and who to talk to at parties; her thoughts on the most simple of relationships are extreme, like when she thinks about how she felt before she became friends with Rayanne and Rickie: "it seemed like if I didn't, I would die or something."

Sometimes, her melodrama feels suffocating—particularly when related to Jordan Catalano (it's imperative to say both his names). Angela wonders: "Huge events take place on this earth every day. Earthquakes, hurricanes... even glaciers move. So why couldn't he just look at me?"

As an adult, it's easy to think that, of course, Jordan should look at her: She's smart, witty, open-hearted, pretty, has good taste in music. But then, there's no way to make sense of how crushes work. As a sophomore in high school, I also pined after guys who I felt were out of my league, and after the only girls who were out... but who were dating each other. My thoughts probably (definitely) sounded a lot like Angela's, and I was similarly dissatisfied with my life.

At the time, that dissatisfaction felt oppressive—and I wouldn't want to relive it entirely. But that introspection was also what saved me. By questioning what was around me and interrogating how I really felt, I was able to reject the trappings of my conservative town, figure out my own politics, and accept my own queerness. My teenage dissatisfaction with the way things actually are made me grow as a person, and it shaped me into who I am. Thinking about Angela now, and how her angst fueled her, reminds me that I should also let myself indulge in some teen angst—even as an adult.

In one of the show's final episodes, Angela pauses to reflect on the value of her overthinking. She's ringing in the New Year with her friends and decides her resolution could be "to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, because I'm like way too introspective… I think." But she decides against that idea, because "what if not thinking turns me into this really shallow person?" Same, Angela. Same.

Courtesy of HBO

Thanks, I hate it

In an interview today with The Cut, Vanderpump Rules star Stassi Schroeder blessed readers with some of her thoughts on HBO's Game of Thrones, and since we can't get enough GoT talk, we were excited to see what Schroeder had to say.

And, in case you're wondering if Schroeder is a fan of GoT, don't: She's actually such a massive fan that she refers to her fans Khaleesis, and they call her Khaleesi right back. So!

Anyway, after the wide range of responses to Daenerys' fiery mayhem in the show's penultimate episode, The Cut wanted to check in to see how Schroeder was faring, and ask what she thought of it all. While Schroeder's opinion on Dany is mixed (she found the Dragon Queen's "crazy" actions to be relatable, but she didn't think it followed Dany's character arc), it wasn't, like, a bad opinion, just a bit muddled, if not so different than those of the majority of viewers.

Schroeder's real hot take, though—what we feel comfortable calling the worst GoT opinion we've heard—is about another character altogether: Arya Stark. Here's what Schroeder had to say about our favorite blacksmith-banging, Night King-killing, proposal-denying assassin in all the Seven Kingdoms: "Arya, I feel like she probably should have just married whats-his-name [Ed. note: Gendry! His name is Gendry!!]. What's wrong with being a lady and a badass at the same time? You don't have to choose just one."

And, like, sure, you don't have to choose just one, but Arya would never choose to be a lady. That's not her! So, if we're still talking about characters behaving inconsistently, Arya saying yes to a proposal (a rushed one at that) would have been absolutely bonkers. Arya's not about to change her entire personality just because some dude drops down on one knee and proposes, and to want her to do so would be like wanting Dany to act like a sheep, instead of a dragon.

All to say, you know nothing, Stassi Schroeder.

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hoto by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

Our favorite grouchy girl died today

Today is a sad day, because it is the day Grumpy Cat died. Also known as my personal favorite feline celebrity, Grumpy Cat died from complications following a urinary tract infection. The super relatable cat—real name, Tardar Sauce—was only seven years old.

Grumpy Cat was first introduced to the world in 2011, back when LOLcats were everywhere. Grumpy Cat's downturned face (the result of feline dwarfism, according to her owners) was the subject of a huge amount of memes—she was even the 2013 Meme of the Year at the Webby Awards—and was the subject of her own Lifetime movie, in which she was voiced by the Grumpy Cat of actresses, Aubrey Plaza. But, though we loved her for the memes, we loved her even more because we related to her mood.

Grumpy Cat was so relatable because, like us, she was completely over everyone's bullshit. Unlike us, Grumpy Cat didn't hide her feelings with a smile. And while that was because Grumpy Cat literally couldn't do that, we like to think that she also just didn't want to do the emotional labor. Which is why, in honor of Grumpy Cat, have the courage to roll your eyes at someone today, instead of forcing a fake grin. And just think about how Grumpy Cat's probably frowning at us from some sort of kitty afterlife, utterly annoyed that everyone is mourning her death.

Screenshot via YouTube

And I need to see the rest ASAP

As excited as we already are for Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart, to hit theaters next week, we just got even more desperate to see it. Why? Well, the first six minutes of the film were just released, and every minute is incredible.

The film opens on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) meditating and listening to a motivational tape telling her she's better than everyone else, and to "fuck those losers." Her room is decorated with pictures of Michelle Obama and RBG, so we know her head is in the right place. We learn she's the class president when she arrives at school with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever).

It's there that we get a glimpse of the social hierarchy in which Molly and Amy exist—but somewhere down near the bottom, way below the popular kids, the theater nerds, the stoners, and even the annoying class clown.

The film officially hits theaters on May 23, but Annapurna Pictures is holding advanced screenings across the country today, May 17—we're actually holding two of them! So, if you're in L.A. or New York, check them out.

But also, you can watch the first six minutes of the film, below, and prepare yourself to watch the whole movie in a week.

BOOKSMART | Uncut First 6 Minutes