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Non-Korean "K-Pop" singers raise identity questions about Korean pop music

"K-pop groups" with no Korean members are not hard to find these days. JYP Entertainment, a local record label, recently unveiled the all-Japanese girl group NiziU, just a year after seven-member Chinese boy-band WayV was revealed by its rival SM Entertainment. Before these, there was the all-American boy group EXP Edition, which made its debut in Korea in 2017.

Such acts usually set their sights on international markets while branding themselves as K-pop singers ― displaying and highlighting K-pop characteristics such as a blend of assorted music genres, but with an emphasis on choreography.

The idea of non-Korean K-pop bands has been adopted by many entertainment management firms trying to make inroads into overseas markets, where fans want stars who can "do K-pop with familiar ease," according to industry watchers.

But not everyone is warmly embracing the idea, with some questioning whether they deserve to be called "K-pop groups."

When NiziU made headlines here in June after taking the Japanese music charts by storm with its track "Make you happy" sung in Japanese, many people did not acknowledge this as "a musical feat by K-pop stars."

Instead, they gave the cold shoulder to JYP's founder/producer Park Jin-young for simply "using K-pop's success formula for another (J-pop) market."

What is the rationale behind people's antipathy?

"With its global ascent, K-pop has become a source of national pride for numerous Koreans, so they do not want to see record labels taking away their music to elsewhere," Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, told The Korea Times. "Ironically, their antipathy against K-pop bands without Koreans also stems from fear that these acts might outstrip original K-pop groups that include at least one or two Koreans. This is a sign showing they are still not so self-assured about their music and culture."

The professor said the K-pop industry's Korean entrepreneurs had exported their know-how for success for many years.

"Some Koreans also worry K-pop's creativity might be stolen, but they should remember that K-pop is essentially a mixture of American and Japanese music, which means it is not utterly original," Lee said.

"But it did develop some unique features ― such as slick choreography, distinctive makeup styles and a specialized training system ― and these are already recognized by people worldwide as K-pop's competitive edge. Hence, losing titles for these is not something to be anxious about."

There are reasons non-Korean fans may not fully embrace such groups, according to Patty Ahn, a communications professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies Korean pop culture. Pointing out that followers in different countries and regions might have dissimilar rationales, Ahn specifically referred to the case of black fans in the U.S.

"From what I have observed, many black fans in the U.S. tended to develop an emotional connection to Korean culture once they got into K-pop," the professor said. "Their interest in the music has gradually led them to take Korean language classes or watch Korean dramas, so when they think Korean style has been somewhat removed from K-pop, they seem to feel disoriented and disrupted."

Prospects

Nonetheless, Lee and Ahn agreed that the idea of non-Korean K-pop groups will continue to spread across the world.

"We will see similar groups as K-pop management companies ― which are known for their flexibility ― move to keep expanding themselves," Ahn said. "They will experiment, take risks, adapt, adjust and try again."

She added, "But it is difficult to predict whether these bands will make an international splash like BTS and BLACKPINK. I think they might be able to do so in Japan and in countries that use the Chinese language, but when it comes to the U.S. market, this could be quite challenging due to racism. The country is becoming more open-minded, but there is still resistance."

Lee said the sound of K-pop acts without Koreans may one day be categorized differently.

"Korean hip-hop, for instance, is pretty distinctive from hip-hop born in America, so it often falls into a separate category," he said. "Likewise, the music of these acts is also likely to get a new name like JK-pop (Japanese K-pop) or CK-pop (Chinese K-pop.)"

He elaborated, saying, "Thus, K-pop today should not merely be defined as music created by Koreans or Korean companies ― its new definition should be based on its style, which encompasses the genre's various aspects ranging from industrial to visual."

(sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr)

Source: The Korea Times
Tags: jyp entertainment, sm entertainment
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