Asia Life

What Puts the K in K-pop?

Non-Korean singers raise questions about race and identity in Korean pop music.

Jenna Gibson
What Puts the K in K-pop?
Credit: YouTube screenshot

Her debut performance went like any other K-pop artist. She appeared on one of Korea’s many weekly music shows, dressed to the nines, and sang her heart out in Korean while performing some of K-pop’s famously complex choreography. But Lana isn’t Korean — she’s Russian. After releasing her first single in June, Lana (a shortened version of her birth name, Svetlana) has stirred controversy among fans, once again raising the question: what puts the K in K-pop?

Lana is far from the first non-Korean to debut in the K-pop industry — K-pop groups have included members from China, Japan, Thailand, and more for years. In fact, two new groups — Z-Boys and Z-Girls — have purposely set out to push the boundaries of the industry’s globalization. The members are from countries all over Asia – the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Taiwan, and Japan — but none are Korean, and their songs thus far have been in English. At a recent press conference for the groups, Jun Kang, the CEO of Zenith Media, explained the barriers they have faced promoting the groups in South Korea thus far. “Music shows tell us that they want K-pop and Korean songs and that our groups don’t fit in,” he said. “If in other countries, television shows broadcast people of diverse cultures, why must we sing only Korean songs here?”

Reception among international fans has been mixed, particularly for Lana. In conversations online and in comments on her social media, people have criticized her for using white privilege to take a coveted spot in an industry that for many has brought much-needed representation for Asian artists around the world. On the other hand, some have pointed out that she has lived in Korea for years, learned Korean fluently, and trained in the same system as other singers, and thus should be considered a K-pop star regardless of her race.

This conversation echoes one from back in 2015, when African American singer Alex Reid debuted as a member of the girl group BP Rania. Reid, who has since left the group, has also spoken up about issues she faced with cultural and linguistic barriers, as well as accusations that she was engaging in cultural appropriation by performing as a non-Korean K-pop star.

Meanwhile, even as more hopefuls from around the world are increasingly coming to South Korea to be part of K-pop, entertainment companies have also made it a deliberate strategy to create completely “glocalized” groups outside of Korea as well. For example, in recent years SM Entertainment has been debuting different boy groups under its NCT (Neo Culture Technology) brand. This year, the company launched WayV, a group consisting entirely of Chinese-speaking singers and managed by a local label in China. In a recent interview with Billboard, Chris Lee, an executive at SM, said that the company could debut all kinds of global groups, mentioning examples like NCT Thai, NCT Hollywood, and NCT Europe.

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JYP Entertainment, which has also debuted a fully China-focused boy group and has previously announced plans for a Japanese girl group, is also on board with the glocalization strategy. In a speech to investors last year, CEO J.Y. Park said his company had three stages for its global expansion: first, exporting Korean content; second, integrating foreign talent into K-pop groups; and finally, developing entirely foreign talents. “We believe this is the future of K-pop,” Park said.

For many fans and observers, all of this raises a fundamental question: what exactly makes K-pop K-pop? Musically, it’s not a genre, given that releases encompass a wide variety of musical styles from hip-hop to electronica to power ballads. Is it the industry’s training and promotion system, or its emphasis on boy and girl groups? The most straightforward answer would be that it’s in the name — K-pop literally means “Korean pop,” after all. But even this answer is deceptively complex. Does that mean anyone can participate, as long as the lyrics are in Korean? What about Korean groups releasing Japanese- or English-language albums? And what about these foreign stars and groups that are not Korean, but are managed by Korean entertainment agencies?

As Korean entertainment companies broaden the scope of the industry both within South Korea and around the world, they will likely have to grapple with these difficult questions, hopefully continuing to spark these sorts of interesting conversations about race, representation, language, and, of course, music.

Jenna Gibson is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago and a Korea blogger for The Diplomat. You can find her on Twitter at @jennargibson.