K-pop, male
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K-Pop: Race in the Music Industry

Why do K-pop’s Asian pop stars get less recognition in the Land of the Free than non-Asian pop stars in the Land of the Morning Calm?

There’s an interview that still haunts me: a decade ago, NPR’s (National Public Radio in the US) Michel Martin once spoke to Belgian-Rwandan rapper Paul Van Haver (a.k.a. Stromae) for Black History Month following his breakout Grammy appearance. She asked him how being a “man of color” changed his career. He didn’t understand what she was talking about. When she explained the definition, he protested, “I’m not brown or white.” He explained that while his father was Black and his mother white, his music is not about race or color but feeling. The interview ended immediately after that (whether that was coincidental, who can say). Still, Martin seems to have recovered quickly. I did not.

That revelatory interview suggested that race, as we understand it, may not be what we think. Stromae has gone on to dominate music globally, but when it comes to color, America’s music industry has not changed much. We’ve expanded our categories – the Grammy’s now have a “World Music” award; Korean pop is as well-recognized here as any genre. There is J-pop (Japanese) and C-pop (Chinese), too, along with T-pop (Thai), P-pop (Filipino) and V-pop (Vietnamese). Yet despite this proliferation of ethnicity-based popular musical genres, what we have not done is expand our understanding of race.

To demonstrate: imported K-pop aside, music remains an elusive industry for many Asians from America. There are cases of established artists with broad crossover appeal; Awkwafina, Eric Nam, and Jhené Aiko come to mind. Interestingly, many of the most well-known examples, like Japanese Breakfast, Bruno Mars, Anderson Paak, Olivia Rodrigo, H.E.R., Tyga, and Saweetie are biracial, like Stromae. Moreover, that these household names are part Asian seems to surprise many audiences, given that they do not always present that way. Even the term “Asian American music” is fuzzy at best, lacking the clear features and historicity that we associate with other genres of music with ethnic or racial associations, be it hip-hop, jazz, gospel, reggaeton, or the like. 

More broadly, “Asian” as a racial category may be contentious given the ongoing, deeply ethnic divides between those groups. Even the most cursory glance at history reveals that intergroup conflict between Eastern countries was, and continues to be, commonplace. History bleeds into contemporary attitudes because that is what it does—when it comes to sins committed against one’s ancestors, people are often loathe to forget. Thus, feuds and territorial disputes between them that date all the way back to the Age of Imperialism suggests that nations like Korea, Japan, China and Vietnam do not always see each other as fellow brethren within the same family tree. 

Nevertheless, K-pop is notable in its occasional inclusion of non-Koreans as idols. For an industry systematically built up by the country’s federal government to situate itself as a geopolitical powerhouse brimming with soft power during an era of global economic uncertainty, it is surprisingly inclusive insofar as featuring non-netizens as the face of its domestic exports.

Blackpink’s Lalisa is the most well-known example of this; as a Thai national, she remains one of the most recognizable and beloved K-pop idols, both as a member of the country’s most popular girl group but also as a solo artist who has not shied away from her cultural heritage in her solo hits and music videos. And she is not alone—fellow Blackpink member Rosé is ethnically Korean but was born and raised in New Zealand and Australia. Multiple other idols hail from Japan, China, Taiwan, Canada, and the US—just look at Sana (TWICE), Jackson Wang (Got7), Yanyang (WayV, NCT), Mark (SuperM, NCT), or Jessi (Uptown, Lucky J), to name a few. Alex Reid made headlines as the first Black woman to become a K-pop idol when she debuted with Rania back in 2015, not unlike the way Sriya Lenka did when she debuted in 2022 with Blackswan as both its maknae (i.e., youngest member) and Indian idol.

The irony is that Korea is far more homogenous than the US; foreigners comprise less than five percent of its current population. Culturally, collectivistic countries like Korea are also far more known for being “groupy”—social psychologists call it entitativity, or the tendency to use group membership as a basis for categorization and perception – compared to historically individualist societies like America, where people are seen more like “snowflakes” than extensions of their social group memberships.

Yet even so, despite the fact that the US has nearly triple the number of foreign-born people compared to Korea, and Asians in America comprise a greater proportion of the population than foreigners in Korea (not to mention that America touts diversity as a deeply held – albeit occasionally contentious – cultural value), Asian pop stars appear to have less recognition in The Land of the Free than non-Asian pop stars do in the Land of the Morning Calm.

More than three decades ago, a pair of psychologists, Sue and Okazaki, set out to explain the curious patterns of Asian success in America—namely, why Asians were such spectacular students in the classroom but so noticeably absent in every other domain: leadership, sports, politics, and of course, the entertainment industry. They argued that the two were related; one begot the other. In the absence of great opportunities in these other fields, education becomes seen as the only way forward.

A third of a century later, there have been strides for Asians in America in many of these non-educational domains—Andrew Yang made it all the way to the 2020 Democratic primaries, Shohei Ohtani broke records in home runs, stolen basis, and money extracted from the Dodgers, Sundar Pichai became the CEO of Google. Even in entertainment, the latest award seasons finally gave Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Ali Wong, and Steven Yeun the golden statuettes they richly deserved. 

But the race-based glass ceiling in the music industry remains stubbornly hard to break. (Just ask someone to name as many Asian-American pop stars as they can and see how many they can come up with). Even among K-pop artists who have achieved the kind of widespread name recognition across American households that have frequently eluded Asian-American acts, groundbreaking commercial success does not always come with critical recognition. Take the case of BTS—nominated five times for Grammy’s, and snubbed every time.

In the recent Grammy season, not a single -Kpop act received a nomination. Paired with the absence of a dedicated genre for Korean pop—especially given the fact that Latin music gets not only its own category, but also a whole separate award show, the Latin Grammy’s. The optics scream willful exclusion. 

K-pop, of course, is not the only genre to systematically and repeatedly run up against these glass ceilings in the music industry. When Beyoncé set the record last year for the most Grammys won by any artist in the history of the award, many observed that she was still frequently shut out from the most prestigious categories (Record or Song of the Year) and instead, was more likely to win genre-specific awards (particularly in R&B and Rap). So if even Queen Bey could be subject to the invisible, implicit, and maybe even subconscious assumptions people have about race in the American music industry and who gets recognition for what, under which circumstances, what does that mean for everyone else? 

In the past couple of years, the #MeToo movement brought gendered violence to the forefront of many fields; #OscarsSoWhite trended for multiple years before the Academy finally broke its own record and gave Michelle Yeoh a Best Actress award. Accusations of racial bias in the music industry are nothing new, although the reckoning appears to be slower in coming. But in an era when even the most long-standing institutions need to fight to retain their relevance in an ever-changing landscape, the American music industry has only two options: update their understanding of race, or risk the kind of irrelevance that haunts every establishment’s dreams. 

Works Cited

Lee, Hae-rin. “Korea’s foreign population reaches record high”. The Korea Times. 11 November 2023. 

Sue, Stanley, and Okazaki, Sumie. “Asian American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation”. American Psychologist. August 1990.

Tsukamoto, Saori, et al. “Entitativity perceptions of individuals and groups across cultures”. The Psychological and Cultural Foundations of East Asian Cognition: Contradiction, Change, and Holism. edited by J. Spencer-Rodgers & K. Peng. Oxford University Press. January 2018.

Van Haver, Paul (Stromae). “Belgian Singer Stromae Hopes to Bring French Flair to the U.S.” WNYC. NPR Music Interview, by Michel Martin. 30 June 2014.