I’ve had enough. Welcome to my rant.
From celebrities trying out a “cool new hairstyle” to music fans wearing some “festival jewelry” to your neighbor’s son trick-or-treating in his “adorable Halloween costume,” cultural appropriation happens everywhere. It’s the inevitable and unfortunate consequence of cultural globalization, especially within the entertainment industry, and K-Pop companies are notorious for it. The industry has a huge blind spot when it comes to cultural sensitivity and as a fan, it hurts to see. So I’m here to have an honest conversation, in hopes that by raising awareness, I can do my part to help solve the problem.
the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.Oxford Dictionary
Cultural appropriation in K-Pop touches upon many different cultures, but most commonly happens in the form of South Asian and Black culture. Though I can’t speak much on the latter, what I can say is that for an industry that was in many ways born out of American hip-hop culture, it’s disappointing to see Black culture widely borrowed and misappropriated by Korean artists, instead of respectfully appreciated.
Of course, I’m here to talk about the appropriation of South Asian or “Desi” culture – my culture. At this point, I’m sure we’ve all seen it – the bindis, the maang tikkas, and every other piece of Desi culture that our favorite female K-Pop idols love to don. Quite frankly, I’m tired of this problem getting brushed under the rug, only to reemerge the next time an idol decides mudras are fun to mock. I’m tired of being told, “It’s not that deep,” or to simply get over it. When a Desi woman wears a bindi, she gets called “dothead” or “p*ki,” yet a Korean idol can freely wear a bindi on stage as part of an “ethnic hip” concept? Yeah, no. I don’t think I will get over it.
To properly understand my frustration, you first need to understand the significance of all the things K-Pop groups are known for appropriating and mocking. Let me preface this with a few disclaimers: I’m not going to sit here and claim to be the best source of information on all things South Asian culture. But I can give you the perspective of an average Indian-American woman. (Feel free to ask questions! And if you’re Desi, please let me know if you think I got something wrong!) I’m also not going to be able to cover every example of every group that’s appropriated South Asian culture, because that would make this article seven thousand words long. And lastly, I’m not putting the blame on just the idols themselves for these problems. This is a systematic issue that can’t be resolved by playing the blame game. Everyone involved is responsible. With that being said, here are the basics:
You’ve definitely seen a bindi before – it’s the dot at the center of the forehead, and one of the most common cultural markers for South Asian women. It’s also one of the most appropriated pieces of our culture.
The word “bindi” comes from the Sanskrit word “bindu,” meaning a drop or point. The bindi symbolizes the sixth chakra, a.k.a. the “Ajna” chakra, in religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and more. The sixth chakra is essentially the third eye, with which a person can concentrate better, perceive things inwardly, and ward off bad luck. The bindi represents and heightens the power of that chakra. It’s also the sign of a married woman and femininity, although unmarried women also wear bindis pretty often. Bindis are not just exotic forehead decoration to wear for aesthetic purposes. K-Pop idols haven’t gotten the memo.
Here’s Eunbi from IZ*ONE in the teaser for their song “Secret Story of the Swan.” (The company postponed the release of the music video and edited out the bindi, but never issued any statement or apology for it. They never even mentioned it.)
And here’s Seungyeon from CLC doing a photoshoot for Instagram, followed by a whole choreography video, both using a bindi and Desi attire as part of an aesthetic.
Maang Tikkas and Matha Pattis
No, I’m not talking about the BT21 character. A maang tikka is a chain South Asian women wear at the center of the head, with a hook on one end and a pendant on the other. A matha patti is basically an upgraded version of a maang tikka that has two or more extra chains on the side. There are also region-specific styles; a Rajasthani woman, for example, might wear a borla tikka, which is a tikka with a spherical pendant (the fifth picture below). Also, yes, that’s me in the first picture!
Traditionally, a woman wears a maang tikka or matha patti on her wedding day as one of the essential pieces of bridal attire. Like the bindi, the tikka is meant to ward off bad luck and signify the sixth chakra. Also, like the bindi, it’s heavily appropriated and treated as a fashion statement, which means the K-Pop industry sees no issue using it as such.
Here’s a performance by the group Oh My Girl, with at least five of the seven members wearing a bindi and/or a matha patti. (Fun fact about Oh My Girl: The group actually earned the nickname “curry-dols” during the promotions of their song “Windy Day” because of multiple instances of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and mockery. It’s that bad. More on stereotyping and Korea’s curry obsession later.)
To put into perspective how often South Asian culture is appropriated in K-Pop, here’s a teaser photo from the group Pink Fantasy featuring the member Arang wearing a matha patti, which literally dropped as I was writing this article. (The company has since reuploaded the picture with the matha patti edited out, after receiving heavy backlash.)
With a total population of around 1.8 billion, and millions more in the diaspora, South Asians make up a huge part of some of the worlds biggest religions: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Christianity. South Asian people are also typically deeply religious. To see K-Pop idols and companies use important aspects of these religions for aesthetics is quite disturbing and, in my opinion, one of the worst kinds of appropriation.
Here are the groups (G)I-DLE and IZ*ONE using an image of a mosque as the backdrop for their performances, the latter of which was IZ*ONE’s second time doing so and also occurred as I was writing this article.
And here is Lee Hyori using the Gayatri Mantra – one of the most important and sacred mantras in Hinduism – as part of her song “White Snake,” and then performing that song live with extremely sensual choreography. I honestly still can’t believe this is real. To make matters even worse, Lee Hyori expressed interest in Indian culture and researched Sankrit she could add to her song. In other words, she sexualized and exoticized a Hindu prayer in her song, despite probably knowing about its significance.
South Asia, like most cultures, has a lot of distinct dance styles and traditions. Everyone has heard of Bollywood dance, which is a fusion of a lot of different styles, but there are also classical dances like Bharatnatyam and Kathak, and folk dances like Garba and Bhangra. The TL;DR explanation of Indian classical dance is that it uses complex footwork, facial expressions, and hand gestures (mudras) as a means to tell a story, often based in Hindu mythology. Here’s a video to give you a general idea:
Let me take a second to explain mudras further: Mudras are the various bodily gestures that show up in most classical Indian dance styles, yoga, and rituals of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Indian dance consists of one-handed and two-handed mudras, which each have their own meaning, thus helping to convey a story. The video below explains some of those mudras and meanings:
In an ideal world, the K-Pop industry would properly research Bollywood dance respectfully infuse it into their music. Since the industry is so heavily rooted in dance, I would actually love to see that happen. But instead, idols only ever appropriate South Asian dance as a kind of “exotic” addition to their performances or they just straight-up imitate and mock it. The head-bopping and mudra-like hand movements are a racist imitation meant to stereotype and subsequently mock. You can think of it as similar to the way American media has used the “Apu accent” to typecast South Asians.
Here’s a pretty standard example of the type of mockery I’m taking about:
In the video, you see idols laughing as they bob their heads from side to side and imitate what they think is Indian dance. The song they’re dancing to is the viral hit “Tunak Tunak Tun” by Daler Mehndi. While the song is a meme to a lot of the world, to South Asians, it’s the soundtrack to thousands of instances of mockery and stereotyping. In the realm of K-Pop, it’s one of two songs people regularly use to imitate South Asian culture.
Why Desis Hate “Curry”
Of course, the main reason most Desi people don’t like the term “curry” is that it’s an umbrella term for Desi food that Europeans made up when they colonized the subcontinent. There is literally no such thing as a curry in South Asian cuisine and the word is just a marker of the oversimplification and colonization of our culture. Case in point: Open up a new tab and search “British national dish.”
For Desi K-Pop fans, however, there’s a second layer to the hatred. “Curry” is the name of a very famous and grossly offensive song by the K-Pop duo Norazo about, you guessed it, curry. The song was meant to “express that curry is a delicious dish that anyone can enjoy at any time, in Norazo’s fun and unique style,” according to the member Jobin. But it seems that the fun and unique style he mentioned turned out to be racial insensitivity and downright mockery. With lyrics like “It’s yellow, spicy, and although does not smell nice, Taj Mahal! / Add onions and potatoes, but not beef, namaste!” coupled with vaguely South Asian and Middle Eastern audio samples and a music video featuring the duo trying to imitate traditional dance, the whole song is a slap in the face to Desi people:
This song snowballed into a decade’s worth of stereotyping and ignorance from not only the Korean general public, but even the celebrities we’d expect to know better. The song is covered time and time again by various K-Pop groups. For Desi fans, it’s disappointing and downright painful to see the idols you love and care about turn around and mock you, either out of ignorance or true malice, and then perpetuate a similar behavior among fans. It feels like a second slap in the face, as if the song wasn’t enough in and of itself.
Blackpink: A Case Study on Cultural Appropriation
If you were wondering at any point while reading this why Blackpink hadn’t come up yet, I don’t blame you. Blackpink is one of the most famous K-Pop groups out there but also one of the most well-known for cultural appropriation. The group represents a perfect storm of culturally insensitive behavior, from the people in charge at YG Entertainment down to fan culture, which makes them a great case study on just about everything I’ve mentioned so far.
For example, here’s the member Jennie in a bindi, a maang tikka, and a matha patti, in that order:
And here are the members repeatedly mocking South Asian dance, imitating mudras and bobbing their heads:
And finally, the most recent installment in this saga, and the one that caused more outrage than ever before: a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha on the floor behind Lisa in their “How You Like That” music video.
Lord Ganesha is one of the most prominent gods in Hinduism and a huge figure in India, even among non-Hindus. In Hinduism, as well as other South Asian religions, it’s extremely disrespectful to put an idol of a god on the ground or to face your back to it. Here, Lisa does both with Ganesha.
Not only is the placement of the idol disrespectful but it’s clear that the idol was just used as a prop, along with a sitar, an oil lamp, and more, to create a culturally vague, “exotic bazaar” scene. In other words, it was misappropriated and used for aesthetics. Naturally, this caused an immense uproar not just among Desi K-Pop fans, but even the general public.
The reason Blackpink has gone on like this for so long is that the disregard for cultural sensitivity is so deeply and systematically ingrained into the minds of the members and the people at YG Entertainment that no one thinks twice about how offensive certain actions could actually be. Fans might want to blame the Desi jewelry on just the stylists, but as one of those stylists told the Korea Herald, “Blackpink members are actively involved in their styling. We hold various meetings and fittings to present a completed look.” There are also higher-ups that have to approve styling ideas and approve the music video itself. Likewise, fans might want to blame the placement of the statue of Ganesha behind Lisa on a set designer, but other people still had to shoot, edit, and approve the music video. None of the people involved caught anything wrong and therein lies the issue.
Groups like Blackpink are allowed to thrive, despite all their missteps, because there has always been a total lack of education and accountability in the industry. That needs to change. No longer is it remotely valid to make excuses for any of them, saying that they’re ignorant because they’re living in a homogenized society and haven’t been exposed to other cultures. We’re living in the 21st century, where it takes only about 30 seconds to google the significance of anything deemed “aesthetically pleasing” before using it. Idols and their companies are not at all living in a homogenized bubble. K-Pop is a global industry, with global artists and global fans. Cultural sensitivity training should be a given. There are no excuses.
Idols are, as the name suggests, idolized. While there is a rational part of most fandoms that sees celebrities’ offensive behavior and calls it out, there is also a part that follows the monkey-see-money-do routine typical of idolization. So the argument that celebrities are just human and not meant to be educated, morally correct role models doesn’t fully hold up. Sure, no one is perfect and mistakes will happen, but idols especially have to make an effort to be good, inoffensive people who learn from their mistakes and spread that behavior to their fans. Otherwise, idols only perpetuate a toxic cycle of negativity and cultural insensitivity, which leads to things like this:
In the video, which is a tour VCR, Blackpink fans are shown copying Blackpink and Seungri’s video mocking South Asians, thus mocking South Asians themselves. That same video from Blackpink and Seungri also spawned a trend spreading like wildfire on TikTok right now, in which “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” transitions into “Tunak Tunak Tun.” A lot of non-Desi users are choosing to dance to it in a “silly” way, typically mocking South Asian dance in the process. When an artist not only fails to learn from their past offenses but instead inspires that same ignorant behavior among others, that’s how you know things need to change.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t offer some kind of silver lining. Remember that rational, educated part of fandoms that I mentioned earlier? Turns out it’s getting louder and louder, slowly forcing change to happen. Speaking out works. More than ever, K-Pop companies are editing things and issuing apologies. For the first time since Blackpink’s debut, YG Entertainment actually listened to public backlash and, probably in an attempt to save face, edited out the idol of Ganesha. Better yet, Desi K-Pop fans reached a breaking point when yet another idol – Wonwoo from Seventeen – sang the song “Curry” and created backlash so loud that one of the original creators of the song apologized and encouraged his juniors to do the same. I honestly never imagined the day would come when Desis would receive an apology for that song, but after ten years, we finally did. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call progress.
I know it must seem like cultural appropriation is plaguing K-Pop now more than ever, but it’s actually just not going unnoticed anymore. What’s happening right now is a direct result of people educating themselves and holding their artists accountable. It’s true that we’re always taking two steps forward, one step back, but it’s important to remember that that’s usually how systematic change works. We are still moving forward. And that gives me a lot of hope because it provides for one damning ultimatum, which K-Pop as a whole is finally starting to realize: either the industry changes its ways and educates itself along with the rest of the world, or gets left behind, falling out of the mainstream just as fast as it rushed in.
P.S. — Thanks for choosing to educate yourself and sticking with me till the end of this article! If you need an emotional pick-me-up after reading through all that, though, I don’t blame you and I’ve got you covered. I’ve gathered a few instances of Desi cultural appreciation for a change. Hopefully, the rest of the K-Pop industry can learn from these examples.