EXP Edition describes themselves as a “fresh hybrid of K-Pop” #borninNYmadeinSEOUL. The group started off with six members but now consists of four. Koki Tomlinson, Frankie DaPonte, Hunter Kohl, and Šime Košta. They come from various backgrounds, none of which are Korean.
EXP Edition began as a college project by Korean interdisciplinary artist and sociologist, Bora Kim. Kim was “researching the phenomenon of the Korean Wave, and the commercial success of K-pop especially, on a global scale”.
“A lot of people in the U.S., when encountering K-pop idol groups for the first time, express their confusion about the gender role and sexuality that these boys convey. For example, a young group of pretty boys with great skin start rapping in a hip-hop music video while wearing a lot of make-up. What does this mean? Who is the target audience? It is totally gender-bending and experimental, but, at the same time, it is very typical, mainstream K-pop.”
From this came the idea to create an all-American K-Pop boy band.
Her goal was to take a group of American boys and mold them into K-pop performers, “by teaching them how to sing in Korean and act like Korean boys.”
None of the members speak Korean, but they moved to South Korea to study the language and record their debut album. According to their site, EXP Edition “hopes to have fresh and productive conversations on national identity, hybridity and what “otherness” means in Korean society.”
The music video for their song, Feel Like This is already facing harsh criticism online as well as a mixture of supporters.
Is It Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.”
Hip Hop originated in the 1970s as an underground urban movement in the South Bronx (New York). Pop originates from Britain and rap originated from South Africa. K-pop is a blend of these things and more.
K-pop is largely influenced by American mainstream media.
But it becomes problematic when an element of another culture is taken and used to one’s advantage. As well as when the responsibility of conveying that culture/meaning is ignored.
You can’t pick and choose certain aspects of someone’s culture and claim it as your own. And in the K-pop industry, there are various groups who are guilty of appropriating culture.
Racism in K-Pop
South Korea is a homogenous society. Most of their interactions with other cultures and races are from the media they consume.
K-pop is one of the most visible adopters of Western pop culture. And cultural appropriation perpetuates stereotypes, which breeds racism.
There is no doubt about the blatant racism in K-Pop. From idols who use the N-word, wear grillz, don Native American tribal attire, cornrows, blackface, etc.
Since K-pop takes various elements from different cultures- especially black culture, I wouldn’t say that EXP Edition is guilty of appropriating Korean culture.
One thing that is certain is that it’s easy to dismiss cultural appropriation when you aren’t the subject. Perpetuating negative stereotypes and taking from an appearance that belongs to someone else is wrong.
What Makes A K-Pop Group?
This question is up for interpretation. Much of the controversy surrounding EXP Edition is that singing in Korean doesn’t make you a K-pop group.
Many argue that dancing, singing, rapping, being Asian, and several years of training need to be involved.
Although I don’t agree with slave contracts or enduring years of gruesome training to possibly never debut (and owe an incredible amount of money), that’s how the K-pop industry is currently run.
Asian Erasure In American Mainstream Media
The truth of the matter is that Hollywood is racist. Minorities aren’t given the same opportunities as white people.
We see that with films like Bruce Lee’s biopic, Ghost in a Shell, Death Note, Emma Stone’s character in Aloha, and the list goes on
The argument that Asian-Americans don’t try as hard or aren’t as talented is problematic. And don’t tell me that the market doesn’t need Asian representation when there is barely any, to begin with.
K-pop stars like SNSD, Wonder Girls, and CL tried to debut in America but failed. It’s not because they lack talent, it’s because America won’t accept them.
And when you have a group like BTS who comes to tour in America, the industry is quick to claim that it was luck that got them 5 sold-out stadium shows. All those years of blood, sweat, and tears are erased because they can’t believe that 7 Korean boys could have such an impact.
If it weren’t for America’s race problem, people like Amber, Eric Nam, John Park, Mark Tuan, and so on, wouldn’t have needed to go to South Korea to pursue their musical dreams.
The Underlying Issue
K-pop isn’t widely accepted in the US. On top of the race problem, most Americans don’t understand why members rap, sing, dance, and why the men wear makeup.
Watching EXP Edition’s music video made me feel uneasy.
I don’t know if it’s because it’s a group of guys who look too mature to be in a boy band or because the video was cheesy.
Personally, I find that the real issue isn’t whether EXP Edition is an authentic K-pop group. It’s the fact that white privilege would allow them to break into the American music industry while a group like Big Bang can’t.
What are your thoughts on EXP Edition? Do you consider them to be a K-Pop group? Does K-Pop need an all-American group?