Atlanta Hip Hop and K-pop

In the reading by Crystal Anderson, she argued that PSY’s engagement with black American hip hop culture is a display of hybridity rather than cultural appropriation. She shows that PSY participates in traditions of comedy hip hop while also establishing a persona notably different from those of American rappers. However, applying this analysis to another popular K-pop song, it becomes clear that other Korean performers, songwriters, and producers are not engaging with American hip hop culture. While there are original ideas in their music, they are riding trends and taking sounds and styles with very little regard for their context or importance.

K-pop tends to incorporate popular American music trends, and right now, Atlanta’s hip hop scene is undoubtedly one of the most significant cultural forces in American pop culture. Over the past few years, Atlanta’s influence has continued to grow and has entered the mainstream pop industry. In the past few months, Migos and Rae Sremmurd, two rap groups based in Atlanta, have achieved #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The current Atlanta “trap” sound has been crafted and popularized by producers such as Zaytoven, Mike Will Made It, and Metro Boomin. These producers are heavily sought out by rappers and singers from around the United States. Given Atlanta’s success, it’s not surprising that they are beginning to get attention abroad as well.

Bermuda Triangle, by Zico, Crush, and Dean, is a K-Pop song that is very clearly influenced by Atlanta hip hop. It’s most obvious in the production and songwriting. Dean and Crush use auto tune effects and vocal ad libs that are very similar to those used by Travis Scott, Swae Lee, and many other Atlanta-based rappers. In the instrumental, various elements are imitated or blatantly copied. Particularly during the chorus, the beat has a lot in common with the production styles of Atlanta producers (distorted sub bass, keys and synths playing ominous melodies, time stretched and pitched guitar samples). Ultimately, these commonalities do not make up the entirety of the song; there are clear distinctions between this song and the typical Atlanta rap song, most obviously in the rapping and singing performances.

However, there are some telling details that demonstrate a lack of engagement with the original source of inspiration. First appearing at 1:12 in the video, the producer of this track uses a high pitched, rising sound effect. This sound effect is one of the unique tags that Atlanta producer Southside uses in his songs. In order to build reputation and brand recognition, hip hop producers frequently use tags to label their beats, and some of the most iconic tags are from Atlanta. This would almost certainly never appear in an American song unless Southside produced it. In addition to this, one of the lines in Zico’s second verse translates to “we’re yellow people but I got black soul.” Overall, the composition and arrangement of the song clearly show that the songwriters and producers know about a variety of tropes that occur in Atlanta hip hop, but they do not have respect for context of the music that they are appropriating for their own purposes. Not only is there no indication of an awareness of the class and race issues present in Atlanta hip hop, but also, they fail to demonstrate the necessary understanding of hip hop culture needed to authentically participate.

Bermuda Triangle is an extreme example, but its underlying problems are can be found elsewhere in the K-pop industry. American rap influences can be found all over K-pop, and it can lead to legitimately interesting and original songs that show the benefits of transnational flows of culture. In order for this to become the norm, Korean artists must take more care and interest in their music making process when taking inspiration from others. Proper engagement and participation in hip hop culture requires more than a surface level comprehension of aesthetics. Hip hop is deeply rooted in black culture, and failing to acknowledge and understand its importance is problematic and insensitive.

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