Cultural Appropriation and the K-Pop Industry: Is NCT U’s “Make a Wish” Offensive?
Behind psychedelic visual effects, catchy backtracks, and handsome young faces looms a bedazzled gazebo. Fluorescent lights decorate curved archways, highlighting the singers as they jaunt through the set. The song is catchy, the vocals strong, but something feels out of place. Is it because the South Korean idols are dancing across Arabian rugs, to the backdrop of Middle-Eastern architecture? Is this yet another example of cultural appropriation?
What is Cultural Appropriation?
The global reach of the Internet has brought with it a new wave of social ills, chief among them being cultural appropriation. As Oxford Dictionaries define it, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. Of one person or society, by members of another (typically more dominant) people or society”. The bindi, for example, has significant cultural and historical value. Selena Gomez wears the bindi, however, is cultural appropriation, as she reduces it to a simple fashion accessory.
Cultural exchange is inevitable, though. Think about the last time you took yoga lessons or ate sushi at a Japanese restaurant. These are examples of cultural appreciation; a term that, according to Greenheart.org, refers to learning about another culture in order to broaden your perspectives, and connect with others cross-culturally. The exchange is often invited, and the people appreciating it enjoy the culture within those contexts.
What’s the difference between the two? Cultural appropriation doesn’t respect the culture, it draws from — it seeks only to use elements of the target culture, without consent, often for monetary gain or for fame. This means that it often uses stereotypes associated with a culture, or like the above case, reduces important aspects of said culture into aesthetic accessories. And just like fashion trends, once the culture is no longer seen as profitable, it’s simply forgotten. This Twitter thread by @taezzled explains the distinction in more detail.
Today, one of the worst offenders of cultural appropriation is the South Korean entertainment industry.
The Korean Wave Consumes All
With the advent of social media, the Korean entertainment industry enjoyed a massive surge in global popularity. In their bid to provide quick, worldwide appeal, the industry often takes shortcuts. This means incorporating stereotypical depictions of other cultures as aesthetic backdrops, themes, and even props, with little or no respect for the cultures themselves. Many examples of appropriation exist, but one of the most recent cases stands out.
Case Study: NCT U’s “Make a Wish (Birthday Song)”
The K-pop band NCT, whose name stands for “Neo Culture Technology”, was made with the concept of placing sub-units in various cities worldwide. In the Internet age, it’s as close to cultural “colonization” as one can get — and unfortunately, they play that part unironically. NCT is infamous for appropriating elements from various cultures, while simultaneously mocking the people from those cultures. Fans have long called the band members out for their acts of appropriation, and rightly so; here’s a Reddit thread on NCT’s racism and appropriation, and another Twitter thread provides proof of the band members’ racist behavior while not performing on stage. Most recently, the sub-unit NCT U came under fire for their new single, “Make a Wish (Birthday Song)”.
In October 2020, the NCT U sub-unit released “Make a Wish (Birthday Song)”, which takes aesthetic inspiration from Middle Eastern folklore. While the music video itself, which features Middle-Eastern architecture like the archways and gazebos as backdrops, isn’t considered appropriation, their live performances are a different story.
Sacred Prayer used as Stage Prop
On October 25th, 2020, NCT U performed “Make a Wish” at SBS Inkigayo. During the performance, a video playing in the background showed a mosque with the sacred Shi’a Islamic prayer of Ziyarat al-Nahiya emblazoned above it. The words of the prayer itself reference the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the other members of the holy family in the Battle of Karbala. This event is extremely significant to Shi’a Muslims, as it marks the holy month of Muharram and its most important day of mourning, Ashura.
The use of sacred prayer as a stage prop is the most visible example of cultural appropriation. Many fans, not just Shi’a Muslims, are understandably upset by this decision. This Reddit megathread compiles information and discussions about the situation, with calls for SM Entertainment to apologize for the stage design.
Problems deeply rooted in the K-pop industry
Yet, despite fans emailing, commenting on the video, and expressing their concerns, SM Entertainment remains mum on the issue.
The company’s silence, both on the issues of cultural appropriation and on the NCT members’ racist behavior, only complicates the situation. Frustrated fans instead resorted to “educating” their idols during one-to-one fan signing events, opening the idols to harassment. Worse still, the event has caused friction between South Korean fans and their international counterparts. Ironically, while understandable, the reaction only preserves both the idols’ and unaffected fans’ ignorance. You’d only need to open the comments section to see this in action:
The alternative, which is to boycott the idol group entirely, isn’t feasible either; as fans rightly pointed out, it’s unfair to punish the idols for something they had no control of. Additionally, boycotts are only effective when a company’s source of income is affected. This means boycotting every single one of the company’s artists, including wildly-popular EXO and industry pioneer SHINee.
As extremely public and well-loved figures, K-pop idols need to send a strong message against appropriation to their fans. However, Korean entertainment companies are not addressing these issues. Instead, it’s even profitable for them to generate controversy, as it lets theme trend faster for longer. But especially now, when people depend more than ever on the entertainment industry, the K-pop industry needs to do better. Going forward, SM Entertainment should avoid using cultures as “aesthetics” altogether. Right now, the company needs to apologize for the stage design — because it’s the responsible thing to do.