How Do We View Global Hip Hop Culture? [Series Introduction: On Cultural Appropriation]

by Latoya Peterson

Today, I got three text messages in rapid succession from my friend Hae.

“Check out the new MV from 2ne1 called Fire!”

“Song is addicting!”

“Street version is better than space version!”

I knew YouTube wouldn’t let me down, so I headed over there to see if someone posted an English translation:

2NE1 is just one group in a long line of Korean hip-hop (or hip-pop, according to some, but more on that later*) artists that I have enjoyed thanks to JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment. While YG is credited with popularizing the hip-hop sound in Korea, both companies have received major success with their artists.

There’s the Wonder Girls:

And Big Bang:

Back when I first discovered Korean hip-hop, I was quite fond of showing my friends this video by 1TYM, called “Do You Know Me?”:

After watching the video, my friends had a range of reactions everything from “Who knew Koreans rolled hard?” to amazement to laughter. But some people weren’t quite as accepting, posing the question “Why do they have to take our stuff?”

Is there a such thing as “our stuff?” I grappled with this question in the specific context of a global hip-hop culture. Six years ago, I was looking up scholarly articles on hip-hop for a research paper when I stumbled across an obscure article in a random journal about the spread of hip-hop in Japan. The article posited hip-hop’s growth was fueled by young Zainichi who keenly felt their second-class status and could relate to the lyrics and culture of American hip-hop.

Ever since then, I’ve looked to see where hip-hop flourishes around the globe in hopes of understanding its appeal. Before hip-hop was recognized as a major influence on youth culture , I found articles, documentaries, and mixtapes from places like Palestine, Thailand, Cuba, South Africa, and Haiti. Seeing what I felt to be “my culture” reflected back at me in so many ways was a jarring experience – everything, good and bad had been replicated and remixed and each hip-hop scene emerges with a style all its own.

While preparing this series on Cultural Appropriation, I realized that the dialogue around cultural appropriation and global hip-hop culture follow similar lines of argument. What constitutes appropriation and what is an homage? When are we borrowing versus flat out stealing? What are the power dynamics involved in this conversation?

The idea of cultural appropriation is one fraught with misunderstandings, minefields of misinterpretation, and other issues. I’ve been struggling with how to launch this series for a while now – exactly, what can one say? The Angry Black Woman opened up a conversation back in January, asking her readers to define cultural appropriation. After 103 comments, there were still more questions than answers.

So, in launching this series, I hope to provide points for discussion, but not necessarily firm solutions. The idea is not to provide a go to guide on appropriation, but to illuminate some of the issues in these types of conversations.

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*I’m not talking about the different views on what’s “real” hip-hop in this post. Later, when I started taking a serious look at the trends and representations of hip-hop abroad, I found out that the same battles that happen here occur elsewhere. While reading some back information on Jinusean, I saw the message boards filled with those who claimed that Jinusean was hip-pop and the real hip hop in Korea was represented by groups like Drunken Tiger and the whole Movement crew.

Here’s one of Drunken Tiger’s videos, called “Do You Know Hip Hop”:

It’s also worth noting that Drunken Tiger had a mega-hit in Korea from their song “Sweet Talk,” which uses the same melody as Camp Lo’s “Black Connection.”

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“Fire” actually isn’t 2ne1′s debut song – their first one was with the boys of Big Bang, called “Lollipop.” I have no idea why this video makes me so happy. Maybe it’s all the colors. Maybe it’s because one of the girls is obviously getting her Snork on. Or maybe it’s because the whole video is 80s-a-licious. Either way, I love it so here it is: