CL’s Debut: Authenticity and Appropriation of Hip-hop

The hip-hop scene is hardly an easy ground for Asian Americans to enter, historically established by and rooted in the African American community. In a genre of music where individuality is just as important as musicality and flow, Asian American rappers like Dumbfounded and Awkwafina who founded their name in the hip-hop industry have stood the test of acknowledgement and recognition; they inscribe their own stories, whether satirical or point-blank, in their verses that reverberate across the audience they have come to earn. Understanding the sensitivity and difficulty for Asian Americans to transcend the racialized barriers of hip-hop, it is an interesting phenomenon to see CL – a South Korean female rapper and previous member of a K-pop group – debut in the U.S. with her new single, Lifted. The disconnect between the hip-hop culture in the social justice context of America and the mass-marketed, displaced production of CL’s English songs creates a gap between the artist and the supposed audience – a topic that evokes an investigation of authenticity and appropriation of culturally tied music.

With its oversimplified lyrics and pre-packaged aesthetic, CL’s new single clearly did not hit the Psy-Gangnam-Style bonanza that her entertainment company – the same one as Psy’s – perhaps expected. Though the single was praised to be wildly successful by K-pop followers, as it did quickly reach a spot on Billboard Hot 100, CL’s name hardly made a dent in the fast-paced mainstream world that is American media. Essentially, it seemed to have been consumed by existing K-pop fans or those who happened to come across the song due to its mass-marketing. The authenticity of hip-hop, while not necessarily dictated by the ownership by African Americans, is indeed averse to “the effects of corporate capitalism and the problematic and profit-driven links that corporate leaders make between racist stereotypes of Black men and women with ‘real’ hip-hop” (Sharma 213-214). The artificiality of CL’s rap, relying on the ‘hip’ appeal of smoking and drugs in the setting of New York City, is ignorant of ‘authentic’ hip-hop at best and contributing to the racist stereotypes of the Black community at worst. This appropriation is exemplified by the oversimplified nature of her lyrics: “I got myself a 40/ I got myself a shorty” and “Style will hit you, wham, then goddamn/ You’ll be like, ‘Oh shit, that’s the jam!’” These tit-for-tat phrases that rely on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), alongside the music video’s quick images of Black dancers, feed into the corporate narrative of reducing and re-costuming a culture for profitable gains. CL’s background as a South Korean rapper with little to none awareness of the political setting of the culture she’s stepping into positions her as complicit in the appropriation of Black culture for personal profit.

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CL’s background proves to be of more significance when considering her identity as an Asian American artist or an Asian artist performing for an American audience. It requires an investigation of the question – what does it mean to be an Asian American musician? Would an Asian American identity, as opposed to an Asian identity, hold her more or less accountable for debuting in the U.S. with such a culturally appropriative single? Sharma suggests that “hip-hop has not transcended racial politics within the United States,” and that “a ‘multiracial’ conception of hip hop borrows the logic of multiculturism, in which all differences are seen to be equal without particular attention to power differentials across groups” (220). Thus, it seems as though an Asian identity holds just as much accountability as an Asian American identity, if not more. After all, CL is actively expanding into an industry that promises profit at the expense of exploiting ‘trendy’ aspects of ‘multiculturism.’

CL’s complacency in the appropriation of Black culture heightens knowing her South Korean background, as she most likely does not have the sensitivity it requires to so blatantly “showcase” African American dancers and style; the scenes of dancers and use of AAVE is quickly minimized to mere images of hypersexualized Black bodies and stolen phrases, packaged for profit. There’s no question that CL’s debut in the U.S. is a pioneering effort by the K-pop industry (though it has been done –and failed – before). Lifted‘s failure in authenticity and its complacency in cultural appropriation for quick profit is an example of Asian Americans’ misuse of hip-hop and the abuse of Asian American-African American relations.

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