If you haven’t heard, youtuber Ryan Higa has started a K-pop band. Their name, BgA, which stands for “Boys generally Asian” is a reference to the established K-pop girl group “Girls Generation”. The group is composed of Ryan Higa, and his friends David Choi, Jun Curry Ahn, Justin Chon and Phillip Wang. Now their debut music video was released in May of 2016 and they recently put out their sophomore video on Higa’s YouTube channel in March of this year.
According to American celebrities like Emma Stone, K-pop is the next big thing to come to America. And for those of you who are Korean or Korean American or even non-Korean Asian or Asian American, this is probably old news. In fact, it seems that K-pop has been steadily spreading its influence and growing in popularity among non-Asian audiences in the U.S. for some time. Remember Gangnam Style by Psy, his breakout hit (or one-time wonder) in America? To self-identifying K-poppers, this may be a less than ideal example, however, for many, it did act as a contact point for some American audiences to enter into the world of K-pop and discover more about it for themselves. But this is not a post about white people “Columbusing” yet another aspect of a non-white culture, as CollegeHumor put it, but one about an Asian American feeding into a caricaturization of culture in order to participate in a capitalistic American structure.
Though 3 of the 5 members of BgA are Korean American (David Choi, Jun Curry Ahn, and Justin Chon), it is important to note that Ryan Higa himself is Hawaiian. He would not be the first non-Korean/Korean American to participate in K-pop, but the point is, Higa is not a real K-pop artist. Higa has built his brand on humor and poking fun of societal norms and contemporary trends through very creative videos of fairly high production value, and the creation of BgA is no exception. In the first music video, the group comes up with the idea of starting a K-pop band after being ignored by a group of American girls who were obsessing over a K-pop band at a party. When playing the idea, they reference how they can’t dance or really sing but as Justin Chon’s character puts it “Well we’re all Asian. You can’t learn to be Asian”. It is also pointed out that at least one of them (David Choi) is “Super Korean” and even knows how to speak some, though apparently not well. Then follows their video which features nonsense lyrics in a mix of Korean and English as a way to highlight their ineptitude. The song is called Dong Saya Dae (똥싸야돼) which translates roughly to “I have to take a shit”, but everything from the videography, to the wardrobe, to the dance break (which they substituted themselves for America’s Best Dance Crew runner-ups Kinjaz) was in classic K-pop style.
Additionally, Higa and his group profited from the parody by monetizing it on iTunes as well as making merchandise available for purchase. All links are in the description box of the video for convenience. Surprisingly, BgA actually made it to #1 on the K-pop charts on iTunes displacing popular (and real) K-pop groups like (BTS) for some time. For BgA’s second song, they ended the video with an explicit request to their fans to “help us get to #1”, a goal that they achieved.
And you might be asking, “He’s got to make a living somehow though, right? This is what he does and he’s Asian, so it’s ok isn’t it?” In the end, because Ryan Higa is the face of these productions, both literally and due to the fact that they are published on his personal YouTube channel, they are to be interpreted as representative of his own ideas and motivations and therefore he is responsible for the content that he puts out. In this case, no matter the quality of content, he is parodying a culture that he is not a part of and profiting from its exploitation.
This is a difficult topic to breach because it works within the tension between the pan-Asian identity that sprung from the Asian American movement in the 1960s and 70s to promote a united identity in the U.S. and the reality of Asian Americans having very distinct national heritages. The K in K-pop stands for Korean and yet the genre has achieved great popularity outside of Korea and notably in the Asian American population. In a sense Asian Americans have a kind of “ownership” over the genre more-so than say white Americans but perhaps less than Koreans or Korean Americans. This type of ownership does not exclude others from enjoying the art form or taking part in it. As stated earlier, there are non-Koreans who actively participate and profit from the K-pop scene, however, they are fully participating in that world. Ryan Higa is a Non-Korean/Korean Americans choosing to dabble in K-pop now and again to expand an audience and maximize profits by essentially making fun of it and in that sense, he is playing into the American capitalist establishment even if his majority Asian and American audience support him in that endeavor.