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21 December 2017

The rise of Hip-Hop culture in Korea - appropriation or appreciation?

What is really great is that Keith Ape has the courage to not only bring Japanese rappers like KOHH on the track but also U.S. based Hip-Hop vets like A$AP Ferg and Waka Flocka Flame to an already multicultural cast.

What does a Korean Ad Ops Supervisor, American Senior Media Planner, Irish EVP and a Ukrainian VP of Media have in common? Well outside of working at Gravity, we happen to be the agencies biggest hip-hop heads, all bringing our generational (and geographical) taste of what real “Hip-Hop” is. One thing’s for sure, we’ve all had our taste of Korean culture, whether it be our fair share of listening to the K-Pop hit “Gangam Style”, or watching the immensely popular and global sensation K-Drama “The Descendants of the Sun” or even visiting the popular K-Con convention in LA and New York. But nothing quite peaks our interest like the 2015 Rap Hit “It G Ma” by Keith Ape. For those of you who have never heard this song, or seen the video feel free to see it here.

What makes this song so special is not the obvious. What it actually does is borrow the flow from OG Maco’s satirical “U Guessed It”. What is really great is that Keith Ape has the courage to not only bring Japanese rappers like KOHH on the track but also U.S. based Hip-Hop vets like A$AP Ferg and Waka Flocka Flame to an already multicultural cast (Note: Remix Version Includes U.S. rappers mentioned above). So, the question stands, is this cultural appropriation, even though black rappers have jumped on the track? Before we answer the question, lets look at different aspects of Korean entertainment, starting with K-Dramas. Contrary to popular belief, K-Dramas are a global sensation, watched not only by Koreans or other Asian groups but also popular amongst Latin Americans, North Americans and Europeans.

Consumers have a plethora of legal and illegal ways of consuming this content, with providers like Viki and Drama Fever leading the charge. Outside of the popularity, these K-Dramas also have a huge effect on consumer shopping behaviors. A simple Google search of “Product Featured in K-Drama Sells Out” will bring up multiple listings of beauty products, fashion accessories, books, and even food selling out after being shown in various K-Dramas. Product placement is not a new tactic, in fact it has been used since the nineteenth century by esteemed French novelist Jules Verne in his novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” where the success of the novel led to transport and shipping companies lobbying to be mentioned in his story. In 2006, marketing research firm PQ Media, estimated that $3.36 billion in revenue was generated worldwide through product placement, a figure that continues to grow today.

So why do we not see more American based products featured in K-Dramas? Are American brands afraid of something? One potential challenge American brands might see is the fact that Korean entertainment has to first overcome is its long history of disrespecting cultures. From its constant blackface blunders (see Mamamoo) to wearing Nazi inspired outfits in K-Pop videos (see Pritz), what makes the Keith Ape song “It G Ma” so different? According to OG Maco’s since deleted tweet, this was in fact cultural appropriation and blatant stealing of his IP.


So, in addition to asking if Korean culture is done appropriating Black culture, the question we should be asking as marketers is “How do we avoid appropriating culture moving forward?”.


First and foremost, the following answer should not be taken as gospel but more as topics for discussion.

1. When creating content that seeks to pay homage to another culture it is always important to bring multiple sides of the spectrum to the conversation. Having singular thoughts coming from a predominantly homogenous group always spells trouble. Does anyone remember Pepsi trying to borrow the Black Lives Matter movement and make it into a message of “unity, peace and understanding”? One word to describe this mess, FAIL. Prior to releasing this spot, it would’ve been beneficial for Pepsi to bring BLM advocates to the table to discuss issues surrounding Black Americans and appropriate ways of depicting the movement without white washing the real issues (Yes you Kendell Jenner).

2. With the ever-increasing globalization of cultures, thanks in part to the internet, it’s probably smart for marketers to do research on both the culture they are targeting with their advertising as well as the culture they are referencing. Remember the long-forgotten Groupon commercials of 2011 that depicted Timothy Hutton discussing human rights abuses in Tibet and shortly after raving about deals he got at restaurants. Another obvious fail that tried to play off of current political and social issues in the wrong way. The right thing to do in this case would be for Groupon to develop a PR campaign that addressed social issues separately from their bottom line.

3. Education, Education, Education… a key pillar that is consistently overlooked, yet should be the foundation to any marketing initiative your brand is exploring as it relates to multicultural audiences. Educating yourself is the difference between making a beautiful and culturally appropriate spot like the 2014, It’s Beautiful Spot by Coca Cola, or like the Chinese detergent commercial that depicted a black male being washed and coming out as a white Asian male. So what does this all mean? For one, regardless if it’s Korean culture, Black culture, or even Russian culture we need to make sure that when we borrow certain elements from these cultures that we are bringing people to the table who live and breathe it day in and day out. Cultural perspective from these people are the difference between successfully recognizing a culture or appropriating it, IT G MA (Don’t’ Forget)

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