K-pop is having a moment in American pop culture.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the genre’s skyrocketing popularity stateside better than the arrival of BTS. The seven-member South Korean boy band formed in 2013 but in the past year has played to an estimated 52,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, collaborated with American artists Charli XCX and Halsey and won the first Best K-Pop award at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards for the song “Boy With Luv.”
Last week, BTS member J-Hope collaborated with artist Becky G on the track “Chicken Noodle Soup” and inspired a new, viral dance trend on social media.
Other Korean music groups have made waves this year too. Blackpink performed during the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Monsta X headlined Los Angeles’ Staples Center in August.
Then there’s KCON, a convention that bills itself as a celebration of “all things hallyu” — a term that refers to South Korean pop culture — and regularly draws more than 100,000 fans during its now-four-day run in Los Angeles.
Amid the explosion of South Korean pop culture in the United States, as well as growing student interest in the wider Korean culture and language, the UC Irvine Center for Critical Korean Studies will hold a conference on Korean hip-hop on Monday.
Presented in tandem with Hyundai Motor America, the all-day conference will take place in Room 1030 of the Humanities Gateway building on the UCI campus. It will focus on the intersection of Korean hip-hop and Afro-Asian identity and bring together scholars in Korean, Korean American and African American studies to discuss the music genre.
Kyung Hyun Kim, the center’s founding director and an organizer of the conference, said one of the biggest reasons Korean courses are getting more students is because of greater exposure to Korean pop culture.
“I teach on subjects like K-pop and Korean popular culture and one of the things I noticed is that the historical density behind Korean pop culture is sometimes totally missing,” Kim said. “A lot of students are maybe drawn [in] by TWICE [a girl group] or BTS, but they might not necessarily know that there is a history to all of this.
“Music styles and beats don’t get made overnight.”
During his studies on the cultural alliances between the American and Korean pop histories, Kim realized the missing link was the influence of black culture, he said.
“A lot of people fail to notice that there is a very substantial relationship between black cultural performances and Korean cultural performances,” Kim said. "[The conference is] an opportunity to explore that ... where people are beginning to think, conceptualize, intellectualize and historicize this phenomenon.”
The conference will include a keynote address from Adam Bradley, an English professor and director of the Laboratory for Race & Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Panels throughout the day will discuss language, the making of the Korean and Korean American identity, Korean hip-hop communities and how to challenge the “mainstream, constructed blackness and misogyny” in Korean hip-hop, according to a conference agenda.
The conference will conclude with a concert at the Irvine Barclay Theatre featuring performers Tiger JK, Yoon Mi-rae, Bizzy and Kurtis Blow.
K-pop “may not be exactly like Korean traditional music, but there’s a large part of this that’s trying to establish cultural pride,” Kim said. “The pop performances are sometimes very glib and swag and fluffy, but it’s also got a historical layer to it.”
Much of that substance, he continued, “comes from that [cultural] tie, partnership and tribute that is between the black community and Koreans. If you can get away from the conference and the concert feeling at least some connection to that, I think that’d be a success for us.”
IF YOU GO
What: Korean Hip-Hop and New Explorations of Afro-Asian Identity Conference and Afro-Korean Hip-Hop Festival
Where: The conference will be held in Room 1030 of the Humanities Gateway building at UC Irvine; the concert will be at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive.
When: The conference is from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday, and the concert starts at 7 p.m.
Cost: Panels and talks are free and open to the public; concert tickets range from $25 to $50 and can be purchased at bit.ly/2JAiUKN.