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The History Of K-Pop Has A Lot To Do With Politics


This April, BTS, the biggest group in K-pop, became the most streamed group of all time on Spotify. But the origins of the group, and really K-pop, have an interesting political history.

Japanese American cartoonist and illustrator Sam Nakahira recently drew a comic for Vox about those origins and tells us now how K-pop came to be a global force.

SAM NAKAHIRA: After Japan's occupation and colonization of Korea ended, U.S. military kind of came and occupied Korea again. Because of the military presence, a lot of the military men kind of wanted to listen to American and Western songs. So a lot of Korean music artists and bands would perform at military bases. And they would often perform, like, Western kind of pop-influenced songs. So there was kind of like westernization coming in through the music industry.

SIMON: For the next few decades, the Korean government focused on industrialization. And with censorship under a military dictatorship, there wasn't always a lot of space for the arts. Then in 1997, the Asian financial crisis hit. It meant economic hardship, but also opened some creative opportunities.

NAKAHIRA: And so after that crisis, I think the South Korean government were trying to figure out a different way that they could rebuild their economy.

SIMON: And they found the answer in a new kind of export, not manufacturing products but culture.

NAKAHIRA: And there was, like, a culture report in the early '90s that kind of compared the revenue from "Jurassic Park" to revenue from selling, like, a million Korean-manufactured cars. And they found that the revenue was kind of the same.

SIMON: Restrictions on speech started to loosen. And along with support from large corporations, the music scene began to not just flourish but take off around the world. Today groups like BTS and Blackpink have broken global streaming records. In 2019, Blackpink became the first all-female K-pop group to perform at Coachella.


BLACKPINK: (Singing) How you like that? You gon' like that, that, that, that, that, that, that, that, that. How you like that?

SIMON: And these artists have also created an army of fans.

NAKAHIRA: I think that kind of the community of K-pop fans, how they're so connected online, it really helps them in terms of, like, organizing for other things, like activism and political organizing.

SIMON: K-pop fans trolled former President Donald Trump's campaign last year. They booked registrations for a rally and then didn't show up. That kept on the crowd. And during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, K-pop tried to interrupt the plans of the Dallas Police Department, which had asked for photos and videos to help them identify protesters.

NAKAHIRA: A lot of K-pop fans kind of swarmed those police sites that were asking for these videos. And they uploaded a bunch of fancams of their favorite artists.

SIMON: K-pop has controversies too, of course. There are ongoing accusations about racism and anti-Blackness within the genre and about the way the industry forces its artists into exploitative contracts.

NAKAHIRA: The power is held in monopolies, where there's just, like, a few large corporations that have a lot of power over their artists and also over the medium in general.

SIMON: But even so, K-pop's global power keeps expanding.

NAKAHIRA: I hope that K-pop fans also are, like, kind of inspired by their interest in K-pop to explore other parts of Korea's, like, entertainment and art and culture and also their history.

SIMON: Cartoonist Sam Nakahira of Vermont.


BTS: (Singing in Korean). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.