Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Korean pop, more commonly known as K-pop, refers to the genre of popular music that originated in Korea. Throughout the years, K-pop has been influenced by multiple styles and genres from around the globe that combine with the traditional Korean musical roots. Normally, Korean musical groups consist of multiple members who are all Korean nationals. For example, the most popular K-pop group of all time, BTS, has seven members who are all Korean.
However, the inclusion of non-Korean artists has become fairly common within the K-pop industry. Numerous popular groups throughout the K-pop music scene have non-Korean members that come from Japan, China, Taiwan, and other East Asian countries.
Aside from the now common additions of non-Korean East Asians, non-Asian artists are being somewhat welcomed into the K-pop industry. From Russia to Senegal to Brazil, idols from numerous countries are entering the Korean entertainment market.
Moving Towards Non-Korean East Asian Inclusion in Korean Music
In 2001, one of the biggest K-pop labels in South Korea, SM Entertainment, held an overseas audition in China. 3,000 people auditioned to become part of a K-pop music act. One individual, Hang Eng, who came to be known as “Hankyung” in Korea, debuted as part of the popular group called Super Junior in 2005. Hankyung was known as the first prominent Chinese member to be part of a K-pop group.
Because broadcasting laws prohibited him from appearing on television except on three stations, Hankyung performed wearing a hat and a mask to hide his identity for eight months. Many thought he was a backup dancer until, in 2007, when his bandmate Kim Heechul publicly revealed him by taking off his mask on stage.
Eventually, after a few years, this legislation, and others that made it more difficult for foreign idols to perform as normal, were changed.
As the name “K-pop” suggests, most of the artists are, in fact, Korean. However, it is not uncommon for groups to have two to three non-Korean members. Girl group (G)-IDLE, owned and managed by Cube Entertainment is composed of six members of which only three are of Korean nationality: Soyeon, Miyeon, and Soojin. The remaining three — Minnie, Yuqi, and Shuhua — are Thai, Chinese, and Taiwanese, respectively.
China is the biggest contender for non-Korean Asian idols. In addition to Yuqi from (G)-IDLE, big names such as Jackson Wang from Got7, and Renjun, Hendry, Kun, Xiao Jun, Winwin, and Chen Le from the expansive NCT lineup come from the most populous country in the world.
Second, on the list is Japan. The Japanese members from the JYP Entertainment owned girl group Twice, are Momo, Sana, and Mina, and are known as the biggest Japanese idols in history. Other idols include Yuta from NCT and May and Remi from Cherry Bullet.
Multiple idols also come from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Some examples are Felix from Stay Kids who was born in Sydney, Australia; Rosé from Blackpink who was born in Auckland, New Zealand; and Johnny from NCT who was born in Illinois, U.S. All these idols are of ethnic Korean background, however, and are rarely regarded as “foreign” idols except in terms of formality.
The biggest foreign K-pop idol of all time is Lalisa Manoban from Blackpink, South Korea’s most famous girl group. Lalisa, known by the mononym Lisa, is a Thai idol who debuted with the other three members of Blackpink on August 8, 2016. She has a huge following of over 44 million followers on her personal Instagram account and is actively participating in her group’s promotions, as well as acting in Thai commercials. Her fame is attributed to the success of her band and the label that houses it, YG Entertainment.
Non-Asian Artists are Entering the Korean Music Industry
In the past few years, non-Asian artists have also started to pop up around the industry. Earlier this year, a four-member K-pop group called KAACHI debuted in the United Kingdom, with only one Korean member, Coco. Out of the remaining three members, two are Latina and one is British. KAACHI was met with very heavy backlash after the drop of their Korean debut single, ‘Your Turn’.
Netizens accused the group and their label of appropriating Korean culture and falsely calling themselves a K-Pop group. The girls were labeled as “Koreaboos” — someone who is so obsessed with Korean culture that they denounce their own and try their best to ‘be’ Korean.
Another cause for hate was the lack of lengthy training that the members of KAACHI received. Trainees that are set to go into the K-pop industry go through an extensive training period that can last anywhere from one year to over six years. The members of KAACHI only trained formally for about a month. Secondly, none of the members, except Coco, a Korean national, are fluent in Korean, which many believe diminishes the entire designation of ‘K-pop’.
Before KAACHI, there were a few other notable foreign names that briefly showed up in K-pop. In 2015, boy group EXP EDITION debuted after being formed through the “I’m Making a Boy Band” (IMMABB) project started by Bora Kim, Karin Kuroda, and Samantha Shao, which originally began as a thesis project by Kim in 2014.
Originally, EXP EDITION consisted of six members during their pre-debuted in 2015 with the single, ‘Luv/Wrong.’ However, only four remained a part of the group by the time their debut single, ‘Feel Like This,’ was released — Frankie, Hunter, Sime, and Koki. Frankie and Hunter are American, Sime is Croatian, and Koki is half-German and half-Japanese. The members met in New York and traveled to Korea to receive basic training in all aspects of Korean music artistry.
The group was met with a lot of criticism. Many people did not believe that the group could classify as a Korean band, as there wasn’t a single Korean member. Nonetheless, EXP EDITION continued to promote and released another single, ‘Stress,’ in 2018. They have been inactive since then, only posting musical covers and video blogs that garner only a few thousand views
Individual artists and soloists have also garnered mixed reviews from K-pop listeners. In 2015, DR Music confirmed that singer Alexandra “Alex” Ried would be joining the group RaNia, making her the first black K-pop idol. On August 12, 2017, RaNia released their fifth mini-album and the promotions for the album became controversial after fans noticed that Alex had little to no lines and that she spent the majority of performances standing off to the side while the other girls performed.
Just a few days later, on August 19, Reid announced her departure from RaNia and resumed building her career as a solo singer in the U.S. She spoke out about the mistreatment and racism she faced by tweeting, “People think they can push you around, take advantage of you, manipulate you, violate you then throw you in the trash and walk. Dead wrong.”
On the contrary, Russian-born K-pop soloist LANA was greeted with more positive feedback. She is fluent in Russian, English, Mandarin, and Korean, and has had dance training. As part of Russia is in Asia, LANA receives more positive feedback than all the other idols previously mentioned. However, she still gets hate for being fully white in an industry that has the word “Korean” in its name. She is mostly away from the spotlight and the music charts, as the label she is signed under, HiCC Entertainment, is not very big.
Black Swan, which debuted this year, consists of four members, two are Korean, one is from Senegal, and one is from Brazil. Differing from other groups, their debut single, ‘Tonight,’ was met with positive feedback towards all members, and the group was applauded for being well trained in rapping, singing, dancing, and speaking Korean.
The trend of non-Korean nationals appearing in Korean music acts is on the rise. As the Hallyu “Korean” wave spreads across the globe, it is expected that many people from eclectic racial backgrounds would be drawn to the Korean idol life. However, many consider K-pop to be exclusive to East Asia. While the public has gotten accustomed to seeing non-Korean East Asians in K-pop music groups, there is still much controversy surrounding the increased incorporation of non-Asian music artists within the broad Korean pop music stage.
Through Teen Lenses: Did you know about the increased inclusion of non-Korean and non-Asian artists in K-pop music groups? What are your thoughts on it? Do you think it’s appropriate or not?
“Yes, I do know about this. A lot of new 4th-gen groups have been debuting with foreign members recently. I think it’s a positive change within K-pop because it’s nice to see more diversity within the music industry. I don’t think K-pop necessarily means that the artists have to all be of Korean ethnicity, but more than the songs are primarily in Korean. As a fan, it’s cool to find out more about each idol’s origins, and that definitely adds dimension and uniqueness to different groups. Speaking from what I’ve seen and experienced, I think K-pop can definitely benefit from increased exposure to many different cultures/ethnicities.” Julia Nguyen, Senior at Thomas A. Edison High School, Alexandria, Virginia
“I became aware of this sometime last year. I didn’t think much of it until groups started debuting with little to no training, and started calling themselves K-pop groups. I don’t think it’s that complicated. If a group with no skills and absolutely no time in training claims to be a K-pop group, it’s a problem. If someone foreign wishes to be in the industry, they should be aware of Korea’s traditions and culture, fluently speak Korean, and have a few years of training at the least.” Rahmah Naeem, Freshman at Virginia Virtual Academy, Herndon, Virginia
“I am aware that there are a lot of idols who are not Korean or not even Asian. It’s common to find those who are not Korean; there are many idols who are Chinese, Japanese, and even Thai. As for not being Asian at all, that’s a very small percentage of idols, but it is increasing. I believe it depends. If a non-Korean or non-Asian is being included in a K-pop group under a legitimate company, then I don’t see a problem- as long they learn about Korean culture and language to avoid cultural appropriation. As for non-Asian artists and non-Asian groups, I think this is a touchy subject. I believe that non-Asian groups who want to be like K-pop groups should not consider themselves as K-pop groups but instead just be a K-pop inspired pop group. In the K-pop industry, idols have to train to debut. Non-Asians in their own countries don’t take that into account and take the easy way out for forming their groups. So overall, for non-Asians, if they want to be considered part of K-pop, they should go to Korea and train properly. If they want to form their own group in their home country, then just be a group that is inspired by K-pop.” N. Khan, Senior at Freedom High School, Chantilly, Virginia