Momtaza Mehri discusses the participation of young Eastern African women in K-pop culture, and how it reveals the interconnectedness of digital subcultures from the mid-2000s to now, on the basis of iconic K-pop videos. This essay was part of For the Record: K-pop Fandoms and Digital Diasporas, held on 9 May, 2019 in Het Nieuwe Instituut.
From the fascination with David Hasselhoff that gripped a pre-unification Germany to the widely documented love between Mexican-American youth and Morrissey, there are countless examples of obsessions that capture the imaginations of seemingly unlikely demographics. Cultural exchange is often as contested as it is fluid. It functions as an avatar for all manner of unuttered yearnings and cultivated aspirations. Only under closer inspection can we begin to make sense of the longings and universal desires underpinning such phenomena. If ever there was an under-researched example worth scrutinizing, it would be young women, Somali young women especially, and their embrace of K-pop.
Hallyu is a neologism that has seeped into mainstream usage to describe the increasing popularity of South Korean contemporary popular culture. Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is a government-subsidized and aggressively marketed alternative to US cultural hegemony that has immensely enhanced South Korea’s national brand. It was initially ushered in by serialized and globally exported Korean dramas such as Winter Sonata, Boys over Flowers and The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince, all of which captivated audiences across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Pirated DVDs of these dramas could be found in markets as far away as Khartoum, as friends of mine noted on their childhood trips back to the motherland. The success of Korean dramas provided a fertile ground for K-pop’s overdue ascension.
The mid-to-late 90’s had already seen the formation of K-pop’s Big Three agencies (Lee Soo-man’s S.M. Entertainment, Yang Hyun-suk’s YG Entertainment and Park Jin-young’s JYP Entertainment). These juggernauts would go on to dominate the 21st century Korean music industry, crossing over seamlessly into television, film, advertising and cultural ambassadorship. I was initiated as a fan during this tail-end, when solo artists like Rain and BoA ruled the airwaves. Yet, it was the unrivalled success of bands like TVXQ and SS501 that cemented the template of the malleable and expertly curated idol group. Within a three-year period (2005-2008), influential groups from Super Junior and Big Bang to Girls’ Generation, SHINee and Kara would debut to wild success and acclaim. This would be K-pop’s second and most influential generation. Hallyu’s second boom was accelerated by the explosion of social networking and video sharing sites. Platforms like YouTube led to the birth of transnational fandoms and digital communities keen to spread the gospel of Hallyu 2.0 far and wide. As recently as 2016, YouTube’s number crunching has revealed that at least 80 per cent of K-pop viewership originates from outside South Korea.
Somali women, both young and old, tend to their obsessions well. We nurture our preoccupations with all the care and attention they deserve. ten We are the kind of sagacious fans any increasingly irrelevant or declining artist would love. We take our cues from our mothers and their generationally inherited passion for Bollywood classics, our aunts and their beloved Turkish television dramas, our uncles who grew up on Italian Spaghetti Westerns screened in Mogadishu’s cinemas. We headily embrace fandom wherever it finds us, and K-pop is no different. I was thirteen years old when TVXQ released Rising Sun, their second album. Inducted into their world by a school friend who’d transformed into a K-pop evangelist over the summer, I remember being entranced by the elaborate choreography and sumptuous visuals. YouTube itself had only been launched a few months before and its selection of music videos was hardly enough to sate our appetites. Yet, the little we saw was enough to spark our obsessions. Language and cultural barriers be damned, we surrendered to a wondrously Glissantian opacity. ‘‘I understand your difference, or in other words, without creating a hierarchy, I relate it to my norm.’’ Glissant reminded us of the desperate need, the precious demand, for opacity. We do not need to understand each other to accept one another. ‘‘Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.’’
Perhaps the Somali penchant for dramatics is what first reeled me, and so many others, in. K-pop relied on a sensory assault of addictive hooks, saccharine vocals and bubblegum visuals that left teenage girls like me defenseless. After each group’s debut or comeback teasers, my network of girlfriends would pore over the music videos in fevered conversation. We would practice the dance steps to SHINee’s Ring Ding Dong in the school bathrooms, a kind of synchronized kinship. As far as we could tell, Koreans seemed to take refuge in audacity. Like the women we came from, we too had a soft spot for well-executed theatrics. The sociologist Norman Denzin attests to the power of ‘‘cultural identities filtered through the personal troubles and the emotional experiences that flow from the individual’s interactions with everyday life’’. To the hyper-visible and hyper-surveilled, an attraction to K-pop’s flagrant flamboyance and unashamed capitalist death drive was a paradox we understood only too well as inheritors of The End of History, The War On Terror, The Financial Crash and The London Riots. How could such a generation resist the genre’s unapologetic dramatics?
For many of us, Anglosphere bands were lazy and insipidly repetitive comparison. They possessed an excess of cultural authority I resented for its uninspired and globalized ubiquity. I was unimpressed with the creative ‘‘risks’’ they took, which usually amounted to sexing up their image via the affectively subversive ‘‘urban’’ glamour of collaborations with rappers and hip-hop artists. These were cheap declarative signifiers of a predictable transition into maturity for artists hoping to transcend a fandom of tweens and teens. I had grown bored of these antics and their disrespect for the intelligence of young girls, the mutualist criticality of girlhood as played out in bedrooms and chat rooms.
Admittedly, many of us were also raised in conservative households which disapproved of mainstream risqué pop starlets. To our elders, K-pop was a bizarre but harmless pastime; another indulgence we revelled in as a generation once removed from the experience of forced displacement. Take for example TVXQ’s 2008 hit single Mirotic, which was deemed ‘‘inappropriate for minors’’ by the Korean Commission of Youth Protection for one particularly scandalous lyric; ‘‘I got you under my skin’’. Such was the extent of mid 2000s K-pop rebelliousness. A clean version was later produced, replacing the offending line with ‘‘I got you under my sky’’. Our parents would have been overjoyed to have Seoul’s administrative courts as our own unofficial chaperones. Here, in K-pop, was a hyper-stylized amalgam of creativity and conservatism girls like us could buy into, regardless of how inexplicable our enthusiasm seemed to outsiders.
K-pop’s ingenious marketing strategies involved fans throughout every stage of an idol’s musical evolution. Enthusiasts track their favorite idol’s journey from traineeship and debut to stardom and its cycles of reinvention. Considering how young some of these idols were and still are, we were often literally watching them grow up alongside us. We followed idols through promotional campaigns, career milestones, attempts at breaking foreign markets, break-ups, publicized scandals and mandatory military service.
Kiss the Dream, an early reality show, introduced us to the members of the newly-debuted U-Kiss, immediately establishing a bond with potential fans. With their debut in mind, we were inducted into their camp with its assigned colors, blood groups and astrological signs. This was fandom as metaphysics; as a farrago of industrialised myth-making we reappropriated for ourselves, straight out of the hands of Korean talent agencies. Capitalizing on the unique attributes of idols, K-pop entertainment companies ruthlessly constructed personalities to accompany merchandise and cultural products. As it’s been reported that the training costs of a single idol can run into the millions, these companies were unsurprisingly keen to secure a return on their investments.
This era of Hallyu was considered simply another candy-colored footnote to the Miracle on the Han River narrative. South Korea’s breakneck transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world during the 1950s to a model of development has undoubtedly facilitated its cultural expansion. In turn, its government financially supports cultural industries and utilises idols as national ambassadors. Ministries of Culture, Sports, Tourism and Foreign Affairs promote Korean culture abroad. Soft power, in the form of the same groups that offered me so much guiltless pleasure, is exercised to further bilateral relations.
Jumong, a 2006 historical period drama, attracted a higher viewership in Iran than in South Korea itself. Jumong’s lead actor, Song Il-gook, became a household name and was invited to tour Iran. South Korea’s LG Electronics sponsored this tour, furthering the economic interests and prominence of the Korean exports sector. International KCONs, or Korean wave conventions, are used to sell Brand Korea overseas and entice tourists. KCON Abu Dhabi 2016 (the Middle East’s first convention) was even welcomed by Seok Cho, President of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, for its potential to ‘‘expand nuclear power-related exports’’ and open the door for Korean corporations in the Middle East. It’s disquieting to think of our naively fostered Somali fangirl-dom as simply a by-product of the Korean state’s machinations intended to advance Korea’s various chaebols, from Samsung to Hyundai.
As I grew older, I and fellow K-pop devotees became more aware of what lay hidden under the surface of the industry’s glossy, candy-coated epidermis. Exposés and lawsuits revealed everything from ‘‘slave contracts’’ and labor violations to psychological abuse and sexual exploitation. Idols were mistreated and grossly short-changed, all while having their private lives micromanaged by profit-driven industry heads. Consider Ellison Kyoung-jae Kim, a member of U-Kiss, who was forced to keep his marriage secret and prevented from visiting his pregnant wife in hospital lest his idol status be affected. Even sanitised depictions of traineeship, as seen in the 2017 reality girl group survival show Idol School, can’t conceal the gruelling effects of factory-like production on young idols.
I sometimes think our own voracious consumption and the demands it imposed on many of Hallyu 2.0’s defining groups must have, in some way, led to their breakups and breakdowns. I have grown to witness K-pop’s slick veneer of wholesome entertainment slip time and time again. Nowhere was this more tragically evident than in the passing of SHINee’s Kim Jong-hyun. After succumbing to a ‘‘devouring’’ depression, Jong-hyun took his own life in 2017 at the age of 27. A flurry of messages from friends informed me of his death. I still struggle to make sense of it. Only a few months earlier, Big Bang’s T.O.P had overdosed on tranquilizers, an event attributed to his mental health struggles and recent military enlistment. Jong-huyn, and his generation of idols, represented more than a teenage fad. To me, they were a reminder of a frenzied youth, of knees bumped against each other as we shared headphones, of MP3 players with limited storage, of YouTube wormholes and the responsibilities of fan forum moderation. Before we were all separated by choice or circumstance. Before life happened to us. Jong-hyn’s passing, more than anything else, brought my network of Somali fangirls (an army, to use the terminology of BTS fans), past and present, together. We reminisced about how K-pop was our escapist hideaway, a drop of pure nostalgia fossilized in amber. Now, even it was corrupted by the realities of living in this world.
According to K-pop aficionados, we are currently in the midst of a post-Hallyu wave marked by the disbandment of second generation groups such as 2NE1 and Wonder Girls. It’s either a golden age or the bittersweet end of one, depending on whether you speak to a Somali millennial or a member of the Generation Z cohort. K-pop continues to mine and mimic Black American modes of expression within a URL pop culture landscape energized by diasporic Black youth, creating a dizzying feedback loop of imitation and entanglement (or “Black music for those who don’t like Black people, as a friend scathingly put it. She isn’t a fan). These self-referential pockets of cyberspace offer us surreal highlights like Jay Park’s shout-out to Somali fans and Korean rappers proclaiming ‘‘Somalia ha noolaato’’ (Long Live Somalia). Younger fangirls, at least the Somali ones, now scream with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. They are able to cringe while knowingly waving their neon light sticks.
Somali girlhood, and Black girlhood by extension, can feel interminably lonely. K-pop and its shared communities made it less so. In memorising Hangul and dance routines, we learnt we didn’t have to fully understand something to appreciate it. We spoke in code and saved up for dream trips to Busan, some even securing jobs in Korea and building a life there. Funnily enough, K-pop was the least absurd spectacle in our own chaotic lives. I, like so many others, clung to it and the bonds it allowed me to foster with other Somali fangirls. For something so manufactured, the friendships it engendered felt effortlessly natural. It’s hard not to be grateful for such small mercies.