By Mandy Day
South Korean rapper CL is a superstar in her home country and throughout Asia. Recently, she recorded an English language album in an attempt to break into the U.S. market. This week, she faced a backlash over comments she made about women and girls in Asia. She told New York based Paper Magazine:
I think a lot of the young kids right now are looking for something new, and they want to look different. Especially girls, and this is why I’m trying to come out here — to set an example of an Asian girl. A lot of Asian girls love being basic because it’s safe. But the thing is, a lot of my fans are those girls, and they want to be bolder, but there’s no one they could look up to and be like, It’s OK to be that way. There’s no one out here who will do that, and I feel like I have done enough for Asia and changed a lot of girls. Even if it’s a phone case, they try. Girls in Asia are very obedient, shy, timid, quiet, but I can tell that it’s changing, and I want them to be stronger and tell them that it’s OK to be different. Being special is a luxury, and I don’t think we have that. Yet.
Online commentators and fans labeled her statement as insensitive, and some went so far as to call CL arrogant for claiming she’s a role model who has changed cultural ideals in Asia.
As an avid Korean pop fan, I’ve had to reconcile that the industry has many faults, including racism, sexism and cultural appropriation. From blackface to rampant plastic surgery and starvation dieting, the music and television industry continually fails to set an example for a country that stagnates in social conservatism and the unending quest for “perfection.” In many ways, I used to view CL, and artists like her, as role models that break down those societal expectations. In the past two or three years, her “uniqueness” has come at a well-documented cost.
Simple Google searches can lay out the prevalence of racism, classism and sexism in a South Korean society that promotes themselves as a 21st century global leader. In many ways, how people and ideals are portrayed in Korean entertainment can be a repellent for Western fans, including this one, which is when CL’s statement addressing conformity makes perfect sense. Simultaneously, her work reflects someone who isn’t empowered. Instead, it’s perpetuating stereotypes about people of color and displaying blatantly sexist language and images for the sake of hype and gaining a foothold in the American hip-hop market.
She has hoards of fans in the U.S., and with her group, 2NE1, has sold out venues like the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, home to the ESPY Awards and the Emmys. Their song, “I Am the Best” was featured last year in a nationwide commercial for Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Now that CL has begun to promote herself as a serious English language musical artist, she’s teamed up with some of the United States’ most in demand musicians, producers, and stylists. Many of whom have been embroiled in their own controversies regarding racism and misogyny. From designer Jeremy Scott to DJ/producer Diplo and rappers Riff Raff and OG Maco, CL’s management team has transformed her into just another musician willing to do anything for notoriety and money. The woman I saw leading 2NE1 as the most energetic, mesmerizing performer in the group, has been diminished to someone placating the misogynistic culture in hip-hop.
The leader of South Korea’s most famous quartet is no stranger to controversy. Many know her from her recent English single, Doctor Pepper, but never experienced the cultural appropriation abundantly visible in one of her Korean solos, Baddest Female (a.k.a. Baddest Bitch, if translated accurately) which was released in 2013. If you can stomach the four minutes of painfully racist and appropriative video, you can find it here. Doctor Pepper has its own major problems, beyond the people featured in it. What K-Pop and 2NE1 fans had looked forward to for years left many people shaking their heads. Half-naked women with photos of the male rap guests stuck to their foreheads and butts were more abundant than CL herself. Much of the song involved women in black acting as accessories to the men. They weren’t unique or empowered, as CL has promoted herself to be over the years. Just background fodder no different than most rap videos one can find on the Internet.
Her statement about women in Asia is not necessarily inaccurate. A bit insulting, stereotypical, and surely could have been put more eloquently. Societal pressures to act in a certain way have stifled creativity and created a culture of fitting in. Yet, CL is a product of that culture. She is lucky enough to belong to a label in South Korea known for giving their artists more creative license than most. The Chae Rin who inspired the song Ugly, promoting self-confidence and uniqueness, has been overtaken by a musician blinded by the bright lights of Hollywood.