The World's Most Controversial K-Pop Group

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K-Pop, or Korean Idol pop music, is a 5 billion dollar industry whose music, fashion, stars and lifestyle have taken the world by storm. But while K-Pop’s fanbase has diversified, most K-Pop idols haven’t – so what happens when white people try and become K-Pop idols themselves?

On this episode of ‘MINORITY REPORTS,’ VICE sent Lee Adams to Seoul, South Korea to meet EXP Edition, the world’s first non-Korean K-Pop group. The group’s 4 members – Koki Tomlinson, Frankie DaPonte, Hunter Kohl and Šime Košta – believe you don’t need to be Korean in order to do K-Pop. When they debuted, EXP Edition faced a lot of criticism from mostly non-Korean K-Pop fans, who claimed the group was misappropriating Korean culture. EXP Edition maintains this pushback happens to anyone trying to break into a new genre of music – but is the group going too far in their attempt to be K-Pop idols?

We explore the wildly popular world of K-Pop and raise questions of where the line is drawn between cultural appreciation vs cultural appropriation and who should actually draw it.


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The first time you watch k-pop you're immediately hooked on it,
addicted to it. Singing, dance, acting, fashion immediately thought have to do this, I have to be a part of this k-pop. If you guys wouldn't mind
introducing yourself Let's do our… [inaudible] Hello! The criticism that the expedition got was about ownership of k-pop. They can't because they're white,
they can't because they're Americans. Kimchi [Cheese]!
One, two, three! Kimchi! He says "I don't want white people
in my kpop" isn't kpop Isn't K-pop Korean? white dudes trying to break into White dudes trying to break into Korean pop music,
is fucking bullshit. You were telling me earlier that you
guys got death threats in the beginning? If people are reacting this strongly
that maybe this is something more than what I thought it was or where it where it could go. When you look at kpop
there's nothing that's traditionally Korean in it. To certain people when they see us We understand that that
is still surprising. I understand every single person
that had criticisim. We live here in Korea, We speak Korean working with the same producer same teams who create other k-pop groups you're kind of thinking like how could it not be
considered K-Pop. I'm here in Seoul South Korea to meet
EXP edition The world's first non
Korean K-Pop group It's made up of four members Sime, who's Croatian American, Hunter, who's from New York, Frankie, who's from Rhode Island and Koki who's half Japanese,
half German raised in Texas. So with their first album
in the tank and their lives fully
relocated to Seoul. I'm here to find out if a group of foreigners can actually make it
in the K-Pop industry What up!
– Whats up dude! Welcome.
– How's it going? Good, good. Come in.
Take your shoes off when you enter. This is like the place you guys have been in since you got here. This is a castle. The castle, yeah. Technically they have a bigger
room Sime and Koki So we do rock-paper-scissors to see
who will get the bigger room -At a restaurant, right?
– Yeah. We like our rooms. growing up I did a lot of musical theater in elementary school,
middle school, high school I always loved to sing. I was born and raised in Croatia and I decided to just go to the States for one year as a
foreign exchange student That's where I saw a musical theater for a very first time,
I fell in love with it and so I decided to stay I was just doing probably similar to the guys stories. Acting, modeling, also side jobs you know just for money,
catering jobs. Growing up in the
States you're never like "Oh, like I'm gonna
become a pop star". Because like, how do you do that? Then once I joined the EXP edition It kind of… renewed my…
I guess like vigor To, to like think
like this is possible. How do you use this term? While doing something.
– While doing something. That's right. We us it when it has
the same subject. That's right. We have to use it under
the same subject. Koki, do you want to make
a sentence? While I was studying, I
was watching TV. We want to be a part of
the K-Pop industry and we are here where it all started. So, in order to do that,
you have to know the language Right.
– You have to know the culture, you have to be a part of it. I think it's still a new
concept to a lot of people. But, we're just honored to be
a small part of it. You know?
– Yeah. That's my baby. Let's say that in Korean. Today is a special day! Teacher's day! Teacher's grace is so high. Oh, do you know this song? It is getting higher as looking up Thank you. Ah, it should be rewarded. our teacher's grace. -We love you!
– Thank you The group was started in
2015 by Bora Kim. A Korean woman who wanted to study what makes K-pop K-pop as a part of an art project at Columbia University. She called the group EXP edition,
EXP being for experiment filled it with non Koreans and raised
$30,000 on Kickstarter. Obviously, I had no experience in running
an entertainment company So, I was reading a lot of academic texts about it and then It really made me think
on what K-pop can be to other people. We're hoping to continue moving
forward and stay focused on our main goal to create
and share great K-Pop. We prepared an ad and surprisingly so many
people applied. And right about that time
we got a lot of media attention. – So when you guys first debuted how are you like received? just like an explosion of
attention basically. Very mixed reactions that we got. Anywhere by people being fascinated
by the idea to just like outright hitting it. I mean you were telling me that you guys got death threats at the beginning? My sister texted me like "what are these? Are these jokes?" These comments on instagram. I'm like yeah just don't
pay attention to it. I guess thinking back at it. It like makes me like
question myself. Was I just being ignorant? By just thinking that we weren't
gonna get… I remember initially
thinking like Wow this… If people are reacting
this strongly then Then maybe this is something
more than what I thought it was and where,
where it could go Because in Korea K-pop is no joke. It's a five billion dollar industry. There are There are over 100 groups
signed to major labels and dozens of Idol
training schools, But Idol training is
notoriously tough and kids practice 12 hours
a day for upwards of 10 years hoping to
become k-pops next big star. EXP edition
has faced criticism for seemingly bypassing
that system and I wanted to know how that
might affect their success. So I sat
down with Leah Kim One of the best known dance choreographers in K-pop. Why is the training to become a K-Pop idol so intense? Entertainment companies want to see
perfectly well knit choreography. So, the training is hard and intense. Can K-Pop idols be made or
do they have to be born? The training system is so
good in Korea. A K-pop company can take your skills that require improvement to the next level. So, I can say, K-Pop
idols can be made. Only 20-30 percent of trainees can
make it to the agency auditions. It's such a tough and difficult process that I give a lot of respect to people that became K-pop idols. Do you think k-pop idols can
come from outside of that system? Without K-pop's inside knowledge, if an individual who comes from outside tries to get over that system, I cannot say it's impossible,but
it wouldbe really hard. Because of the training system fans of K-Pop expect their idols to be perfect – This is ti tikka TV David we are with
EXP Edition! Danny and David Kim our popular Korean youtubers whose K-Pop reaction videos have been viewed over
37 million times. They first reviewed EXP Edition two years ago about their
music video 'Feel like this'. I'm not saying, i'm not saying
they're good at any level. Like they're pretty bad. I'll agree with that. They're pretty bad. When you guys were first
exposed to EXP Edition, what was your reaction to foreigners
getting involved with K-Pop? I think it's like, you know when
Vanilla Ice first came out. You know? They're not like totally K-Pop
because musicly they sounded very Popish, they sounded like American pop right. Visually, they kind of like
imitated or they were wearing like K-Pop style makeup. And it was very weird for me. And also their pronunciation.
This is very important for Korean people who
listen to the music If your pronunciation is weird you get this weird
feeling, you get this like, you get off. 'Ung' is to talk to to strongly. Yeah. That was better. Were you guys even aware that
they were like still around? No, no I was pretty sure that… I thought it was a one-off thing. Yeah, I thought it was an experiment yeah because the killing EXP Edition
and also I saw the news that
it was like a thesis project so it's like,
okay, this is like a one-off thing. You didn't take it seriously?
– No, no. They've been trying to like get on
TV shows and like make that run. But yeah,
it's funny you know your guys business
K-Pop you weren't even aware they were like still around. I wanted to see if the group has been able to build a Korean fan base so I went to a performance they were giving at a Korean Buddhist temple. Please welcome EXP Edition
with a big round of applause. How did it make you feel to see foreigners forming a K-Pop group. In the beginning, I doubted whether a
foreign group can sign K-Pop or not, but I am now very positive about it since it's the result of the globalization of K-Pop. I was supposed to be somewhere else, but I like them so much that I am here now. Their pronunciation is
not that accurate. but the delivery of their
emotion was very good. So, I thought that a group might
really love our country's K-Pop. and that's how I became
a fan of EXP edition. All done! I will see you tomorrow! Seeing the guys with their fans step
out of all of their Western selves and step into this very Korean self, that they've had to manufacture
to appeal to a brand new audience. It does sort of flirt with
the line of cultural appropriation and then
just straight out respect. And to be
honest I really wasn't expecting the Korean fans to be so positive towards them. The way that you guys have
physically transformed yourself or the way that you guys have learned aesthetic that goes along with K-Pop does that offend you at all? No, absolutely not. When people look at us and say like we're culturally
appropriating in a way it does confuse me once people realize that we do love and respect Korean culture and K-Pop as an industry that it's nothing like
cultural appropriation. It's interestingly enough that most of this sort of like that type of criticism comes from non-Korean
K-Pop fandom. Mostly english-speaking
actually. I'm gonna Google K-Pop
definition see what the world Ohhhh, nice thing is like
it isn't K-pop… Korean… It hurts to watch, right? yeah This is much closer to Europe pop
– Closer to Europe on trashed Yeah, I don't like this. Yeah, they are a gimic group.
I don't think, yeah… This kind of experiment it's mocking
the K-Pop culture and I find that
part disrespectful. White dudes trying to break into
Korean pop music to appeal to a Korean
audience as a social experiment is f*king bullshit. Hello! The criticisim EXP Expedition got was
about ownership of K-Pop. So Kenny expedition call
themselves K-Pop. They can't because they're
not Korean, they can't because they're white, but in Korea
we don't have the hate reaction. Korea has a totally different relationship toward cultural appropriation within K-Pop. When you actually look
at K-Pop there's nothing that's traditionally
Korean in it. for about forty years Korea was under Japanese occupation.
Their culture was wiped out. And they were cut off to the world with K-Pop Korea's been able to take elements of Western
culture and make it their own and are happy to share
that with the world. But foreign k-pop fans, mainly
American, feel this need to protect K-Pop even though
it's not really theirs to protect. I don't want white people in my
fucking K-Pop. Stay in America. How do you react with these
types of reaction videos? This specific reaction video
we thought was really interesting. There's definitely a sense of ownership K-Pop fans have over… Over K-Pop and it's so
interesting because they bec…
they themselves act as if they're an ambassador of K-Pop and so when they see something threatening it or they something that they
think is threatening it. They are very outrightly trying to protect it. But it's exoticsizing and demeanor
and it's orientalist you know this talk around race and political correctness. You really have to look at the
situation and a lot of people that know about us know very surface of it and make that
very quick judgement. How did ever registering that you had taken members
of the majority in America and you made
them minorities in Korea? Yeah, that was the weight
of this project. I wanted to hear from some of these more outspoken
foreign K-Pop fans so I invited a couple of them to talk about the route of their feelings towards the EXP edition. What was your collective first
impression of the EXP edition? Not killer.
– That was very nice. I thought they're trolly. Everybody was taking them seriously
but I was like these guys are funny. You thought it was a mockery? Yeah, yeah, yeah. kpop is like a K-Pop is like a set of conventions
that's why we like go to K-Pop for that. So when
they were doing this thing it's like…
that's not what we expected I mean the philosophy of life is you have to be better
you have to be different and so they tried to hit up that we're very different they're like look how white we are ha right and everyone's like okay but your skills aren't where they need to be, your
production isn't were it needs to be. Your songs aren't where they need to be, So what are you doing? At first because it was like
his college creation that they were being
satirical and then they're like 'oh, people
actually want to see this.' It's funny though cause like when I first came in contact with the group it seemed like a
cash grab to me. But from what I've seen so far,
I think they are really trying to make
it as a K-Pop group. I think that anybody can break into the market. I don't want to see it. I have my interest in watching it. Yeah, I mean was it because…
– Was it because they're white? because they're white?
Was that gonna be your question? No, no not yet but we can…
– Not yet? We can talk…
That was a question when can talk about about that right like was it because they were a majority why
it like mostly American group? No, it was just cuz it was criggy Because I mean when… But did that have to do with
their being white… Probably, I can't really explain it to you it's a weird thing and it's funny cuz in the comments section to some of my videos I've had the exact same question like I just don't want to see non-asians in K-pop and it's like it's not that it's there's
nothing to do with the race. It's just I think it's some people are sick and tired
of how Western culture pushes certain
things in your face, With music. I think there's almost sort of like a natural protective is thing if they went over there and they tried and they sang in Korean,
they danced they did their thing,
but they acted more where they're from, maybe
it will work little better and it wouldn't seem
so cringy and fake. People would be like they're
not even trying to be K-Pop. You kno?
Yes, they will if they can't win no matter what they do
they're going to be under the harshest spotlights. I think this is a type of
situation that a lot of artists have been in before it happened with jazz, it happened with hip-hop, when a
certain genre becomes so globally recognized it is only natural that more and more people
from different backgrounds are going to
become part of it. What do you want
out of this Experiment? As far as like the experiment part I think that is over like that experiment part ended a long time ago. Whether or not we are
successful enough to keep going that that's more of like
the conversation… Oh my god! Whats that? A cowgirl? Oh my god she is getting so big! Whats new in Korea? We've had a few shows lately.. Um… Actually a really cool one yesterday
at a temple it was raining but it was a lot of fun and I think it went well
we made a bunch of new fans and… It's like a big leap of faith coming out here right obviously making that decision kind of
putting your life on hold or leaving it behind at a certain point you guys
are in it for the long haul. That's an understatement
I mean it's just everything in our lives is kind of riding on this. Like if this… like god forbid the only thing this is fake wood. If it just stopped like I don't even know what we would do we would just have to start kind of from the ground up again like and it's hard to imagine just going back to auditioning and going back to you know catering you doubt yourself sometimes but we always try to
just stay positive and falsely mad. You know I have this big performance
coming up and I wish… I wish my parents could be
there you know I feel like they could understand me better and my desire
to keep going even when it seems like I shouldn't. Describing me I guess the
place that the band is in now. That's a good question. We are building
our fans of and we can feel it that it is slowly growing
but we need to get known more to the public we do have to be on like bigger TV shows and and that's really hard to do. We're inside KBS studios
because today's Sime is performing on a competition singing show and these types of shows are wildly popular in Korea and it's actually like a rite of passage for K-Pop groups. The thing is he's actually gonna
be performing by himself on that stage and if he does well it could really elevate the status of the group it's a lot of pressure
and it's kind of like one of those make-it-or-break-it moments for EXP edition. And this stuff is all… What is this
like scheduling I'm guessing. This is a timeline of the date so the actual recording
starts at 6:15 and this show will be a
temple immortal songs' is one of the most watched TV shows in Korea, so, Yes it is a big deal. And just talking about it like my heart starts racing. – Is it time? Almost. My kind of analysis of it all
isn't necessarily like people were attacking you for as individuals I think they were more afraid of what you represented. It's a very sensitive topic, it really is but I think it comes down to just
making sure that we've really come
across as someone who's not being ignorant about this whole situation. We understand that to certain people
when they see us perform in Korean with a certain
aesthetic that is still surprising I think this has happened to every musical genre ever. We're the face of it
so when people see us they're gonna react specifically to us because of that Please wait inside and we will call you when it's ready. I hope he wins.
– Yeah. I think you should come out now. That's okay, it's okay dude I mean you still you killed it. Are you okay? -That was like 5 votes?
Yeah 5 votes. Yeah. That's life. Spending time with these guys and learning about their story has started to make me question how we define cultural appropriation
and why we are so quick to assign that term
to certain situations. Now I'll admit that was my first thought when I heard
about EXP edition. But now, I feel like it was an unfair judgment especially if the majority culture in Korea is fine with them. I think sometimes in our attempt to protect certain things
we forget what we are actually trying
to defend. What are the things that you
want to make sure that the world knows about you
moving forward? People should know
that we live in Seoul all right our album is under the K-Pop genre on websites ya'll. At the bottom of all of this
is like very simple and it could be very selfish and that is that we really do love what we do. The only thing that what we
can do in now is to make sure that we
present ourselves and our work in the most
respectful way possible. Oh shit! I just stopped and I he said one more?