Racial Inequality in Music: From Classical Music to K-pop

By Jocelyn Wu (USA)
Published on November 14th, 2020

Music has had a great impact on all of our lives. There is something for everyone, whether it be country, classical, hip hop, R&B, or K-pop… The list goes on. Beneath the surface of our favorite tunes, however, are the integration and embodiment of culture. Music and culture are deeply connected; sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Cultures around the world can connect through it, but at the same time, cultures may be neglected or disrespected through music.

The White-dominated World of Classical Music:

Classical music is usually regarded as a universal language, but a close-up look investigating the world of classical music proves otherwise. When we look at orchestras - whether youth or professional - we see that they are predominantly made up of whites and Asians. A 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras found that less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American and that orchestras remained 85% white. When we think of highly-loved composers whose works are frequently performed, such as Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, we realize that there is little diversity to be found in the works that orchestras perform these days. When we look at the audiences in classical music concert halls, we see that they are mostly older, white people. Why are things this way?

To answer this question, we must first understand some music history. Classical music was created as an elitist art form. It was made by middle-class white people for middle-class white people. Because of this, it is expected that classical music should somewhat center around white people.

However, this idea denies that there have been successful non-white composers and performers who have been intentionally denied a prominent spot in the world of classical music. Successful black composers include Le Chevalier De Saint-Georges, Francis Johnson, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and many others, but most people who listen to classical music have never heard of these composers. Many black classical composers experienced racism, and as a result their works have never really been popularized. Popularized during the 1920s in the United States, Jazz received great criticism from classical music elitists and was considered an “inferior” art form. Racial ideas suggested that black people had more of a place in the world of jazz rather than the world of classical music.

Individual racism and systemic racism have been the reason that there are very few

black people in classical music today. As a result, black people face many cost barriers to classical music. The net worth of a typical white family ($171,000) was nearly ten times greater than that of a black family ($17,150) in 2016. The cost of owning and maintaining an instrument on top of paying for sheet music and orchestra tuition all add up to a few thousand dollars. Because of this, children from the poorest backgrounds are three times less likely than pupils from wealthier families to learn a musical instrument or play in a school orchestra.

Even if a black person has made it into the world of classical music, they may continue to experience racism from their peers, teachers, and conductors. An account on Instagram, @Orchestraisracist, posts the experiences people of color have had with racism in the world of classical music.

The first step towards fixing racial inequality in classical music is acknowledging it. Only from there can we start to make changes and build solutions.

The K-pop Industry:

When was the last time you couldn’t stop listening to a K-pop song because you were immersed in the rap or the beat? From artists like BIGBANG, BTS, Jay Park, or BLACKPINK, we see that many popular K-pop groups have taken inspiration from hip hop and black culture in general. However, amidst this appreciation for black culture, there has also been an appropriation of it.

There have been many issues of cultural appropriation in K-pop, but, unfortunately, they are not taken seriously and are generally dismissed. There have been a few examples of K-pop artists wearing blackface, such as the famous girl group MAMAMOO and artist G-Dragon of BIGBANG. Additionally, hairstyle appropriation is very common in the K-pop industry. In BLACKPINK’s music video for their single “Kill This Love,” one member, Lisa, was spotted wearing box braids. Similarly, solo artist HyunA posted a picture of herself on Instagram wearing the hairstyle. While some fans will call the artists or the entertainment company out on their behavior, others will try to defend their idols and rationalize and diminish their actions, such as “It’s just hair.” Cultural appropriation happens repeatedly as entertainment companies are generally not swayed by what a small minority of people think.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation has been and is still very much a real issue today, but it is something that many people still do not understand. What is the difference between taking inspiration from other cultures and appropriating it? Cultural appropriation occurs when those in power directly take an element from another culture and adopt the element as one’s own. Usually, it involves a type of hairstyle, a piece of clothing, or a certain cultural practice and takes advantage of cultures that have historically been oppressed. To ‘appropriate’ these cultural aspects, for example, something symbolic like cornrows, without also having to bear the oppression faced by this culture is unjust.

With the recent revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is a reminder that as Asians, we should all be doing the right thing and supporting the black community. Many of the rights that black people have fought for have directly benefited us Asians, such as Black activist-led actions leading to the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which lifted restrictions on immigrants coming to the United States.

Unfortunately, anti-blackness is still a major issue amongst Asians that needs to be worked on. Cultural appropriation must be avoided because it is a great show of hypocrisy. It is not right to degrade a culture while simultaneously taking parts of it as your own. Anti-blackness is a complex issue that has no easy or quick solution, but educating ourselves and making ourselves aware of what we can do better is a step towards progress.

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