How Latinos Became K-Pop’s Second Biggest Fanbase in the US

BTS performs. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Start a conversation about K-pop with a fan by mentioning “Gangnam Style,” and you’ll likely receive the most dramatic eye roll ever. Just think about someone referencing the “Macarena” upon learning you’re Latino. But mention CL – of Diplo features and Jeremy Scott BFF fame – and you’ll either hear enlivened praise of her fierceness or frustration over her debut English album not dropping already. Either way, the references are understandable. The mainstream conversation about K-pop in the U.S. centers on these two figures: one who galloped his way around the world satirizing the Korean upper class on YouTube, and the other who’s starting to become a fashion socialite and icon more than a recording artist. But CL’s “Vogue” video and PSY’s pistachio commercials are not all there is to K-pop, especially in the U.S.

K-pop is not a new invention; it’s merely a Korean adaptation of American and European formulas for pop music and artists. It’s a highly manufactured genre, one that trains kids for years to craft them into super idol archetypes. But unlike the West, K-pop doesn’t front about it. What is new is the fact that the market is opening itself to a new culture and language. To put things into perspective with a broad example, KCON, which is the Comic Con and Coachella of all things Hallyu (Korean Wave of pop culture and entertainment exports), drew 10,000 attendees in Irvine, California in 2012 for its first installment. The next year, the convention moved to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena and doubled its attendance. Last year, the events in Los Angeles and New York saw 75,000 attendees.

K-pop is no longer a niche genre as it once was in 2009, when the Wonder Girls were touring with The Jonas Brothers. The mainstream music coming out of South Korea is slowly experiencing the same boom that Latin music had in the 90s and early 2000s. And just like then, Latinos in the U.S. are at the forefront of the movement.

South Korean K-Pop singer CL. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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According to unpublished data collected by Korea Creative Content Agency USA in 2014 (a South Korean government agency dedicated to documenting and spreading Korean culture and entertainment in the US), Asian Americans constitute the largest group of the K-pop fandom in the U.S. at 33.8 percent, while Latinos come in second place at 21.4 percent (Editor’s note: Because this data comes from an unpublished survey, KOCCA’s methodology is not yet publicly available). Just like most of the world first encountered Psy, people discover K-pop through friends’ recommendations, which later results in a YouTube search. Not Latinos though – the KOCCA survey showed that the majority of Latinos ended up stanning for K-pop because of another Hallyu heavyweight: Korean dramas.

That was the case for Odalis Rojas, a 19-year-old Mexican-American from Santa Rosa, California. Rojas, like many Latino kids, watched telenovelas in her childhood. Her favorites were romantic comedies like Al Diablo con los Guapos and Cuidado con el Ángel. But after she turned 14, her affinity for the programs soured. “I didn’t enjoy them as much because there weren’t as many romantic comedies and I felt like the acting was way too dramatic and the storylines were predictable.”

One day two years ago, as she browsed Tumblr, she came across a GIF from the K-drama To the Beautiful You. It read, “Miracle is another word for hard work,” and featured lead male actor Minho, member of the group SHINee. It struck a chord with her; she looked it up and watched the 16-episode drama in four days. “The drama was like nothing I had seen before,” she explained. “This drama centered on young love and it made me feel so giddy watching it.” After finishing To the Beautiful You, Rojas proceeded to My Lovely Girl. The cast of this drama included quite a few idols. One of them was L (yes, just a letter) from the group INFINITE. Captivated by his good looks, Rojas Googled him, and as soon as she stumbled on their music video for “Back.” That was it; she was hooked.

According to DramaFever, the Netflix of Korean dramas, movies, and TV shows, the average user spends 53.9 hours per month streaming videos. In contrast, Netflix users spend 10.7. Notably, DramaFever’s audience is mostly made up of non-Asian women between 18 and 24. Yep, you guessed it: constituting 35 percent of their audience, Latinas are the ones binging on Hallyu.

But the K-drama to K-pop pipeline isn’t mutually exclusive. Just like some Latinos don’t like telenovelas or soap operas at all, not every K-pop fan likes K-drama either. While Rojas thinks K-drama is “way less dramatic and more natural,” 22-year-old Wendy Anguiano from Riverside, California thinks they’re just as campy and problematic as telenovelas. The Mexican-American got into K-pop in 2009 thanks to BIG BANG and 2NE1’s song “Lollipop.”

But according to the same KOCCA survey, the majority of K-pop fans in the U.S. (39.5 percent) started consuming K-pop earlier than 2009, as opposed to 26.8 in 2012-2013 when “Gangnam Style” exploded and BIG BANG and 2NE1 held their own tours on American soil. Remarkably, those who got into the genre between 2009 and the release of “Gangnam Style” in 2012 only made up 24.4 percent of fans. We already know what happened in 2012 to catapult K-pop into the global spectrum, but what was so special about 2009 that drew in the largest numbers?

The majority of Latinos ended up stanning for K-pop because of another Hallyu heavyweight: Korean dramas.

As Billboard’s K-pop contributor Tamar Herman puts it, “2009 was the best!” That conclusion goes largely uncontested by the global fandom. The splendor of that particular year is based on a series of notable milestones, as Herman explains. It all started with Girls’ Generation’s megahit “Gee,” followed by the now iconic song “Sorry, Sorry” by Super Junior. Moreover, groups like 2NE1, 4MINUTE, f(x), and BEAST debuted that year.

Basically, 2009 gave birth to or nurtured nearly everything that’s holy in K-pop today. It was also a matter of being at the right place at the right time in history. “It was really the first year that K-pop became truly international, and that’s partially because it was when YouTube and social media in general started to connect us all,” Herman further explained. “Fans who had previously never even really thought of South Korea were now getting access to K-pop through YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, often by accident. ‘Gee’ was a fluke and did well in Korea, but it also showed South Korea that a girl group like Girls’ Generation was something the country, and international viewers, wanted to see a lot more of.” It was K-pop’s second coming, the first being back in the 90s. But this time it had reached audiences outside Korea and even Asia. “[It marked] the beginning of K-pop as an internationally accepted genre,” details Herman.

One such market is Latin America. In 2013, Latin American countries (including Mexico and Argentina) hosted the highly acclaimed “Super Show,” Super Junior’s signature concert – one that America has yet to experience. Music Bank, a concert tour that brings multiple K-pop acts to countries outside of Korea, has also been held in Brazil, Mexico, and Chile, but nope, not in the U.S. The magnitude of the Latin American K-pop fandom has a major parallel in U.S. Latinos too.

Why does this music – written and performed in a language most of us don’t understand – resonate so much with Latinos especially? It’s really not that complicated. Other than it being audibly catchy and visually mesmerizing, many K-pop fans are largely disappointed by American and even Latino musical styles. For 19-year-old Carmen Mendez, what she perceives as lack of depth in American and Latino music has made her look up translations of K-pop songs she doesn’t understand and still find them more meaningful.

“I don’t know how much ‘I do drugs. I sell them. Big booty bitches,’ I can tolerate to call music,” expressed 21-year-old Emely Vargas from New York. On K-pop, she remarked, “You don’t have to understand it for it to take you somewhere.” Plus, as Mendez, a Mexican-American from Connecticut explained, “I love how I’m never bored [with K-pop].” If a group you like isn’t dropping a mini album, a new group is debuting, or you get various music videos back-to-back. Then you have the music shows, where they’ll perform almost every day for weeks. The life of a K-pop fan is a busy one.

K-pop is not simply a genre or a group of artists you like; it’s a lifestyle.

As these women reveal in our conversations, K-pop is not simply a genre or a group of artists you like; it’s a lifestyle. And most importantly, it’s a community. Rojas goes to K-pop concerts with her younger brother because none of her friends are into it. Mendez tried to show it to her Puerto Rican co-workers, but according to her, they weren’t open to something that “different.” Latino K-pop fans not only have to turn to the internet to find the content, but they also have to make friends on comment threads, forums, and Facebook groups. As Rojas puts it, “It’s nice to have people that like something that isn’t ‘normal’ and understand exactly why K-pop is amazing.”

Alas, there’s a prevalent problem in our community when it comes to pan-Asian stereotypes, especially when it comes to first-gen Latinos. Internalized xenophobia means that many Latino K-pop fans’ parents and friends perceive K-pop as “weird.” “[My mom] calls me crazy, but she doesn’t mind [that I listen to K-pop]. She doesn’t understand why I like it, but she deals with it,” recounted Rojas. “My other family members…stereotype and classify all Asians [as] ‘chinos.’ I constantly tell them, ‘No, they’re Korean.’ I have to remind them that just like Latinos, [Asians] have different cultures and languages.” Anguiano’s Mexican parents suffer from the same problem, but “at least they recognize that there is more than just Chinese. ‘Cause [my sister and I] basically force them to say the right ethnicity,” she clarified. And even if the Anguiano sisters haven’t taken their mom to a Korean restaurant yet, kimchi is now a staple in their fridge.

If anything, Hallyu is an introduction to Korean culture for the fans and their families. It teaches them about a culture they would have no exposure to otherwise. “I respect the culture and I also like it very much. I like some of the Korean customs, like respecting your elders. I like that they have specific words they use [to show respect],” commented Rojas. She is currently learning Korean, has started getting into Korean skincare to treat her acne. Her mom even listens to a couple of songs.

No matter how sugary, embellished, and thumping the genre is, K-pop is still pop music; it’s bound to get problematic. One key problem is K-pop’s anti-blackness and appropriation of African-American culture. Every other month, someone in K-pop fucks up by using blackness as a costume – whether it’s Rap Monster from BTS posing with half of his face painted in black for his mixtape’s cover, or Taeyang using the facial simulator app to don Kanye West’s face and wish his Instagram followers a “Happy Monkey New Year” in celebration of the lunar year, or someone throwing the n-word in their song or not excluding it from covers. It’s a pervasive problem in K-pop with little to no accountability from the idols and sometimes fans.

Adrienne Stanley is an entertainment and lifestyle writer, former editor at KdramaStarz, and a frequent panelist at KCON. Stanley, who identifies as Afro-Latina and African-American, is usually not offended by appropriation. Her conflict with the genre lies more with the reinforcement of stereotypes, like the “the fact that acts like BTS incorporate gangster rap aesthetics” while pursuing a “rebellious” concept, or this mess. “The anti-blackness and colorism that exists can be even more unnerving,” Stanley pointed out. “I don’t think it’s a deliberate act. I think it’s very similar to colorism amongst African-American and Latino populations.”

Ignorance doesn’t excuse appropriation or make it any less harmful.

These are issues that divide the American fandom as a whole and separate it from the overall global fandom. Looking at K-pop through the American lens is a double-edged sword: You can’t help but lament the cultural appropriation that plagues the genre, but there’s something to be said for the fact that Koreans might not have the historical context to fully understand the systemic racism and history of oppression in the U.S. Critiquing this appropriation is valid, and like Anguiano, to stop consuming K-pop in some degree or altogether because of it is also valid. Unfortunately, stereotyping and appropriation in K-pop is a reflection of what stars see in American pop culture exports, rather than a deliberate attempt to contribute to the oppression of a marginalized group. However, at this point in the internet age, ignorance doesn’t excuse appropriation or make it any less harmful.

Art is meant to make people feel something, and what most people get out of K-pop and K-drama is happiness. At the end of the day, whether it’s through religion or music or unrealistic rom-coms, people just want to find happiness in a fucked up world. “When I’m happy, [K-pop] elevates me higher. When I’m feeling low, I let it take me to a dark place to be alone with my thoughts,” Vargas reflected. “To be honest, not to sound corny, but I feel like K-pop makes me just feel. It’s become this beautiful thing that makes me finally feel like I’m living.”