K-Pop’s Fallen Hard for Y2K-Era R&B

But the genre has been borrowing sounds and styles from Black culture for decades

Words by Samantha Lui

Watching K-Pop videos these days feels like a bit of a throwback, at least to anyone born before the mid-2000s.

One only needs to look as far as the girl group NewJeans to see how the early ’00s have influenced their style and sound. The charming quintet came onto the scene last July with the surprise release of their debut single “Attention” on YouTube, with no prior promotion or revealing of the members’ identities. The song quickly went viral, garnering more than 1.3 million views in less than 24 hours. And it’s not hard to see why “Attention” became an instant hit.

The song begins with a bustling beat, and later develops into a dreamy instrumental tune reminiscent of early ’00s R&B. Just a few days after that release, NewJeans dropped another single, “Hype Boy,” which incorporates elements of electropop and moombahton, an electronic dance music genre derived from house music and reggaeton. The song is followed by addictive choreography and an undeniably catchy chorus.

For fans like Tiffany Luke and April Jay, NewJeans’ visuals and sound reminded them of the Black R&B girl groups they listened to growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“The music is actually very entertaining to me because it’s referencing things and culture that I’m very familiar with,” Luke says. The 30-year-old from Los Angeles adds hearing “the Y2K influence” is exciting for someone who grew up listening to girl groups like TLC, Blaque, and 702.

For Jay, who’s based in Kansas City, it was the fashion on NewJeans that caught her attention in particular. Decked out in baggy jeans, crop tops, sports jerseys and butterfly hair clips, what NewJeans were wearing reminded Jay of what she saw listening to girl groups as a teenager. The 34-year-old adds that the aesthetics were somewhat reminiscent of what she saw on TLC’s 1999 FanMail album.

“Y2K fashion is back in style,” Jay says. “It’s very fun [to see] Gen Z being inspired by the ’90s and early 2000s Black artists. It’s just really amazing.”

Korean acts have long been known to draw heavily from Black forms of music, and NewJeans are just one of several examples of up-and-coming groups offering fans a sense of nostalgia and a trip down memory lane. However, that has sometimes extended to artists’ behavior, styling and looks over the decadesand has not always led to positive results.

“All we would like is just some acknowledgement...Why are we treated as lesser than when we are also the inspiration behind a lot of your work?”

Both Luke and Jay became fans of K-Pop in the early 2000s, at a time when hairstyles like box braids and dreadlocks were a normal occurrence. Over the years, K-Pop performers have also appeared in blackface, done mocking impressions of Black people talking and dressed up as racist stereotypes. And for Black women who engage in K-Pop fandom, these situations have at times made Jay and Luke uncomfortable and frustrated.

“It’s a heavy balance for K-Pop fans, and all we would like is just some acknowledgement. We would just like a little bit of learning to be done, some thought process,” Luke says. “Why are we treated as lesser than when we are also the inspiration behind a lot of your work?”

However, Luke and Jay acknowledge they’ve seen progress over the years that things in the industry are changing. And they say the rise of newer K-Pop groups coming out gives them reason for optimism.

Just as fashion trends tend to recycle every 20 to 30 years, it appears the old-school sounds are making a comeback in the form of K-Pop releases. NCT 127’s January single “Ay-Yo” is a hip-hop dance track accompanied by a synth-heavy chorus and intoxicating beat, not dissimilar from Missy Elliot’s iconic 2001 hit “Get Ur Freak On.” The fashion featured in “Ay-Yo’’s music video completes the playful Y2K vision, with the members of NCT 127 sporting silver chains, and liberty spike hairstyles seen on many skater boys in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, XG, a Japanese girl group based in South Korea, have also been known to take on a similar concept, especially with the release of their English-language singles “Shooting Star” and “Left Right” earlier this year. “Shooting Star” begins with a trap pop beat followed by auto-tuned rapping, which then transitions into a hypnotizing chorus complete with layered harmonies and ad-libs. “Left Right” on the other hand, is more laid back than its predecessor and takes the essence of ’90s R&B and nostalgia with repeating synth loops, focusing more on XG’s varying vocal performance styles.

Both music videos for “Shooting Star” and “Left Right” complete the package, featuring a space-like theme and futuristic sets reminiscent of TLC’s concept for their hit single “No Scrubs.” The members of XG are also seen in matching outfits, decked out in loose-fitting athletic track pants, crop tops, pigtails and bucket hats.

It’s no surprise that K-Pop groups are taking inspiration from R&B and hip hop groups from the ’90s and early ’00s, says Crystal Anderson, author of the book Soul in Seoul: African American Music and K-pop. According to Anderson, when K-Pop was first gaining popularity, it drew on hip-hop and R&B in the 1990s, a trend that has continued through today.

One example is the group H.O.T., an acronym for Highfive Of Teenagers, who came onto the scene in 1996. They are largely considered to be the first modern K-Pop idol group, because members of H.O.T. were recruited and underwent pop star training ahead of their debut. That formula became the model for many K-Pop groups we see today, with many idols undergoing rigorous vocal and dance practice as trainees before they are allowed to release music into the world.

Anderson, who teaches at George Mason University, adds that H.O.T.’s musical style lent itself to the new jack swing movement, a genre known for mixing elements of hip-hop, dance pop and R&B, as that was what was popular back then amongst mainstream groups like Boyz II Men and TLC.

“New jack swing was very appealing to the mainstream. They lent themselves to choreography and dance,” Anderson says. “This is what you saw reflected in the first generation [idol groups]. H.O.T., S.E.S, Fin.K.L, Sechs Kies, they all danced because that’s what was popular in the mainstream.”

Anderson notes that as these groups grew and developed into their careers, they would try different sounds with each release, exploring darker and moodier concepts, but also sampling classical music as well.

“One of the things that I think you’ll see is Black popular music is incredibly diverse. It’s something that K-pop picked up on, and utilized in a way that other music traditions didn’t,” Anderson says.

Anderson says the trend of using elements of ’90s mainstream hip-hop styles continued into the early 2000s with the rising popularity of idol groups including TVXQ, SHINee and 2PM, with each band featuring at least one rapper in it. However, there was greater emphasis put on vocalists who could take on a more R&B sound, as singers like Sam Cooke, Babyface and Keith Sweat were popular at the time. Anderson adds that K-Pop creators are also upfront about where their inspirations and influences come from as opposed to what many white artists have done in the past by taking ownership of music made by Black Americans.

“One of the things Korean agencies did not do is that they just didn’t take music and pass it off as their own, which is what we saw in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. They actually worked with Black creatives directly,” she says.

“One of the things Korean agencies did not do is that they just didn’t take music and pass it off as their own, which is what we saw in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. They actually worked with Black creatives directly.”

This trend has only continued to grow into the 2020s, with artists like Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu, Pink Sweat$ and Anderson .Paak  featuring on recent songs by K-Pop artists.

Yet, there are times when mistakes within the K-Pop industry still happen.

Jay hosts a podcast called “A K-pop Fashion History,” where she discusses everything from K-Pop’s adoration of the American West and where to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation of Black culture.

Jay, who has been listening to K-Pop for more than a decade, remembers a time when members of the group Big Bang donned French braids and du-rags as a fashion choice when they rose to fame in the 2000s. “That is seen as cultural appropriation because that style for a lot of Black people leads to them being harmed,” Jay says.

“That is seen as cultural appropriation because that style for a lot of Black people leads to them being harmed.”

However, she adds that she’s happy to see times are changing in the 2020s, where more and more artists are taking accountability for their actions, especially with fans calling out their favorite idols with the rise of social media.

A more recent example of this comes after Hongjoong, a member of the group ATEEZ, was pictured sporting neon blue cornrows in a photo promoting their 2020 mini album ZERO: FEVER Part.1. Response to the image was swift after it was posted, with many pointing out the style was a clear example of cultural appropriation. Less than a day later, ATEEZ’s agency KQ Entertainment issued an apology, saying it did not have any intention of “commercializing or depreciating other cultures at all.”

“Through the issues and the opinions from our fans, we have become fully aware of the concerns and seriousness of this issue,” the company continued. “From now on, we, KQ Entertainment, will try our best to fully review and check the historical backgrounds, characteristics, and the cultures in the production process. We will not create issues that were not intended or expected.”

Luke, who co-hosts a K-Pop podcast for Black fans called “Queens Run This”, said this was a good example of a “call and response moment.”

“[Hongjoong] was able to do his own research, found out what he did was wrong. He apologized for it. And since then, it seems like we have avoided the incident as the rest of the promotion, he did not repeat the hairstyle,” she says. “I think this is a very great example of the problem persisting, but in the new age, the problem is being addressed.”

“It does feel like a lot of our culture is seen as not particularly sacred and that it’s a free for allthe way we dress, the way we speak. The way we acknowledge other Black Americans feels like it is allowed to be taken and co-opted by whoever sees fit.”

Still, Luke says it’s often up to many Black K-Pop fans to keep idols in check, which comes with a lot of burden and responsibility. “With Black American culture, it does feel like a lot of our culture is seen as not particularly sacred and that it’s a free for allthe way we dress, the way we speak,” she says. “The way we acknowledge other Black Americans feels like it is allowed to be taken and co-opted by whoever sees fit.”

However, Luke is hopeful that more education will make the K-Pop industry more accountable for their actions in the future, and adds that newer collaborations could be a sign of strengthening relationships between Black and Korean artists. Some examples include American record producer Dem Jointz’s work on hits such as NCT 127’s “Ay-Yo” and GOT The Beat’s “Stamp On It,” and Daniel “Obi” Klein, who co-wrote LE SSERAFIM’s “Impurities.”

“There’s been positive collaborations between Black and Korean artists going on right now, and there’s been great songs being made right now,” she says. “So the bond is there.”

Anderson agrees, saying that K-Pop is just the latest in a long line of cultural exchange between Blacks and Asians. “Art and culture and music are things that kind of transcend language, and they can also transcend whatever political tensions may be going on,” she says. “You can find  elements of Black culture all over the world, because it’s a kind of culture that people find themselves invited to, and invited to participate in.”

Published on March 29, 2023

Words by Samantha Lui

Samantha Lui is a culture writer and radio producer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Complex Canada, VICE, NBC Asian America and ELLE Canada. She previously spent a summer interning at Hong Kong's English daily newspaper, South China Morning Post. A fangirl at heart, she spends her free time watching K-pop videos on YouTube and Asian dramas. Follow her on Twitter at @samanthalui_.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.