Teaching Black Internationalism, Part 1: Preliminary Considerations

That’s right! The Teaching series is back. I’ve been asked to teach a course, any course I want, for African and African American Studies. So like my Teaching K-pop series, I’m going to take you all along for the course design ride!

I had to make two decisions right away: what to teach and how.

What to Teach

I opted to teach a course on Black Internationalism, with a focus on popular music and visual culture. In the course, students will explore black culture through a transnational lens, examining how black culture cites and is cited by global cultures. I chose this topic for a couple of reasons. First, while a lot of my work in Afro-Asian cultural studies falls within the field of Black Internationalism, I’ve never taught a course on it.

Second, I ran across a Twitter thread that suggested that students may benefit from seeing black culture in a global context. In this thread, a user suggested that black people really do not have anything to do with other cultures. This echoes another tendency I see on social media that flattens black culture, talks about it as a monolith and ignores the hybridity embedded in its various manifestations. It was clear that many do not know about this complex tapestry of influence, so starting in the early 20th century with the emergence of writing on what we will come to call Black Internationalism will provide some needed context. Given that this kind of transnational thinking informs visual culture as well as popular music going forward, introducing students to black internationalism as an interpretative lens will help shed light on black engagement with the world.

How to Teach

Before the pandemic, we probably would not have considered that we would be offering courses in any format other than the traditional in-person modality. However, times have changed, and I choose to offer this 300-level elective course in a hybrid format. At my institution, that means the course will meet between 2% and 49% of the time face-to-face. This shouldn’t be confused with hyflex, which is a kind of hybrid teaching that simultaneously involves some students in the classroom and other students attending class via web conferencing during live class sessions. (No, just no.)

Rather than believing that face-to-face teaching is “better” than online, I think that both have their advantages and that hybrid teaching will allow me to take advantage of them all. One of the benefits that hybrid teaching affords is that it gives me the opportunity to help students structure their out-of-class, or asynchronous, instruction time, when I believe a lot of learning happens. I mean, we only have students for three hours a week, so it is important to help them use out-of-class time to develop independent learning skills and use valuable synchronous or face-to-face time for more important tasks. We can use technology web-based platforms to help students become more independent learners. Students are already using those platforms to learn, and to be honest, so are we. If you’ve ever looked something up on YouTube to learn how to do it, you have experienced some of the affordances of online learning. I’m just planning to leverage those same strategies in my class to better prepare students to engage with the material and with each other during our time together. Many of our students are involved in vibrant online communities, so my challenge is to harness some of that for hybrid instruction.

Whether we like it or not, the pandemic remains an unpredictable reality and hybrid teaching gives the flexibility to move the course online if circumstances require. The pandemic has shown us that greater flexibility is something we didn’t know we wanted and some do not want to give it up (me, I’m the one). I’ve always wanted to teach a hybrid class, and given my use of technology in my courses, I’ve been working towards that. At the same time, my online teaching experience last fall showed me that many undergraduates really need some face-to-face time to provide an anchor for their learning experience. The hybrid modality allows me to structure some of that time in one-on-one and small group meetings virtually and in-person if circumstances permit. This means they will occur more frequently, and have a greater chance of benefitting students.

Next post will be on the most important thing when designing a course: student learning outcomes!

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Teaching Black Internationalism, Part 1: Preliminary Considerations by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

K-pop as Popular Music

K-pop is a form of popular music whose significance goes beyond its financial success.

In January 2021, Esquire published Emma Carey‘s article, “The Best Pop Bands of All Time Prove the Universal Power of Music,” which acknowledged the slippery nature of the label of “pop,” but also declared: “In simple terms, pop music is literally. . . popular music.” It goes on to explain the criteria for the listing of best pop bands: “When it comes to pop bands, we’re basically just looking at collectives of hit-makers, no matter their pop purity or crossover creed. From rock and roll adjacent pop bands like The Beatles, to Motown greats like The Supremes, R&B/pop/ crossovers like Destiny’s Child, and disco-influenced pop acts like ABBA, the variety of pop bands knows no bounds. The only requisite to making the cut? Topping the charts.” The article lists only one K-pop group, BTS, a choice that conforms to list’s criteria. For Esquire’s list, economic success equals chart success and chart success equals popularity.

But should chart success define popular music? Elijah Wald, author of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, reminds us of the original function of music charts: “It is always worth remembering that they were intended specifically to serve the needs of the record and radio industries, and at best measured only selected markets. The charts of pop, R&B, and C&W hits were never meant to be lists of people’s favorite performers or songs; they were lists of favorite–or most-played, or best-selling–singles” (181). Wald reminds us that the whole concept of charts serves the music industry rather than audiences. Currently, charts like Billboard use a method that includes paid digital downloads and digital streams. Both indicate economic impact, or how well an act sells.

K-pop’s audiences are spread across ages, locations and, most importantly, greatly vary in their ability to contribute to the economic criteria for the charts. There are many K-pop fans who may not have access to paid digital downloads, streaming plays and streaming data or may not engage with them frequently. Using these metrics do not capture how these fans feel about their artists. Moreover, it is widely known that K-pop fans work to collectively mass stream their favorite artists to improve their performance on these metrics, so that such metrics do not always reflect an organic popularity. When we define popular music by economic success, we marginalize and erase significant figures from the landscape of K-pop, which skews our perception of K-pop as a music tradition spanning over 20 years.

It might help to view K-pop as popular music defined beyond economic success. In Understanding Popular Music, Roy Shuker warns against using commercial success as a basis for a definition of popular music: “Related to this emphasis on the popular, are definitions emphasizing the commercial nature of popular music and embracing genres perceived as commercial, with the term ‘mainstream’ often used to indicate these. . . . In such definitions, certain genres are identified as ‘popular music,’ while others are excluded. However, this approach can suffer from the same problems as those stressing popularity because many genres have only limited appeal or have had limited commercial exposure. Moreover, popularity varies from country to country and even from region to region within national markets” (5).

Defining popular music solely by its financial success marginalizes and excludes. Shuker suggests that music can be popular without widespread financial success: “The criteria for what counts as popular, and their application to specific musical styles and genres, are open to considerable debate. Classical music clearly has sufficient following to be considered popular, while some forms of popular music are quite exclusive (e.g. Norwegian black metal)” (5). K-pop is like Norwegian black metal in that it appeals to a subculture not in the mainstream but it is still popular music. Wald is concerned with avoiding reductive canons that can emerge when we solely focus on popularity defined by economic success: “One thing I want to stress is that I am trying to write history, not criticism–that is, to look at some of the most influential movements and stars of the twentieth century and explore what links and divides them without worrying about whether they were marvelous or pernicious, geniuses or frauds, or whether I personally enjoy their work” (10). In other words, Wald seeks to look at the context that surrounds popular music rather than assume that the best-selling are the only significant figures. Considering K-pop as popular music would mean going beyond the best-selling artist to explore the musical environment of the time.

Sources

Emma Carey. “The Best Pop Bands of All Time Prove the Universal Power of Music.” Esquire. 30 Jan 2021. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/g35279080/best-pop-bands/ (2 Mar 2021).

Elijah Wald. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Roy Shuker. Understanding Popular Music. Routledge, 2016.

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K-pop as Popular Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Writing about K-pop: Choose Your Disciplinary Adventure

Image by Cindy Lever from Pixabay

In my previous article, I talked about how taking a historian’s approach to K-pop considers the past in making  sense of the present. In this article, I’ll discuss how this informs my approach to K-pop in my book Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop. In making sense of K-pop, I choose several disciplinary approaches to increase our understanding of K-pop music.

The first thing scholars do when writing about a subject is to think about how the study will contribute to what we already know, or as we call it, the body of knowledge. Much of the scholarship on K-pop focuses on factors around K-pop music, but very little of it focuses on the music itself. From my  previous research, I knew that music was the primary appeal of K-pop to global fans. As a fan who listens to a broad array of K-pop, I also know (like many others) that it incorporates influences from African American popular music. But what does that mean? This becomes my inquiry, or research question.

Scholars usually write about things using the tools and methods of an academic discipline. Different academic disciplines ask different questions. They can come to different conclusions, even while considering the same thing. Those methods are tools and some tools work better for certain jobs. The same goes for using disciplinary methods to explore a research topic. In order to answer my question, I choose to to use use multiple tools by using a multidisciplinary approach that includes popular music studies, transnational American Studies and fan studies. 

Popular music studies seems like a no-brainer. K-pop and African American popular musics are popular musics. However, as a tool, popular music studies allows me to consider both the music and its audience as well as the way the audience experiences the music. Global  fans enjoy K-pop without necessarily knowing the lyrics, just as Korean artists incorporated African American popular music without knowing the lyrics.  This is because music itself has meaning that speaks to emotion and transcends language.  Popular music studies helps to reveal the music’s meaning.

Transnational American studies allows me to view the way African American popular culture travels and influences other cultures. It has a complicated relationship to the larger American culture, which has sometimes been used as part of a cultural imperialist project when it has traversed the globe.   African American culture is, in part,  shaped by the larger American values. At the same time, it challenges aspects of that larger culture. So we have to see African American popular culture with complexities rather than as a part of a monolithic “Western culture” or ambassador of American culture to the world. It carries the distinct experiences and aesthetics of African Americans. In order to understand the hybridity of K-pop, I draw on the well-developed field of African American cultural studies to illuminate the meaning of those aesthetics, which go beyond oppression and discrimination.  

Both popular music studies and transnational American studies value knowledge outside of traditional academia. Both disciplines treat non-academics as valued knowledge producers, including music journalists and critics and amateur historians and archivists. They tend to focus on topics that have yet to be recognized by  the mainstream, but are nevertheless significant. As a result, I use fan studies to elucidate the role of the fan reviewer of K-pop. These fans  act as creators and archivers of information about K-pop, including music reviews. Examining these reviews  gives me a sense of how the audience for K-pop makes sense of the music.

Thus, popular music studies, transnational American studies and fan studies act as a Swiss army knife that I use to make sense of K-pop music and contribute to our understanding of it. 

Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (2020, University of Mississippi Press) explores how K-pop draws on various genres of black popular music and how fans deem such practices as authentic. It is available at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and University of Mississippi Press.

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Writing about K-pop: Choose Your Disciplinary Adventure by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Writing About K-pop: History and Context

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

One of the first things I wanted to do with my book, Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop, is to recognize K-pop’s history and development.  Placing K-pop within a historical context is crucial to the way we ultimately understand it.

K-pop is often seen in present-day terms. It is described and treated as a short-term trend. Much of what many people know about K-pop comes through the media. Journalists tend to focus on the current developments and their coverage of K-pop is no exception.  K-pop’s coverage includes metrics of  popularity, such as views, streams, charts and awards.   We need that coverage.

At the same time,  Elijah Wald sees a difference between the way critics and historians approach popular music in his introduction to How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2011):

The critic’s job is to assign value and importance on an artistic level, which necessarily is a judgment about how the work stands up in the present. The historian’s is to sort out and explain what happened in the past, which means attempting to understand the tastes and environment of an earlier time. And the latter task also involves sorting out and understanding how earlier critics and historians were affected by their own times. (8).

My book, in part, tries to understand K-pop, beginning with what it actually is.  As early as 2013,  I explored how we could talk about K-pop in a way that recognized its highly visible pop groups (i.e. “idols”) but also included other types of groups that K-pop fans also liked, thereby avoiding the often-repeated myth that K-pop is a genre (“Let’s Call This Song Exactly What It Is: Defining K-pop” 2013).

Understanding K-pop also involves recognizing K-pop’s iterations and developments over time, which is much more like a historian than a critic.  In addition to talking about the way black popular music informed K-pop,  I felt that it was also important to talk about K-pop examples and explain why these examples were important within the larger historical narrative of K-pop. For example, each section of the book begins with a bit of contextualization, explaining where the groups under discussion fit in the general history of K-pop and how they relate to each other.

For example, g.o.d, a first-generation K-pop group, and 2PM, a second-generation K-pop group, were both labelmates at JYP Entertainment and their sound draws from black popular music. While the prevailing notion is that all “idol” groups sound the same, these groups couldn’t be more different in terms of genres of black popular music they draw from and the way they use their vocalists to produce very different music.  Only by understanding them in relation to each other can see how they are related as well as their differences. Ultimately,  I emulate Wald’s attempts “to write history, not criticism–that is, . . .  [to] explore what links and divides them without worrying about whether they were marvelous or pernicious, geniuses or frauds, or whether I personally enjoy their work” (10). Like Wald, I’m more interested in connections among artists across time.

K-pop  warrants a consideration of its history because it impacts the way we see it now.

Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (2020, University of Mississippi Press) explores how K-pop draws on various genres of black popular music and how fans deem such practices as authentic. It is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and University of Mississippi Press.

Sources

Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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Writing About K-pop: History and Context by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

PROJECT UPDATE: The Music of SHINee

The Music of SHINee is a digital exhibit, part of the digital humanities project KPOPCULTURE. It provides an overview of the music of K-pop group SHINee, including promotional tracks as well as deep cuts and song credit information.

Research is one of the most inefficient processes on the planet, and mine is no exception.  While Soul in Seoul will have all kinds of insights about the way African American popular music informs K-pop, there is a lot of things (a lot!) that will not make it into the book. What to do?

Continue reading “PROJECT UPDATE: The Music of SHINee”