Western music industry ostracizes POC artistry

Katie Lew, Photo Editor

Art by Byron Tran.

Since the group’s debut in 2013, BTS aspired to take the world by storm and dominate the music industry. And in eight years, they have done just that, having broken into western pop culture with their trio of English songs.

People don’t truly understand how big a feat BTS has accomplished. In an industry controlled by the West, a Korean boy band with humble origins and a major language barrier was able to claw their way into Western pop culture. Moreover, their massive success is close to a miracle when we consider that the leading music streaming and distribution companies are all under Western management. As these companies control what artists they stream, they are essentially in control of who succeeds. With Western record labels collaborating with these companies, Western artists have an easier time entering the top charts and receiving award nominations.

As foreigners to America, BTS has challenged the status quo, shaking the ground as they side-step, right-left, to the top of the charts. But as a consequence, they began to face obstacles as the music industry started feeling threatened by the septet’s presence in Western pop culture.

The most recent issue deals with the upcoming VMAs, which had no nomination of BTS for “Artist of the Year” or “Video of the Year.” Their song “Butter” was the #1 single of 2021 and broke their previous YouTube video premiere record with 108.2 million views in the first 24 hours. In the entire year, BTS was #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 for 14 weeks. Their stolen nomination raises suspicion that the VMAs was too afraid of seven Korean boys taking home all the awards they should have been nominated for.

“Butter,” an entirely English song, was nominated for “Best K-Pop.” I find it interesting that just because BTS is a Korean boy band, award shows carelessly shoved “Butter” into the K-Pop category. K-Pop is not defined by the ethnicity of the artist, just as there is no such term as “white pop” when it comes to music made by white artists.

However, what BTS is experiencing is nowhere near the first case of racism and xenophobia in the western music industry. Black and Latin artists have been enduring this kind of treatment for a long time.

The existence of the categories of “Latin,” “Hip Hop,” “Rap,” and “Urban” in American award shows are not the problem, but the fact that they are used as a way for award shows to shove POC artists into categories based on their race, regardless of their music. These categories have developed into second-place awards, being used as a way to seem inclusive with a diverse set of artists, while not giving POC artists the main awards.

Tyler, the Creator talked about this during his speech at the 2020 Grammy Awards when he won “Best Rap Album,” commenting on how black artists are often pigeonholed into the rap or urban category with little regard to what kind of music they make.

“I don’t like that ‘urban’ word, it’s just a politically correct way to say the ‘n’ word to me,” Tyler said.

Tyler continued by comparing the rap nomination to a backhanded compliment.

In the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to share her thoughts about her nominations for the “Best Hip-Hop Video” and “Best Female Video.” She wrote that if she was a “different ‘kind’ of artist,” she would have received a nomination for “Best Choreography” and “Video of the Year” with her hit music video, Anaconda. Minaj also pointed out how black women are under-appreciated for the amount of influence they hold over pop culture.

As a feud broke out from this tweet between Minaj and Taylor Swift, Minaj noted how the media overshadowed her original point: black and female artists are consistently marginalized by music award shows.

When the Recording Academy eliminated multiple categories including that of the Native American Album in 2012, Carlos Santana spoke on the unfairness of the erasure of this culturally diverse category while multiple Country and Western categories exist.

These cases are only a small sliver of what all artists of color experience: prejudices from an industry rooted in racism.

BTS is known in South Korea to have thoughtful lyrics and songs that often comment on social issues or other pressing matters. They have a wonderfully diverse discography and tend to blend cultures with their music. As a proud Korean, it has been amazing seeing BTS receive the amount of recognition and attention that they have earned but it is disappointing that they had to sing an all-English song to even get recognized in the Western music world when their impact has been so huge.