Zico’s ‘Tough Cookie’ and the Ways It Crumbles

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“It’s hip hop.” This is the refrain that many Zico fans have adopted in the midst of the controversy surrounding the rapper’s new solo track Tough Cookie.

There are quite a few things that are ruffling some feathers – to say the least – in the international k-pop community. The music video’s been criticised for misappropriating Black American culture and demoralising women, not to mention for the use of a homophobic slur and a Confederate flag. While some are perfectly content with sweeping it all under the rug of “hip hop culture”, others are disappointed, outraged and plain disgusted.

Let’s try to take a neutral stance for a moment. Maybe there is a little too much ethnocentrism at play here. English isn’t his first language, so maybe he didn’t know what that word meant. The lines between a swear and a slur may not have been made clear, and even amongst English speakers it’s unfortunately quite commonly used in homophobic and non-homophobic contexts. As for the flag, this writer herself had no idea it was offensive – as an Australian-born Chinese, I’m not necessarily familiar with aspects of American history and wouldn’t have picked it out as an issue.

Here’s the question, then: even if we are willing to put these things down to ignorance, how much of it are we going to allow?

We shouldn’t let music videos and lyrics that jar with our values slide, simply because it’s apparently part of hip hop culture to be inflammatory, or because the creator doesn’t understand its implications. Zico’s not the only Korean artist has been accused of producing superficial caricatures of what they seem to perceive as hip hop, and putting his foot in it at the same time. But the more fans make an effort to call out K-pop artists for their misuse of words and symbols and their mistakes, intentional or not, the more pressure we put on them to rethink, reflect, and recognise aspects of other cultures.

K-pop has clearly chosen to expand further than the borders of South Korea, with idols constantly embarking on their world tours and becoming more connected with the global fandom. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to acknowledge societal values in the international community. Just because somebody doesn’t know something is wrong doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to learn. Ignorance isn’t a crime, but neither is it a valid justification.

That said, these various issues aren’t just a K-pop thing either. Don’t let yourself get caught up in crucifying the one K-pop idol; if you’re truly offended by Zico’s wrongs, channelling your anger into insults and death threats isn’t going to make them right. For example, take a look at how homophobic language persists in online vernacular. The problem isn’t isolated, let’s not make it so.

Whether you support Zico or not, you can make an effort to make a change. Downvote his video, point out the wrongs in the comments, make your disapproval known if you feel you need to. By all means, hold artists accountable for their actions, but also have a look at your own community.  There’s change to be made on a wider spectrum.

Comment: Has Zico crossed the line? Do you think his music video is offensive, or are fans simply overreacting?

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  1. Kendra

    November 11, 2014 at 3:34 am

    The reason I don’t care and will never care about this is: almost every person commenting on how disgusting and awful the video is is a hypocrite. Plain, simple. I could name a list so long it wouldn’t fit in the comments of how many American hip hop artists have done the same thing. The sexy girls dancing? Every hip hop video ever. The F word? Ever seen Nicki Minaj or Eminem before? The only reason people are hyping this is because they won’t be criticized for it. I wouldn’t dream of seeing an article like this about how “problematic” Jay Z is for the youth or how the video girls in Lil Wayne’s videos are demoralizing. It’s because people don’t really care about any of those things. They just want to complain about something, and because Zico is a Korean artist and has “no claim” to hip hop, he’s wrong and every other hip hop artist is right? Either calling people the F word is wrong or it’s not. It can’t be wrong when Zico does it to the point where people write entire articles about it, and not even mentioned when Nicki Minaj does it. Rap God by Eminem is one of the most popular rap songs in the last year or so and that song has statements that put down gay people as well. No one cared though, because it was Eminem. This is why articles like this annoy me, because it’s pandering. If people weren’t already making this into a huge thing in the video comment, this article wouldn’t exist.

    Oh yeah, and Black culture? So girls shaking their butts and acting like a thug is what represents Black people these days? Right… Whenever you think about accusing Zico of being racist or insensitive to African Americans remember that YOU’RE the ones who drew that connection, not him. He was acting in accordance to what is displayed in hip hop videos by Hispanic artists, Caribbean artists, White artists, and Latin artists who make hip hop music. YOU saw a video of girls dancing sexy and guys acting gangster and thought “This is what Black people do. He’s appropriating Black culture.” YOU are the one who fused Black and gangster/thug into the synonyms. It’s a hip hop video, but only Black people make that kind of music right? Wrong. So who is really racist in all of this?

  2. verbaljints

    November 10, 2014 at 12:22 am

    I almost vomited upon seeing this post.

    Come on, stop being oversensitive. I know there’s a whole thing about correcting wrongs but this post is really pushing it too far. The two issues aren’t even legitimate issues. Do you go railing at people who use nigga? It’s like we’re stuck in the past century. And the “confederate flag” means the support of states’ rights, NOT the racism you think it is. Many of the people who held that flag were racist, yeah. But that doesn’t change the flag’s meaning.

    Calm your tits and move on. Do not drown in your self-righteousness. When we all grow up, we will find that “oh, in my youth, I had so much angst and time to waste”.

    Man, this is the first time i’ve found this site. Great way to be introduced; a refreshing splash of MY KNICKERS ARE IN A TWIST.

  3. Phùng Ngọc Trinh

    November 9, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    I’ll support him till the end! He’s performced Tough Cookie in The Cry Gentlment and HipHopPlaya with this lyrics and noone cared about it. Haters try to ignore what we tried to explain about these things. They keep trying to let him down by all the ways. We- Z’s fan will stand for him forever. You – haters can never change this thing.
    Ps :” All the negative comments are from white ppls and straight guys LOL”

  4. gomugomu

    November 9, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    he’s an idiot.

  5. Nic (MyKoreanHusband)

    November 9, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    I’ve seen how language differences can cause the wrong things to be said. My husband and the other Korean guys on our blog have all made blunders before on social media, but
    they apologise and fix it as soon as possible. This is NOT a blunder on
    social media – this is a song lyric what would have been checked
    numerous times, it’s a song lyric that is clearly an insult and has the
    word “bitch” added. This is not some innocent Korean boy not knowing the
    meaning of a word, he knew that it was an insult and although he might
    not of known how deeply offensive it is, he knew he was using it as a
    homophobic slur (my husband checked what comes up when you search in Korean).
    The producers and Zico knew what they were doing and didn’t care about
    how offensive it was. There were numerous stages from writing, demo, to recording and producing that could have been changed, and it wasn’t.

    This is something that needs to be called out. The flag thing was probably is a genuine mistake – though it should be apologised for as well.

    Homosexuality is still taboo in Korea and gay people face discrimination every day. It is changing – the percentage of people accepting and understanding is rapidly increasing but in order to help this movement this kind of stuff needs to be called out. It’s entirely possible that Zico meant this exactly, I’ve heard many homophobic slurs from Koreans. There is a high chance that he is very homophobic – so these views do need to be called into question. There needs to be a dialogue about this, rather than it be swept under the rug.

    I think something else people need to realise is that you can still be a fan of someone and not like something they have said. Don’t immediately defend them without thinking it through.

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