Published: May 5, 2021

America’s long history of xenophobic treatment of languages other than English is visible in the way that Kpop has been treated in the American music industry.

Samantha Reinhold
Course: LING 1000 - Language in US Society
Advisor: Natalie Grothues
LURA 2021    


    America’s long history of xenophobic treatment of languages other than English is visible in the way that Kpop has been treated in the American music industry. Kpop as a genre has steadily risen in popularity in America for the past several years, but Kpop artists are still only getting slivers of recognition from the American music industry. Many Kpop artists, such as NCT, are now getting nominated for American music awards, but in categories such as “Top Social Artist”. Nominations for this award speak to the popularity of said groups but overwrite their actual artistic capabilities and achievements. When reviewing these trends, it is easy to see the connection between this treatment and the fact that Kpop is sung in a language other than English.

    Looking back through the history of American attitudes towards languages other than English, there is persistent bias against ‘foreign’ languages. In the late 1800s, many ethnic groups, such as those from Germany, Scandinavia, and China, started to emigrate to America, bringing their own languages with them. In fear that supporting the growth of these languages would give rise to “inter-ethnic conflict”, government officials advocated to make English the official language of America, effectively suppressing other languages and cultures of those who immigrated to the country (Schmidt, 2007: 202). This movement started regionally as early as the 1750’s, and the first states to introduce English-only instruction laws in schools did so in the late 1880s. This set a base attitude for the country regarding foreign languages. Additionally, due to the prominence of English in business and media, there is also a certain world-wide accessibility that has become expected by native English speakers, so much so that when something is not immediately available to them in English, it could be confusing and even frustrating to a point where they reject it. This all caters to the belief ingrained in America that English is the default language.

    Xenophobic attitides towards other languages have been observed in the music industry before. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Latin music started gaining popularity in America. Journalists often used ‘Mock Spanish’ when reporting on the phenomenon. Such titles used in the press included“‘Se Habla Rock and Roll? You Will Soon: A Musical Invasion from South of the Border’ (Hayden and Schoemer)” (Cepeda, 2000: 63). Articles such as these downplayed Latin artists’ achievements and drew upon negative Latin stereotypes, such as the idea that these Latin artists are ‘invading’ and are not welcome simply because of their country and ethnic origin. This type of media coverage is happening again with Kpop. Even after winning the Top Social Artist award in 2017, BTS was still reduced down to“‘these Asian f*cks’ and an ‘Asian One Direction’” (Khan, 2019). Similar to the reporting on Latin artists in the 1990s, the media still chooses to emphasize Kpop artists’ racial identity over their achievements and compare them to white, English-speaking artists, reducing their image down to mere replications. 

    This type of downplay of non-English speaking artists is also seen within American music institutions. In 2020, after 7 years of achievements with their Korean music, BTS was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Group Performance”. However, the song that was nominated is their only English song in their entire discography, “Dynamite”. This nomination disregarded the success of their previous, successful Korean album. In 2020 alone, BTS debuted their album “Map of the Soul: 7” at number one on the Billboard Hot 200 list, sold over 4 million copies, making it the best selling album of 2020, and debuted multiple Korean songs on the Billboard Hot 100 list (Narayanan, 2020). However, the success of their Korean music in the U.S. was disregarded and the Recording Academy opted to only give recognition to their only English song.

    America has clearly laid out a history of discriminating against and actively suppressing languages other than English. From attempts at “Official English” legislation to overwriting of non-English artists’ achievements with their racial or ethnic identity, it is clear that languages other than English still have to fight hard to be accepted in America. Kpop’s success in the American music industry isn’t just proving the strength and formidability of the genre and these artists, but it shines a giant spotlight on the xenophobia and racism still ever present in the American music industry today.



Cepeda, Maria Elena. "Mucho Loco for Ricky Martin; or the politics of chronology, crossover, and language within the Latin (o) music “boom”." Popular Music & Society 24.3 (2000): 55-71.
Khan, Aamina. Criticism of BTS Is Often Just Xenophobia in Disguise. 24 June 2019,
Narayanan, Ahalya -. “BTS Are Unstoppable: Their Biggest Achievements in 2020.” Indigo Music, 16 July 2020,
Schmidt Sr, Ronald. "Defending English in on English-dominant." Discourses of Endangerment: Ideology and Interest in the Defence of Languages (2007): 197.