When I returned home from a semester spent in pop culture isolation abroad, I found my father dancing in the living room, singing the chorus to radio earworm, ‘FAKE LOVE’ by K-Pop stars BTS. While I was strolling through grocery store aisles listening to Italo disco interspersed with Chainsmokers hits (always featuring Italian ad-libs), BTS had monopolized American radio waves. Now this is not to discredit the success of K-Pop, K-Pop has an incredibly established global fanbase that extends to fans of vastly diverse backgrounds (I remember my friends and I showing our 5th grade teacher our rendition of the Wonder Girls’ ‘Nobody’ dance routine). However, language is political, and in a political landscape where fear and oppression are used as cornerstones of an ideological wall built against all things foreign, it’s ironic, unsettling and exciting that Americans in Anytown, USA are bopping their heads, maybe even mouthing the unfamiliar syllables, culturally embracing a difference that is politically controversial.
Language is flexible and dynamic, and, in its ability to connect us to one another, is deeply personal. Maybe that’s why people feel entitled censoring the conversations in other languages of others, why immigrants and their children colonize their tongues, enduring laughter and ridicule, ironing the accents out of their voices in order to better assimilate. On the other hand, it’s why there is a sense of urgency for immigrant families to pass their mother tongue down from generation to generation, hoping to provide the future with a tangible sense of belonging to a community that spans borders, a way of remembering and of being. In all this talk about the growing pains and divisiveness of Western nations coming to terms with their multicultural identity, it has been forgotten that there are generations that have grown up within and contributed to this existing, albeit imperfect multiculturalism. While BTS is a highly calculated and curated foreign import, there is a growing movement of artists who utilize their bilingualism in their art and music simply to express their own ways of being.
When I speak about this bilingualism, I don’t just mean our national anthem, “Despacito”, or the reign of Shakira, but rather, a generation of musicians whose music seamlessly integrates other languages, not as a celebration of it necessarily, but rather as a normalization of a duality of identity. This phenomenon surpasses genre boundaries, with bedroom pop softboys Cuco and Omar Apollo effortlessly transitioning between verses in Spanish and English while crooning about unrequited love and the suburbs, Yaeji whispering in Korean over soft house beats, or with 88rising’s Higher Brothers bringing staccato Mandarin to mumble rap flow on tracks that feature Goldlink and Playboi Carti.
Like identities themselves, the motivations for incorporating different languages into music is nuanced and different for each individual artist. In an interview with Pitchfork, Yaeji who frequently references her Korean identity in her music, reveals that she initially chose to incorporate Korean into her music because she didn’t want people to understand what she was saying. For 88rising, a collective dedicated to creating a platform for Asians in hip hop, it’s about visibility, and providing content for an audience demographic whose demand hasn’t previously been addressed. On the other hand, it can be a natural extension of the artist, with Omar Apollo citing his Mexican-American upbringing’s sonic influence and his first language being Spanish, as to why he chooses to switch between English and Spanish in an interview with Dazed. However, the success of each aforementioned artist as well as the others who are driving this movement is a reflection of a huge demographic of America and by extension, the West, who are navigating their own dualities, who juggle their own heritage and culture manifested in appearance, habits, and customs as well as the reality they confront when they leave the house.
Language is just one aspect of the creation of multicultural sonic landscapes that are being made available to listeners, with the Swet Shop Boys sampling classic Bollywood songs while gleefully rapping about crushes and microagressions or Kero Kero Bonito’s bouncy Japanese quips over emo melodies. These landscapes pull from vast and diverse experiences, colliding different cultures to create new innovative ways to communicate, to entertain, to make others feel like they’re understood.
For the listener, what is the point, or rather the importance of having multicultural, bilingual music? For those who have grown up within the same culture or speak the same language, it opens up a world of in-jokes and cultural references, touchstones of recognition, a validation of experience. For those who don’t understand the language, it is a chance not only to listen to some good and interesting music, but also to appreciate something that is different from oneself. It calls into question the purpose of art and how we interact with it. Perhaps, this sets the guideline how we should interact with each other on a human level, cultivating an appreciation and an okayness with not understanding and not claiming to understand.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.