Is it a racial slur or is it simply another language?
The question has popped up frequently in the context of several Asian languages over the years. And now that Korean pop music has been dominating the West, common Korean lyrics are being mistaken for anti-Black slurs by English speakers.
The latest song accused of perpetuating anti-Black racism for containing non-English words that sound like racist slurs, “Darari” by Treasure, has been trending on TikTok over the past month. The sped-up segment of the song that’s been circulating on the social media platform begins with the Korean words “nikka” (“니까”), a conjunction, along with “niga” (“니가”), which roughly translates to an informal use of the word “you” in English. TikTok users have lip-synced to the clip in videos, as seen in countless trends using popular songs, only to come under fire for mouthing what sounds like the N-word.
Videos using the sound are riddled with comments questioning both what the lyrics actually are and what the uploader intended by singing along to them. It appears that most misunderstandings have been lessened by other commenters explaining the translation of the words.
Many are even signaling their recognition of the fact that it’s an unfortunate coincidence the words sound similar by making light of the situation. A recurring joke within these videos’ comments sections suggests that the song is a favorite for old, racist white men.
However, Japanese [email protected] apologized two days ago for participating in the lip-syncing trend in a video after commenters accused her of saying the N-word.
“I’m sorry. I tried to imitate the choreography and danced. There is no deep meaning,” she wrote in the video’s pinned comment. “Also, I live in Japan. My Korean and English are not very good. It is hard for me to understand the letters. My apologies.”
Viewers who understood the TikToker’s lack of malice quickly came to her defense.
In 2018, similar Korean lyrics in the song “Fake Love,” by international K-pop sensation BTS, were censored on American radio stations. The word “niga” as well as “naega,” which translates to “I” in Korean, were edited out of the song by the record label.
JJ Ryan, an Oklahoma City radio host, explained that the label might have made the decision to do so since radio stations faced losing their licenses if listeners were to file complaints.
The group also replaced the original lyrics during their performance of the song at the Billboard Music Awards that year.
BTS’ rapper RM later explained their reasoning at a press conference: “There were many people hearing the song for the first time, and when you are hearing parts like that as English, there is potential for misunderstandings to occur. To prevent that, we edited the lyrics to the point of not ruining how it sounds.”
The censorship sparked controversy among the BTS fandom ARMY, with some understanding why they would want to avoid misunderstanding, and others disappointed that they were put in the position of feeling the need to do so.
In 2020, a similar misunderstanding with a Mandarin phrase resulted in more serious consequences for Greg Patton, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California. He was suspended for causing offense for explaining to his class that the Mandarin word “nèi ge” (“那个”), which translates to “that,” is used as a placeholder word in China.
Featured Image via @yg_treasure_tiktok (left), @noahglenncarter (right)