• Danielle G.

Episode 90 │ Big, Black, Beautiful Sore Thumb (SEOUL)

Updated: Mar 22


photos courtesy of Kirsten Keels

"Honestly, tasting the upper echelon of privilege is what makes me know my worth, and know that there are still institutions that have resources. You just have to twist their arm to get them... I'm a big advocate for, you can't just stay in your little corner of the world. You've gotta go out, [if] you have the privilege and the safety net to do so." (Kirsten, Episode 90)


Ninety? NINETY? As in, 9-0? Somehow I've managed to put out 90 episodes of Young, Gifted and Abroad, which means I've recorded interviews with and done write-ups about 90 different people as my guests! As my 90th guest and the first person I interviewed in 2022, I had the pleasure of welcoming Kirsten Keels to the show. Not only is she the youngest person I've interviewed in a while (recent graduate, class of 2021), but I also got to speak to her in the midst of her most ambitious international adventure yet. Kirsten's currently halfway through her 10-month stay in Seoul, South Korea, where she's using a Fulbright grant to research the relationships between Black people, Black music, and South Korea.


For pretty much all her life, Kirsten has been a musician and performer at heart. From being trained to sing both choral and contemporary music, to playing percussion and alto saxophone and diving into numerous world music phases in high school, to studying music at Princeton University, Kirsten is a proudly well-rounded and unconventional musician. Coming from the Fayetteville area of Arkansas as a first-generation and low-income (FLI) student, Kirsten gained admission to Princeton through QuestBridge, a program that matches promising FLI high school students with top universities in the U.S., enabling them to attend college on full-ride scholarships. When I emailed Kirsten asking what I should include here as a direct quote about her experience with QuestBridge (since I ran out of time to ask her about it in-depth during our conversation), she replied, "I would love for you to say how QuestBridge and Princeton made this possible, simply by opening doors I wouldn’t normally have access to being BIPOC and Low Income. And the FLI (First Generation Low Income) community is such a beautiful thing that still sends me love and support today."


Officially, at Princeton Kirsten earned a B.A. (or A.B.) in music, with minors in ethnography and East Asian studies. She was also keenly interested in ethnomusicology ( "the study of music around the globe"), but her specific interest in Korean music is something that developed gradually and unexpectedly. After briefly studying Japanese during her freshman year, Kirsten went to Japan where she studied the relationship between Black America and Japan—which she now recognizes as a precursor to her current work—during the summer before her sophomore year. One of her classes involved reading an article about how Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of Korea has bled into contemporary music with "Arirang", an extremely famous folk tune that's regarded as South Korea's unofficial national anthem, being appropriated for Japanese pop and rock hits. Kirsten was so profoundly impacted by this article that for her final project of the class, she made a music composition joining "Arirang" together with "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (the Black American national anthem) and "Amazing Grace" (a song she grew up on). In hindsight she claims that the composition wasn't very good, but her professor (the transcendent and multi-published Imani Perry) loved it, and unbeknownst to Kirsten this project was leading her even closer to her field of interest.


photos courtesy of Kirsten Keels

Still needing to fulfill Princeton's language requirements after Japanese wound up not being the right fit, and finding a beginner Korean course that thankfully began later than 8 a.m., Kirsten began studying the language in her sophomore year. She regularly earned Cs in her Korean classes, and tending to her mental health likely complicated her ability to excel in the language at the time. Nonetheless, the encouragement she consistently received from professors—both at Princeton and at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, where she spent six summer weeks in 2019 studying both Korean and gugak, or Korean traditional music—motivated Kirsten to continue making progress at her own pace. Her time at Ewha also illuminated how undeniable the global reach of K-pop had become; she knew K-pop was "a thing", but hadn't been personally familiar with it beyond mega-famous fixtures like the boy band BTS and the 2012 hit song "Gangnam Style" by PSY. She noticed that her program at Ewha included students from all over the world, and she saw first-hand the lengths that people would go to (and the surprising amounts of money they'd spend) to attend events, activities, and notable places related to K-pop. It all made Kirsten overwhelmingly curious about the "why" of it all, so much so that upon returning to Princeton for her junior year, she delved into the history of Korean music and specifically honed in on the globalization of Korean culture through what's known as the "Hallyu", or "the Korean Wave" (approximately 1993 to present).


In fact, both of the two most significant research papers that Kirsten was required to write during her junior year were concentrated on K-pop. The first paper was an ethnographic look at Hallyu via the supergroup called SuperM, whose November 2019 concert Kirsten got to attend at Madison Square Garden on her university's dime. The second paper was intended to be an ethnographic look at K-pop culture on Princeton's own campus, but when the COVID-19 pandemic had students kicked off campus in 2020, Kirsten changed her paper's topic to the autonomy and digitization of K-pop idols. For her senior thesis, a massive research project that's required of all Princeton undergrads, Kirsten was able to focus on fan culture as she'd previously intended. She conducted interviews ("holistic conversations") with mostly East Asian and Black American K-pop fans, resulting in an anthology she titled "Experiences Within K-Pop Fan Communities".


All along since returning from Ewha, Kirsten had been contemplating the question, "Is there some sort of magical part of K-pop that has everyone so obsessed? Is there something where now, culturally, is the time that K-pop is globalizing? Like, what is this?" And she discovered that for many of the Black Americans she interviewed for her senior thesis, part of the appeal was that listening to K-pop often felt like they were still listening to their music (R&B, hip-hop, and other genres originated by Black people), just in Korean. Kirsten was inclined to agree, "I feel like at the base of all of this is Blackness, because Black music is popular music. You can't deny that." These ideas directly informed the research project that she crafted as part of her application to the Fulbright Program, which she submitted during her senior year. Through Fulbright, Kirsten has funding to pursue her project (currently titled "Black Globalization: The Embodiment of Black Music and People in Korea") in Seoul, where the Korean music scene is primarily concentrated and where she relocated in August 2021.


photos courtesy of Kirsten Keels

Admittedly, the pandemic has obstructed Kirsten's plans to more actively conduct in-person interviews with Black people living in South Korea, Black and Korean artists, and owners of establishments (bars, clubs, music venues, etc.) that mediate the relationship between Blackness and Korea. She is conscious of her status as a guest in the country, and she's wary of potentially infecting others as the coronavirus rages on. Yet and still, she has been able to interview a few participants so far, and she's been incredibly moved by their openness, as well as the openness of other new friends she's been able to make since her arrival in Seoul. In our conversation, Kirsten repeatedly emphasized how blessed she feels to have found community among fellow expats and other folks she's met in the city, "I feel so loved. That's the only way I can think to say it, is just loved. And I'm still constantly shocked by the love that I've received here." This love and moral support have become integral to her ability to weather the difficulties she's encountered with Fulbright Korea as an organization, difficulties that she hadn't anticipated would become so glaring.


Kirsten gave me a heads-up before our interview that she would openly talk about her displeasure, and while she does recognize her immense privilege in being granted such a major opportunity, her appreciation for Fulbright Korea doesn't preclude her from having critiques. In her own words, "I lead life with a grateful heart... I believe that I am allowed to be grateful, and preserve my peace and advocate for myself. So the dissatisfaction is with me advocating for myself and getting gaslit and overall ignored." As a FLI recent grad who has gone from one prestigious institution (Princeton) to another (Fulbright), she is once again experiencing an institution's commitment to supporting grantees being undermined by its failure to understand that not every student or researcher has the same means, let alone a financial safety net. For example, Kirsten had to fund her move to Korea out of her own pocket, which might not have put her in such dire straits if Fulbright hadn't distributed her cohort's first monthly stipends late. Whereas other grantees might view their monthly stipends as fun money, Kirsten actually has to live off of that money in such an expensive city as Seoul, and at first she found herself spending much of her stipend on housing. She has since moved to housing owned by Fulbright, which is more affordable, but unfortunately other communication and money-related issues between her and some Fulbright admin have persisted.

"What a beautiful thing it is to not have a plan."

Unlike at Princeton, Kirsten doesn't currently have a sizable FLI community to rely on ("constantly sharing resources and uplifting each other"), and shouting her concerns into the metaphorical void has become exhausting. In short, "I'm tired of being strong." She is clear about what an amazing, once-in-a-liftetime opportunity it is to have a Fulbright fellowship, and she's also clear about cautioning FLI applicants against applying if they know they won't have access to some sort of financial support of their own. Doing Fulbright without that extra support won't necessarily be impossible, but it might be harder than it should be. Kirsten has now resigned herself to soaking in the moral support she receives from family, friends, and fellow Fulbrighters who validate her concerns, and focusing her energy on her project. Rather than writing a traditional research paper, she plans on creating "this beautifully collaborative composition" based on the responses she's getting from her interview participants. She aims to uplift Black and Korean talent from Seoul and abroad by involving them in this music composition, and has already found a music video director for it (a friend she met on TikTok). And while she's aware that she sticks out "like a big ol' Black sore thumb" and has dealt with instances of discrimination as a plus-sized Black woman in Korea, Kirsten views her visibility there and her social media presence as part of her contribution to dismantling racism and other -isms of the world, "There's no sense in tucking myself away or hiding parts of myself. But I'm also not gonna be a spectacle."


In response to my enquiring about her future dreams and aspirations, Kirsten explained that although she prefers to have a plan, she's at peace with not having a definite one right now, "It's one of those things where it's so open-ended, that it's exciting. Because it's kind of like, what a beautiful thing it is to not have a plan... You know what? It's wherever the wind takes me." Hopefully that wind will take her to a music-related job after her Fulbright is over, but so long as she's happy, financially secure, and has some disposable income, she's not hung-up on any particular location. Having been to Japan, Italy (Venice), South Korea, the UK (London), and Morocco so far, Kirsten doesn't have her heart set on too many specific future travel destinations either. Having said that, she would love to explore more of Korea while she's there, eventually return to Japan, and visit Latin America and the Caribbean islands for the first time. Primarily, however, Kirsten's future travel destinations will likely be dictated by music and food; she wants to experience various cuisines and musical styles "at their roots", and to enjoy them with the people who created them. Kirsten welcomes folks to check out "all of the tea, all of the drama, all of the laughs" on her Instagram (@k_keeels) and TikTok (@k.keels). She also has a separate Instagram for her Fulbright/travel reflections (@southerngothicctravel), and is open to people connecting with her on LinkedIn (Kirsten Keels).


Be sure to listen to this episode, "Big, Black, Beautiful Sore Thumb (SEOUL)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!


RESOURCES:


Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.

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