Grace Kao, professor of sociology, teaches about race and place
Sociology professor Grace Kao discusses the significance of her freshman seminar, “Race and Place in British New Wave, K-Pop, and Beyond.”
Jessai Flores, personal illustrator
Sociology professor Grace Kao said she had always been interested in applying her knowledge of sociology to a music lesson.
This semester marks the third time she has taught her cross-departmental course, “Race and Place in British New Wave, K-Pop and Beyond.” The course is a first-year seminar that explores popular musical genres and their connections to racial, regional, and national identities, as well as immigration trends and political systems. Kao said she approached music both “seriously” and “lightheartedly” during the seminar.
“I really spent a lot of time on this class,” Kao said. “I wanted it to be fun and memorable for the students. We are all going to listen to a lot of music. But through music, we’re also going to learn about the history of migration and some of the things that happened with those genres.
Before coming to Yale, Kao was a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania for two decades.
She came to Yale in 2017 as a professor of sociology and ethnicity, race, and migration, and is also currently the faculty director of the Education Studies program.
“She played a vital role in the reorganization and expansion of the [ethnicity, race and migration] program and revitalized the quantitative wing of the department,” sociology department chair Philip Gorski wrote in an email to The News.
Much of Kao’s research is quantitative and addresses the themes of race, ethnicity, and immigration as they relate to educational outcomes and youth relationships. However, she has developed a recent interest in the sociology of music and K-pop — hence the creation of her seminar.
Her interest in this field stems somewhat accidentally, she says. But Kao came to recognize a very personal connection to the course material.
“I just got into K-pop kinda by accident,” Kao said. “I had seen BTS on [Saturday Night Live] in April 2018. But I knew it was special. … I actually take it very, very seriously because as an Asian American, generally, in my life, I’ve never seen a band, any band, impact on a global audience and also a Western audience [like K-pop].”
Beyond this personal bond, Kao explained that K-pop groups also have special interactions that bond them with their fans in a way rarely seen in other musical genres.
K-pop fans are “extremely, extremely passionate,” she said.
“It’s not because they’re crazy, but because they have more interaction with their artists,” Kao said. “K-pop companies themselves are very fan-friendly. So if fans don’t like something, it will be changed. I mean, it’s pretty remarkable. equivalent in the West.
Kao collaborated with a graduate student in ethnomusicology to create the class, and worked alongside him to develop the curriculum and finalize the class structure. Although the seminar primarily teaches British New Wave and K-pop, it also incorporates other relevant genres like ska and reggae, and also offers ethnomusicology studies.
Sydnee Hairston ’26 said the class is very enjoyable.
“It’s definitely my favorite class,” Hairston said. “It’s cool because I expected to only talk about British New Wave and K-pop, but it’s good to talk about reggae and R&B.”
Although this seminar focuses on learning about different genres of music, Kao also stressed the importance of critically thinking about how the mode and accessibility of music has changed in recent years.
She reflected on the absence of music streaming platforms like Spotify, and the internet in general, during her childhood. During this time, she said she listened to vinyl records, CDs, radio shows like Casey’s Top 40, and music TV shows like American Bandstand. The advent of MTV and music videos, Kao explained, was a “big change”.
“I think it’s actually a really special moment, the way [there] there are so many other bands coming,” Kao said.
Kao graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago.