Jessai Flores, Staff Illustrator

Sociology professor Grace Kao said she had always been interested in applying her knowledge of sociology to a music class.

This semester marks her third time teaching her interdepartmental 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 approaches music both “seriously” and “lightheartedly” in the seminar.

“I really spent a lot of time on this class,” Kao said. “I wanted it to be fun and memorable for students. We’re all going to listen to a lot of music. But through the music, we’re going to also learn about some migration history and some of the stuff that’s happened with these genres.”

Prior to 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 also currently serves as 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 has to do with the topics of race, ethnicity and immigration with regards to educational outcomes and relationships among young people. 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 stemmed somewhat accidentally, she said. But Kao has come to recognize a very personal connection to the course material.

“I just got into K-pop a little bit by accident,” Kao said. “I’d seen BTS on [Saturday Night Live] in April 2018. But I knew it was special. … I’m actually taking it very, very seriously because as an Asian American, generally, in my lifetime, I’ve never seen a group of musicians, any group of musicians, have an impact on a worldwide audience and also a Western audience [like K-pop].”

Beyond this personal connection, Kao explained that K-pop bands also have special interactions that bond them with their fans in a way that is 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. “The K-pop companies themselves are very responsive to fans. So if the fans don’t like something, it will get changed. I mean, it’s pretty remarkable. There’s just no equivalent to it in the West.”

Kao collaborated with an ethnomusicology graduate student to create the class, and worked alongside him to develop the syllabus and finalize the structure of the class. While the seminar teaches primarily about British New Wave and K-pop, it also incorporates other relevant genres like ska and reggae, and features some ethnomusicology studies, as well.

Sydnee Hairston ’26 said that 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 nice to talk about reggae and R&B.”

While this seminar focuses on learning about different genres of music, Kao also emphasized the importance of thinking critically 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 period, she said she would listen to vinyl records, CD’s, radio shows like Casey’s Top 40 and musical television shows like American Bandstand. The advent of MTV and music videos, Kao explained, was a “big shift.”

“I think it’s actually a really special time, the way that [there] are so many other groups that are coming up,” Kao said.

Kao graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago.