Long Beach not only saved Esther Kang's life, but it also gave her a life she never knew she wanted. Three years ago, the 27-year-old lead singer for local buzz band King Kang never would've believed that a shy, repressed girl from a Korean Christian community in Orange County would shed her skin and transform into the person she is today—an openly gay activist, a music journalist and a local rock star who plays the hell out of a guitar.
"I feel like Long Beach has blasted my mind open," Kang says with quiet confidence. "The exposure to music that I've gotten, local music . . . It's kind of embarrassing, but I hadn't even heard of the Velvet Underground until two years ago. I've just been learning a lot."
Teeming with psychedelic and ambling grooves, the four-piece band she named after herself sweeps audiences up in a riptide of swirling atmospheric rock that takes a bite out of sounds perfected by Silver Apples and the lyrical poetry of Joni Mitchell. The unifying force is Kang's delayed, effect-laden vocals that scream out to space on songs on their recently released EP, Summer of Fire.
Despite its dopeness, this isn't the voice that she's spent the most time crafting. Prior to getting into music, she began her career path as a journalist, graduating from USC and landing a gig as a Manhattan Beach beat reporter at the Easy Reader. But music was never too far behind—her skill for learning cover tunes is part of what got her the job. After looking over her clips in an online portfolio, her editor noticed she also posted some recorded songs, including Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me."
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"He said he also liked my writing, but it was my cover that really won him over," Kang says. She wrote for them for two years, during which her editor also encouraged her to play open mics, which is how she honed her chops. When she moved to Long Beach two years later, she was amazed at the city's vibrant music and open-mic scene. Going out every night and performing for tips proved lucrative in money and connections, which included her future band mates in King Kang. It's also where she finally felt comfortable expressing her sexuality after being raised by religious, conservative grandparents—the word gay was never in her vocabulary.
"I feel Long Beach has really helped me grow into myself," she says. "I still have a lot of growing up to do, but I feel no shame in being myself, being out with my girlfriend. I never feel scared to kiss her in public. In OC, maybe I might, but I kinda don't give a fuck no more."
Her journalism career is still thriving in the local music scene. After a successful stint penning a column for the Long Beach Post for documenting LBC's best bands, she continues the task of writing about the same music scene that redefined her identity and gave her the freedom she's always wanted. To her, the marriage between writing and music is the sweetest one there is.
"I don't really see them as two separate entities; it's just one big form of expression," Kang says. "This girl asked me once, 'I write poems; do you think I could write songs?' I'm like, 'It's the same fucking thing. Why you tripping?' The whole idea is just not having labels and just creating. That's what Long Beach has taught me."