Is There a Real Future For Non-Korean Performers in K-pop?

Facing a nearly sold out crowd at the Hollywood Bowl, Lee Hongki belted his lungs out to FTISLAND’ single “Pray” to close out their set at the 14th annual Korea Times Music Festival last month. This was the K-pop idol band’s first appearance in Los Angeles since last year. Their label mates AOA, one of Korea’s hottest acts, also performed at the event. Performing alongside some of the biggest names in K-pop like SHINee and Red Velvet, FNC Entertainment artists brought the live band and sexy girl group flair to a very diverse festival lineup designed to cater to every age group. Thanks to Hallyu (aka the Korean wave, of artists who’ve taken K-pop worldwide), the music draws legions of non-Korean fans who might have not attended the inaugural event 13 years ago.

Obviously when it comes to K-pop, a lot has changed since 2003. “Gangnam Style” became the most watched video on YouTube and BIGBANG brought their last two tours to the U.S. (including stops in Anaheim). The genre has grown immensely, even including more and more non-Korean Asian Americans in K-pop idol groups, like f(x)’s Taiwanese-American member Amber. With the growth, it’s no surprise that American fans are no longer satisfied with admiring K-pop from afar; they want in on the action.  

The day after the festival, 50 people patiently waited outside the Korea Times offices in Garden Grove at 10 a.m. sharp on Mother’s Day. After having two of its popular groups perform at the festival, the newspaper was now hosting auditions for FNC Entertainment in hopes of finding new talent to take to Korea and craft into idols, the collective term for K-pop stars. Having read an ad given to her the day prior at the Bowl, Tyla Beroa asked her mom, who traveled with her from Colorado for the show, to attend the audition. The auditions were open to kids between 12 and 24 of any gender and ethnicity.

Being a smaller company compared to giants like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, the auditions drew around 100 kids throughout the whole day. The setting, at first glance, looked sketchy. Like the “I was scammed by a man who promised he’d turn me into a model” kind of sketchy. And that’s because waiting in line in a suburban neighborhood plaza right next to Arirang Supermarket and other grimy beige buildings doesn’t exactly scream “sold out worldwide tour.” Nevertheless, parents kept dropping off their kids or standing idly around the parking lot.

In the auditions, groups of five went into a room with an FNC casting director and a translator and would either sing or dance, depending on their talent. The casting director’s face remained expressionless throughout the 20 minute audition. People came out of the offices with a number sticker on their chests, a promise to be contacted, and a bewildered look in their eyes. “Your confidence kind of drops when you see them,” stated 16-year-old auditionee Anna Brown from Santa Monica while chuckling. “It was really intimidating and kind of scary, but fun.”  

Investing millions on crafting an artist is not well received by mainstream America, hence why K-pop gets a lot of flak for being unapologetically manufactured. And then there’s the infamous, rigorous trainee process for K-pop star aspirants that critics and music purists frown upon. Trainees work on their singing, dancing, acting, modeling, and pretty much every possible skill an idol might need for years, honing the craft to near perfection. Those who excel, debut. Those who don’t are let go together with their dreams and sometimes with financial debt. But as Brown explains, training is “the only thing that really prepares you. I know it’s really intense, but it works and it comes out beautiful in the end. So, why not?”

The intense training period is no secret for Beroa or her mother, nor is it a deterrent. The 16-year-old believes that, assuming you’re chosen as a trainee, it’s not time wasted if you don’t debut because it gives people the skills and necessities it takes to be a performer. G’jai Marlene echoes her daughter’s views. “I think a lot of kids now don’t get that concept that for you to be really good, you might need to be there multiple, multiple hours every day,” Marlene says. “And that’s pretty much what you eat, sleep, and breathe,” she says.

But American fans who aspire to be K-pop idols don’t want to be Justin Bieber. Reflecting the growing diversity in the genre, they want to be GOT7’s Taiwanese American member Mark or 2PM’s Thai-American Nichkhun or even Alex Reid from Rania, an African American woman from Kansas. Sixteen year-old auditionee Clayton Park identifies as French-Korean, Beroa is African American, and Brown is half African American, half Mexican and they all want to be stars in a niche genre in a country with a different culture and language on the other side of the world, all because they find it more fun than Western pop. “America is a lot more solo people, a lot more narcissistic [and] oriented around specific people… And yes, it is more popular and you can get more fame out of it, but I like [K-pop specifically] because … it’s more friendly and everyone’s more group-oriented,” explains Park, another auditionee. Because if there’s something that was largely a consensus among the auditionees was that K-pop made them happy or got them through shit American music didn’t help with.

However, as pop music, K-pop is not devoid of problematic antics. But despite it being infamous for its anti-black racism and appropriation, Brown remains unfazed. “It’s not like [racism] is not here in America too,” she says dismissively. “Racism is going to be around forever, we’re never gonna get over it; it’s never gonna go away. And I’m fine with it because my mom and dad [always told me] ‘you have two strikes against you, you’re black and you’re Mexican’… I’m used to it.”  Beroa, on the other hand, is more positive: “I want to try and make a difference [in] the black community and show people that it’s not about your race. It’s also about coming together with music, because music is its own language.”  

Reid has hinted at her possible encounters with racism in Korea, as have other half African American, half Korean stars like Yoon Mi Rae, Insooni, and Michelle Lee. However, with the inclusion of more non-Korean members in K-pop groups, it seems like the genre is opening up to be more inclusive of other cultures, even if it’s really slow and they constantly fuck it up.

“Regardless of race, [we’re] willing to take [non-Asians] on as trainees and debut them as long as they’re talented,” says Steve Kim via  a translator. Kim is the FNC casting director overseeing the auditions, stated through a translator: [We] have nothing against [non-Asian ethnicities].”    

At the end of the day, if these kids aspire to become G Dragon instead of Bieber, it’s really not that different. Breaking both markets is hard. Thriving is hard. But they’re teenagers, they can still dream of becoming anything they want, and that includes being a pop star in a foreign country. “The reality is this is something that would be a once in a lifetime kind of thing,” says Marlene. “It’s not something that comes back later on down the road…College is always there. You can go back to school at 75 if you really wanted to. But something like this, you can’t go back and do this.”

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