All of the Pop, None of the K: K-Pop Artists Venturing Abroad

By Tiffany Simms

For years, K-pop and Western music did not cross paths. K-pop singer-songwriter Eric Nam has said that growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, K-pop was not easily accessible. At an age when YouTube had yet to be born, he and his brother, Eddie, would go with their parents to a Korean video rental store. While their parents rented their K-dramas, the boys would request videos of the music shows. Eric recalled rewatching them over and over because it was all he had.

At this time, Asian representation in America media was scarce and the biggest groups were *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, thus seeing K-pop boy groups, such as Shinhwa, performing impacted young Eric and encouraged him to know that Asians, too, could be performers. However, when the time came for Eric as a young adult to make his career decisions, he did not yet see opportunities for an Asian-American in the Western music industry. An alternate opportunity arose nevertheless when, after one of his covers on YouTube went viral, he was invited by MBC to go to Korea so he could compete on Star Audition: Birth of a Great Star 2. Initially, Eric spoke little Korean and would be told by Koreans, “Sing like a Korean person.” He said, “I can’t do it. I didn’t grow up with that sound.” 

Today, for Asian-Americans, this struggle is dissipating with the help of the Korean Wave. Each year, it becomes less and less surprising to see K-pop acts, such as NCT 127 and Blackpink on American TV, encouraging an increasing number of Asian artists to either get signed by American labels or to break into the Western pop industry on their own.

Recently, Eric said in an interview with CLASH, “I think it looks like the Western world is more willing to have more Asian representation within the mainstream media, at the same time, the media has to be willing to give it a shot. BTS and Blackpink are doing really well, and that is amazing, but on the Western chart front it is no risk as they are guaranteed success. I am hoping that in the coming years that Asian artists will be brought because the music industry believes in their talent, simply. The ideas, and the way the conversation is framed, are changing, but it will still require more time for people to be willing to take advantage of it.”

Here's our watchlist of K-pop artists who are venturing abroad into Western music world:

  • Eric Nam

It is no surprise that Eric Nam would be included as he returns back to his U.S. roots.

If you don’t know Eric as the multi-talented solo artist, you know him as host of K-pop Daebak with Eric Nam, former After School Club host, and the “go-to” for international celebrity interviews in Korea, having interviewed everyone from Academy Award winner Emma Stone to Avengers Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. He is quite the linguist as he speaks both English and Korean while conversational in Spanish and Mandarin. He helps to cross any language and culture barriers one might initially have when entering the world of K-pop. He has collaborated with some of your favourite K-pop artists and international artists, such as Amber, Loote, WENDY, Timbaland, Tablo, and Gallant.

Through the years, Eric has released a variety of songs in both Korean and English. Despite his ability to adapt wherever he is, Eric has found his greatest popularity in Korea, even being esteemed as “The Nation’s Boyfriend," GQ Korea's 2016 Man Of The Year, and included in Forbes’ "30 Under 30 Asia 2017." Recently, his music received international recognition as his upbeat electro-pop song, "FLOAT" was featured in the Sony Pictures animated film, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, starring Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, and Andy Samberg. 

  • Jackson Wang

You’re probably familiar with JYP’s boy group GOT7, especially one of its three rappers, Jackson Wang. What you might not know is that Jackson has been making a name for himself outside of both the group and South Korea.

One of the appeals GOT7 always has had is its diversity: its three rappers aren’t Korean. Jackson is actually from Hong Kong and can speak several languages fluently, including Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and conversational in even more. When asked about his ability to perform music in multiple languages, he said, “I feel like there’s no barrier or boundary. It’s not about the regions or languages. I could be doing something in Korean, in English, in Chinese. At the end of the day, it’s about the music itself. The genre. The type of sound. The production. It’s just in different languages. It’s the same to me. I’ll try to work to my fullest and max out on every song, on everything I produce.”

A man of many talents, he’s a fashion designer, athlete, and has been releasing solo songs, since 2017 with “Papillon,” many of which are in English. Jackson describes his yearly schedule as “Throughout a year, I’ll spend half the time in Korea and half the time in China doing my own stuff.” His most recent track, “Oxygen,” through a melodramtic trap beat, is a straightforward message to his fans: I wouldn’t be here without you. 

Jackson’s latest goal before the end of 2019 is to release an album in America, titled Journey to the West, which will consist of all English songs. 

  • Amber

Amber Liu is a Taiwanese-American singer, songwriter, rapper, llama, Nike and Loreal's Redken brand ambassador, YouTuber, director, and editor. There’s nothing she can’t do. Perhaps her most famous role is rapper in SM Entertainment’s K-pop girl group, f(x). Although they’re not officially disbanded, Amber has been releasing solo music since 2015 with the release of her EP, Beautiful.

Amber has the ability to produce songs in both Korean and English and collaborate with many international artists. Until SM cast Amber at sixteen, she had grown up in Los Angeles, making her quite skilled in both English and Korean. Her most recent project, Rogue Rouge mixtape released in 2018 with a music video to accompany every track. Each song is quite personal to Amber and allows for fans, Embers, to see the multifaceted Amber. Additionally, since every song is in English, her international audience is able to connect with her on another level. 

You can view each music video from Rogue Rouge on Amber’s YouTube channel.

  • MONSTA X

Starship Entertainment’s boy group MONSTA X has been hustlin’ ever since being formed on the reality TV show No.Mercy in 2015. Although Shownu, Wonho, Minhyuk, Kihyun, Hyungwon, Joohoney, and I.M have released English versions of some of their music before, and are all proficient in not just singing English but speaking it as well, it is just recently that they have begun to receive great international recognition, especially in America.

The seven men have performed in the Jingle Ball Tour (the first K-pop group to do so), appeared on U.S. television shows, including Cartoon Network’s We Bare Bears and Good Morning America; and collaborated with international artists such as Steve Aoki with "Play It Cool" and French Montana on their latest song, “Who Do You Love?” This new dance track is moody yet sensual and it would not be surprising if you happen to hear this on U.S. radio. If the song somehow doesn’t get you up on your feet, the music video will surely move you. 

MONSTA X continually shares love with all of their fans, Monbebes, no matter the location. Recently, their LA show of the WE ARE HERE World Tour at the Staples Center was streamed live through Naver V Live Plus.

  • Tiffany Young

Korean-American Tiffany Young (formerly known as Tiffany Hwang) has been under SM Entertainment since she was fifteen years old. She is most recognizable as a member of the girl group Girls' Generation (SNSD).

In 2015, she made her solo debut while still under SM. She has since left SM to pursue a solo career in America and has already accomplished so much in such a short time. Since then, she has been studying acting, released a cover of Disney-Pixar’s Coco’s “Remember Me,” released her first U.S. single, “Over My Skin,” collaborated with and was the face for H&M’s fall 2018 campaign, became the first female K-pop artist to walk the red carpet at the American Music Awards in 2018, and won Best Solo Breakout at the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Awards.

In early 2019, her EP Lips on Lips was released,  along with the single and music video “Born Again.” Co-writing all five songs on the EP, Tiffany aspires for pop ballads, coming from inspirations such as Mariah Carey, while still sharing herself personally through lyrics. 

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With her newest song, released at the end of her 30th birthday, “Magnetic Moon” captivates both listener and viewer as the music video stuns with its dazzling visuals and a lo-fi pop sound that will prompt you to dance along.

Tiffany captioned an Instagram post, upon its release: “A song for everyone that sparkles at night in the moonlight. Some of my best writing and recording sessions are in the latest hours looking up at the moon, and there’s a special creative energy it brings out of me that I wanted to capture in the music video. On set I felt like the moon inspired my dance and performance. The moon can pull something special out of us, and pull us together.”

  • Henry

Henry Lau is a multilingual Canadian singer, rapper, beatboxer, musician, composer, dancer, entertainer, and actor widely known for his skills in dancing while playing the violin. Henry started playing instruments at a very early age due to his parents' heavy emphasis on music, winning many awards and planning on going to Julliard until he joined his friend in auditioning for SM Entertainment at age seventeen.

In 2007, he debuted as a member of SM's Super Junior in their single “Don't Don” before becoming a member of Super Junior-M, the group’s subunit for promoting in China. Henry made his solo debut in 2013, SM’s first solo male artist in thirteen years, with “Trap.”

Just last year, in 2018, he left SM and began his own studio, Henry Workshop as no other company could cater to his international career goals and even signed with Monster Entertainment and AXIS. He has not only been working on new music, but has continued his acting aspirations in Hollywood. In May 2019, he made his Hollywood debut in A Dog’s Purpose sequel, A Dog’s Journey, alongside Josh Gad and Dennis Quaid.

When Forbes asked about Henry's current album direction, he explained that the market he hopes to reach is “the world” and that the album would be more than just English as “These days, people listen to K-pop here [in the United States], Chinese music here. And everything, the other way around. I just feel there’s no borders for music right now.” He further explained that the album will be trilingual just as he is, “I do all the languages. I can speak all the languages. I sing in all the languages. But, at this time, I’m still kind of deciding. There will be definitely songs in English, in Korean, and in Chinese…”

  • LAY

Lay Zhang is a Chinese singer-songwriter, producer, philanthropist, dancer, author, ambassador and actor, famously known as a member of SM Entertainment’s boy group EXO, along with its Chinese sub-group EXO-M. Additionally, he has both composed and wrote for EXO on multiple songs and albums.

In 2015, Lay established his own company for his solo activities, making his solo debut in 2016 that landed on the Top 5 on Billboard's Top World Albums chart. At twenty-four, he penned his own autobiography that broke records in just the first twenty-four minutes of going on sale. Lay made his U.S. debut with a performance at the music festival Lollapalooza after working with Norwegian DJ Alan Walker on a remix from his second album. He then released a bilingual album titled Namanana, consisting of both Mandarin and English versions of all of his songs as he hoped that English songs would allow his music to be more marketable internationally while still including Mandarin to gain exposure for M-Pop (Mandarin pop music, or Mandopop).

The album doubled as a full U.S. debut album, and this year, he continues to get international recognition as he has released collaborations with American artists Far East Movement and Jason Derulo and fellow SM group NCT 127. This summer, he released the Honey EP that features four tracks, including the title track "Honey,” which has two versions, English and Mandarin. “Honey” is a funky dance track with a visually-stunning, honey-inspired music video to accompany. Lay is currently on tour for his first solo concert, The Grand Line.

  • DEAN

DEAN, also known as the “R&B prince of Asia,” is a rather unusual “K-pop idol.” First, his music is best described as alternative R&B filled with angsty beats. Second, he began his career at the age of sixteen by performing as a part of a crew with artist Keith Ape before becoming a songwriter at eighteen for K-pop stars, including EXO, under the name "Deanfluenza"—the name is inspired by his admiration of actor James Dean’s simple rebellious style and mood, as well as the word “influenza,” to represent his desire to have a "viral" musical influence.

Lastly, he does unconventional things to his hair and face such as shaving slits in his eyebrows and going for odd cuts so that people will focus more on his music rather than focusing on if he is handsome. He has said, "I like mixing alternative, futuristic and experimental elements into my music. First I was really influenced by American pop music, so when I received an offer to make music here in the U.S., I was curious, I wanted to know how American audiences would react to my music."

DEAN set himself apart from other Korean R&B artists by debuting in the United States first in July of 2015 with “I’m Not Sorry,” a collaboration with Eric Bellinger. His South Korean debut came a few months later in October when his talents were received greatly as his single “Pour Up” with Block B’s Zico became “Best R&B and Soul Song” at the Korean Music Awards.

In 2016, DEAN became the first Asian artist to perform at Spotify House at SXSW. In a Time magazine report about K-pop artists entering the mainstream American market, DEAN was featured along with CL and Eric Nam. Since then, DEAN has worked with other international artists including Mila J and Anderson Paak. He is also a member of music crew, FANXY CHILD, together with friends Zico, Crush, Penomeco and Millic.

DEAN’s latest song release, “Howlin' 404,” veers from his usual sound but remains melancholy through a trap beat. He has expressed his desire to not be limited to just one style of music and "Howlin' 404" is an example of how he is making good on his goals.

  • NCT 127

If you’re not familiar with NCT 127, you probably at least know of NCT or one of its other subunits. However, if you don’t yet know NCT or understand their concept, check out The K-pop Guidebook to NCT's Concept.

"NCT" stands for "Neo Culture Technology," which is simply a term to show that this group could have an unlimited amount of members and "127" is the longitude coordinate of Seoul. NCT 127 made their debut in 2016 and has a set number of members, and currently, there are ten: Taeil, Johnny, Taeyong, Doyoung, Yuta, Jaehyun, WinWin, Jungwoo, Mark, and Haechan. Since their debut, they have quickly taken off not only in Korea but also internationally.

In 2018, they released their first full-length album, Regular-Irregular, along with a music video of an English version of the lead single, “Regular” and their U.S. television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The boys continued their time in America by performing with Mickey Mouse himself on ABC's Mickey’s 90th Spectacular TV special.

2019 began with a bang for NCT 127 as they announced their first concert tour, Neo City – The Origin, which soon became their first world tour as well as it included not only South Korea but Southeast Asia, North America, Latin America, and Europe. They also featured, along with Lay, on Jason Derulo’s “Let’s Shut Up & Dance.” This year, they have continued to make appearances on multiple American TV shows, from Good Morning America to The Late Late Show with James Corden. Most recently, NCT 127 has released an English version of “Highway to Heaven,” a track from their fourth EP, We Are Superhuman

For more NCT 127 content, click here!

Who is your favourite multilingual K-pop artist? Which was your favourite song from this list? Which K-pop artists do you hope will venture their music abroad next? Let us know in the comments below!

Want to check out more of your favourite K-pop artists’ international hits? Check out I Can Show You the World: International K-pop Hits.

Cover image: Eric Nam & Amber
Written by Tiffany Simms

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