There are no Koreans in this K-pop group from New York

With the tagline “Born in New York, made in Seoul”, K-pop idol group EXP Edition sings in Korean and dances K-pop style, but none of its members are Koreans.

This unique international K-pop band, with ethnic backgrounds ranging from Portuguese to Croatian, entered the K-pop scene with its electronic pop debut single Feel Like This on April 17 in South Korea.

“Music is a universal language that brings people together. We think there shouldn’t be any boundaries when it comes to music, including K-pop,” said Frankie, the band leader who is of Portuguese descent, during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul recently.

“We didn’t think twice before leaving the US. We had little idea of what we were getting ourselves into, but making a debut in Seoul and sharing our music with Korean audience have always been our dream.”

Their journey began in 2014, when Kim Bo-ra, the founder and head of the group’s agency IMMABB Entertainment, came up with the idea of turning American men into K-pop performers for her masters degree thesis project at Columbia University.

To discover the elements that shape and form K-pop, she and her partners labelled the project “I’m Making A Boy Band”. She then held an audition to recruit non-Koreans for EXP Edition.

The group’s final four members, Frankie, Sime, Hunter and Koki, debuted in New York with the English-Korean single Luv/Wrong in 2015 and dropped their second single Nolja Let’s Party in the same year.

As the group gained popularity and went viral on social media, the members took on the challenge of debuting in the home of K-pop.

“The casting idea of EXP Edition was so unique and different from other countless auditions we had back in New York. Personally, I found K-pop to be an opportunity to challenge myself as a performer,” said Sime.

Big dreams

Recalling the times when their days were jam-packed with auditions, freelance gigs and part-time jobs, the members agreed their debut in Korea was a dream come true.

However, it has not been smooth sailing for the K-pop rookie group. The group has been assailed for their inadequate Korean abilities and performances compared to the usual K-pop groups that have been tailored and manufactured by agencies ever since making its debut.

“My biggest fear is that people might think we are disrespecting or mocking K-pop. But K-pop became our life, what we do,” Hunter said. The group has stood firm against the controversy in the hope that they will pave the way for non-Korean K-pop star wannabes around the globe.

“We expected such pushback because we tried something new, even surprising. But with many comments we have been receiving from non-Korean K-pop fans, we would like to inspire them and show that they can also work in K-pop, like us,” Koki said.

In unison, the members named K-pop’s versatile stage performances and visually impressive dance routines as what they fell in love with and what they have found missing in the American pop scene.

Learning the language

Looking up to artists such as BTS and Big Bang, the group has been working hard to perform flawless choreography, as well as taking Korean language classes daily.

While they have come a long way following the footsteps of K-pop idols, whether Kim has found an answer to the initial question she posed with her project is still unclear.

“At first, I thought acting cute and wearing beautiful makeup rather than musical aspects, were stand-in for becoming a K-pop boy band,” Kim said.

“Initially, EXP Edition wore makeup and outfits that looked like K-pop boy bands. They even focused more on synchronised choreography. Then I realised this special group just couldn’t fit into such (a) narrow definition of K-pop.

“Frankie looked better without eye makeup, for instance, and most of the members were not dance-oriented performers,” said Kim.

Identifying the group as hybrid, a departure from the original goal she set three years ago, Kim said she now encourages EXP Edition to find its own musical colour. She also hopes to discover how the group can progress in unknown territory.

Quoting big name K-pop artistes such as Big Bang, BTS, Psy and Hyukoh as inspiration, EXP Edition sees eye-to-eye with Kim. While still vacillating between emulation and creation, the members said they are ready to put down roots in Korea and keep moving forward.

“We’ve truly invested our heart to K-pop and to this country. I hope people could see that,” Frankie said.

EXP-Edition is currently preparing for its upcoming summer single Gadawada, an upbeat hip-hop song. – The Korea Herald/Asia News Network/Hong Dam-young