By T.K. Park and Youngdae Kim
The Kim Sisters were the first Korean pop music group who found success in the U.S. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the “sisters” — Sue, Aija, and Mia, who were actually two sisters and a cousin — played for the U.S. troops stationed in Seoul. Each played a dozen different instruments, driven into show business by their mother and manager, Yi Nan-yeong.
The work was arduous at first. In a city reduced to ruins, Yi often had to accept payments for her daughters’ shows in the form of several bottles of whiskey, which she then exchanged in the black market for food. But in 1959, the Kim Sisters were recruited to play at a Las Vegas show called “China Doll Revue.” (One of their first singles was called “Ching Chang.”) Then, Ed Sullivan called.
The Kim Sisters went on to become the first commercially successful Asian artists in the United States, as they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 22 times (more frequently than the Beatles), landed the cover of Life magazine, and booked a Las Vegas residency that earned them $15,000 a week.
The Kim Sisters on The Hollywood Palace in the 1960s
Following the Korean War, more than a million Koreans came to the United States along with the Kim Sisters. For decades, the direction of migration only flowed one way. As with the Kim Sisters, Koreans left Korea in pursuit of the American Dream. But today, Korean Americans with pop-star aspirations are making the journey in the opposite direction, chasing their Korean Dream in the form of K-pop stardom.
The First Korean Americans in K-pop
The foundations for today’s K-pop as an international pop culture phenomenon were laid in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Korean Americans and other diaspora Koreans were there from the start. In the ’80s, one-off curiosities like Korean-Bolivian singer Im Byeong-su (Hernan Im), who sang translated Latin music, enjoyed a decent amount of popularity. But among Korean Americans, Kang Susie and Lee Hyeon-woo were the first in Korean pop music to attract meaningful acclaim. Debuting in the early ’90s (Kang in 1990, Lee in 1991), both leveraged their image as trendy Americans to appeal to the Korean public. They also introduced new musical elements. “Lee’s Dream [꿈],” composed by Korean-American musician Danny Kim, is an early example of rap dance, the prevalent form of hip-hop in Korea in the 1990s.
Solid, the three-man R&B group debuting in 1993, were the first K-pop artists to give a full presentation of their Korean Americanness in their music, choreography, lyrics, fashion, and visual aesthetic. All three members of Solid — Kim Johan, Lee Jun, and Jeong Jae-yun — were either born in the U.S. or emigrated as young children. True to form, they met and learned to sing together at a Korean-American church in the Los Angeles area. Musically, Solid leaned into R&B and hip-hop, the sound that was not yet common in Korea in the early ’90s. They liberally mixed in English into their lyrics, and also spoke Korean with a distinct Korean-American accent. They dressed like the American R&B stars of the time, a Korean variant of Boyz II Men.
Solid’s “Holding onto the End of This Night [이 밤의 끝을 잡고]”
With the success of their R&B and hip-hop-inflected numbers like “Holding onto the End of This Night [이 밤의 끝을 잡고]” and “Friend Only to Me [나만의 친구],” Solid played a major role in popularizing Black music in Korea in the early to mid-90s. This flow of Black music allowed more aspiring Korean-American musicians to find success in Korea. The foremost female R&B divas in K-pop, Park Jeong-hyeon (Lena Park) and Ailee, are also Korean Americans influenced by the vocal styles of American R&B divas such as Mariah Carey and Beyoncé.
Even more so than was the case with R&B, the development of Korean hip-hop is inextricably intertwined with the presence of Korean Americans. The success of Solid prompted the K-pop producers recruit more heavily in the U.S., searching for talents who could project authenticity in a genre where it matters arguably more than in any other style of music. The result was a large influx of Korean Americans presenting hip-hop music in Korea. The success of Jinusean, a Korean-American duo, was the starting point of YG Entertainment, which to this day maintains a strong hip-hop bent. (To get a sense of what Jinusean wrought, watch the music video of “A-Yo” from their 2001 album The Reign. At the 3:23 mark, 12-year-old Taeyang, wearing a Tennessee Titans jersey, hops into YG’s Mercedes.) Hip-hop was also the medium that created a semblance of racial diversity in Korea’s largely monoethnic pop culture. For example, Uptown, a popular hip-hop group, featured Yoon Mirae and Carlos — half African-American and half Mexican-American, respectively. Mixed ethnicity Koreans could find success in Korea as hip-hop artists tapping into parts of their heritage.
The apotheosis of Korean Americans leading Korea’s hip-hop culture was Tiger JK, leader of the group Drunken Tiger. His family emigrated to Los Angeles in the 1980s, and the relations between Korean Americans and African Americans in the L.A. area at the time left an indelible mark on young Tiger JK. “Black Korea,” Ice Cube’s 1991 cut from Death Certificate — written in response to the killing of Latasha Harlins — in which he rapped, “Oriental one penny countin’ motherfuckers… So pay respect to the black fist / Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp,” is but one indication of the strained relationship between two communities that were brought together by housing segregation. Following the 1992 L.A. riots, 16-year-old Tiger JK began his musical career by composing “Call Me Tiger” in response to “Black Korea.”
Tiger JK tried the Korean pop music market for the first time 1995, only to be met with bewildered confusion by the local gatekeepers. Rap dance, of the kind that Seo Taiji and Boys and Deux pioneered, was the only kind of hip-hop in the Korean pop music market — and Tiger JK was anything but a dancer. And he could barely speak Korean, much less rap in it. It was only after years of languishing while shuttling back from Seoul and Los Angeles that Tiger JK broke through with his group Drunken Tiger, formed with a fellow Korean American DJ Shine. Their 1999 debut album Year of the Tiger — with a provocative track “You Think You Know Hip Hop [너희가 힙합을 아느냐]” — was one of the most significant moments in the history of Korean hip-hop, as it pushed Korea’s hip-hop beyond the rap dance sub-genre and toward a raw and message-driven gangster rap in the mold of U.S. underground hip-hop of the 1990s.
Tiger JK performs on-stage in South Korea in 2011
Tiger JK did more than leading Drunken Tiger to commercial success; he led a group that collectively planted the hip-hop subculture firmly in the mainstream pop music in Korea. While the native-born Korean rappers such as MC Meta and Verbal Jint were exploring the possibilities of creating Korean language rhymes, the Korean-American rappers imported the whole milieu of American-style hip-hop culture, not only in music but also in the overall aesthetics including fashion, style, and attitudes. Tiger JK also formed the Movement Crew, the first modern-style hip-hop crew in Korean pop music that ultimately gave rise to such influential groups like Dynamic Duo, Leessang, and Epik High. This led to a steady stream of Korean-American and diaspora Korean rappers — including SanE, Junoflow, Jessi, Mad Clown, Nafla, Flowsik, and many more — returning to Korea to try their hand at stardom in the K-pop scene.
Korean Americans in K-pop Today
Historically, Korean Americans have entered K-pop with a distinct profile: a measured dose of exoticism and a familiar-looking face that delivers the trendiest music from America, the place where pop music comes from. Today, the same dynamics can be found in K-pop, particularly in the audition programs like K-pop Star or Superstar K. Korean Americans like John Park, NakJoon, and Sam Kim were able place high in these programs and find stardom thanks to such characteristics.
In the contemporary K-pop scene, however, Korean Americans and other diaspora Koreans play an additional role: a specialized part of a carefully curated idol group, serving as a cultural intermediary for international marketing. Since the dawn of K-pop’s international era in the mid-2000s, it was the standard operating procedure to include an English-speaking diaspora Korean in a K-pop idol group who can more naturally sing English lyrics and interface more smoothly with non-Korean fans, as a way to help with international marketing. (Also, male Korean American idols would not have to interrupt their careers because of Korea’s mandatory military draft.) For example, when Girls’ Generation first ventured into the U.S. market in 2012, the group’s Korean Americans Tiffany and Jessica did most of the talking during interviews.
The members of Girls’ Generation, one of the most successful K-pop girl groups of all time
Today, most popular K-pop idol groups usually include a diaspora Korean, including Krystal (Korean-American) in f(x), Johnny (Korean-American) in NCT, Mark in GOT7 (Taiwanese-American), and Rosé (Korean-New Zealander) in Blackpink. This role as an intermediary eventually enabled Korean Americans and diaspora Koreans to venture beyond the Korean market and stand on their own as a pan-Asian pop star, drawing broad appeal from all corners of the world. K-hip-hop mogul Jay Park became the first Asian-American artist signed to Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation in 2017.
But the dual identity that enables Korean Americans to find stardom in Korea also comes with explosive potential. Unaccustomed to the local sensibilities and the unspoken codes of conduct built around them, Korean-American K-pop stars can sometimes find themselves in unintended situations. In a society that holds a strong undercurrent of suspicion against outsiders, even a minor faux pas by Korean Americans can be magnified into a major controversy. Tiffany Young caused a stir during SMTown’s 2016 Japan tour, when her Instagram displayed a picture of the “Rising Sun” emoji — the symbol of Imperial Japan that colonized Korea. (That the picture happened to appear around August 15, Korea’s Liberation Day, did not help.) This small oversight, made in an unguarded moment, made network news in Korea, and Tiffany had to publicly issue two separate letters of apology. In 2009, Jay Park was ousted from the group 2PM when it was revealed that three years before he debuted, he wrote “I hate Koreans… I wanna come back” on his MySpace page, while lamenting the difficulty of being an idol trainee.
Hip-hop artist Yoo Seung-joon indisputably experienced the worst version of this. At his peak, which spanned from around 1997 to 2001, Yoo was arguably the most successful Korean-American artist in the K-pop scene thanks to hits like 1998’s “Na Na Na.” His style of Asian masculinity — unmistakably influenced by American hip-hop culture — would serve as a template for successive male K-pop stars like Rain, Se7en, and EXO.
Yet all this success did not protect Yoo Seung-joon, who was born in Korea and raised in California, from the cardinal sin of Korean males: draft-dodging. Despite publicly stating he would complete Korea’s mandatory military service, Yoo formally became a U.S. citizen in 2002 and was therefore exempt. The Korean internet howled with rage, while the Ministry of Justice declared Yoo a draft-dodging criminal who was not eligible for a visa to stay in Korea. Yoo was pushed out of the country, and has been allowed back only once since then — for his father-in-law’s funeral.
The New Land of Opportunity
Despite the occasional breakthrough by the likes of Far East Movement and rising house music star Yaeji, Korean Americans face a high hurdle in making it in the U.S. pop culture market. Better that they return to their homeland and try their luck in the K-pop industry, which at least carved out a place for them — however restricted that place may be. Indeed, this applies not only to Korean Americans, but to Asian Americans generally. The K-pop idol scene has become a beacon of pan-Asian globality, in which diaspora Asians can come and find international stardom through the global reach of K-pop. Thai-and-Chinese American Nichkhun and Taiwanese-American Amber Liu became household names through their groups 2PM and f(x), respectively. The fame built through f(x) allowed Amber to debut as a solo artist who can primarily perform in the U.S., her home.
Amber Liu’s latest English single, “Countdown”
But the question remains, particularly when considering the difficult path that lies before the Korean Americans who aspire to be K-pop stars. Why would they come back Korea, a country that often other-izes them as “black-haired foreigners” (a common phrase in Korea for Koreans with non-Korean citizenship), to join an industry notorious for years of arduous work, often-abusive treatment, and contracts reminiscent of indentured servitude, just to have a shot at the slim chance of success?
For the same reasons that Kim Sisters left for the United States to play a song called “Ching Chang” on a show called China Doll Revue. Just as much as their parents and grandparents saw the U.S. as the land of opportunity, Korean Americans now see Korea as the land of opportunity. So, despite the saying that you can never go home again, starry-eyed diaspora Koreans continue to make their homecoming.