K-pop group EXP Edition shakes things up: When Bora Kim designed a boy band for her thesis, no one expected so much interest, or controversy

Jan 22,2020
Right: Sime Kosta is currently in Seoul to shoot a new variety program. [YANG HYUN-MO]
K-pop is enjoying its heyday, and it seems like Korea churns out new K-pop groups every week. It’s increasingly difficult to stand out among so many competitors and make an impact. Even K-pop phenomenon BTS performed for years before people started to take notice of its talent.

EXP Edition, a four-member K-pop band, also struggled to find success after debuting in 2017. However, the group was immediately in the spotlight because not a single member of the group is Korean. Hunter Kohl is from New York, Sime Kosta was born in Croatia, Frankie DaPonte is Portuguese-American from Rhode Island and Koki Tomlinson is half Japanese and grew up in Texas.

While it’s not difficult to see one or two foreign members in a K-pop boy band or a girl group these days - a marketing strategy that entertainment agencies use to appeal to the different countries where foreign members are from - EXP Edition was something that had never been seen before.

Some accused the group of cultural appropriation, saying that they couldn’t be a K-pop band because they are not Koreans, while others supported them for making the effort to learn the language so that they could sing and speak in Korean.

Is K-pop only K-pop when it’s performed by Koreans? What is K-pop? What is it about K-pop that appeals to so many people around the globe?

The questions are in fact what created EXP Edition in the first place. Bora Kim, the head of IMMABB - the entertainment agency behind EXP Edition - says she wanted to figure out the answers to those questions herself by creating the world’s first non-Korean K-pop group.

While Kim went to the United States to study for a Master in Fine Arts at Columbia University in 2013, she was fascinated by how Americans and people of other nationalities consumed K-pop.

“Back then, Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ was big, and K-pop was really getting attention from the mainstream American media,” said Kim. “My non-Korean friends told me their thoughts on K-pop, and it was really interesting to hear their different perspectives since I grew up in Korea, listening to K-pop or more like being constantly exposed to it. Even though K-pop is based in Western pop, it was refreshing to see how many Americans, even music critics, say some K-pop songs are very ‘experimental’ and that a melody of a K-pop song changes a lot and becomes a different song within a song. I guess K-pop is a ‘Koreanized’ version of western pop.”

Also as an artist, whenever Kim created artworks, people expected a Korean context and interpreted it that way because of Kim’s Korean background.

“It really got me to think about what ‘Koreanness’ is,” she said, “Perhaps I got curious in the field because I majored in sociology in university.” So she teamed up with two other friends who loved K-pop and created EXP, short for experiment, as her thesis art project.

“By forming a K-pop group of non-Koreans who don’t know much about K-pop from scratch, I wanted to document how the members see K-pop and how they end up inhabiting K-pop,” said Kim. “But at the end of my M.F.A. program, my project got so viral and got so much media attention in the United States that it kind of organically snowballed.”

That is how Kim’s project EXP turned into a real K-pop band EXP Edition and made a real debut in Korea three years ago. Since then they were featured on various TV programs like Mnet’s “I Can See Your Voice” and JTBC’s “Phantom Singer,” as well as music programs like MBC Music’s “Show Champion.” The group has been invited to hold concerts in and outside Korea and so far has one EP titled “First Edition.” While it plans to release new songs soon, the band does not have a busy schedule like popular K-pop acts at the moment, and the members still reside in the United States, focusing on their solo careers as actors and singers and models, until they get called up.

To learn more about EXP Edition, the Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with Kim and EXP Edition member Sime, who is currently in Seoul to shoot a variety program, and Oh Seung-hwan, the director of IMMABB, for an interview. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

From Left: “Releasing a Song - DIY” written by Oh Seung-hwan. Bora Kim, creative director of IMMABB, an entertainment agency that created K-pop boy band EXP Edition. The members of EXP Edition are Hunter, Sime, Koki and Frankie. [OH SEUNG-HWAN, YUN KI-DUCK, AN SANG-MI]
Q. EXP Edition began as an academic project. Did you see the business potential of the group? Why did you turn it into a business, establish an agency and jump into the real K-pop industry?

It wasn’t like I was trying to develop this into a business endeavor. It actually happened naturally because the whole project of creating a non-Korean K-pop band caught the attention of the American media. So when the members were finally gathered and did a couple of concerts in America, we couldn’t perform after that because we had back-to-back interview schedules. And since I selected members with different ethnicities, the responses from each of their home countries were also quite fervent since K-pop was becoming a phenomenon globally. Croatian media, for example, showed great interest, and they were so proud that a Croatian became a K-pop star. It’s not that we didn’t want it, but all of a sudden, we were thrown into the real world. So we had a discussion and said if we are going to do it, we should do it properly and go to the mecca of K-pop. That’s how we made a debut here.

Sime: It was actually one of the members, Frankie, who is the leader, who first brought it up about us going to Korea. We all wanted it, but saying it out loud sounded just too crazy. But because we are a K-pop group, we wanted to be taken seriously. If a K-pop group is performing K-pop outside of Korea and never in Korea, I think that would seem very disrespectful to the genre itself. We felt that we needed to give time to really acclimate to Korea and really learn the language and be comfortable about singing in Korean as well as learn more about K-pop and its history because Bora intentionally auditioned and selected the members who did not have much exposure to K-pop. So, whether we make it here or not, we had to give it a shot because we are a K-pop boy band.

Oh: I believe the K-pop industry is at a transitional stage. So far, the industry has been quite closed, operating on the connections and networks of the entertainment agency CEOs who used to be former K-pop singers or managers. But now, times have changed and younger, IT-friendly people are jumping into the industry. The producers of TV and radio programs also no longer rely on personal connections but try to create more innovative programs by using up-to-date technologies. In that sense, I believe EXP Edition has an opportunity. We can promote the group, market and help members get featured in programs and even attract investors using data. The technological advancements now help us to calculate how many people will purchase tickets if a band was to hold a concert, how many would buy merchandise and predict to some extent if it will work or not. It’s an irreversible trend, and at such an era of transition, EXP Edition is a perfect example of what a K-pop band could look like.

Kim just mentioned that Croatian media got really interested in a Croatian becoming a member of a K-pop boy band. Are there many K-pop fans in Croatia as well?

Before I debuted as EXP Edition, I didn’t really know that K-pop was big in Croatia, but after the debut I started getting messages from young Croatian fans saying how surprised they are and that they couldn’t believe that a fellow Croatian is doing K-pop. They said things like, “You give me hope and now I want to do what you do.” Another interesting thing we experienced is that we get a lot of messages through IMMABB from [people around the world] saying that they want to get into the K-pop industry. They ask for advice and tell us how they feel inspired by us and that they are actually pursuing their dreams of becoming a part of a K-pop band.

Do you think about producing another non-Korean K-pop band?

: Well, if things turn out well for EXP Edition, maybe. But at the moment, we have to focus only on EXP Edition to make it work. I still think I have so much more to learn about this industry that I don’t have enough expertise yet to produce another group. The members are all foreigners, and although I’m Korean, I’m an artist and I don’t know anything about the entertainment world of Korea, I needed help. That is why I went online and contacted Oh. He published a book about how to release a song on your own, and it was very detailed. It looked like he knew what he’s talking about so I just called him up, explained everything about EXP Edition and asked him to join IMMABB.

What did you like about EXP Edition that made you jump on board?

: The reason I wrote the book, “Releasing a Song - DIY” is from my own experience. When I was younger, I also pursued a music career, but since I was not living in Seoul, it was difficult for my band to find a good agency, come up with the money and release our music. That’s when I decided to study and do it on my own. As the years went on, along with technological advancements, it became possible for anyone with a passion for music to release a song on their own. The book has practical advice and step-by-step guidelines about what to do and even how to promote it as well. Therefore, when Kim contacted me asking for help, I wanted to show her that what I wrote in the book actually works. Moreover, I loved the idea that the members were all non-Koreans. It was so refreshing, and like I said earlier, I believe EXP Edition could be an example of what K-pop groups could look like in this time of globalization.

There’s been a lot of support but also some backlash to EXP Edition. How have the members taken it?

: The ones who showed discontent were mostly outside Korea. But that too is really changing, and we see more positive reviews and comments now. But of course the hateful comments do hurt us. Since my goal of starting this project was to have a conversation about what is K-pop and what is Koreanness and what makes K-pop Korean, the discussions online between supporters and people opposed to the group interest me academically. But personally it is traumatizing for all of us, so in the early stages, I talked to the members a lot to make sure they were okay.

Before you met Kim, you didn’t know much about K-pop and now, you are a member of a K-pop boy band. Can you now answer Kim’s question of what K-pop is?

: To people, it will seem like an unexpected art form from this part of the world that nobody saw coming because it’s such a global force. It was an unexpected bomb. To me, it’s just an amazing combination of everything that’s best. It’s like the best of the best. It has amazing music, amazing dancing, amazing fashion and amazing visuals. It is darn close to a perfect art form. Because I spent a lot of time doing different types of genres of music... I realized that K-pop has all of these elements but all pumped up to the max. So I think even if you are not a K-pop fan, you can watch a K-pop performance, and it will not leave you aloof. It will move you one way or the other. It will grab your attention and does so unapologetically, and that’s what I love about K-pop.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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