Q-pop boy group Ninety One shows that music knows no language
It's fair to say that someone or something has truly become influential when it has inspired someone.
K-pop, once a genre of music overlooked by the mainstream market, has found its foothold in the international scene with die-hard fans and a broader audience than ever before. And in a very unexpected corner of Central Asia, Kazakhstan birthed a genre of music heavily influenced by the strong beats and colorful images of K-pop — a genre that calls itself Q-pop.
Q-pop is a genre of music that originated in Kazakhstan around 2015, implementing iconic elements of K-pop such as electronic-style dance music, synchronized choreography of a multi-member band, heavily stylized makeup and costumes and theatrical performance themes. Nowadays there are a handful of Q-pop acts including girl groups, boy bands and soloists, but it was boy band Ninety One and its 2015 debut EP “Aıyptama!” that began it all.
Ninety One was produced by Erbolat Bedelhan, also a singer and part of band Orda in Kazakhstan, who founded JUZ Entertainment and kicked off a project titled “K-Top Idols” in 2014 in search of talented youngsters. Members A.Z. and ZaQ were cast as a result of the project and later joined by Bala and Alem who tried out in auditions. Finally member ACE, who spent two years training in K-pop’s biggest management company SM Entertainment, rounded out the group.
The music video for “Aıyptama!,” which means “Don’t judge” in English, is more than just reminiscent of K-pop. Those who do not speak either Korean or Kazakh may not notice the difference, but that very difference in language is what makes Q-pop unique and popular in its country. The Kazakhstani government has been promoting the usage of Latin script among the public, and Q-pop has been an effective means of doing so for the past few years. The Q in the Q-pop stands for Qazaq, which is how Kazakh is supposed to be spelled in Latin script.
“This is our uniqueness in music that will surprise the world,” Ninety One told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview via email.
“Kazakhstan is located in the very center of Eurasia, where east and west meet. There are more than 130 nationalities and different cultures in our country who live in peace and harmony. Plus, all Kazakhstan people are field-speaking, fluent in two completely different languages from completely different families, Altai and Slavic, which accordingly affect our thinking, worldview and mentality. Since we are the descendants of nomads, a freedom-loving people, this whole mix pours into our free creativity. That is to say, we have a unique vision at the genetic level.”
Since Kazakhstan is a country with dozens of different ethnicities and cultures, Ninety One’s effort to make music in one language is directly linked to its efforts in connecting people as one. Using Kazakh for the lyrics does not hinder this effort, but rather allows them to play with the language to achieve a unique effect. They have a new song set to be released soon, titled “Causing the Gap,” which uses phonetic similarities between English and Kazakh to achieve meanings in both.
“'Causing the Gap’ sounds the same as ‘doubt in the eyes’ in Kazakh. It can be understood in two languages simultaneously both in Kazakh and English. You will hear it soon. We also plan to try the same with the Korean language. For example, sarang [love] is ‘greedy’ [in Kazakh]. We are very excited about this experiment,” said Ninety One.
Ninety One's events in Korea are managed by local entertainment agency Humap Contents, which also manages other foreign — especially Asian — acts and their events that take place in Korea. The group met with its Seoul fans last year through a meet-and-greet and also took part in cable channel Mnet’s music program “I Can See Your Voice” and performed alongside girl group Mamamoo. It plans to come to Seoul later this year if possible, and meet with fans once again.
“It was fun and interesting,” Ninety One said, reminiscing on last year’s event with its fans. “We talked a lot, shared our emotions. It is very pleasant to realize that people from another part of the planet are cutting back on our music. Many thanks to all those who came at that time. In the future, we will definitely return, and in general, we have big plans, a lot of plans that we are going to be implemented in Korea.”
Ninety One debuted as the country’s first Q-pop artists. There is debate on who first coined the term Q-pop, but there is no doubt that the band is the first of its kind. And naturally, Ninety One identifies itself with Korea’s first generation of idol bands, such as Seo Taiji and Boys and H.O.T.
“They were cultural innovators and revolutionaries,” said the band. “We often experiment with creativity, try new sounds and try to identify our culture in the modern world of the pop industry. We like that we are on the same wave with young people, and it is very pleasant to feel their support in everything, which is very inspiring and makes it clear that we are on the right path.”
The name Ninety One comes from 1991, the year that Kazakhstan was liberated from Soviet Russia, and has been going against the conservative and patriarchal mood of the society since then. Grown men in out-there fashion, singing about individuality and self-expression was met with great backlash, but that hasn’t discouraged the group, nor has it made them turn against their society. In fact, their music is about love and unity — something they would like to keep pursuing in the future.
“We think our strive for development and love for creativity has the power to unite,” said the group. “From the very beginning, as much as there was hate, there was a lot of support, which is stronger and more honest than any hate. How do we deal with this? We know that we are not alone. And many people who didn’t accept us at the beginning, after getting better acquainted with us, are now also a part of Q-pop. For this, we are very grateful to our EagleZ fandom.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]