K-Pop Idols Without Koreans… Speed of Localization in the US
Savana (17), with black skin and curly hair, spent seven years as a gymnast in the United States before switching to K-Pop after an elbow injury. With her strong dance skills and positive energy, she captivates audiences. Savana, along with members from various backgrounds, including Hispanic Canadian Camila, Southeast Asian Lexie, and Korean-American Kylie, came together through ‘A2K’ (America to Korea), a project jointly conducted by JYP Entertainment and the local major label Republic Records. They are set to debut as the six-member, diverse girl group VCHA under JYP.
All the members are teenagers, and their diverse backgrounds include the United States, Canada, Southeast Asia, and Korea. They have even made appearances on domestic terrestrial music shows as they prepare for their official debut. This marks the beginning of a K-Pop localization project led by major entertainment companies.
The music video for the team’s pre-debut single ‘Y.O.Universe,’ which was released on the 22nd, received supportive comments in various languages, including English, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. Producer Park Jinyoung introduced the song as carrying a message of “unity through diversity,” emphasizing the uniqueness of each participant.
While there have been previous attempts to expand the K-Pop system globally, they mainly focused on Asian markets, such as Japan and China. Examples include SM Entertainment’s Chinese NCT subunit WayV, JYP’s Chinese boy group Boy Story, Japanese-localized girl group NiziU, and Hive Japan’s boy group ENHYPEN.
Recently, there has been a significant emphasis on collaboration with major U.S. labels. The joint project between Hive and Geffen Records, ‘The Debut: Dream Academy,’ held auditions in 12 cities worldwide, selecting 20 finalists from a competition of 6,000 participants. It boasts a diverse lineup, with contestants hailing from countries including Sweden, Georgia, Belarus, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, the Philippines, Switzerland, and Slovakia—nationalities not commonly seen in K-Pop groups.
This trend reflects the global music industry’s high interest in K-Pop. Nicole Kim, Vice President at Columbia Records in the United States, who recently moved from Hive, said in an interview with Maeil Economic Daily, “The collaboration between JYP and Hive is still in its early stages, and there is some hesitation. However, because K-Pop has produced global artists like BTS and BLACKPINK through its system, many record companies are paying attention.”
These initiatives are not limited to major agencies. A four-member Thai girl group, Rosebery, who was active in Thailand, came to Korea last year through the ‘2022 Mutual Growth Leading Stone’ project by the Korea International Cultural Exchange Promotion Agency. They received K-Pop training in dance, singing, and Korean language and released a song with Korean lyrics titled ‘Butterfly.’
There are also cases where foreign members actively participate in K-Pop while under Korean agencies. Blackswan, a four-member girl group from the small agency DR Music, is one such example. They are known as the first K-Pop group to have a Black and Indian member and refer to themselves as a “K-Pop group” while singing in Korean. Similarly, EXIN, a 5-member girl group under Escrow Entertainment, debuted in April this year and includes Russian and Indian rappers among its members.
In the future, incorporating diverse cultural backgrounds is seen as a challenge. An industry insider pointed out, “The recently revealed North American joint projects tend to emphasize the company and producers more than the audition participants.”
Despite the intention to pursue diversity, the various personalities of applicants tend to be flattened within the uniform K-Pop system. Critic Im commented, “The lack of a clear identity in K-Pop’s content, brand identity, and the dominance of each agency’s producers contribute to this phenomenon.”
The question of whether K-Pop can still be called “K-Pop” without Korean members, Korean agencies, or singing in Korean remains a topic of debate. Music critic Kim Yunha remarked, “When you look at various aspects of K-Pop, such as music, performance, production, and marketing personnel, it no longer makes sense to define ‘K’ based on whether it’s Korean or involves Koreans.”
Some interpret K-Pop not as a genre or culture of one nation but as a revenue model in the music industry. Music critic Cha Woojin stated, “K-Pop has established a structure that creates super fandoms and generates revenue through album sales, tours, and merchandise sales. This model could be applied to other international markets or different genres like jazz or classical music.”