SEOUL • In August last year, four New Yorkers hailing from different backgrounds boarded a South Korea-bound plane with one question that brought them together: Who says only Koreans can become part of a K-pop group?
With the tagline "Born in New York, made in Seoul", K-pop idol group EXP-Edition sing in Korean and dance K-pop style, but none of the members is Korean.
The unique international K-pop band, with ethnic backgrounds ranging from Portuguese to Croatian, made their debut on the K-pop scene with their electronic pop single, Feel Like This, on April 17 in South Korea. They are now preparing for the summer release of Gadawada, an upbeat hip-hop song.
"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 DaPonte, the band's leader who is of Portuguese descent, during an interview 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 the Korean audience have always been our dream."
Their journey began in 2014, when Ms 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 master's degree thesis project at Columbia University.
To discover the elements that shape K-pop for the project titled I'm Making A Boy Band, she held an audition to recruit non-Koreans into EXP-Edition.
The group's final four members - DaPonte, Sime Kosta, Hunter Kohl and Koki Tomlinson - debuted in New York City with the EnglishKorean single Luv/Wrong in 2015 and dropped their second single Nolja Let's Party in the same year.
As they gained popularity on social media, they took 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 in New York City. I found K-pop to be an opportunity to challenge myself as a performer," said Kosta.
Recalling the times when their days were jam-packed with auditions, freelance gigs and part-time jobs, the members agreed that their debut in South Korea was a dream come true. However, it has not been smooth sailing for the rookie group. Since their debut in Seoul, they have been criticised for their inadequate Korean proficiency and been compared to the usual, manufactured K-pop groups.
"My biggest fear is that people might think we are disrespecting or mocking K-pop. But K-pop became our life, what we do," Kohl said.
The group have stood firm against the controversy in hopes that they will pave the way for nonKorean 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," Tomlinson said.
In unison, the members said they fell in love with K-pop's versatile stage performances and visually impressive dance routines, which they found missing from the American pop scene.
Looking up to artists such as BTS and BigBang, the group have been working hard to perform flawless dances and taking Korean language classes daily.
While they have come a long way, Ms Kim is unclear whether she has found an answer to the question her project posed.
At first, she thought "acting cute and wearing beautiful make-up" were the key elements of K-pop, she said.
"Initially, EXP-Edition wore make-up and outfits that looked like K-pop boybands'. 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."
For instance, DaPonte looked better without eye make-up and most of the members were not danceoriented, she added.
Identifying the group as a "hybrid", in a departure from her original goal, she said she now encourages EXP-Edition to find their own musical colour. She also hopes to discover how the group can progress in unknown territory.
The members said they are ready to put down roots in South Korea and keep moving forward. "We've truly invested our heart in K-pop and in this country. I hope people can see that," DaPonte said.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK