Do you need to be Korean to be a K-pop artist?
That’s the question Bora Kim wanted to answer when she created EXP Edition.
What started as an academic assignment soon developed into the world’s first non-Korean K-pop band.
They’ve faced criticism, accusations of cultural appropriation and even death threats, but three years on, the band is still going strong.
How have they done it? And… why?
Making a band
Growing up in South Korea, Bora Kim spent her high school days listening to K-pop – the pop/hip-hop, Korean/English blend that has become a cultural juggernaut and spawned a thousand “idols”.
But it was only when she went to the US in 2014 to study for a masters at the prestigious Columbia University in New York that she started to question the real meaning of K-pop.
“When I was young I never imagined that people outside of Korea would consume Korean culture,” she said.
“[When I got to the US] K-pop was really gaining momentum and I started seeing it in a different light. I started thinking… Is it only K-pop if Korean people do it? How can we push K-pop? What limits are there?”
She decided the best way to answer her question was to make a K-pop band of her own – consisting of solely non-Koreans.
This would be her thesis project over her next two years at Columbia.
The only question left was: “How am I going to materialise this?”
Finding the band members
Her goal was to make a K-pop band that could exist in the real world.
“We wanted to pick non-Korean members that would represent New York,” she said.
“So the first thing we did were auditions.”
Six members were eventually chosen and would go on to make up EXP Edition.
“Some of them were really strong vocally, others were really good at dancing, but all of them just had a lot of personality,” said Bora.
The final hopefuls were: Croatian Sime Kosta, Portuguese-American Frankie DaPonte from Rhode Island, half Japanese-German Koki Tomlinson who grew up in Texas, New Yorkers Hunter Kohl and David Wallace and Texan Tarion Anderson.
None of them had any Korean heritage – and many of them had never really listened to K-pop before. And didn’t speak Korean.
Bora decided to name the band EXP Edition, short for experiment.
The band needed to release a single in the summer of 2015 as part of Bora’s thesis show – but they had a lot of catching up to do.
Most Korea artists go through a vigorous training process. They’re managed by huge music companies who train them from a young age before their debut into the K-pop world.
As a result, the average K-pop star is incredibly polished – able to dance to impeccably choreographed numbers, sing in pitch perfect Korean and look flawless from head to toe.
To be a K-pop band, EXP Edition would have to do in months what most Korean artists do in years.
They started learning Korean from Bora herself, going for singing classes and throwing themselves into dance practice.
Their songs were written by a music producer – a friend of Bora’s who was working at Columbia.
She would then translate the lyrics to Korean – and they would have to memorise it by heart – something Bora calls a very “DIY” process.
Debuting into the real world
After months of training, the band finally debuted their first single, Luv/Wrong.
It’s fair to say it wasn’t… brilliant. And it wasn’t a huge success.
But by that point, they had been training for months and already had a full set put together – so they decided to start performing in live shows, and were slowly booked for events across New York.
When Bora’s MFA programme ended – and she was awarded her masters – the obvious question was: “What’s next?”
“The boys expressed to me that they wanted to concentrate on EXP Edition,” said Bora.
They decided to launch a Kickstarter – and managed to raise $30,000. They also received an additional investment from a private investor.
“It seemed like the next logical move as a K-pop group would be to move to Korea,” said Bora. “It was a huge decision especially for the guys, leaving their friends and family behind.”
Two band members – David and Tarion – decided that they would not go through with the move. But the other four were onboard.
“We realised if we didn’t give it a shot we would regret it so we were like – let’s do it,” said Hunter.
The big move
In August 2016, the band made their official move to Korea.
“It was so hard when we moved to Korea,” said Bora. “The boys were learning Korean and their dance and vocal instructors were all Korean… they were waking everyday at 6AM to practice. Whenever they talk about those early days they tear up.”
Their Korean debut came in the summer of 2017, when they released a music video and performed live on a Korean variety show.
“People in Korea were so intrigued by the guys and so welcoming and supportive,” said Bora. “I remember one audience member came up to me after the show and said the band really made her rethink what K-pop is.”
But are they K-pop?
EXP Edition has faced a non-stop backlash – from the early days when they launched – even up to today, with many saying they are not and will never be K-pop.
They’ve received death threats, hundreds of insults online and have even been called out by YouTubers for being “fake K-pop”.
Some accused the band of cultural appropriation – disrespectfully cashing in on Korean culture.
“[People were] very vicious, very hateful. They said what we were doing was a disgrace,” said Bora.
“I think they thought our intention was to disrespect K-pop – that was always my fear, that people would think we’re here to mock K-pop,” said Sime.
It’s obvious when speaking to the band that their newfound passion for K-pop is truly genuine – and that Korea is really starting to grow on them.
When talking about Bora, they use the Korean word for CEO and then turn to each other in confusion when I ask what it means: “Wait what’s the English word for that?” one of them asks.
Their latest music video – a huge improvement from their Luv/Wrong days – could signal that K-pop is slowly outgrowing its roots.
Bora says the accusations of cultural appropriation are not entirely fair, because K-pop itself draws on so many influences.
“There is no single origin or traditional Koreaness to K-pop, it’s such a mixture of everything – it has influences from US and Japan,” she said.
New York-based journalist and K-pop expert Jeff Benjamin says there are other elements than Koreanness that make K-pop what it is.
“K-pop music itself is less defined by the sounds – basically every song has singing, rapping, a dance break and fuses different genres – and more about elements such as the intense training system, the glossy music video production, the variety shows and music programs they perform on, among other non-musical elements,” he told the BBC.
“EXP Edition can recreate the sound, the look, the vibe of K-pop acts, but they can’t recreate the literal blood sweat and tears to go into becoming a ‘K-pop star’ and that is what I think makes them lack the ability to be called K-pop.”
Dr Haekyung Um, a music lecturer at Liverpool University echoes this.
“Would I consider EXP Edition to be K-pop? It’s a difficult question. What they sing and dance could be in line with K-pop style, but they are created outside the South Korean music industry that produces ‘authentic’ K-pop.”
EXP Edition have in recent months been appearing on Korean variety shows, live music programs. They’re still training vigorously and though they haven’t made it to the big time yet, they have accrued a small but growing group of fans.
For Bora, there’s no longer any doubt about what they are.
“Are we K-pop? Yes we are,” she says.
“But we’re something different at the same time because all the guys come from different backgrounds – we’re a fresh hybrid of it.”