At its core, K-pop is Korean pop music, but what about when the idols create music in other languages? At first, K-pop artists were mostly Korean-born. However, for decades, the K-pop industry has been one of the key leaders in what is known as the Hallyu Wave — the increasing popularity of Korean culture overseas. To further the genre’s popularity, numerous companies tend to market their K-pop idols to overseas Asian countries by creating music in various languages, like Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and English.
Over time, companies took it a step further once they saw this international demand for K-pop. As a result, they began scouting abroad, looking for potential trainees to help continue the Hallyu Wave. That raised a major question: Is it still considered K-pop if the artists themselves aren’t Korean?
Unlike Western pop culture, there is no set formula that constitutes what defines a pop artist due to the variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. In contrast, in Korea, where the population is not as diverse as countries like the United States, this musical melting pot is not as common. As a result, there is discrimination against foreign-born idols.
Discrimination arises from both fans and the artist’s company, whether it has been upfront or behind closed doors. There have been numerous cases where, when compared to their Korean counterparts, foreign idols aren’t paid the same wage and don’t receive the same privileges.
However, highly acclaimed artists who have opened the door for more international K-pop idols do exist; here are some examples.
- Lisa, BLACKPINK
BLACKPINK’s Thai member Lalisa Manoban–more commonly known by her stage name Lisa–has been considered an icon since her debut. Most notably known for her charismatic and sharp dance style, Lisa has constantly caught the media’s attention.
At the time of their debut in 2016, I only knew of two other Thai idols: 2PM’s Nichkhun and Got7’s Bambam, both formerly signed with JYP Entertainment. Lisa’s presence in BLACKPINK surprised me further because the group’s record label, YG Entertainment, never really debuted non-ethnically Korean idols compared to the label’s competitors at the time, SM and JYP Entertainment.
Nevertheless, considering that BLACKPINK, arguably one of the most popular K-pop groups to date, has foreign-born idols like Lisa opens the doors for acceptance of other Southeast Asians who dream of performing in the K-pop industry.
- Jackson Wang, Got7
One of the most popular K-pop artists–both in his group and as a solo artist–is the Hong Kong-born idol, Jackson Wang. Wang is most known for his K-pop group Got7, a highly acclaimed group known for their strong performances, goofy personalities and hilarious interviews.
Furthermore, he is highly loved internationally with his solo work, in both English and Mandarin. Wang also frequently collaborates with artists from the Asian-American record label 88rising, like his collaboration with Indonesian-born artist Stephanie Poetri on the song “I Love You 3000 II.”
- Amber Liu, f(x)
Taiwanese-American member Amber Liu of the former girl-group f(x) under SM Entertainment is one of the most recognized names in all of K-pop. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Liu and f(x) helped form modern K-pop from their dynamic dances, stunning fashion and iconic songs that are, in my opinion, forever K-pop classics.
During f(x)’s career, Liu has been a trendsetter and fought the feminine label that is often associated with female idols. She had a more masculine and androgynous look compared to the group’s other female members, sporting short, undercut hairstyles and seldom wearing traditionally feminine clothing, opting for more masculine silhouettes.
Although the group has disbanded and Liu left SM Entertainment in 2019, she is now pursuing a career as a solo artist in the American music industry.
- Momo, TWICE
Momo Hirai, who is a 22-year-old Japanese idol from JYP Entertainment’s girl group TWICE, is one of the most beloved idols to date. She was a part of the K-pop survival show Sixteen to create what would be TWICE. Although she was originally eliminated from the lineup, she ultimately became a finalist due to her dance skills and value in TWICE’s dancer line. Most known for her dancing and cute aesthetic, Hirai continues to kill the game.
K-pop originally began as an industry created by Korean artists catered towards a purely Korean audience. However, as K-pop continues to expand and its popularity increases, more opportunities for non-Korean artists arise. Although K-pop still mainly caters to the Korean audience, many artists and companies continue to expand their influence in other Asian countries and are trying to break into the American market. As we have seen with the success of groups like BTS and BLACKPINK in North America, K-pop’s influence will forever expand.