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By: Hannah Waitt
Every year, “Kpop Night Out” at SXSW makes me just a little bit nervous. Not for the fans or for KOCCA, the organizer, but for the artists. Kpop artists are used to to-the-minute organization, top-of-the-line production, sound, and light systems, and immaculately clean and wide stages on which to perform their complex choreography. SXSW has none of those things. SXSW is a quick-and-dirty music festival known for transforming dingy local bars into the place where you saw Kendrick, Coldplay, or Lady Gaga before they made it big.
“Kpop Night Out” also makes me nervous because on the whole, Kpop artists are used to seeing their fans from afar — whether it’s in a humongous arena on tour or at a broadcast station for “Inkigayo,” from the vantage point of the artists, fans are usually just a blur of faces far from the stage on which they stand. Meanwhile at SXSW, if a fan in the first or second row felt so inclined, they could easily reach out and touch any of the acts on stage. So why do these things make me nervous? Because at SXSW, Kpop acts are out of their element and into the deep end of a very rowdy crowd. But this is also exactly what makes “Kpop Night Out” so incredibly awesome.
SXSW is the one time of the year where we get to see Kpop acts learn what it truly means to be a part of the American music scene. For years, the American market has been the final frontier for Kpop — idols and artists are dying to cross over into the States, and SXSW is all at once an opportunity to do exactly that, and also rude wakeup call that opens their eyes suddenly to what it’s really like to be active in the American music scene. Whether an artist sinks or swims at “Kpop Night Out” is an excellent indicator of their true potential as a global artist, and so without further ado, here’s who sank and who swam at SXSW this year.
This year, KOCCA hosted a VIP party to kick off the showcase before doors opened to the general public, featuring a special performance by AOMG’s resident femme fatale, Hoody. Though not technically a part of the “Kpop Night Out” lineup, it would be remiss not to mention her. I can say with confidence that of all the Korean artists and idols I’ve met over the years, none care as much about the quality of their performance as Hoody does. In addition to the attractiveness of her glossy sound that drifts between dreamy R&B and feel-good funk, Hoody doesn’t make you worry about whether or not she’ll hit the high notes — her pitch-perfect voice has a vibrant yet easy quality, allowing her to float effortlessly up to notes that would make other vocalists red in the face. Though she wasn’t on the main stage at “Kpop Night Out” this year, I would be surprised if Hoody didn’t turn up on more than one SXSW lineup next year.
The official opener for the 2017 “Kpop Night Out” showcase was Big Phony, a Korean-American singer-songwriter whose sincerity and transparency make him a rarity in the Korean music scene. Backed by Busker Busker drummer Brad Moore and No Brain’s VOVO and Bboble on guitar and bass, Big Phony brought a grounded, relatable element to the showcase that engaged the audience through his storytelling lyricism and soft melodies.
The event’s second act could not have been more different than Big Phony, despite the fact that multiple members participated in his showcase. No Brain took the stage with a ferocity and energy more intense than anyone else at “Kpop Night Out.” Despite their all-Korean discography, the crowd seemed to know the words to nearly every song, and if they didn’t, they shouted anyways. Perhaps the highlight of the rock band’s set was the performance of their song “Soju Shot,” in which they passed multiple soju bottles through the crowd, taking shots along with their fans who were either already drunk, or about to be. While Big Phony got the crowd in the mood for music, No Brain brought the hype, and thus began what would become a four hour turn-up.
No Brain was followed by Galaxy Express, an equally exciting though less interactive rock band. Though undoubtedly talented and fun to watch, the group didn’t get the audience quite as involved as No Brian did, leaving the ever growing crowd of Kpop fans to less participatively look on and fist pump as the group jammed out on stage.
As soon as Tiger JK and the Feel Ghood crew stepped up, the crowd went from being turnt up to officially lit. With Yoon Mirae, Bizzy, Junoflo, and Ann One in tow, Tiger took the stage with all the swagger and confidence that comes with being one of the most influential artists in Korean hip-hop. Though he gave each member of his crew time to shine, Tiger JK’s flow and string of hits reminded the crowd why he’s credited with being one of the O.G. fathers of Korean hip-hop and rap. His laid-back banter with the audience made Tiger JK all the more relatable, as he initiated multiple call and responses from the audience, teaching those in attendance more than a few Korean curse words in the process.
If Tiger JK’s welcome could be described as warm, his wife’s was on fire. After a short break, the Feel Ghood crew came back on stage, this time with Yoon Mirae leading the charge to the raucous cheers of the audience. After waiting out a long series of “Yoon Mirae! Yoon Mirae! Yoon Mirae!” chants, the singer/rapper began her set, which consisted of a combination of originals as well as covers, including Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean.” For her final act, Yoon Mirae brought out Bizzy and Tiger once more to close out the set with MFBTY’s recent hits “Angel” and “Bang Diggy Bang Bang.”
At this point in the showcase, we’re about four hours in from the 8pm start time, and to say that the anticipation for headlining acts Hyolyn and Red Velvet was palpable would be an understatement. Leading up to these two headlining acts, all of the groups at “Kpop Night Out” did a great job communicating with the audience and getting up close and personal with the fans, but out of everyone, I was most surprised by Hyolyn. The SISTAR member looked completely at ease in front of the rambunctious crowd, strutting around the stage with confidence and crouching down to sing directly to fans multiple times. After opening with “Paradise,” Hyolyn greeted the audience with a brief introduction before admitting that her English was “terrible,” and proceeded to perform an impressive set list containing a medley of hits remixed into one performance piece. Instead of stopping to awkwardly talk to the audience between songs, Hyolyn blazed through her set, which mixed “One Way Love,” “Ma Boy,” “Dope,” “Massage,” and “Love Like This” together to form one long set pure pop entertainment.
Hyolyn’s performance was a reminder of just how commanding her presence is as a solo act. Aside from her vocals (which we all know are stunning), Hyolyn’s general sense of when to belt the big notes, when to really go for the choreo, and when to interact with the crowd was unparalleled. Her performance blew the crowd away, but what was perhaps most impressive about Hyolyn, was her preparedness for the atmosphere and format of SXSW. Her ability to keep her set moving and to put a new spin on her own content made her a standout at the showcase, and indicated to the audience that music festivals are something that she can do, and do well.
“Kpop Night Out” came to a head with the emergence of Red Velvet. The venue, originally built for about 1,100 people, had now reached a capacity of 2,500, with fans quite literally packed to the rafters in the hopes of getting a glimpse at SM’s sensational girl group. Red Velvet entered to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd and kicked off their set with “Russian Roulette.” The group then introduced themselves one by one in undeniably adorable English, before launching into their equally cutesy B-side tracks, “Somethin Kinda Crazy” and “Fool.”
Though the group seemed initially overwhelmed by the proximity and boisterousness of the crowd, maknae Yeri’s charming attempts at communicating with the audience had a strangely calming effect not just on the 2,500 showcase attendees, but on her fellow members as well. Though Wendy is the group’s native English speaker and did well enough translating the other members’ messages to the audience, Yeri’s ability to connect with the crowd despite the language barrier was extraordinary to behold. Red Velvet kept their set short and sweet, closing out with just two more songs, “Rookie” and “Dumb Dumb.”
So now we come back to the question of who sank and who swam at SXSW this year. To be sure, nobody drowned. All of the artists represented their genres well, showcasing the vast and diverse landscape of the Korean music industry (which, may I remind you, is the entire purpose of the showcase after all). If forced to pick one artist who truly defied expectations and electrified the crowd, that artist would hands down be Hyolyn. The SISTAR member’s swagger, skill, and strength made her a triple threat on stage at “Kpop Night Out,” and with a recently inked worldwide EDM record deal and a knock-out SXSW show under her belt, Hyolyn’s potential as a global superstar has never been higher. Here’s to hoping that “Kpop Night Out” continues to bring out the best in our favorite Kpop artists next year, and for years to come.