NBC News/ Chris Fuchs

Making the K-Pop Band: Can a Non-Korean K-Pop Group Succeed?

Born and raised in Seoul, Bora Kim was interested in researching the global commercial success of K-pop, short for "Korean pop," a music genre made popular in South Korea since the early 1990s that incorporates singing with highly choreographed dance moves. But after moving to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University, she began to wonder what might happen if the members of a K-pop band were replaced with ones who were not Korean.

That thought formed the genesis of the five-member boy band EXP, short for the word "experiment," that 32-year-old Kim and two other Asian women—all of them K-pop fans—founded in early 2015. For them, EXP raises questions about the appropriation of culture and what it means for three Asian women to manage a K-pop band made up of performers who sing in Korean and who are white, black, and one member who is half-Japanese.

But for some K-pop fans, EXP and its non-Korean band members are an affront to the K-pop community.

"To many people in the world, K-pop is a new type of culture," Kim told NBC News. "We serve as something that makes people think about what K-pop is and what K-pop idol groups could be."

EXP began as a thesis project for Kim, who studied sociology as an undergraduate in South Korea, during her second year in Columbia's master of fine arts program. Signing on to the "I'm Making a Boy Band" project soon after were Karin Kuroda, whom Kim met while pursuing her second bachelor's degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Samantha Y. Shao, a Taiwanese woman who studied art management in the Netherlands. None of them had backgrounds in music.

"As consumers of K-pop, becoming producers of it I think is a really important shift in terms of the fact that also we are women, and we're Asian women," Kuroda told NBC News, noting that K-pop bands have generally been createdby large corporations in South Korea.

Tryouts for EXP, based in New York City, were held last November. There were three auditions in total, each drawing around 150 applicants and lasting from one to three days, Kim said. The men had to sing, dance and role play a scenario in which they spoke to reporters at a news conference after learning the band would perform at Madison Square Garden, Kim said. The applicant pool was then whittled down to between 30 and 50 hopefuls per audition.

Šime Košta, a 25 year old born and raised in Croatia, was one of the men who auditioned who received a call from Shao saying he had been chosen for the band. Košta told NBC News he was ecstatic.

"All the components it was made out of—music, dance, incredible fashion—it was so visually and musically appealing to me that I really fell in love with it and definitely wanted to pursue it," he said.

One of the biggest challenges for band members has been learning Korean, Košta said. EXP's first single released in April, "Luv/Wrong," was sung mostly in English. But with practice and language lessons, which band members attend weekly, their Korean has improved, he said. EXP's second single, "Nolja Let's Party," strikes more of a balance between Korean and English.

The group's third single, to be released in February, entitled "Feel Like This" is almost entirely in Korean, Košta said.

From the very beginning, what K-pop really is and what makes K-pop Korean were among the questions that drove the project, said Kuroda, who was born in Geneva to Japanese parents and grew up in New York. Is it language? Is it the ethnic background of the band members, managers and producers? Or is it something else?

"What we mean by raising questions as artists is not just to answer them, but just to get people to start talking about something and ask them that question as well as others," Kuroda explained.

And that's precisely what happened around the time "Luv/Wrong" came out in April.

"One day we just woke up to a sea of comments, like 7,000 or 8,000, onInstagram, and everything kind of blew up," Košta recalled. "It was very exciting and scary too because a lot of the comments were racial and homophobic slurs that were directed toward us."

An April 19 article posted on Koreaboo, a Korean pop culture website, made mention of the disapproving remarks K-pop fans left for EXP on social media. It also addressed another brewing controversy: that EXP was imitating the well-known K-pop group EXO, a Chinese-South Korean boy band founded in 2011 in Seoul.

Kim dismissed those allegations. "The purpose of all this is to explore what K-pop and what K-pop fandom is," she said, "and it's not about making parodies."

One thing Kim and her partners have learned from the comments, she said, is that K-pop fans are very protective of K-pop culture and want to keep it Korean or, more generally, Asian.

"We're still figuring out how to communicate with these commenters and people who find our actions a bit upsetting," Kim said. She added that the sheer volume of posters makes it difficult to respond one-by-one.

"As we put more content out there—and through that content—we hope to have a more productive conversation," Kim said.

So far, EXP has appeared mostly in New York City, at both music and art venues, Kim said. On Dec. 4, the band will perform in Miami during the same week of Art Basel, a modern and contemporary art fair held annually in Basel, Miami Beach, and in Hong Kong. Kim said EXP's biggest goal now is to perform in South Korea, but she added the group lacks the wherewithal to make that happen.

To date, a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in May that netted EXP $30,600 in one month's time has been the band's principal financial means, Kim said. In addition to practicing with choreographers for 15 to 25 hours a week, some of the band members also work side jobs like singing at weddings and private parties, Košta said.

As for the naysayers who disapprove of EXP, Košta said he was confident they would someday have a change of heart.

"Not all of them have realized it yet, but slowly I think they're realizing that we're not here to offend anyone," he said. "We're here to create music and to hopefully be appreciated, and for people to actually like our product and what we are sending out into the world."

Miami New Times/ Alexandra Martinez

MULTICULTURAL K-POP BAND EXP MOVES THE GENRE INTO NEW TERRITORY

K-Pop (Korean Pop Music) is coming to Miami — sort of. The American K-Pop band, EXP (short for "experiment") is making its Art Basel debut this Friday at the Sagamore Hotel. And the boys couldn't have chosen a better location. 

“I’m Making a Boy Band” (IMMABB), which began as Bora Kim’s MFA thesis project at Columbia University, is a perfect fit for Miami’s iteration of Basel: an intoxicating mix of pop entertainment and high-brow art, surrounded by a culturally hybrid city.

“Art Basel Miami is kind of different than any other version. It’s about pop and celebrity and parties,” says Samantha Shao, one of the three managers behind EXP. “It’s an interesting angle for us to insert ourselves in this art and pop world because there’s a weird gap in between.”

Kim, who was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, originally wanted to explore ideas of gender, sexuality, and cultural appropriation by documenting the process of creating a K-Pop-inspired boy band without any Korean members.

In our rapidly homogenizing cultural landscape, EXP challenges the typical idea of what it means to be “K-Pop.” Similar to Miami’s Latin-American culture, EXP’s new genre of American K-Pop is simply bringing the style across the border.

“We’re trying to blur the idea of labeling what is art and what is just pop. We are shooting everything; we are trying to make those processes visible, trying to make people see what goes into the product that you see,” says Kim.

Part of this sociological/art experiment includes unconventional performances. In a recent solo show, crew members held lights and followed the EXP boys onstage as they performed.

“It was so much light, the audience could really feel their breath, and it became so alien. Too much light, too much body, too much sweat,” says Kim.

Despite its dense artistic and sociological background, the group’s ultimate goal is to be recognized in Korea and perform there just like their own idols, Big Bang (#NoSleepTillKorea). 

 

But loyal K-Pop fandom has not been receptive to the idea of an American-based K-Pop group. With just a few posts on its Instagram page, EXP immediately received visceral feedback from English-speaking K-Pop fans.

“A lot of the K-Pop fans are trying to determine that we’re not K-Pop and they themselves are not Korean. So they’re sort of like, 'This is not K-Pop!' And it raises a lot of questions about authenticity that we’re trying to push. I’m not really interested in west versus east dichotomy. But does cultural authenticity really exist?” Karin Kuroda, EXP manager, asks.

Kim insists that part of the project’s goal is to foster a conversation about cultural hybridity, homogenization, and appropriation. K-Pop’s origins can be traced back to Western music in the late 1800s, when American missionaries taught popular melodies to Korean students. But since then, K-Pop has developed into its own complex and distinct system of cultural export.

“The music is really interesting in terms of cultural ownership, because it’s so highly influenced by Western music, so now we’re producing something that turned once more, because the boys write the music and our producer is American and there’s all these mixtures of genres. And then we give them guidelines because we need to prove to fans that we are K-Pop,” Kim said. “So I think we’re raising questions of cultural appropriation. I don’t think this is the stage that we figure out what it is or come to a conclusion.”

While American pop culture is oversexualized, lacking censorship, and revolving around a free market, K-Pop was originally largely funded by the Korean government, prone to self-censorship, and is highly feminine. In an attempt to bridge these political and cultural differences, Kim and the IMMABB team hold culture and “cuteness” workshops for the bandmates. This process basically involves training the members in appearing humble, young, and innocent for their fans. 

“At the beginning of the project, we replicated a lot of games and activities that they do in those shows. We really think Korean idols are excelling at performing gender in a really cute way, which is unseen [in American pop culture] but way more common in K-Pop. It’s very homoerotic but pleasing to female fans,” explained Kuroda.

This affinity for the young and cute can easily be seen in Psy’s latest viral hit, “Daddy,” a song that blurs the lines of appropriation itself, borrowing the titular hook from Will.I.Am’s “I Got It From My Mama.”

“I didn’t expect the controversy we got, because, I mean, there are K-Pop groups who do their music videos with American football players walking down the streets of NYC, so you can definitely see and feel the American presence in the genre. So I guess it can go one way, but if it goes the other way, then it's controversial, which is baffling,” said EXP member Šime.

YouTube user “Moofins” recently commented on a rehearsal video for EXP's song “Luv/Wrong” saying, “If a K-pop boy group did this no offense but it'd seem much cooler idk why but this is pretty good nonetheless.”

Perhaps the K-Pop fandom hate will dissipate as EXP’s exposure to Korean culture increases and its performances become more "authentic." Or maybe it’ll remain a croqueta sitting in the display window of a Connecticut bakery: stale and out of place.

Either way, the EXP members will be ready to perform tomorrow night, which will include a preview of the band's latest song, “Feel Like This.” And according to Kim, ”Hugging is allowed.” 

SCREEN/ Yu-Chieh Li

Making Waves: Bora, Karin, and Sam make a boy band

IMMABB (I’M MAKING A BOY BAND) is an ongoing art project, documentary film and business endeavor by Bora Kim, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Y. Shao that began in 2014 during Kim’s MFA program at Columbia University. Their K-pop boy band, EXP, is made up of five members from different backgrounds--Hunter, Frankie, Šime, Tarion and Koki. They are young, good-looking and arguably as talented as K-pop stars. The only difference? None of them are Korean.

Since its establishment, IMMABB has received media exposure and also fueled heated online debates. Their performance was included as part of a SCREEN-curated performance program, What Kind of Technology is Culture?

Yu-Chieh Li (YCL): Your K-pop boy band “EXP” has caused a stir in New York and online among K-pop fans. Can you talk about its reception among K-pop fans and describe briefly what the day to day experience of working on this project is like?

When our project first became controversial amongst K-pop fans, the hateful backlash that EXP received was based on Instagram pictures of the boys, rather than our music, as we had yet to release any songs. One of the most surprising things was a K-pop forum site that posted a poll asking: “Which group do you like more: EXO [a famous K-pop band] or EXP?” After answering, you were prompted to respond to the question, “why?” with two options: “because I like Asian men,” or “because I like white/black men.” The poll not only lumps “white/black men” into one category, it also situates them opposition to Asian men.

In addition to death threats and offensive racial comments like these, we’ve been pretty surprised by the homophobic comments we get from K-pop fans. Though K-pop stars are often called “gay,” “girly” or “weak,” these comments usually come from people unfamiliar with the look of K-pop. In utilizing the visual language of K-pop for EXP we’ve seen that, though the culture of K-pop has created a new kind of masculinity and performed sexuality, this aesthetic and identity is somehow not accepted for Western boys. These tensions are at the root of ideas we are trying to explore with EXP.

Our day to day routine is extremely varied but never dull. Our Monday went something like this: Checked social media (by now, we’ve learned to expect lots of rude comments before morning coffee… perhaps not great for our psychological health), uploaded new content to social media, oversaw EXP’s Korean language lesson, had a 20-minute team debriefing en route to the boys’ dance rehearsal, evaluated a gallery space for an upcoming show, had a 2nd debriefing with our production assistant, Joo, checked in with our choreographer Lane, and filmed the day’s dance rehearsal to send the boys, attended the bell hooks’ talk with Laurie Anderson and Theaster Gates, got home and worked on press releases for upcoming events, sent our producer feedback on EXP’s next single and brainstormed ideas for album concepts.

 

YCL: Who is your target audience for this K-Pop band?

Our target audience is K-pop fans, which, based on one’s familiarity with the genre, could seem like a miniscule or vast group. For those who don’t know much about K-pop, we’d like to provide a bit of statistical context: The LA Times reported that, on average, Netflix users watch 10.7 hours/month, but users of a popular K-drama website called “Drama Fever,” watch 53.9 hours/month. Though K-pop is still seen as a subculture in many countries, fans are extremely dedicated and bond globally about their favorite idol group members. As of now, EXP’s current fan base is mainly international and English-speaking, but our marketing does aim to target Korea, China and Japan (though we would like to market to other Asian countries, our team’s linguistic ability is limited to those 3, for now.) Some of our most dedicated fans are based in Qatar, Argentina, Brazil and France. On a local level, EXP’s main fans in New York are those who have had the opportunity to meet EXP and attend their performances.

 

YCL: Can you talk about the concept of “cultural technology,” which dates back to, perhaps, the philosopher Simondon, but was only really recently formalized—and in a very different context—with the creation of business programs in South Korean cultural exports. How relevant is this concept to your practice?

Very. We represent all the things that are not supposed to be part of the K-pop idol machine. We have no professional knowledge or resources to make a K-pop idol group, which are often known for their robot-like perfection. Instead, we have created a multi-layered idol group that raises question on the formula or premise of K-pop industry.

In order to understand the K-pop formula, we should go over the idea of ‘Culture Technology’ (CT), the term made ubiquitous by Lee Soo-man, founder of one of the biggest entertainment companies in Korea. His company, SM Entertainment, is responsible for making K-pop what it is today by setting the standard of perfection and work ethic expected from the young K-pop tween trainees until their eventual debut as an idol group. SM also created and perfected the characteristics we see in K-pop boy bands. Specifically, that they be typified as young, “fresh,” cute, and pretty, rather than handsome, and have a soft masculinity that is non-threatening. They are safe, polite, humble, obedient, docile, wholesome and hard-working.

This archetype has a lot to do with how K-pop functions in an international political setting. K-pop idols, unlike American celebrities, are considered national heroes or cultural ambassadors. In other words, they are very effective government PR tools. And I think this is a good place to decode what ‘Culture Technology’ means in contemporary South Korea.

People bring up Jody Berland’s use of ‘Cultural Technology’ in 1992 to explain the concept, but in Korea this term was shaped by Won Kwang-Yeon, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). He submitted a report to the presidential office in July 2001 using the term in which CT was defined as:

In a narrow sense, technologies used in the value chain of culture content from the planning, commercialization, and loading to media platforms, to distribution, and in a wide sense, complex technologies which are necessary for enhancing added value to cultural products, including knowledges and knowhow from humanities and social science, design and art, as well as science and engineering.

CT was adopted as one six core technological engines for Korean national economic growth in the 21st century in the early 2000s, in part because of the success of Lee Soo-man application of CT to K-pop.

For example, he believes that Korea should export their culture to China, the biggest emerging market, to generate enormous profits. In 2012, SM produced EXO in 2 different units: EXO-K, which performs in Korean for a Korean audience, and EXO-M, which performs the same songs in China in Mandarin for a Chinese audience. This move shows SM’s interest in producing K-pop as a national product, emphasizing the idea that K-pop is made by Korea rather than made in Korea.   

Though CT is brought up so frequently in Korea, what it means to define culture as an objective, goal-oriented entity is rarely discussed. The public also seems to readily accept the complex term and concept––one that implies that the quality of culture can be evaluated; that one culture is better than another. And this is where we want to start the conversation through our project, “I’m Making a Boy Band,” that exists in multiple stages as well as different iterations and forms of dispersion.

YCL: I’m interested in the female gaze under technological culture as manifested in EXP. What is your vision of K-pop in the future, and how will women with technology inflect it?

The fact that the government’s and CT’s ‘products’ (that is, living, breathing idol groups) are catered to the female gaze highlights women powerful consumers. The tremendous value of K-pop in developing and expanding the nuances of female fandom is also to be recognized. By aiding in the elimination of many taboos around the dialogue of female sexuality, K-pop enacted  a shift in sentiment among the general public in relation to the everyday perspective of femininity as a whole.

However, the boundary between agency and desire is complicated because CT is engineered to generate desire, and enhance or, in some cases, eliminate genuine sentiment. The female gaze––and its power and agency––isn’t acknowledged to have inherent value, but is reduced to monetary value in a corporate machine.

Our interest is not to shame the K-pop industry for giving fans what they want/seemingly want/are told to want. But, with regard to our fan base, (which, is not limited to female-identified), we are interested in acknowledging the female gaze as one of inquisitive power.

As genuine fans and consumers of K-pop, we are aware of what it is like to be on the receiving end of this manufactured CT catered to the female gaze. We initiated this bizarre and multi-layered project with the awareness that CT effectively manipulates and disempowers the female gaze and mechanizes the genuine desire of fans. As producers who align directly with the consumers, we aim to use our female gaze, for the female gaze, through a nuanced and critical process. In doing so, we would like to create a healthier relationship between the producers and consumers of K-pop by acknowledging how CT could be used to disrupt the cycle of consumption by imposing questioning, rather than promoting mere product digestion.

YCL: None of the EXP boys are Koreans, but they are taught to sing and act like Koreans. Are there interesting identity "crises" happening in this band?

To clarify, EXP are taught to sing and speak Korean but they are not taught how to “act like Koreans.” Part of their training is to develop an understanding of Korean culture, but more specifically, the performativity of Korean idol boys. We are aiming to teach them about being “idols,” and how to embody it. This is a specific facet of contemporary Korean culture. We do not claim that Korean culture itself is a technology, and therefore it cannot be taught by us (it would be extremely problematic for us to think so).  

Those who have learned a second language are probably familiar with the core concept that you have to garner curiosity and passion for the culture to properly speak the language. It is natural that the boys question aspects of Korean culture that they may have trouble grasping. In addition, sometimes earnest attempts at learning Korean could be categorized as ignorant or highlight certain Western/ethnocentric privileges that are being made aware in such acts as this one:

“I’m trying to imitate our teacher’s accent”

“She doesn’t have an accent, she is just speaking Korean.”

“I know but I’m trying to imitate how she’s speaking.”

“Okay, but you just sound offensive…”

We wouldn’t define such instances as crises, but we do make sure to note that when they are questioning aspects of Korean culture it should always be inquisitive, not demeaning. 

South China Morning Post/ Ysabelle Cheung

What does a K-pop band with no Koreans say about cultural appropriation?

A South Korean university student in New York hopes to examine cultural appropriation via a K-pop band made up of foreigners

It was in the excruciating moment when EXP member Frankie Daponte Jnr was asked to objectify his bandmates that he recognised the surreal aspect of his professional life. "I was asked to line them up in order of hotness," he recalls of the workshop task. "When I first joined EXP I saw it as a challenge and an amazing experience, but then at the root of everything, I realised we were touching on some really big topics."

Daponte could well be speaking for the masses of today's pop stars whose image and lifestyles are controlled by an aggressive music industry. Much more than simply a reflection of contemporary music, the bright lights and manipulated images of these stars often point to darker undercurrents of sociopolitical propaganda and the issues of "representation" that each culture faces.

For example, in the US, child stars are subject to overt sexualisation, while in South Korea, the militant routines and discipline of K-pop bands speak of a cultural tapestry wrought with image control. The latter, along with how the genre is viewed in the West, were things that Bora Kim explored at Columbia University in her final thesis in 2014, a multimedia project titled I'm Making a Boy Band.

Kim's primary interest is in dissecting how a culture is appropriated, through the construction of an "inappropriation". To do so, she's created an entirely new K-pop band formed of foreigners.

This is where Daponte and bandmates Tarion Taylor-Anderson, Koki Tomlinson, Hunter Kohl, Šime Košta and David Wallace - all raised in the US, none with Korean background - came in. Kim, along with colleagues Samantha Shao and Karin Kuroda, recruited these professional dancers and in April, they were officially "launched" in New York as K-pop heartthrobs EXP.

Immediately, critical backlash and confusion ensued, with music fans expressing outrage at the whitewashing of the genre and slamming the boys for their Korean language skills.

"My friends would say, 'Oh, you're still in that fake boy band'," says Tomlinson with a laugh. He, like the others, is learning Korean from scratch. "I'd be like 'No!' but then, 'Yes, kind of'."

But it is exactly this kind of critical dialogue that Kim, Shao and Kuroda (respectively from South Korea, Taiwan and Japan) welcome. "We are creating this in this context of different Asian perspectives. That's an important thing to say, in terms of appropriation," says Kim.

Shao adds: "Besides the appropriation part, what we're trying to discuss is the process of how the K-boys started. Usually pop culture is so easy to dismiss, but at the same time it is so influential. It's really important for us to think a little deeper about what we are buying and seeing as consumers."

Although autonomy is handed back to the boys in the production and writing of music - that has to be an organic process, Kim stresses - all other EXP activities are orchestrated by the creative team. Everything, from the all-in-white band photoshoot, to their hairstyles and Instagram accounts, is controlled to adhere to the artistic concept. This mirrors the non-existent artistic freedom that K-pop stars experience, as well as the nature of subliminal brainwashing and cultural borrowing. The project wants to ask the question: just who is profiting from these manipulations?

"Power is always an issue when it comes to cultural appropriation," says Kim. "For example, in China, the government has limited the airing times of Korean dramas because it's becoming too much of a culturally dominant entity. And then if you look at the history of K-pop, you'll see it appropriates from the West - in the '90s, the hip-hop genre came through Japan which had digested it from the West. And in many ways today, K-pop is also literally propaganda that the government supports and uses as a PR tool. That's why I wanted to use pop culture for this project, which is such a fluid and loaded thing that needs decoding."

"In many ways today, K-pop is also literally propaganda that the government supports and uses as a PR tool. That's why I wanted to use pop culture for this project" - BORA KIM, ARTIST

Tomlinson's earlier statement on objectifying his EXP bandmates reveals his unease about the "gaze". He and Daponte mention the all-white photoshoot as another highly uncomfortable experience, as they were "rolling around in a way that could be seen as homoerotic in the West" - though similar shoots are common in the K-pop world. That is why Kim specifically chose boys over girls, because South Korea's definition of masculinity is complicated, raising the questions: what do these K-boys offer? Who do they represent?

"I had my own idea of what perfection in K-pop was when I came in - clean dance moves, with everyone very polished and aesthetically appealing," says Daponte. "But as the project continued to unfold, the definition of perfect became different."

Tomlinson, who is half-Japanese and was born in Hong Kong before being raised in Texas, explains the East-West disparities. "In the West it's all about sex appeal, you're meant to be masculine and muscular - the East, it's about being cute and approachable and it took us a while to understand that."

The line between fiction and reality often blurs, often deliberately so by Kim and her team. When EXP perform live, they are professionally manicured to the hilt, and synchronised to resemble the perfect boy band. Even if you know they're "faking" it, the experience of interaction, of watching a performance, is real.

And of course, like a "real" boy band, the members of EXP also have ambitions. For now, they are working on an album while the creative team documents the process, all funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Speaking and singing in fluent Korean is also a priority for the boys, though, ironically, none of them have been to Korea yet.

This will likely provide an entirely different wealth of material for I'm Making a Boy Band to work with and digest in their ongoing narration of cultural mapping.

Public Radio International (PRI)/ Alina Simone

Bootstrapping their own K-pop band — in New York City

As a graduate student at Columbia, Korean-born artist, Bora Kim, couldn’t help but notice the change. Everyone suddenly knew about Korea. Well, in a way:

“The knowledge that they have around Korea, a lot of times it is based on pop culture,” Kim says. K-pop culture.

In the late 80s, Lee Soo-man, the founder of S.M. Entertainment, a Korean record label and talent agency, fell in love with American R&B singer Bobby Brown. He decided to try applying Brown’s formula — hook-driven pop and non-stop synchronized dancing — to the girl and boy bands he was developing for Korean audiences. The resulting genre — K-pop — was so successful that today companies like S.M. have become star-factories, binding minors to multi-year contracts and a grueling rehearsal schedule in order to maintain K-pop’s eerie level of perfection.

Bora Kim became fascinated by how K-pop had become such a frictionless carrier of culture. The corporate talent agencies of K-pop had hit upon a winning formula. But could that formula be distilled? Could K-pop be reverse engineered? She decided to find out. With fellow Asian-American artists Samantha Shao and Karin Kuroda, she put out a casting call in New York, looking for singers, dancers and rappers with that signature “idol look.”

“I kind of jokingly said that they have to look like ‘boyfriend material,’ you know? They should be friendly, more than just ‘oh, way over the top hot,’” Shao says.

Another thing? No Koreans.

“We didn't want to pick people who knew about K-pop too much,” Kim says, “because we wanted to document the process of the boys learning.”

They recruited six “boys” for their boy band — named EXP, for experiment. But these non-Koreans still had to sing in Korean, which meant Kim had to teach them.        

“We start from [the] alphabet and we take quizzes,” she says, laughing. “Like once a week.”

They also needed to master other elusive arts of K-pop, like how to be “cute,” Kuroda explains.     

“We called it a ‘cuteness workshop,’ ” she says, “explaining how in Korea or other Asian countries, cuteness is something that's desirable as opposed to demeaning.”

The boys’ homework included watching Korean variety shows to better understand how K-pop idols embody cuteness.

The team raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter for EXP’s first mini-album, and the band’s second single is being released on August 20.

In creating their own bespoke K-pop agency, the trio is aware of the controversy surrounding Korea’s factory approach to manufacturing stardom.

“It's an industry that seeks perfection, almost at a point where you could call it problematic because, yes, it's a known fact that a lot of K-pop idols go through plastic surgery in order to look how they look,” Kim says.

But EXP isn’t about nose-jobbing your way to perfection. The trio describes it as a collaboration, with the band helping compose music and lyrics.

“It’s more like they're [the ones] always telling us, ‘girls, keep doing it and we're gonna make it.’ They're like cheerleaders,” Shao says.

Their support team also includes a host of producers, choreographers and designers who help create the killer hooks, lock-step dancing and custom-tailored costumes that are the hallmark of K-pop.

I’m a K-pop fan myself and watching EXP’s video clips, I’d say while they haven’t quite nailed it, they’re definitely within range.

If Kim and her team actually manage to bootstrap a K-pop band without the help of a multi-million dollar corporation, it would be revolutionary. But some K-pop fans accuse the team of essentially whitewashing a Korean genre. So why isn’t this A-pop?

“I think, firstly, they're singing in Korean and they're learning the K-pop culture. But more importantly, we're the makers of this band. I think that's what makes it K-pop,” Kim says.

Maybe you could call it meta K-pop.

“What is EXP?” Kuroda says. “Well, I don't frickin' know, but it's good. You just start thinking a little bit about what it is you're digesting.”

By making their process transparent, EXP heightens your awareness of the artifice of K-pop as you're enjoying it — kind of like reading the ingredients on a package of Twinkies while stuffing one in your mouth.  

But the ultimate test of EXP’s success is if they can crossover — to Korea, where the cognoscenti can decide for themselves whether this is really K-pop.

“One of our famous hashtags is called #nosleeptilkorea. We would love to go there to perform,” Kim says.

Kuroda adds, “And if our boys could be on one of those variety shows, then we'll be like, We made it!”

Washington Post/ Yanan Wang

A manual for becoming the icons of a foreign culture, as conceived by the project “I’m Making a Boy Band:” Learn the language. Listen to the music. Watch the country’s famed TV dramas, so you’re familiar with the citizens’ quotidian concerns. And of course, eat the food — lots of it.

Sounds straightforward enough. But what if, however hard you try, you can’t look the part? If you’re white or black, after all, no amount of kimchi is going to help you pass for Korean.

This is the tension and artistic mission being taken up by EXP, a budding New York-based boy band that aims to become an internationally acclaimed Korean pop group without any Korean members. Of the band’s six aspiring “idols” — the K-pop term for an industry veteran — two are black, three are Caucasian and one is Japanese. None of them spoke Korean when EXP formed late last year, though they insist that they’re now starting to pick it up, one translated lyric at a time.

K-pop is a huge industry that has spread across Asia, far beyond Korea, propelled by flashy precision choreography and a distinctive, child-like cuteness called aegyo in Korean. The field is highly competitive with the number of groups exploding.

EXP (short for Experiment) began as the Columbia University MFA thesis of Bora Kim, a native of Seoul who sought to combine her artistic bent with her interest in sociology.

“All of my projects are research-based, so I began by researching K-pop and the Korean wave [a term referring to the increasing popularity of South Korean culture in recent decades],” Kim said. “After I gained all this unnecessary knowledge on K-pop groups, I just decided to make one.”

She was soon joined by Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, two art industry professionals with a similar fondness for the musical style that has spawned groups and personalities such as Super Junior, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD) and — who could forget? — Psy of Gangnam Style fame. Like a real K-pop entertainment company, they held auditions and selected their stars (Tarion Taylor Anderson, Frankie Daponte Jr., Hunter Kohl, Sime Kosta, Koki Tomlinson and David Wallace) from a pool of over 200 applicants.

The difference between EXP and traditional K-pop ventures is nuanced but important, Kim said. While their project is indeed cultural appropriation, they are executing it with a critical eye towards the ways that appropriation has been vital to the development of a swathe of cultural phenomena, from rap music to K-pop itself, which has its roots in Western pop and the Japanese occupation.

According to Kim, they intentionally selected a group of non-Koreans because they wanted part of the artistic project to be the process by which members are immersed in a culture that was previously alien to them. They are taking regular Korean lessons from Kim, and even undergoing “cuteness workshops” to learn how to perform masculinity the K-pop way.

“Male K-pop idols are a spectacle performing for the straight female gaze,” Koruda said, adding that they are training EXP’s members to embody the Korean ideal of a “cute” boy, one who is less macho and less explicitly egotistical than his Western counterpart.

But to many K-pop fans worldwide, the men of EXP are unwelcome interlopers into an entertainment empire built on seemingly unshakable aesthetic rules.

The international K-pop content platform Koreaboo expressed its skepticismin an article headlined “Foreigners claim to be debuting as K-Pop group ‘EXP’ and use ‘EXP Planet’ as tagline.” Much of the controversy centers on the group’s resemblance to EXO, the K-pop boy band with a million-strong following (and “EXO Planet” tagline) that EXP has been accused of trying to replicate.

While the band does aim to emulate characteristics of K-pop idols, Kim said, similarities to any one group are purely coincidental. Kuroda noted that the backlash has been largely fueled by EXO’s passionate fanbase, components of which have gone as far as to disseminate fake track lists meant to prove EXP’s inauthenticity.

Other K-pop devotees have pointed their slingshots more directly at EXP members, taking jabs at everything from their perceived sexuality to their racial background. Anderson, who has mixed African American, Hispanic and Native American heritage, said, “Someone told me I look burnt.”

Naysayers notwithstanding, “I’m Making a Boy Band” is marching forward with its goal to make EXP an internationally acclaimed K-pop group. Last month, their Kickstarter campaign garnered $30,600 toward producing an EP. Their first single, Luv/Wrong, was released on iTunes in April.

It’s not quite Gangnam Style, but with a few more “cuteness workshops,” it may get there.

Vice/ Mark Hay

Meet the Young Artists Creating a K-Pop Boy Band with No Korean Members

On 26 April, a new, American-based K-pop boy band called EXP made their world debut in Long Island City. Like South Korea's idol groups (the K-pop industry term for a meticulously groomed cadre of attractive, often barely-legal performers), the band was smooth and shiny. The six boys sashayed over the stage in form-fitting clothing, flashing Vaseline smiles and exuding gentle sex as they cooed about relationships in their English-Korean single, "Luv/Wrong."

It was exactly what you might expect out of a fledgling group trying to hack it in the K-pop mold. Except for one little thing: None of the six members of EXP (Tarion Taylor Anderson, Frankie Daponte Jr., Hunter Kohl, Šime Košta, Koki Tomlinson, and David Wallace) are Korean. None of them even speak Korean.

News of this K-pop group without the "K" spread rapidly throughout South Korea and the industry's global fan base. Even a week before their debut, K-pop fans started to excoriate EXP for wanton cultural appropriation, circulating fake track lists for a non-existent album and accusing them of explicitly ripping off the insanely popular non-threatening teenage heartthrobs of EXO. As soon as "Luv/Wrong" went up on YouTube,hardcore critics blasted the band's lack of polish, fostered in most idol groups over years of near-martial training within a hit-churning machine. In short, folks seemed to say, the group wasn't Korean, hadn't worked in the system, and as a result was making a mockery of the industry.

After a few days, most of the internet copped on to the fact that EXP was actually a conscious project developed by a conceptual artist. Dreamed up last fall by Bora Kim, a Columbia University MFA student from Seoul, EXP (short for EXPERIMENT) is the centerpiece of a multimedia endeavor, "I'm Making A Boy Band" (IMMABB), documenting her attempt to transform thoroughly American performers into prototypical K-pop boy-toy stars.

Back in 2012, the global success of PSY's K-pop satire "Gangnam Style" got Kim thinking about how South Korea, a post-colonial nation with a long history of importing foreign culture, had rapidly developed its own style and begun to export it through Asia, then the West. She was also fascinated by the way foreign consumers were buying into K-pop's aesthetics, performances, and sexuality.

Eager to play around with these trends, Kim told two friends from art school, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, about her idea to graft K-pop form onto American bodies and see what'd happen. By December, the trio had put out casting calls in New York, seeking young men, ages 18 to 28, with some performance skills and an interest in joining a boy band. After four months of training in how to act like a K-pop group, including several "Cuteness Workshops," the boys took to the stage, performing music composed by Ben Hostetler and Chatori Shimizu. A month later they started aKickstarter campaign, raising $30,600 to record a mini-album featuring "Luv/Wrong," two new songs, and remixes.

Now, three months after their first show, EXP has started to develop a social media following. The boys, and the girls behind them, insist that they're treating EXP not just as a social experiment, but as a real band.

Eager to learn how, exactly, one manufactures a boy band, VICE met up with Kim, Kuroda, and Shao in their half-dismantled New York studio, just after they'd had finished filming their first music video. (It's set for an early August release dat

VICE: Bora, you've talked elsewhere about the theoretical basis of IMMABB. When was the moment that you thought, "I should take all of this, and turn it into a boy band"?
Kim: That was last summer. I was in Korea, and I got a bit tired of just researching. I really just wanted to make something.

Coming [to Columbia], I put so much pressure on myself. You're in grad school. You have to make your masterpiece. But I was just stuck in this weird place where I just researched and [wasn't] able to really make a high-quality product that's allowed in the commercial world.

When it came time to actually get boys, how did you choose people? Were you trying to find the perfect little dolls you could mold into K-pop stars?
Kim: We did want someone who we could mold, yes. There were some people who were very, very knowledgeable about K-pop, but we did not [choose] them because we wanted to teach them K-pop and we wanted to document the process.

What was the audition process like?
Kim: We told them, "This is going to be something in between fiction and a reality show. You're going to be staring as yourself, but yourself as a very successful boy band member. You'll be filmed all the time." We asked them, "Is it okay if we put a lot of makeup on you?" We got consent to that. And we asked them to sing or dance or rap. Then we had our little acting exercise. We would tell them, "Act like a very cocky boy band—you just booked a show at Madison Square [Garden]." If we saw some potential, we asked more.

Do you consider what you're doing could be considered an act of cultural appropriation, or a racially-charged act? 
Kim: Our project is cultural appropriation and racially charged. However, the boys are not [making] squinting eyes, nor are they trying to mimic the physical features of Koreans. Mimicking the physical appearance of Koreans is not cultural appropriation. That act is the performing/reenacting of an ignorant stereotype not to be confused with the appropriation of cultures.

We want to raise the question of what it actually means to appropriate culture, because this implies [that people are tied] to the idea of cultural authenticity. How does one determine authenticity and originality in culture? We are interested in asking and complicating the idea of how cultures influence each other. Does the concept of cultural appropriation shift when applied to pop music, a very specific and accessible cultural channel?

You've been putting the boys through tons of training, like "Cuteness Workshops." But what was hard to teach them? What about K-pop was just not getting through?
Kim: We showed [them] videos of K-pop idols with no subtitles, and we would ask them, "What do you think is happening?" [We'd] ask them to read the body language and how they'd act towards the fans and towards each other. Because the essence is about how they present their charm in a very different way than people do here—being cute.

Here, as a default, you are supposed to present yourself as a strong person. But in Korea and in a lot of Asian countries, it's better to be friendly. And acting cute is a way of putting yourself in a lower position, so you won't appear to be too macho of threatening. Because not being individual, but being a member of a group is more important. So the conversation would evolve into talking about bigger cultural differences.

Shao: It's mostly just how to perform sexuality. When we asked them to be sexy, everyone has their own way to do that. It's hard to change that because it's more of a default situation for them. When they think of sexy, maybe [they] think of Brad Pitt. It's hard for them to think of Asian idols, who will do things that people here might think is "gay-ish."

Kim: It really goes to the audience of K-pop, because it is mainly young, straight females. They're catering their performance to sexuality, and the fact that we're highlighting that is very important. We're thinking of what the teenage girls want.

Kuroda: It's seen as vapid. Male sports fans, [they say], "Yeah, that's fucking great, you should roar like wild animals and paint your bellies!" But when girls scream for One Direction, that's silly. Any time girls feel something that's emotional, that's not valuable to society. So the fact that this entire [K-pop] industry is catering—well, not entirely—to what 12-year-old girls want... it's a massive amount of fiscal turnaround!

K-pop has a massive training industry, and you don't get to replicate that. So do you feel like [as K-pop stars] there's anything they're missing by not having gone through that?
Kim: Of course!

Kuroda: The whole thing that makes K-pop Korean is that it's a mirror of Korean culture. The reason that exists is from the military aspect. We're trying to, not critique that, but we don't want to replicate that. Because it's 17 hours a day of dancing, singing, acting. I don't think we want to do that.

Kim: Korean society has that military culture. It's really hard to explain that, and I'm sure it's hard for people to believe that. But it is. Sometimes I feel that all relationships among Koreans are a bit S&M. Because if they are in any way above you—age, gender, class—you immediately lower yourself. And in the opposite situation, you have to perform that very strong or dominant act towards the other [person]. I think the K-pop world shows that aspect very well. You can see that in the product.

I want to pinpoint that in the project, but at the same time, we don't have that power over them. They don't know that culture, so even though they respect us, it's in a different way. Sometimes they don't respect us! It's hard to push that on them.

Shao: That's the interesting part in a cultural clash kind of way. Whenever we try to push that, they're like: "You guys are being ridiculous right now." They can't even function. In a different cultural sense, it'd be like, "Oh, I understand what you're doing, and I want to work harder. I want that humiliation."

Kim: Humiliation is a very important word, I think.

You were [K-pop] consumers, critics. Now you're producers. How has that changed you?
Kim: I've always had respect for the industry in a way. That's part of why I started this project. Especially in the fine art world, people have this weird condescending look towards pop.

The pop creators are the same creative people who want to make something interesting and new. It's just that they usually have more capital, which is why it's all so shiny. And they lack criticality sometimes. That's where we want to insert ourselves.

Shao: Before, when you look at shiny stuff, you just want to enjoy [it]. But now you're saying, "How did they make this so shiny?"

Kim: The relationship between us and the boys has changed a lot. They are a big part of the creative process. They really care about this project as well. We don't have a background in music. We're making a boy band! We don't know about music! We just tell our producers and composers [what we want.]

How much further do you think this project can go? And how far down the rabbit hole will you follow it?
Kim: I don't even think about it. It's so obvious for me to just keep going.

Shao: It's reality. If there are a bunch of normal guys who want to be a successful boy band, then the end goal is to be a successful boy band with a bunch of fans and bigger stage and a huge record deal.

Kuroda: Eventually in Korea. That's ultimately our end goal. When we get there, we'll decide what the future will be.

The Huffington Post Korea/ 박세회

EXP, 뉴욕에 한국인이 한 명도 없는 케이팝 그룹이 데뷔했다(동영상)

이들의 이름은 EXP('experiment'의 줄임말). 진짜로 활동을 하냐고? 이들은 한국어와 영어가 섞인 'Luv/Wrong'이라는 곡으로 싱글도 냈다. 게다가 이 싱글을 가지고 킥스타터에서 3만 달러가 넘는 금액이 모여 크라우드 펀딩에 성공했다.

하이퍼알러직(Hyperallergic.com)과의 인터뷰에 따르면 EXP의 제작자는 김보라, 카린 쿠로다, 사만다 샤오 세 명의 여성이 함께 운영하는 'IMMABB'(I’m Making A Boy Band)라는 회사다. 이 그룹은 펀딩 받은 돈으로 EXP의 앨범과 다큐멘터리를 제작할 계획이다.

이 프로젝트를 기획하고 이끌어가는 김보라 씨는 콜롬비아 대학의 MFA(예술학 석사) 과정에 재학 중으로 K-POP 그룹이 한국 사회의 단면을 아주 잘 보여주기 때문에 이런 프로젝트를 시작했다고 밝혔다.

"연습생들은 아주 어린 나이부터 17시간씩 소속사에서 연습하면서 지내요. 매니저들이 마치 부모처럼 이들을 보살피죠. (중략) 저는 KPOP의 이런 엄격함에 대해 비판적이지만 이런 엄격함이 K-POP이 전 세계적으로 인기를 얻고 있는 이유이기도 하죠. K-POP 신드롬을 보고 있자면 상반된 느낌을 받게 되는 이유예요. 아마 전뿐만 아니라 다른 한국인들도 마찬가지일 거로 생각해요."

그녀가 하이퍼알러직과의 인터뷰에서 한 말이다.

Hyperallergic/ Hannah Stamler

A Social Experiment: A K-pop Boy Band with No Koreans

I’m Making A Boy Band (IMMABB), initiated by Korean Columbia MFA graduate Bora Kim, is an ongoing project that uses Korean pop (K-pop) to pose questions about nationhood, cultural appropriation, and gender roles. Since 2014, Kim and collaborators Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao have worked to create EXP (short for “experiment”), the first New York-based K-pop boy band. Following the release of their single “Luv/Wrong,” the trio raised $30,000 to create an album and continue work on a documentary tracking the development of IMMABB.

With their flirty, boyish charms, immaculately coiffed ‘dos, and pupillary sparkle — to say nothing of their tight, uniform dance moves and bilingual crooning — EXP’s six members (Hunter Kohl, Frankie Daponte Jr., David Wallace, Koki Tomlinson, Šime Košta, and Tarion Taylor Anderson) have all but one of the trappings of K-pop legends: Korean nationality.

As EXP’s presence grows on social media and YouTube, this fact has come to the fore in online debate, and made them the target of considerable vitriol. As one ardent K-pop fanfumed on YouTube, “How the hell can you be a K-pop group when you don’t have the ‘K’ in it … Korean?”

These are, of course, precisely the questions Kim, Kuroda, and Shao hope their project, borne of an era of unprecedented pop crossover and globalization, will provoke. And judging by online comments, for every EXP detractor there is one converted fan.

None, however, could be as passionate as the EXP creators themselves, who, despite viewing K-pop in a critical light, remain self-professed “fangirls.” I visited the Columbia University MFA studios to discuss with EXP creators the origins of IMMABB, Korean and Asian identity, fandom, and the nuances of K-pop gender performance.

*   *   *

Hannah Stamler: Where did the idea for “IMMABB” come from?

Bora Kim: I’d been researching K-Wave, a very recent phenomenon [in which] Korean culture has become popular not only in Asia, but also all over the world.

I have a background in sociology, and what I’m doing now is somewhere between sociology and art. All my work starts with interest in some social phenomenon, or has something to do with media. I’d been researching [K-pop] since last year, and was playing around with found footage on YouTube … I had all of this information on K-pop and boy bands, and thought, I should just make one. I started to look up what I’d need to do and realized it was impossible to do by myself. 

HS: How did you meet and start working with Karin and Sam? 

BK: Karin and I met in Chicago in undergrad. I moved there and got a BFA, and then came here for my MFA and met [Sam] in the [Columbia University] studios. I was at a small party complaining about how I couldn’t make this boy band alone…

Samantha Shao: And she asked me, “What do you do?” I said “marketing,” and she said, “I need you!” I studied arts management in Holland, but before that, I studied in Taiwan and majored in history. I took a lot of courses in politics and economics, and that sort of makes sense with the project.

Karin Kuroda: I originally came on board because I wanted to be the research consultant for the group. I studied fashion photography and postcolonial theory/visual studies. 

HS: And where did the boys — is it okay to call them “boys” — come from? 

BK: We use that word, it’s okay! We found out that there are millions of talent [scouting] websites. 

HS: So, the boys are professionals?

BK: Yes, the boys have experience in musical theater, as well as modeling, dancing, and acting.

SS: We had three auditions. At first, we screened mostly from appearance because in K-pop it’s very much about the visuals. But we discovered it’s really important to work with people who have talent and experience. We also came to realize that how we phrased [IMMABB] could help get us who we wanted.

BK: We wanted to explain what this project was, and make sure they understood it.

SS: That was really important to her.

BK: How we phrased it was that this will be a documentary, something in between a reality show and fiction.

HS: Not to be crude, but I’m curious how labor works here. Are the boys participating for money or exposure?

SS: Both. We’re paying them, but not a lot, like a stipend. They also want to become known or famous, so they see potential in this project.

BK: We have a contract with them, it’s very short-term, but we pay them and [in turn] they have to participate in rehearsals or shows. 

HS: Talking about contracts brings me to another crucial layer of IMMABB: the fact that you’re women managing an all-male band. How atypical is that in K-pop? 

BK: Very, very atypical.

KK: I realized recently that it would have been illegal for us to make an actual [K-pop] boy band. [The performers] start from like 14 or 15 and get pulled into a seven-year training program.

BK: One of the reasons I started this project is that I think K-pop reflects Korean society so well. The product, that is, the performances of these young kids, are so precise. The performers work like 17 hours a day. They are “trainees” of entertainment companies and their managers’ role is like [that of a] parent. In Korea and a lot of Asian countries where Confucianism is influential, hierarchy is very strong. You have to be obedient to your father figure, [and] leaders are almost always male…

I’m critical of the K-pop world, but at the same time, the reason it’s so successful is because of [its] rigid structure. I feel very conflicted when I look at this phenomenon. I’m sure a lot of other Koreans feel this way too.

HS: But beyond an analytical interest in K-pop, you’re also all K-pop fans. I think this is a really appealing aspect of the project, and that it would have an entirely different character if it came from people who didn’t genuinely appreciate the music and aesthetic. Could you talk about what role K-pop has played in your lives?

KK: To give a really short summary, in my art school there was a weird discrimination against Asians because there were so many of us. I was [dealing with] that, and found K-pop. Even though they’re not Japanese, it was still [powerful] because growing up there were basically no Asians in American media.

Bora and I became friends while I was really in my K-pop hole. I think Bora was a fan in high school but lost interest as she got older because it was normal, not edgy. But for me it was like, ‘Asians are cool!’

BK: I was a really hardcore [K-pop] fan in high school, but I graduated and for almost seven years was completely detached from this world. I became interested in the scene again because of all of this attention on Korean pop culture.

SS: I think it’s an interesting contrast. [Bora] grew up in Korea, so for her it’s the norm. But Karin grew up here, so it’s more about how Asians perform. She can see it from a distance.

KK: I would say there’s a specific point, in 2005–6, when Korean culture got popular outside of Korea, but it gained much more momentum with Psy and Gagnam Style.

SS: When [Bora and I] first met, this is what we would talk about. I grew up in Taiwan. I knew some K-pop bands, but wasn’t that into it. But living in Taiwan now you can’t escape it. 

HS: Is Korean culture the dominant one in Asia right now?

SS: Yes, definitely. Even for government. [The Taiwanese government] has started to adapt Korean cultural policy because they’ve seen how successful it’s been.

BK: Korea is technically a postcolonial country, and this cultural reversal was such a big shock for Korean people. Now nationalistic sentiment is attached to K-pop boy bands and girl groups. They’re not only pop stars, but also national heroes.

KK: This is a conflation of terms, too. In Asia, you use the word “idol” to describe famous celebrities.

I’m Japanese, the country that colonized Korea. Korean dramas really affected and changed middle-aged women in Japan. Their prejudice towards Korea [is] totally erased.

SS: It’s very effective. In the ‘80s Taiwan and Korea had the same economic status. When Korea started becoming very successful, people were saying, “Oh, I don’t like Korea.” And now because of K-Drama, people don’t care about that anymore.

KK: We call it “pop-aganda.”

HS: Can you talk about the online reactions you’ve gotten from K-pop fans?

KK: We get lots of comments saying, “your boys haven’t worked,” or “your boys haven’t endured the training process.” 

HS: I’m surprised that the perceived lack of “Koreanness” in EXP has centered on work structure rather than nationality. 

BK: Well, that comment mainly comes from hardcore fans. We have a lot of comments on nationality or appropriation — obvious issues that we are intentionally trying to raise.

KK: We [also] get comments from fans saying, “your boys are gay.” In more Western-centric countries, K-pop is seen as flamboyant. The understanding is that if you’re a K-pop fan, you’re used to this soft look. But suddenly, when non-Asians do it, it’s seen as very strange.

BK: The masculinity of Asian males is an important part of this project and something we wanted to highlight. [Male] idol groups are very feminine or pretty. These characteristics are now considered attractive, desirable. It’s become almost a new male type.

HS: So has K-pop expanded categories of masculinity in Korea?

BK: Yes, but not only in Korea.

KK: A really important thing to talk about, though, is that homosexuality is not acknowledged. If two K-pop idols are seen doing something homoerotic, it’s viewed as playful or boyish. It’s a very interesting category and performance of gender and sexuality.

HS: Is overt sexuality, like we see in American pop, part of K-pop?

SS: They do perform sexuality, but differently. It’s not about exposing their bodies.

BK: If it’s an official TV channel, [idols] are very proper because they’re being seen as national heroes. But in concerts, it’s more private. Everyone is a fan, and they control recordings and distribution. In that kind of setting, they kiss. It’s an expected part of teenage girl culture called “fan service.”

KK: There’s a word in Japanese that encompasses that desire for straight females to view [male homosexuality]. A lot of anime is based around that.

SS: We call the stories “BL” for “boy love.”

KK: We wanted to call our band Boy Love. [Laughs.] All these men performing for the female gaze — it’s such an unacknowledged, unexpected thing.

BK: We want to eventually tackle this concept in our project.

HS: It seems like despite the male hierarchy in entertainment companies, young women mostly inform pop cultural trends.

BK: Yes. I see a potential in fan culture around boy bands. I think it’s feminist because, especially in Asian societies, it allows a space for young girls to express sexual desire openly.

KK: To counter that, though, “fangirl” is still a derogatory term. The space is allowed, but then it’s dismissed. Any time a girl is a fan of something, it’s seen as vapid or silly.

BK: I think we’re really trying own that fangirl idea. We are K-pop fangirls, but we’re also making our own band.

HS: How have people unfamiliar with K-pop reacted to the project? 

SS: Non-K-pop people talking about this project are mostly in art. My friends know it’s art, and then after a while, when they realize we’re still doing this, they ask, “Are you guys for real?” It’s very interesting because they think if it’s art, it’s not real. This is a line we’re trying to cross.

KK: Our project really tries to bridge art and pop, but in both camps there’s a dismissal of the other.

BK: People also assume we’re making fun of K-pop or that it’s a parody. But to me, parody is an American concept. In Korea, we don’t really have [it]. It’s not our intention to make fun of something.

We genuinely want to make this work, but at the same time we try not to lose criticality.

EXP will perform at Bowery Electric (327 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) this Thursday, June 16. The group will release its first music video for “Luv/Wrong” this month. For more information on EXP, visit http://www.immakingaboyband.com/.

Korea Times/ Jane Han

Columbia student creates K-pop group in NYC

Getting tired of SHINee, B1A4 and all those other pretty-faced K-pop boy bands? Then meet EXP, the first-ever K-pop group born out of New York City. 

The six-member team, comprised of non-Korean experienced performers who hail from all over the U.S., is definitely not your typical K-pop idol group. But interestingly, it embodies the spirit and basics of a Korean boy band like no other.

How?

The mastermind behind EXP, short for ''experiment,'' has professionally researched, dissected and analyzed everything K-pop group before she just decided to make one herself.

''Yes, it sounds crazy and chaotic, doesn't it?'' Bora Kim, the original producer of EXP, said in an interview with The Korea Times. ''That's because it is a crazy and chaotic project.''


The Columbia University graduate first began an intensive phase of research into K-pop bands and fandoms as part of her thesis in the Masters of Fine Arts program. And then came across what she calls a mad scientist moment.

That's when the entire project became more than a thesis.

''After that moment, I just focused on turning this into a reality,'' said Kim, who quickly teamed up with two others, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, to create ''I'm Making A Boy Band'' (IMMABB), co-produce and bring EXP to where it is now.

Since production officially kicked off in September, IMMABB successfully released its first original single ''Luv/Wrong,'' with both Korean and English lyrics, on iTunes in April.

They staged several performances in New York City and expect more to come. But Kim says EXP's ultimate goal is to go to Korea.

''We want to build our initial career in New York first since we are all based here and have established networks already,'' says Kim, who stresses that members of EXP still need time to master Korean. ''We are at a very early stage of our journey right now but we know that we are, and will continue to be, a hybrid that contains localized globalism and globalized localism at the same time.''

Unlike other K-pop groups that are mainly produced for financial goals, EXP's roots go back to places deeper than money.

''The Korean government has found that for every $100 made in K-pop exports, there's an increase of $400 profit in Korean IT product sales, for example, things like mobile phones,'' Kim said in her Columbia Thesis Show interview. ''And in fact the biggest beneficiaries of the Korean Wave are companies like Samsung and LG.''

''I was interested in K-pop and idol groups on this level initially as I was thinking about cultural flow, or the relationship of dominant culture and peripheral culture, and how that is interwoven with one's identity or one's national identity,'' she explained. ''I wanted to see what would happen if I made American boys into K-pop performers, by teaching them how to sing in Korean and act like Korean boys, and complicate this flow/appropriation even more, since I'm in New York, where so many talents are just one online recruitment ad away.''

Gender role was also another component that intrigued Kim and her partners.

''We were amazed at how the concept of gender operates in K-pop boy bands,'' Kim, who completed her undergrad degree in Sociology at Korea University, said. ''These boys are tailored to attract straight young females, originally, but the presentation of their sexuality is very complicated.''

''A lot of people in the U.S., when encountering K-pop idol groups for the first time, express their confusion about the gender role and sexuality that these boys convey,'' she said. ''For example, a young group of pretty boys with great skin start rapping in a hip-hop music video while wearing a lot of makeup. What does this mean? Who is the target audience? It is totally gender-bending and experimental, but at the same time, it is very typical, mainstream K-pop.''

With all these questions in mind, IMMABB began their casting audition for a three-month period to find each of the six members ― Hunter, David, Sime, Frankie, Koki and Tarion ― of EXP.

''They haven't been trained by a giant talent agency like YG or SM over a span of seven plus years, as typical idol groups would, but they've all been working hard to become actors, singers, models for their whole lives in their own respective ways,'' says Kim, who added that each member is passionate and enthusiastic about learning Korean culture and K-pop.

''Since we don't have a lot of resources to make a K-pop boy band like big corporations, we need our members to be fully devoted and trusted in the project and the band, which of course, they are,'' she said.

Together, IMMABB raised more than $30,000 through an online campaign in May to help fund their music recordings and music video production.

The entire process is being recorded and documented to create a documentary on creating a K-pop group, says Kim.

''I just hope we can find the right moment to stop recording,'' Kim laughed, saying this documentary is one of their long term goals.

''Most importantly, our goal is to create a truly meaningful work that can generate conversation about the world that we live in, but at the same time, not lose the pure energy of entertainment,'' she said.

The Fader/ Elias Leight

These Art Students Are Making A K-Pop Group As A Project

It’s not easy to make your work stand out in a world full of aspiring artists and musicians, but three creatives have figured out a way to create their own lane: last October, Bora Kim decided to put together the “1st+only NYC born K-Pop band” help from Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao. They auditioned and handpicked members of the 6 man group, EXP.

According to the project’s Kickstarter page, the “make a boy band” idea grew from a desire to merge a love for K-Pop with an interest in “how gender is performed in pop culture.” EXP has raised $30,000 to date for recording and making videos. They’ve also got a debut single, “Luv / Wrong,” purchasable on iTunes, and an Instagram account with a couple thousand followers. “The name of EXP came from ‘experiment,’ to emphasize the importance of innovation, risk taking and challenges,” the band’s Kickstarter declares. “More specifically, EXP is influenced by talented K-pop idol groups like EXO, BIG BANG and BTS.”

The similarity between the name EXP and the names of some other K-pop groups has actually been a source of some tension. Koreaboo.com pointed out that some people have been leaving disapproving Instagram comments.

Stay tuned—a mini-album is supposedly in the works. Watch a video about the project, and check out EXP in sharp purple suits below.

Mutzine/ Gissella Ramirez-Valle

EXP: THE K-POP BOY BAND EXPERIMENT

How are artists Bora Kim, Karin Kuroda, and Samantha Y. Shao teaching a group of six multi-ethnic American guys to think, act, and look like a K-pop boy band? MUTZINE takes a closer look at the I'm Making A Boyband project.

Although EXP, short for “Experiment,” was born out of Bora Kim’s Columbia University Master of Fine Arts thesis project, the I’m Making a Boyband (IMMABB) team has ambitions on a greater scale. EXP is a six member K-pop boyband managed by artists Bora Kim, Karin Kuroda, and Samantha Y. Shao. The team has reached the milestones of selecting members, training them, and debuting as a fully formed group in just a few months. Though K-pop groups tend to be in the works for years and are typically produced by entertainment companies with sizable budgets and expansive resources, members Frankie, David, Sime, Hunter, Tarion and Koki were all selected after only three rounds of auditions in November 2014 and made an April 2015 debut, making them an anomaly in their parent industry. They debuted in a short six months.

Kim and the team knew that the essential elements of forming a high quality boyband in any country, expenses aside, are Talent, Good Looks and Chemistry. But what about a K-pop boy band? How were they going to teach a group of six multi-ethnic American guys to think, act, and look like a K-pop boy band? And, beyond that, have Kim or EXP been able to pull this off in either the Korean or American Music Industry?

ACTING LIKE A K-POP BAND

Kim’s Sociology degree from Korea University has helped her tailor a unique ‘training’ curriculum for the EXP members. She has led the members through emotional and mental conditioning to teach them to embody and perform with the characteristics of a K-pop band to come across as a convincing package. Though they perform in Korean, that’s not the sole criteria for being considered a K-pop band. 

Some of the criteria for this type of performance group has been easy for the EXP members. For example, learning how to bring out their own natural charms in combination with their assigned roles for the group hasn’t been too challenging given their backgrounds in show business. What has been challenging for them is learning to be, “fresh, cute, pretty, gender ambiguous, non-threatening, humble, obedient, docile, and hardworking” all at the same time. Learning to perform aegyo and other uniquely Korean fanservice tactics have interfered with their own ideas of masculinity as well.

Kim views this struggle as a good thing since the project aims to challenge America’s views on masculinity and the group’s first pictorial shoot called for them to be playful with each other on an all white set. “They confessed afterwards that were a bit uncomfortable because it was overtly sexual and homoerotic. It definitely pushed them.” reflects Kuroda. The objective for the shoot was to convey a strong affinity with each other, which they successfully pulled off, despite initial qualms.

LOOKING LIKE A K-POP BAND

After laying down the behavioral foundation and nurturing the bonds between the members through Kim’s K-pop Boy Band Bootcamp, it was time to tackle the visual aspects of the group. EXP needed a cohesive look that encompassed the nature of K-pop. 

As fans of K-pop themselves, Kim, Kuroda and Shao have their own preferences and ideas of what works and what doesn’t in terms of wardrobe and makeup choices. “We brought in elements from all over the place,” says Kuroda, “because even if we wanted to plainly mimic, which we don’t, it [the makeup] just wouldn’t work on our boys.”

The IMMABB team found that things looked off when applying eyeliner or eyeshadow to the members, which is common in most K-pop looks. “It just read as goth or parodic,” says Kuroda. "Or drag... Which isn't a problem but they are trying to be K-pop not drag or goth.” Also, the EXP members are debuting at older ages than the average K-pop boy band member, whose younger faces are more accepting of makeup. Compromises can be made however as Kuroda noted, “We know that the K-pop look has to have strong eyebrows, as it accentuates a youthful look, so we were able to work that in.” 

EXP’s debut single "LUV/WRONG" is a powerful dance track, and the IMMABB team wanted performance wear that matched it. They decided that the boys would dress in all black and while there should be cohesion, all of the members should have a distinct look that matched their personas. 

Nick Stryker, a Brooklyn-based fashion designer, approached the IMMABB team after hearing about the project. Stryker primarily produces fetish-wear pieces, but has experience with performance wear and understood the importance of high impact pieces that didn’t interfere with dancing. He presented the team some preliminary sketches of his vision for the group. 

After the discussion, Stryker created the “Culture/Clash” collection for EXP’s debut performance in just two weeks with a self raised budget. Stryker thought it was  important to draw from the source when designing instead of working with modern iterations. “I pulled a lot of things from the history of fashion. Kilts, armor, chain mail... all the way up to football shoulder pads,” laughs Stryker. The result was a sporty, dark-wear collection made up of a mix of elements and materials like leather, mesh, and drapery.

Although Stryker was briefed that the distinct looks should align with the member’s personas, he didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable in their outfits. “I wanted to make sure that they loved what they had to wear. If it makes them uncomfortable the character falls apart.” For inspiration, he took the time to get to know the members, which may be an unorthodox way of doing things in a typical K-pop setting. For Koki, for example, Stryker constructed a leather jacket in order to give him a Batman Beyond look to fit the superhero archetype vibes he got from him.

Through the process of dressing EXP, the IMMABB team has picked up a few useful strategies along the way. “We have learned to dress Koki and David last. They’re professional models and basically everything looks good on them,” laments Kim.

PRESENT/FUTURE

The IMMABB team has recently raised $30,000 through a successful Kickstarter campaign in order to record their first mini-album and music video. They are already thinking of ways to experiment with new looks. 

Most recently, EXP has been selected as the new face for Taiwanese fashion designer Malan Breton, specifically his HOMME collection. In classic boy band fashion, he puts the EXP members in identical vivid suits paired with silver helmets for a funky edge. Breton expressed desire in dressing EXP because the project’s theme of East Meets West resonated with him, as this was also a theme for his film Journey to Taiwan which was a Cannes Film Festival selection.

The I’m Making A Boyband experiment will continue to work on processing how K-pop works outside of the K-pop bubble. Kim, Kuroda and Shao are leading EXP through an authentic K-pop band production process with some slightly skewed end results due to cultural differences as well as external circumstances such as budget limitations.  Nevertheless, the IMMABB team is committed to making their process transparent by holding other engagements in addition to the group’s performances such as livestreams of their studio recording sessions. They are also filming a documentary in order to reveal the full story about how EXP came together.

The future looks bright for IMMABB and EXP. Their #NoSleepTillKorea mantra means their end goal is for the group to become active players in the Korean music industry while also gaining acceptance in the US market. “We are in it for the long haul,” says Kim, and this team definitely seems determined to go the distance.

The I”m Making A BoyBand project is currently exhibiting at "Fl0ating P0int,” a show curated by Paddy Johnson, at the Judith Charles Gallery in New York City. EXP will also be performing at The Bowery Electric on July 16th.

Koream/ James S. Kim #EXP

Meet the Boys of EXP, NYC’s Own K-pop Boy Band

Columbia University student Bora Kim riled up the K-pop world about a month ago when word of her MFA thesis project—a non-Korean boy band named “EXP”spread across the Internet.

The project, “I’m Making a Boy Band” (IMMABB), has been underway since October of last year, and with their official debut single under their belt, EXP is looking forward to their first mini-album in November.

But before that, IMMABB is shooting for $30,000 in funds from Kickstarter by June 7 to help fund the different aspects of the project: music production, the entire creative team and a documentary about the entire project (2017 release date). Backers can expect plenty of incentives, from EXP T-shirts, signed copies of their mini-album, tote bag, tickets to a VIP screening of their documentary and even private karaoke sessions with the guys.

So, the big question: Who exactly are the boys of EXP? The NYC-based IMMABB team auditioned and cast Hunter, Frankie, David, Sime, Tarion and Koki.

KoreAm recently had a chance to exchange emails with the members. Take a look through our conversation below to get a better idea of who they are. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you briefly introduce yourselves, and tell us where you’re from?

Sime: I am originally from Croatia. I was studying music theatre performance here in the States and subsequently decided to make NYC my home.

Tarion: I was born in Washington, D.C., but I grew up in Houston, Texas. (The Land of Queen Bey, I went to her high school!) I’ve been acting, singing and modeling since about the age of three and have been doing it professionally in NYC for about five years.

Koki: I’m a Hong Kong-born, Texas raised, half-Japanese kid living in NYC. I moved to NYC about a year ago, and that’s when I started to focus more on my performing arts career. Modeling, acting, singing and dancing all sort of fell into place as I made my way around the city, and being in a boy band is sort of the best combination of everything.

David: I was born here in Queens, New York City. I have been performing my entire life. I was a professional male model before IMMABB. One day, while I was at work (at Swarovski), I decided to be an actor and pursue more with music. I walked out and haven’t looked back.

(Editor’s note: EXP members Frankie and Hunter’s responses were unavailable for this question.) 

How is the group dynamic? 

Hunter: There are definitely six distinct personalities in the group, but it’s pretty similar to any family. We spend a lot of time together, and can get on each other’s nerves, but are all actual friends. For the most part, I eat. There’s probably more footage of me eating than actual performance footage.

Tarion: I like to think of us as the musical United Nations in the sense that we are all so different and derive from different backgrounds. So, we all throw ideas into the pot and create really multi-dimensional concepts that … represent [each of] our own individual pieces while still being one unit.

David: Having us in the room together is similar to babysitting six very rambunctious toddlers. There is a lot of gibberish, laughing and WHOLE bunch of singing.

Koki: We’re a bunch of weirdos. It works.

Before you became a part of EXP, what were your first reactions when you heard about the goal behind IMMABB? 

Hunter: I was really confused, as I think the other guys were also. Frankie and I were both in boybands before this, so I was kind of thinking “not this again.” It did take some time to come together and understand what we were doing. Also, I was told there would be food, so I was in.

Sime: I wasn’t really sure what to expect. All I knew was that Bora was an artist with a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve.

Frankie: I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into, but when I researched K-pop and discovered this whole other world, I knew I wanted to be part of this movement. I was so fascinated by Bora’s concept and the fact that she had such an amazing team of other talents behind her.

Tarion: Boy band was the LAST thing on my mind. In fact, if I remember correctly, I remember telling a friend that I would never be in one. But for some reason, when I saw the casting call, I was immediately drawn to it. I loved the idea of doing something fresh and new and creating a conversation about bridging cultural gaps.

Koki: I didn’t know if we were actually going to become a boy band, or if everything was just for the documentary. I was super confused. Being in a boy band is one of those things you grow up wanting to be a part of, but forget about later on. I never thought I’d actually get to be in one, but here we are!

David: I understood everything. We are documenting a “possible” boy band. We start out as just a thesis, and if things go accordingly, Bora would invest more time into us and develop the project. She pretty much explained her expectations [to us], but everything that has happened thus far has superseded everything any [of us] could have imagined.

Do you have any favorite K-pop artists?

Koki: My first favorite K-pop group was BTS, but I also love SHINEE (their new album is amazing!). Block B, Got 7, and EXO are the ones I listen to the most right now.

David: Ailee is one of my favorite K-pop artists, as well as BTS—especially Monster. He is such an epic artist!

Tarion: Some of my favorite K-pop groups are JJCC, Girl’s Generation, and Big Bang.

Sime: Although I wasn’t very familiar with K-pop before, in the past year I have grown to love it and appreciate everything about it! Music speaks a universal language. Good music, no matter the form, speaks to me—and as soon as I heard BTS’ beats, I was on board!

What was it like training for “LUV/WRONG,” from the learning the choreography to singing in Korean? 

Hunter: I can hands down say I’m the worst with the learning and singing in Korean. I’m getting better now, but I had a really tough time in the studio trying to get the chorus down. There was food there, so that helped. The dancing took time to come together. We spent a lot of time with our choreographer MJ [to make us] look like a group, and not six individual dancers.

Frankie: Learning Korean is very hard. I’m Portuguese and speak it fluently, as well as a little Spanish. Both are very different than Korean, and the group cracks up at me because at first everything I tried to say in Korean would come out sounding Spanish. Bora works with us individually on the Korean, so it’s like having a private coach.

Koki: I got lucky in terms of learning Korean. I grew up around Japanese, Chinese and Korean speakers, so being able to learn the pronunciation was fairly easy. I need to learn to be more patient and help the rest of the boys though, haha.

David: When I auditioned for the band, I said, “Yes, I can dance.” Throughout the process, I have learned I am more of a freestyler, but MJ has been able to wrangle that in and I am growing more comfortable with [choreography]. Six-hour dance rehearsals back-to-back stretches your body and pushes you a bit mentally, but the finished product—us slaying the dance moves—is a proud moment.

Tarion: If you’ve ever seen the movie Rocky, that’s what our training [looks] like (only without a continuous catchy soundtrack playing throughout our montage). It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. We still have so much to learn and so much room to grow, but we continue to push ourselves every day to get better and better, in some way, shape or form.

What other genres of music do you listen to?

Koki: I’m a sucker for some Frank Sinatra.

David: My favorite genre outside of K-pop would have to be gospel; my voice is heavily influenced by gospel and R&B, a smidge of pop.

Tarion: I am inspired by all genres and listen to a little bit of everything from classical to R&B to country—good music is good music.

Sime: I grew up listening, studying and performing all sorts of music, from classical arias, folk songs, music theater to EDM tracks.

What has been the best part of joining EXP?

Sime: There are so many awesome things about being in (the first!) NYC-born K-Pop group, from the brotherhood that I get to enjoy with the guys to the fact that we are doing something completely different—something no one has done ever before. We are stretching the boundaries and blurring the lines. We are making history here!

David: The best thing about being an NYC-born K-pop group is the fact that NYC is known for being a culture melting-pot, and because we are all extremely different, I feel we represent NYC to its fullest.

Tarion: Being a part of this project has not only broadened my music and cultural palette, but it has also helped me forge a family in NYC and groomed me to be a better person and artist.

What are some memorable moments you’ve had since joining the band?

Frankie: Best moment was our debut performance day. What started off as a stressful day with everything going wrong turned into an amazing day with so much love and support. Being on stage with the guys for the first time with a live audience was a very special moment.

Koki: Getting lost in Flushing, N.Y. while trying to find MJ’s (our awesome K-pop choreographer) dance studio. I convinced David and Tarion that I knew where I was going, and [we] ended up getting on the wrong bus.

David: Koki getting Tarion and myself lost [on our way] to dance rehearsal in Flushing. He swore he knew where he was going. Now, I’ve seen parts of Flushing I never knew existed!

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a group or an individual member? 

Frankie: Learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how to utilize them. [At first], dancing as a group was certainly a struggle because everyone has different backgrounds and levels of dance training. But making us look like one [unit] is and will continue to be one of the hardest parts.

Tarion: We’ve faced a lot of external challenges, which has been a double-edged sword. While each of us felt the sting of cyberbullying in the form of death threats, racial slurs, and homophobic slander, we all supported each other and kept each other lifted it up, so it brought us closer together.

Koki: It’s definitely difficult to keep six guys on task at any time. I’m a bit impatient, and I know it shows, but everyone is brilliant at keeping the ball rolling.

David: I want to say I am more of the quiet one in the group. It’s very hard speaking in the group because everyone has a hundred things to say at the same time, so I have learned to just be quiet and I’m sure someone will say what I was thinking. I had to honestly stop looking at the group as just business and accept [the other members] as family, which has actually helped me open up to each of them way more.

Bora and the team have talked about exploring various social issues of race and representation in media through IMMABB. How does it feel to be “self-aware,” or clearly know the goals of the project while being the project itself?

Frankie: When the documentary comes out, you guys will get to see our reactions to many of the discussions we’ve had about the topics being explored. I forget the cameras are even filming half the time, so being self-aware isn’t something I’ve quite mastered yet, haha!

Tarion: Knowing that the project is a social experiment and what IMMABB is trying to observe in society is something that I think we recognize, but we don’t keep it at the forefront of our minds. I think if we did, then we wouldn’t be present to how we are affected by what happens. We do recap on feelings and moments. Everything is always filmed, so there is footage of very real human responses to [certain topics], but it’s not something we stay continuously aware of.

Koki: There are definitely times when we are self-aware, but most of the time we are just ourselves. We don’t have assigned characters or images so we’re literally just being normal, but in a boy band.

Koream/ James S. Kim #IMMABB

Meet the Team Behind EXP: “I’m Making a Boy Band”

Columbia University student Bora Kim riled up the K-pop world about a month ago when word of her MFA thesis project–a non-Korean boy group named “EXP”–spread across the web. Titled “I’m Making a Boy Band,” or IMMABB, Kim’s project has been underway since October of last year.

It’s hard to believe, but the minds behind IMMABB aren’t part of a huge talent agency in South Korea. Instead, the band’s producers primarily consist of three people: Kim, an interdisciplinary artist and sociologist from Seoul; Karin Kuroda (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013); and Samantha Shao (Maastricht University, Netherlands, 2013).

They each have their individual duties, from overseeing editorial content, social media, research, budgeting and marketing–all while looking forward to EXP’s first mini-album in November and finishing up the “I’m Making a Boy Band” documentary next year.

To help cover the costs of the mini-album, IMMABB is asking for $30,000 in funds fromKickstarter by June 7. Backers can expect plenty of incentives, from EXP T-shirts, signed copies of their mini-album, tote bag, tickets to a VIP screening of their documentary and even private karaoke sessions with the guys.

KoreAm caught up with the IMMABB team for a quick conversation regarding their initial reaction to the controversy surrounding EXP, as well as a glimpse into their future plans.

There must be a lot going on with the band’s training, documenting the project, producing the music and other responsibilities. How big is the team working on the project? 

IMMABB: It must be hard to believe because people keep asking us that question! But it is really just the three of us! Bora, Karin and Sam. [As] for the music, dance, video, photo, we bring in artists who really believe in the project and become collaborators. This is why we started the Kickstarter campaign. We want to give our collaborators what they deserve for their amazing work and hard efforts.

You’ve mentioned your surprise at the reactions and controversy in the media once the Internet heard about EXP. What were some of your immediate observations you had in how many of these outlets presented EXP?

IMMABB: When the controversy first occurred, there was a K-pop forum website that asked “Who’s more handsome? EXO or EXP?” After you answered that question, it asked “Why?” and it gave two options: “I like Asian men” OR “I like white/black men.”

This has been one of the most striking products of the controversy; to this day, we still contemplate what that dichotomy really does, in addition to having “white/black men” as one category. It isn’t clear if the person who posted the question was “Korean” or “Western” or both or neither. It doesn’t matter to us because it generated really interesting dialogues about K-pop and identity politics, amongst [K-pop] fans and our peers (who are also fans).

Though we knew the topic of sexualities would come up, I think we were also quite surprised (and saddened) at the amount of homophobia generated by commenters. Many of these hate comments are from actual K-pop fans (judging by their social media profiles), and it’s interesting because K-pop stars are often called “gay” or “too girly” or “weak” by people who are not familiar with K-pop. These comments imply to us that K-pop boys can do things while our boys cannot do those same things.

What are some of the different approaches in how you will be promoting EXP to Korean audiences?

IMMABB: We haven’t started promoting EXP to our Korean audience yet but the Korean audience who have seen our English content have given us great feedback! We are getting scouting offers from different Asian companies, including ones in Korea, so we think we’ll be in Korea soon.