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K-Pop fans from near and far descend on KCON in Irvine

by Josie Huang | Take Two

Huang Zi Tao of the group EXO-M was one of many pop superstars at KCON, the United States' first convention for Korean pop music, at the Verizon Ampitheatre in Irvine, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 13. Tao is part of the Chinese wing of the pan-Asian supergroup. Grant Slater/KPCC

Millions of Americans got their first taste of Korean pop with the song by "Gangnam Style" by PSY. You’ve heard the song at the ballpark, on the Internet, even on this very radio station, but K-POP is much more than "Gangnam Style."

The genre already has loyal legions of fans across the United States. More than 9,000 of them descended on the Verizon Amphitheater in Irvine this weekend for one of the largest K-POP events ever held outside Korea. And as KPCC’s Josie Huang discovered, a celebration of Korean culture turned out to be a very multicultural affair.


The star-studded concert isn’t until night, but by morning, thousands of fans are already pressed shoulder-to-shoulder. There are autograph signings with music idols, K-POP dance, and singing contests.

KCON is filled with fans whose love for catchy KPOP tunes and eye-candy singers surmounts language barriers, and predates "Gangnam Style."

Eighteen-year-old Thalia Astello from Lawton, Okla., was first in line to get her CD signed by members of B.A.P. They walk into the autograph tent, wearing coordinated jackets and heavy mousse - and the crowd goes wild.

Astello emerged, smiling and shaking.

”I was just so excited that I forgot the very the very little Korean that I know," Astello said. "But I did get to tell Junhong (a.k.a. Zelo) Happy birthday because his birthday is in a few days.”

Then there’s Chula Vista resident, Peter Yeager. He was at KCON as part of a 54th birthday present from his two daughters, who first introduced him to KPOP. They're fangirls, but his presence is a little surprising considering he usually listens to German industrial metal bands like Rammstein.

”It’s happy and upbeat music, whereas some of that other stuff I listen to – not so happy," Yeager said.

There were so many others, like the three sisters who drove 11 hours from Apache County, Ariz., and the 17-year-old girl who came by herself from Mexico City. There's the cashier from Springfield, Mo. who saved up months for the trip. All came from places with tiny to non-existent Korean communities. K-POP has taken hold in those places, largely thanks to the Internet.

“And that’s giving direct access to all these people for free," said Andrea Kim, better known as Shin-B, a bilingual hip-hop artist who’s worked with K-POP producers in Korea.

"It’s just over-the-top and it’s so extravagant and they get sucked into the high production value," Kim said.
 
Now, some non-Koreans are even trying to become part of the K-POP phenomenon.
 
David Lehre, a.k.a. Chad Future, is a 20-something performer and comedic filmmaker based in LA. He’s one of several white K-POP performers at KCON.

"When I saw those videos and how big they were, how exciting they were, I was like, this is what I want to do and everybody said to me, ‘You can’t do K-POP, because you’re not Korean and I was like well, Why?" said Lehre.

Earlier this year, he debuted his new single "Hello," in which he raps a little in Korean. The reviews from K-POP fans skeptical of his act have not been kind.

As I walk the grounds of KCON, I notice most fans are Asian — of Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese descent — but there aren’t many Koreans. It dawns on me that non-Koreans far outnumber Koreans here. Lydia Kim, a volunteer with KCON's organizer, Mnet, noticed it too. She, for one, is more into Maroon 5 than K-POP, but Kim was impressed by how much non-Korean fans know about Korean culture.  
 
"Honestly, it makes me kind of proud to be Korean to see a culture that so many different races want to be a part of and really admires," said Kim.
 
Nightfall came, and it was time for the big concert, which included performances by Hyuna – the pop star with a cameo in the "Gangnam Style" video. But some of the evening’s loudest screams were reserved for a new band.
 
EXO-M members sing in English, Korean, and Mandarin. The band’s trying to tap into the massive Chinese market, but it’s apparently also doing quite well among American audiences if the sing-alongs at KCON were any indication.

So, as if learning Korean isn’t hard enough, fans of EXO-M will have to learn Chinese, too.

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