At a bar in Euljiro, certainly one of Seoul’s up-and-coming hip neighborhoods, two voices intertwined in a duet. One was high-pitched, the opposite an octave decrease.
However there was just one singer, a 27-year-old named jiGook. The opposite voice was a recording made years in the past, earlier than he started his transition and hormone remedy deepened his voice.
“I don’t need to overlook about my previous self,” he instructed the 50 or so individuals on the efficiency, a fund-raiser for a bunch that helps younger L.G.B.T.Q. Koreans. “I like myself earlier than I began hormone remedy, and I like myself as who I’m now.”
Like many different South Korean singers, jiGook, who considers himself gender fluid, transmale and nonbinary, needs to be a Ok-pop star. So do Prin and SEN, his bandmates in QI.X, a fledgling group that has launched two singles.
What makes them uncommon is that they’re proudly out — of their music, their relationship with their followers and their social activism. They name themselves one of many first overtly queer, transgender Ok-pop acts, and their mission has as a lot to do with altering South Korea’s still-conservative society as with making music.
Within the group’s title — pronounced by spelling out the letters — Q stands for queer, I for idol and X for limitless prospects. Park Ji-yeon, the Ok-pop producer who began QI.X, says it’s “tearing down the heteronormative partitions of society.”
Only a few Ok-pop artists, or South Korean entertainers basically, have ever been open about being lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transgender or queer. Although the nation has change into considerably extra accepting of sexual range, homophobia continues to be prevalent, and there aren’t any authorized protections towards discrimination.
For entertainers, popping out is seen as a possible profession killer, stated Cha Woo-jin, a music critic in Seoul. That applies even to Ok-pop, regardless of its younger, more and more worldwide fan base and its occasional flirtation with androgyny and same-sex attraction.
“Ok-pop followers appear to just accept the queer group and imagery as long as their favourite stars don’t come out explicitly,” Mr. Cha stated.
That’s not a compromise that QI.X is prepared to make.
The bandmates’ social media accounts, which promote their causes together with their music, are up entrance about who they’re. So are their singles, “Lights Up” (“The hidden colours in you / I see all the colours in you”) and “Stroll & Shine,” which Mx. Park says “celebrates the lives and pleasure of minorities.”
“Sometime, we need to be on everybody’s streaming playlist,” stated Prin, 22.
As a producer, Mx. Park, 37, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, has labored on hits for well-known Ok-pop acts like GOT7 and Monsta X. However she needed to make music that spoke on to individuals like her, with “an artist who might encapsulate our lives, love, friendships and farewells.”
She met among the QI.X members by way of a Ok-pop music class she began in 2019, designed with queer performers in thoughts. (In different lessons, she stated, “It was assumed that feminine members solely needed to be taught girl-group songs and male members solely boy-group songs.”)
SEN, 23, stated that when Mx. Park requested her to affix QI.X, “it was as if a genie in a bottle had come to me.”
SEN had been a dancer and a choreographer for a number of Ok-pop administration companies, together with BTS’s company, Large Hit Leisure, now referred to as HYBE. The individuals she labored with knew she was queer, they usually have been welcoming.
However each time she auditioned to affix an idol group, she stated, she “by no means match the invoice for what they needed.” Folks would say she was too brief or boyish, or remark about her cropped hair.
That’s not a difficulty for QI.X, which doesn’t aspire to the immaculately styled look of the standard Ok-pop act (and, in any case, couldn’t afford the ensemble of stylists these teams have). Individuality, they are saying, is a part of the purpose.
QI.X usually performs at fund-raisers, for L.G.B.T.Q. and different causes, and sees its music as inseparable from its activism. Maek, for example, an authentic member who sang on each singles however is on hiatus from the group, works for the Seoul Disabled Folks’s Rights Movie Competition and volunteers for a transgender rights group.
With no help from a administration company, Mx. Park and the group do all the things themselves. They deal with their very own bookings and handle their social media presence, recording movies themselves to publish on TikTok and Instagram.
Lots of the movies are shot at LesVos, an L.G.B.T.Q. bar in Seoul that always serves as QI.X’s studio and rehearsal corridor. Myoung-woo YoonKim, 68, who has run LesVos because the late Nineteen Nineties, grew up at a time when lesbians have been virtually invisible in South Korea. “I’d usually suppose, ‘Am I the one lady who loves girls?” they stated.
The QI.X members adore Mx. YoonKim, whom they name hyung, a Korean phrase for older brother. Throughout a current video session at LesVos, after dozens of more and more comical lip-syncing takes of “Stroll & Shine,” Mx. YoonKim began to affix in. Earlier than lengthy, everybody was bent over with laughter.
To an informal observer of Ok-pop, it may appear stunning that so few of its artists are out. As Mr. Cha, the music critic, notes, L.G.B.T.Q. imagery has been recognized to floor in K-pop videos and in adverts that includes its stars.
Some critics see this phenomenon as “queerbaiting,” a cynical try to draw nonconformist followers — or to deploy gender-bending imagery as a result of it’s seen as fashionable — with out really figuring out with them. To Mr. Cha, it means that Ok-pop has a considerable queer fan base, and that some artists may merely be expressing their identities to the extent they will.
Mr. Cha thinks the taboo towards entertainers’ popping out displays a common perspective towards popular culture in South Korea: “We pay for you, subsequently don’t make us uncomfortable.” (Related attitudes appear to prevail in Japan, the place one pop idol not too long ago made information by telling followers he was homosexual.)
QI.X’s followers, who name themselves QTZ (a play on “cuties”), love the group for charging over that boundary. Many are abroad and observe the group on-line, leaving enthusiastic messages. “I’m so pleased I can lastly have an artist within the Ok-pop trade that I can relate to on a gender degree, on a queer degree,” one stated in a video message to the group. “I’m so excited for you!”
The band additionally will get hateful messages, which its members do their greatest to disregard. Prin, 22, is optimistic that attitudes in South Korea are altering. (Becoming a member of QI.X was Prin’s means of popping out as gender queer, however associates have been far more shocked by the information that Prin was in an idol group.)
The largest present of QI.X’s profession, to date, was in July at a Satisfaction occasion, the Seoul Queer Tradition Competition. In recent times, it had been held at Seoul Plaza, a significant public sq.. However this yr, town denied organizers permission to carry it there, letting a Christian group use the house for a youth live performance as a substitute.
Activists noticed that as discrimination, although town denied it. Conservative Christians are a robust pressure in South Korean politics, having lobbied efficiently for years to dam a invoice that might forestall discrimination towards homosexual, lesbian and transgender individuals. Organizers held the competition in Euljiro.
For its set, QI.X had about 20 backup performers, a few of whom have been their associates (Mx. YoonKim was certainly one of them). They’d rehearsed solely as soon as collectively, on the competition stage that morning, as a result of they hadn’t had the cash to hire a giant studio.
Christian protesters have been picketing the competition, some with indicators that learn “Homosexuality not human rights however SIN.” However followers have been there, too. As QI.X sang “Lights Up” and “Stroll & Shine,” a whole bunch crowded in entrance of the stage, many carrying headbands that have been purple, the group’s colour. There have been Satisfaction flags, and indicators that learn “We solely see you QI.X.”
Hours later, the thrill nonetheless hadn’t pale for QI.X. “I felt alive for the primary time shortly,” SEN stated.