Multicultural groups and international collaborations are reshaping the K-pop industry beyond Korean borders
JYP new multicultural and multiracial girl group girl group VCHA’s member Savanna (17), with dark skin and curly hair, spent 7 years as a gymnast in the United States before switching to K-pop after an elbow injury. With her strong dance skills and positive energy, she captures attention. Savanna made it into the final debut lineup of VCHA through the ‘A2K’ (America to Korea) audition held by JYP Entertainment and the American label Republic Records.
All the members of VCHA are teenagers. In addition to Savanna from the United States, they have diverse backgrounds such as Camila from the Hispanic community in Canada, Lexus from Southeast Asia, and Kaylee of Korean descent. They are also preparing for their debut promotions on Korean music shows.
The MV for VCHA’s pre-debut single ‘Y.O.Universe,’ released on September 22nd, attracted positive comments in various languages such as English, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish on YouTube. Producer Park Jinyoung introduced it as a song with a message of “unity through diversity.” He said, “All the participants are so different, but that’s what makes it special.”
Of course, there have been previous attempts at exporting the K-pop system, mostly in Asian markets such as Japan and China. This includes NCT China’s sub-unit WayV from SM Entertainment, China’s boy group Boy Story from JYP, local Japanese girl group NiziU, Japan’s boy group &TEAM from HYBE Japan, and JO1 from CJ ENM.
Recent collaborations with major American labels are gaining prominence. The global girl group survival project ‘The Debut: Dream Academy,’ jointly organized by HYBE and Geffen Records, held auditions in 12 cities worldwide, selecting 20 finalists. It proudly showcases participants from diverse origins like Sweden, Georgia, Belarus, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, the Philippines, Switzerland, Slovakia, and more, which have rarely been seen in K-pop groups until now.
This trend underscores the high interest in the global music industry towards K-pop. Nicole Kim, Vice President at Columbia Music said, “The collaboration between JYP and HYBE in the United States is still in the experimental stage. Many local record labels are paying attention because K-pop has produced global artists like BTS and BLACKPINK through the K-pop system.”
The Thai girl group Roseberry, active in Thailand, came to Korea last year through the 2022 Co-Prosperity Growth Starter program by the Korean International Cultural Exchange Promotion Institute, where they received K-pop training in dance, singing, and Korean language. They released a song titled ‘Butterfly’ mixed with Korean.
There are also cases where groups have foreign members active in Korea. The 3-year-old group Black Swan under the small agency DR Music is a notable example. They are known for being the first K-pop group with Black and Indian members, singing in Korean and identifying themselves as a “K-pop group.”
Music critic Lim Heeyoon interpreted this trend as a recognition in the industry that there is demand for “local members who resemble the consumers themselves” as K-pop becomes consumed in the global market beyond Asia. She explained, “K-pop is characterized more by its system and personnel composition than its musical characteristics.”
In the future, there is a need to incorporate diverse cultural backgrounds more effectively. A representative of the industry pointed out, “The recent North American collaborative projects have tended to emphasize the companies and producers rather than the participants.”
Despite the intent to pursue diversity, there are limitations as the diverse individuality of applicants is sometimes flattened within the K-pop system. Critic Lim noted, “K-pop’s content and brand identity are not clear, as it relies on each company’s imperial system.”
The question of whether K-pop can still be called ‘K-pop’ without Korean members or without being produced by Korean companies or producers remains a topic of debate. Kim Yoonha, a popular music critic, commented, “Looking at the various facets of K-pop, such as music, performance, production, and marketing personnel, it’s now meaningless to discuss ‘K’ in terms of whether it’s from Korea or includes Koreans.”
Some interpretations suggest that K-pop should be viewed not as the culture of one country but as a profitable industrial model. Music critic Cha Woojin explained, “K-pop has established a structure that creates super fandoms and increases revenue through album sales, tours, and merchandise sales. This model can also be applied to foreign markets or other genres such as jazz and classical music.”