This year’s KCON 2019 NY Presented by Toyota saw no shortage of impressive idols both at the convention itself and on stage at Madison Square Garden. At the Javits Centre, attendees had a chance to run into their favorite groups on the convention floor, on the KCON stage, and of course at fan engagement opportunities.
But early on day one of KCON NY in a panel room deep in the Javits was another K-pop group that didn’t have any idols at all. The panel’s title proposed a question: “What’s an Alternative K-Pop Group?” There to answer were San Yawn, Omega Sapien, and Sogumm of Balming Tiger.
Balming Tiger are a collective comprising Omega Sapien and Sogumm, producers San Yawn and Unsinkable, DJ Abyss and filmmaker Jan’qui. With the goal of representing society’s younger generation, the group draw from various musical influences through their work while grounding their sound in hip-hop, which can be heard in their first mixtape Balming Tiger vol.1 : 虎媄30. The members produce individual work as well, showing the mutability of the group’s sound and identity.
Given Balming Tiger’s open and flexible approach to music, why would they choose to identify themselves as an alternative K-pop group? Isn’t K-pop idol music by definition? Omega Sapien, the resident English spokesperson and “third-culture kid” of the trio, had a straightforward answer: “[K-pop] really just means popular music in Korea. And there’s a lot of different kinds of popular music in Korea.”
The statement might seem reductive of all the factors that make K-pop what it is, but to some degree, he isn’t exactly wrong. On streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, Korean indie, R&B, hip hop and more can be found in the K-pop category. And musically, K-pop might just be the perfect match for Balming Tiger’s artistic philosophy.
“When you say ‘K-pop,’ music-wise there’s not really a certain genre,” Omega Sapien said. “You can’t just pinpoint, ‘Oh, K-pop is electronic music-based’ or “oh, K-pop is ballad-based,’ because K-pop is everything.”
There are good reasons to embrace the K-pop label that are also practical. By purposefully using a label that’s long carried a negative connotation in the Korean music sphere, the group are able to distinguish themselves as opposed to boxing themselves into one category.
“Hip hop music in Korea is very mono, like there’s only one way to be a rapper,” explained Omega Sapien. “And we’re doing this weird crazy stuff, and a lot of people, even the big artists come up to us and be like, ‘Wow, you guys are really inspiring, I really should, you know, do something different and be alternative about it.’ So I think we’re having a positive impact on the Korean music industry.”
Just because Balming Tiger labels itself an alternative K-pop group now, it doesn’t mean that label didn’t take some getting used to. “It took a little convincing, but now we’re all believing it, and this guy made it happen,” Omega Sapien said of producer San Yawn, who helps craft Balming Tiger’s musical direction.
“I only learned Balming Tiger was an alternative K-pop group as we were doing interviews,” Sogumm shared, to the amusement of the other members and the audience. But thankfully she didn’t have any problem going along with it.
“I thought it was refreshing. Lots of people who do hip-hop only think of K-pop’s negatives or write it off as a genre. From a business perspective we think it’s smart too, since when it comes to the fans, we can reach more people more easily.”
K-pop’s benefits notwithstanding, carrying the “K-pop group” label might not be so easy as simply deciding to be one. After all, it’s hard to imagine a K-pop group officially releasing a track like “Pop the Tag,” Omega Sapien’s most recent single. In it, he embodies youth rebellion through violence, stealing, and “messing with old people.”
And even if the content of the work itself is squeaky clean, there’s still the question of artistic freedom. More and more, idols are participating in their craft in various ways, from producing, songwriting, to even creating the art that goes on their album covers. But by and large, most idols are expected to conform to the artistic vision created by their company.
Having the freedom to control their creative direction is crucial to Balming Tiger. Would they consider signing with a big company? “We’ve rejected some offers,” shared San Yawn.
Despite how difficult it may be for a group like Balming Tiger to adopt the K-pop label, there’s a lot to be gained from trying. After all, non-idol artists continue to have successful tours here, with hip hop artists like DPR and Sik-K and soloists like Heize coming stateside in the last year alone. That’s a whole audience of fans who are gaining interest in the Korean music scene outside of K-pop– an audience Balming Tiger is ready to captivate.
When asked if the group is trying to reach out to K-pop fans or hip-hop fans, Omega Sapien answered, “We’re trying to get them all. Because we were performing in a very underground French music festival a month ago, and now I’m at KCON.”
And while crews like Balming Tiger can learn from the positives of K-pop, by broadening the definition of that label, it’s possible K-pop might have something to gain from other genres as well. An example: it’s a harsh reality that often, adhering to a strict set of beauty standards can be more important than the work itself in the pop sphere, and K-pop is no exception.
But when asked whether she feels pressured about her looks, Sogumm was able to answer in a hopeful manner: “Thankfully, through the process it’s taken me to get here, people haven’t looked at that side of things. Rather, they compliment my tracks, they compliment the lyrics I write, they compliment the activities I’ve done, so naturally I’ve gained confidence in what I have inside instead of what’s on the outside.” That’s something every performer should be able to feel about their work, idol or not.
It may be too soon to tell whether Balming Tiger will succeed in their mission to expand the definition, but in the meantime they show an openness to continuing to bridge the divide between their spheres. Some dream idol collaborations?
“Jackson Wang,” said Omega Sapien.
“Mark of NCT,” quipped San Yawn. “I love him.”
In short, they’re open-minded. Omega Sapien summed up their criteria: “Anyone who’s open like us and willing to collab, anytime.”