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WATCH: The SA starter guide to K-pop music - BTS, Red Velvet, EXO and more

Members of South Korean K-pop girl group Red Velvet. Picture: Twitter

Members of South Korean K-pop girl group Red Velvet. Picture: Twitter

Published Sep 6, 2018


Music has always crossed boundaries regardless of language, as many Latin-American songs have gone global, with some of their singers going on to be global superstars. Artists like Selena, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have gone to be big stars because of their music crossing over to reach the world.

In the last few months songs like "Despacito", "Mi Gente" and "I Like It" from rap sensation Cardi B have been hitting the South African airwaves and leaving many people singing along to these Latin-American songs.

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While these hip-swaying tracks will continue to permeate our musical landscape, the next musical genre making an impact into popular culture is K-pop.

K-pop is short for Korean pop music, and unlike traditional music groups, the setup of the music industry is vastly different from the majority of the music coming from boy and girl groups.

While the rise of K-pop has been arguably a long time coming given the massive globalisation that has taken place with many parts of the world connecting via social media, there isn't really one big moment where K-pop music has established itself, but rather smaller moments building on one another.

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That said, there was one major tipping point for pop culture and that was Psy's famous and party favourite: "Gangnam Style".

While Psy's song became popular for its comedic nature, this style of song is not your typical K-pop fair. What has made K-pop music become such a popular culture craze is the impressive pop beats, the level of talent and hard work, along with the attractiveness of the performers.

Added to that is the intensity, and dedication involved to become a K-pop star or "idols" as they are also called.

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Many who aspire to be K-pop idols often face years and years of training, and that doesn't even ensure that they will get the opportunity to debut as artists. Trainees are put through their paces, honing their skills in singing, dancing and rapping all trying to make it.

They also have language classes dependent on the label and company. A lot of these groups don't only debut in Korea but Japan, and other countries as well.

Only the talented make it to debut, and if they're lucky they go on to be successful. People have found themselves falling in love with these young popstars’ hard work ethic, and the intense level of spectacle that has allowed K-pop to cross over into the mainstream.

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Many groups are increasingly finding their way onto the Billboard charts, and then going on to making it big in America. This in turn then has a trickle-down effect and impacts the South African music charts.

First, it started with these songs getting airplay on university radio stations, but now even big-time stations have 30 minutes slots designated to the growing popular culture craze.

Here are 10 K-pop groups that work as a beginners guide to music's latest obsession:

1. BTS

BTS, (Bangtan Boys or "bulletproof boy scouts" in Korean), is a seven-member South Korean boy band formed by Big Hit Entertainment.

BTS performs a blend of energetic dance-pop and hip-hop that helped them build a global following.

The group's lineup includes RM (Kim Namjoon), team leader and rapper; Jin (Kim Seokjin), singer; Suga (Min Yoongi), rapper; J-Hope (Jung Hoseok), rapper and choreographer; Jimin Park, singer and choreographer; V (Kim Taehyung), singer; and Jungkook Jeon, singer, rapper, and choreographer. The group members also produce, compose, and write their lyrics themselves.

2. Red Velvet

Red Velvet is a girl group formed by SM Entertainment. The group debuted on August 1, 2014, with their digital single "Happiness" and with four members: Irene, Seulgi, Wendy and Joy. In March 2015, Red Velvet added a fifth member, Yeri.

Red Velvet is known for their dual concept which wasn't widely seen before among South Korean girl groups. These two concepts are dubbed their "red" and "velvet" sides which influences both their image and the music they release. The "red" half is their brighter and bubblier pop side while their "velvet" image is their softer, more mature and elegant concept that release RnB influenced songs.

3. EXO

EXO is a South Korean–Chinese boy band formed by SM Entertainment in 2011 and debuted in 2012. The group is based in Seoul with nine members: Suho, Baekhyun, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai, Sehun, Xiumin, Lay and Chen.

Their music utilizes genres including pop, hip-hop and R&B, alongside electronic dance music genres including house, trap and synth-pop. Like many other K-pop acts, EXO releases and performs music in Korean, Mandarin and Japanese.

4. Twice

Twice was formed by JYP Entertainment through the 2015 reality show Sixteen. The group is composed of nine members: Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Jihyo, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, and Tzuyu.

Within 19 months after debut, Twice has sold over 1.2 million units of their four EPs and special album. The group officially debuted in Japan on June 28, 2017, under Warner Music Japan with the release of their first compilation album titled #Twice.

5. Super Junior

Super Junior, also known as SJ or SUJU, was formed on November 6, 2005 by producer Lee Soo-man of S.M. Entertainment, the group comprised a total of thirteen members at one point. Super Junior originally debuted with twelve members, consisting of leader Leeteuk, Heechul, Hangeng, Yesung, Kangin, Shindong, Sungmin, Eunhyuk, Donghae, Siwon, Ryeowook and Kibum. Kyuhyun joined the group in 2006.

Super Junior launched into international recognition following the release of their best-selling single "Sorry, Sorry" in 2009, the title song of their most critically successful album, Sorry, Sorry.

Over the years, as people have left the group they have also been divided into smaller groups, simultaneously targeting different music industries and audiences. Individually, the members have also branched out into hosting, presenting and acting and their successes and popularity as all-rounded entertainers have led other Korean entertainment managements to begin training their music groups in other aspects of the entertainment industry.


BLACKPINK was formed by YG Entertainment, consisting of members Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa.

The group debuted on August 8, 2016, with their single Square One, which spawned their first number-one single in their home country, "Whistle." The single also included "Boombayah," their first number one on Billboard World Digital Songs chart, which set the record as the most-viewed debut music video by a Korean act.

Much like Red Velvet, their name highlights the different side of the group's personality and style of music they perform.

7. NCT

NCT was formed by SM Entertainment. Their name stands for Neo Culture Technology, a term coined by SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man to describe the group's concept of having an unlimited number of members divided into multiple sub-units based in various cities worldwide.

The group's first unit, NCT U, made their debut on April 9, 2016, with the digital singles "The 7th Sense" and "Without You". The second unit, NCT 127, based in Seoul, made their debut on July 7, 2016, with the mini album NCT #127. The third unit, NCT Dream, made their debut on August 24, 2016, with the digital single "Chewing Gum". The 4th unit, unofficially dubbed NCT China, is set to debut in the lower half of 2018. It was reported that subsequent units were to debut based in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

As of February 2018, the group consists of 18 members: Taeil, Johnny, Taeyong, Yuta, Kun, Doyoung, Ten, Jaehyun, Winwin, Jungwoo, Lucas, Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Chenle, and Jisung, creating NCT 2018.

8. Monsta X

Monsta X was formed by Starship Entertainment through the 2015 Mnet survival show “No Mercy”.

The group's name, "Monsta X", contains the double meaning of "monsters conquering the K-pop scene" and "my star" (Mon means "My" in French). The X symbolizes an unknown existence

The group is composed of seven members: Wonho, Minhyuk, Hyungwon, Jooheon, Kihyun, Shownu and I.M. The group debuted on 14 May 2015 with their first EP Trespass. In March 2017, Monsta X released their first studio album.


SEVENTEEN was formed by Pledis Entertainment in 2015. The group consists of thirteen members divided into three sub-units, each with a different area of specialization: a 'Hip-Hop Unit', 'Vocal Unit', and 'Performance Unit'. SEVENTEEN has released two studio albums and five extended plays.

The group's members are deeply involved in the composition and production of their discography and choreography and have been since before their debut, which prompted their nickname as a "self-producing" idol group.

10. iKON

iKON was formed in 2015 by YG Entertainment. The group was first introduced in the reality survival program WIN: Who is Next as "Team B." After that, Team B went on to appear in the 2014 reality survival program Mix & Match, which determined the final seven-member lineup of iKon: B.I, Bobby, Jinhwan, Ju-ne, Yunhyeong, Donghyuk and Chanwoo.

The group released their debut studio album Welcome Back (2015), which debuted atop the South Korean Gaon Album Chart and produced many number-one singles. The album was commercially a success, selling 260,000 copies in Asia, and while individual songs sold 4.8 million copies.


These K-pop groups are larger than most Western boy and girl bands.

One of the reasons is because it allows them to be divided into sub-units, but another reason is to explore different themes.

Most of the time sub-units are created to explore more concepts. Example, the rap line of a group wanting to create particular rap music. Or certain members of a group wanting to explore a particular genre that doesn't really fit into the overall concept or look of their group.

Sub-units are also created due to other members' schedules.

Because of the level of intensity and tough competition in the industry, the groups face a lot of criticism when people feel they aren't doing their best.

To be a Korean pop idol, children may start training from as young as 13-years-old in some instances but it does vary across the board. Some are trainees for 6 months, while others are trainees for years.

The male groups have an added difficulty to contend with as South Korea has mandatory military service. Typically around the ages of 25-28, the men will have to enter the military for their two-year military conscription. Because of this, the guys usually debut at a younger age.

There has been a recent controversy in the K-pop music industry, because while there is a big fan homo-erotic culture that helps propel the groups, especially the boys, into stardom South Korea is still very conservative.

An artist, named Holland, made waves given that he is the first openly gay idol.

Happy listening, and hopefully this list helped you find a K-pop group that you can enjoy.


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