There are a few things about Holland that are almost immediately noticeable: he smiles with his eyes, is very transparent with his body language. He leans forward to listen better, comes closer to enunciate a point, looks straight at you when he talks, accepting you openly. He’s a big ball of energy that pulses and projects intermittently. He fidgets in his chair, turns again and again, bounces a little when he’s excited. The movement makes his shirt switch from purple to pink to purple again in the light.
Holland is open and limitless. His world is free: whoever knocks at the door is welcome. You want to be friends? Come on in! You’re having a hard time? Well, we’ll see what we can do to change that! Most of all, he reflects a generation struggling with themselves, carries their weight on his shoulders, represents them in his words and music and vision.
“Growing up, I had a hard time having to kind of hide my story,” he says, through his translator. “I wanted somebody -- like in Hollywood or a celebrity -- to look up to, that had a similar story to mine. Then I wanted to be that person.” And so he became Holland, K-pop’s first openly gay star.
Holland, born Go Tae Seob, was introduced to the world last year with the release of his single Neverland, a song about wanting to escape reality to a place where love was free of fear and judgment. It was soft beats, muted palettes, and soft kisses between Holland and his co-star, a male model.
Holland was born in South Korea, a notoriously homophobic country. The 2018 Human Rights Watch on South Korea commented on the government’s erasure of sexual minorities, and the South Korean constitution does not specifically mention homosexuality, same as the country’s updated sex education guidelines. While campaigning in 2017, South Korea's current president Moon Jae-In said that he “opposed homosexuality”.
In the same year -- after a video of two servicemen having sex was uploaded on the internet -- South Korean military cracked down on gay and bisexual soldiers. Later, a military court sentenced an army captain to six months in prison for having consensual relations with another man. As recently as 2018, the first queer fest organised in the port city of Incheon turned violent after Christian protestors attacked the LGBT members participating.
And Neverland came at a price for Holland, too. The video was certified 19+ for featuring a kiss between two men, and was banned from mainstream television -- usually a death knell for a budding star. As he reflects on it now, though, he realises that it was bigger than that. “I wanted to share my story, to say that I have the same feelings, the same experiences as other people. I wanted to show that by actually becoming the singer I’ve always dreamed of becoming. That was the reason I wanted to be a healing force for other people,” he says.
It worked like magic. Notwithstanding the radio silence on mainstream networks, Neverland raked up 11 million views on YouTube, propelling him into the global consciousness. He followed that up with two singles: I’m So Afraid and I’m Not Afraid, two connected lyrical works that journeyed from submission to acceptance. Despite the success of his work, though, it was hard not to wonder: what next? Holland was completely independent, but sustainability demanded a constant churn-out of new work, a roadblock that couldn’t be overcome without the backing of an agency.
In the end, it was fan-support that came through: in 2018, Holland announced a crowdfunding initiative on MyMusicTaste to help produce his mini-album. Within hours, the project had reached 50% of its $50,000 goal. By the time it closed, Harlings -- Holland’s fans -- had raised over $108,000.
“It was all actually done through the support of the fans. I am very, very thankful,” Holland says. “Fans were first able to raise funds on MyMusicTaste, and I used it to produce merchandise and then actually the music and music video, production and everything. I was able to develop the concept.”
He doesn’t sugarcoat it, though: making his eponymous mini-album, Holland, was stressful and hard work. Inspiration and artistry have never been mutually exclusive. Creators require a community, a constant back-and-forth of similar dialogue that begets new streams of ideas. In this case, Holland wasn’t much different to a lot of K-pop fans: he longed for representation, someone like him who was making music and talking to people about things that mattered to him.
“There wasn’t a good role model or a single success story that I could use as a benchmark. So I had to put a lot of my voice into it. There were a lot of decisions I had to make on my own,” he admits. “I wasn’t sure whether I was going in the right direction and whether the fans were actually going to like it. A lot of times, I didn’t feel sure about it.”
Holland calls his eponymous album his ‘most satisfying work’, partly because, even before he got to work on it, he’d envisioned the bigger picture in his mind. “It was a goal not just for my fans, but also for those who’ve never heard of me, who don’t know me. Not just my fans,” he explains. “I wanted to develop it so that it was for everybody.”
It’s a thought that he’s been circling back to even more lately, he admits: scaling his experiences to make them commonplace. He elaborated on this in an interview with Rolling Stone India last year, saying that he didn’t want to create a “tragic or stereotypical perception around being gay”. His immediate goal is to find middle ground for sexuality and artistry, to avoid being typecast into a role and thus clouding his musical endeavours.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to be like as an artist in the future, but right now I wanted to share my love story and my relationship, just like anybody else,” he explains. “Whether it’s a gay couple or a straight couple -- right now, it’s all focusing on the LGBT+ [community] and my sexuality. I hope that later I can focus more on my songs, and in terms of Holland as a person, my personal stories and experiences.”
The plan’s already been set into motion, to a certain extent. Mid-April, Holland announced via social media that he’s actively looking for an agency, his first step towards normalising representation in the industry. Though he’s not sure when, but there might also be a world tour in the process, geared at meeting his fans, who started the process in the first place.
“I want to have a relationship with the fans where I’m in a position, you know like a long time partner, a soulmate, a friend is helping [them] in need and healing each other in times of hurt,” he says. “Going through this process and through the music and building those relationships. I want to be moving forward with them together.”
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.