k-pop korean r&b and hiphop artist bibi
BIBI. Photo: Courtesy of Feel Ghood Music and 88Rising

BIBI Is Following K-Pop’s Success, but Charting Her Own Path

The South Korean singer-songwriter is living the best of both the underground and pop scenes.
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VICE K-Pop: Music, fandom, celebrity, and all things K-pop.

This month, VICE is doubling down on all things K-pop and Korean music, featuring articles and videos on music, fandom, and celebrity.

It’ll be hard to top the year BIBI just had. The South Korean singer-songwriter released her second EP Life is a Bi…, worked on over 20 songs, shot seven music videos (she co-directed four), and joined the soundtrack of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. She also performed at 88rising’s Head In The Clouds music festival, though she said she almost didn’t make it on stage. 

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As she tells it, she had gorged on her favorite spicy food before leaving South Korea, thinking that she’d have limited choices of the flavor she craves when she arrived in Los Angeles. But she learned the hard way—through a very unpleasant acid reflux—that she may have had a little too much. 

“I didn’t even realize it because we don’t really feel [it] here,” she told VICE over a video call from Seoul, pointing to her chest. “And right away [when] we arrived in L.A.… I threw up and passed out.”

“My voice was out.

Recording non-stop, not getting enough sleep, and traveling halfway across the world could have all contributed to this, but it didn’t seem to matter to those in the festival crowd that Sunday afternoon in November that her voice was huskier than usual. 

“BIBI’s performance is going DOWN TO HISTORY,” one eager YouTube commenter said about BIBI’s Head In The Clouds stage, in a video of her singing her single “The Weekend.” During the set, the singer stepped down from the stage and kissed a fan, a woman, in the crowd. While performing her song “she got it,” BIBI threw packs of condoms at the audience. 

It was unlike any other K-pop concert and, to the 23-year-old singer, landing the gig was a milestone in itself. 

“I didn’t believe that I can perform on that big stage, that big audience. So I was like, ‘What if we go, and there was nobody?’” she said, remembering the moment she found out that she would be performing at the annual music festival. “I was like, ‘Can I really be on that?’ And my boss was like, ‘You can, I promise.’” 

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She only gained more confidence when the lights were down. 

“I can’t remember that much on stage,” she said. “After, I watched all my videos, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m good.’”

k-pop korean r&b and hiphop artist bibi

South Korean singer BIBI debuted in 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Feel Ghood Music and 88Rising

BIBI has steadily made a name for herself since officially debuting in 2019, with the single “Binu.”

“The Weekend,” the unapologetically poppy track she sang at Head In The Clouds, charted high internationally, peaking at #29 on US Top 40 radio. It’s also been streamed over 17 million times on Spotify. A collaboration with 88rising, the all-English track is a bop in the best sense of the word. It makes for an easy listen on repeat, or, you know, at 11:57 on a Friday night, while waiting for the weekend.

She’s now setting her sights on even bigger things. Sounding every bit the dreamer, BIBI gave a rundown of everything she wants to accomplish in the near future. She wants to act, write a webtoon, and, of course, make more music. 

To think that just a few years ago, BIBI was recording music at home.

“I saved my allowance and I bought a mic and I started recording in my own room,” she said. “It’s, like, a really small room.” 

In some of her earlier tracks, you’d hear a fan whizzing in the background. She’d upload them on SoundCloud under the name Nakedbibi, a reference to babies’ natural appearance and her desire to show her true self. 

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This self-produced music would eventually lead her to working with some of the biggest names in South Korea’s music industry. Tiger JK, a major figure in developing the country’s hip-hop scene, and his wife, rap queen Yoon Mi-rae, discovered BIBI and signed her to their label, Feel Ghood Music, in 2017. 

“I didn’t know [them] well, but I knew them as celebrities,” BIBI said. “So I was like, OK, I just want to meet them first. Just, you know, meeting celebrities is good fun, right? So I just came here and saw them, and they were so sweet. Even though I’m a stranger, they just hugged me, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll sign here, and please hire me.’”

For someone who grew up listening to underground Korean hip-hop and hip-hop-inspired pop music like that by Nicki Minaj and Kanye West, this was a dream come true. BIBI believes music is in her DNA. 

“My grandma was a poet, and my dad was a lyricist, songwriter, and singer,” she said. 

As a kid, she felt like a loner, an outsider, and found it difficult to make conversation with friends. Hip-hop was her life. 

“I started writing rap because I wanted to express, I wanted to tell everybody that I’m feeling something and I’m going through something,” she said. “And I wrote and wrote, but my rap skill then, it was not good. It was like [an] emergency situation. So I chose to sing.”

At first, her dad didn’t like that she was spending so much of her time on music. He had gone up to Seoul to try and become a successful musician too, but didn’t make it “because my mom had me,” BIBI said. “I think he [thought] he failed to be a singer. So he always said, like, it’s hard. So don't do it.”

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“He tried to get rid of my mic and I was, like, crying looking for my mic.”

But after getting discovered and initially hesitating to go to Seoul herself, it was her dad who pushed her to take the chance. So she did. She followed in his footsteps and made it.

“I asked my bosses, ‘How did you know that I’m going to be, you know… How did you know that I’m this? [That] I’m going to be this good? Can you see the future?’” BIBI said. 

She recalled what Tiger JK told her: “I could feel it through your voice.” That voice is what brought her to where she is now, a voice that can sound fierce in “The Weekend,” and tender in “Maybe if.”

More than just a dream come true, BIBI said that being able to do music gives her a sense of purpose. 

“Since I was a kid, I tried really hard to find the use of myself in my life. So I’m always looking for it, you know? Why am I existing? What is life?” she said. “So now it’s way easier. That I’m existing to make everybody happy, and fun, and to entertain.” 

“Since I was a kid, I tried really hard to find the use of myself in my life. So I’m always looking for it, you know? Why am I existing? What is life?”

As Korean music artists continue to break through to the rest of the world, BIBI is ready to follow suit, but in her own way. 

“I want myself to be big, and make other people proud, and make my own path. And so other solo Korean underground artists can follow me.” 

She knows she’s different from more mainstream acts in South Korea, and has decided to live the best of both worlds—offering fans, the BIBI Bullets, collectible photocards, but not caring if she lets a curse word slip here and there. She’s always “being 19+,” she said. 

“I decided to keep it my way,” BIBI said, before adding: “Sometimes, I can act as a pop star.”

Follow Therese Reyes on Twitter and Instagram.