As Told To

My Life as a K-Pop Idol Was Stifling. Here’s What Finally Made Me Quit.

“I started to make a lot of money and people started recognising me, but because I was not being myself, the more money that came in, the lower my self-esteem got.”

by One; as told to Therese Reyes
20 January 2020, 9:34pm

Photo courtesy of One. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

One is a rapper, singer-songwriter, and actor. He is now an independent artist but previously trained under YG Entertainment, one of the biggest entertainment companies in South Korea. He has also appeared in dramas including A Korean Odyssey, Room No. 9, and Her Private Life.

I have been in the South Korean music industry since I was 16 years old. It was not my lifelong dream to be a musician, but I found so much joy in making music. I did not acclimate well to high school and always had a vision that I would do something big and non-traditional with my life, so I dropped out.

At the time, I really liked the music that was coming out of YG Entertainment, so I sent demos but never got a response. Eventually, when I had forgotten that I even sent the demos, a team of former YG producers who created their own label reached out and offered to sign me.

That was my first experience as a K-pop trainee. Hip-hop was not big in Korea at that time and the industry was full of idol groups like Super Junior. That was never a route I wanted to take; singing and dancing like them just did not come naturally to me. But at the time, it seemed like my only option, so I entered the rigorous K-pop system.

I debuted as part of the duo 1Punch and quickly realised that an idol group was not for me. We didn’t do as well as the label hoped, so they shelved us. I wanted to take control of my own destiny, so I made several requests to my company to join the rap TV competition Show Me the Money. That was my big break. I was lucky enough that I did relatively well on the show and once I appeared, I received a ton of offers from different labels and thought that if I were to sign with one again, I might as well go as big as I can and choose YG.

There, I went through even more rigorous training and again was forced to fit into a certain mould, that wasn’t truly me. This manifested in a lot of ways, from having me create songs that were not true to my style, to changing my fashion style to something that felt unnatural. It was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. What bothered me most was having to make decisions that contradicted my own identity to appease management. I felt like these choices were making me go against who I really was.

K-pop idol groups bring a lot of happiness to so many people but producing all artists to fit under this umbrella is not right. I want to see more diversity in our industry that has spent so much time erasing people's identities and putting them in a uniformed glossy package to fit what they think the masses want to consume.

I’ve seen a lot of talented musicians go through the same thing and I feel very sorry, sad, and disappointed for them. Like me, many of them thought that going through the idol group system was the only way to pursue their passion.

I find myself disappointed in the system because there are so many people who do not fit the “dancing-singing idol” genre of K-pop but are forced into that mould. After inducting artists into this system, labels blow them up as big as they can for more revenue, popularity, and fame, further perpetuating that this is the only method for success, instead of just allowing them to be the artist that they want to be.

There is a hierarchy, with the label at the top, and the artist in a position where they just have to take direction. When I was at big labels, I felt like my music wasn’t good enough and that I wasn’t good enough, as an artist and as myself. I wish there had been someone there to tell me that I was enough and support who I was as an artist.

At a certain point, I started to make a lot of money and people started recognising me, but because I was not being myself, the more money that came in, the lower my self-esteem got. Nothing I was doing was bringing me joy and the “success” I had tried so hard to achieve came to mean nothing.

People look at celebrities and only see the cool clothes, big stages, and money. They might think, “What reason is there for them to have these problems and feel the way that they do?” It’s important for everyone to know that what you see is not everything, whether it’s artists on stage or people you pass on the subway. It’s a lack of understanding between people that makes it hard. Everyone is human, artists included, and I think if everyone tried to understand one another and put in a little more effort to see things from someone else’s side, things would be much better.

Another thing is the industry’s emphasis on youth and starting people so young. Some debut as young as 13 years old. I find it hard to believe that anybody truly knows who they are at that age. Thrusting young adults into an environment where they are eventually going to have to come to terms with the fact that who they are to the public is not the same person they are on the inside is very problematic.

The fact that “training artists” is a thing is also crazy to me. How can you train someone to be an artist? You can give them tools and advice, but you cannot train people to become an artist. People should be able to create what they want to create. This way, they can feel free, satisfied, and content.

The good news is, the industry seems to be slowly moving in that direction, where training is not so restrictive and labels are allowing for more diverse outlets of creativity.

I started my own label as an independent artist so I could be proud of who I am and do what I want to do. This freedom has translated over to my music. I’m now picking things I really want people to listen to, instead of thinking about where it is going to rank in the charts. The fame and monetary success that come with it are just secondary.

My goals and creative passions are now driven by the fun that I find in music, as opposed to a competition with other artists. In the past, I always felt like I was chasing somebody. But now, I am not chasing anyone on the same track, I am creating my own road.

Find One on Instagram.

Find Therese on Twitter and Instagram