5 Korean Solo Female Acts Who Dare To Be Different
K-pop’s many exciting possibilities and vibrance are what make it so captivating to the whole world. But sometimes, it can be a bit formulaic with some of these elements: catchy music, synchronized dance moves, trendy clothes, and all the typical things that we often associate with it. But this does not mean anything negative because these are also the reasons why we absolutely love K-pop.
There are, however, several artists who decide to break away from the mainstream mold either through their genre of music, overarching message, image, or personality. Here are some of the best female solo artists who dared to be different:
*lyric translations from Genius
CL – Empowering and independent
CL is undeniably one of the artists, who, even when she was in 2NE1 or considered as a “K-pop idol,” never really subscribed to stereotypes. 2NE1 is one of the groundbreaking K-pop groups that made a strong impression. CL went above and beyond to embody a strong, independent woman whom fans can look up to. She paved her own way and set the standards high for everyone else to follow. In her latest comeback as a solo artist, she released a hip hop track that reveals her signature powerful side and a message about self-acceptance with the lyrics, “Haters always got something to say/ I’m different and you’re wrong/ You know that you can’t kill me.”
It’s also important to note that she referenced “mugunghwa” in the lyrics and in symbolism at the end. It’s a type of hibiscus flower that’s known as the national flower of Korea, which literally means “eternal blossom that never fades.” The mugunghwa also refers to a class of train in the part where she sings “Mugunghwa kkoci pieot seumnida,” which is a game similar to red light/green light. In one of the verses, she raps, “This is my seat, got it?”
CL is a woman who is sure of herself, her music, and her own path. She says in an interview with Billboard, “I know exactly where I’m going, what I want to do.”
Baek Yerin – Eclectic and artistic
Baek Yerin first came out in a duo called 15& with Jamie, and became known for pop songs and ballads. But soon she broke out as a solo artist, venturing into dreamy concepts and soft, calming songs from her album “Every letter I sent you.” The reflective, moody, and sometimes bittersweet sound was perfect for her smooth, soothing, and delicate vocals. Even then, her music didn’t fit the mold of powerful vocal-belting ballads, trendy sounds, or catchy songs. She was telling her story in her own private world.
But as she grew as an artist, Yerin started exploring different genres to expand her range. In her latest album “tellusaboutyourself,” she incorporates electric pop, synths, and house genres, where she’s now bolder and more experimental than before. She is definitely an artist that peels many layers to reveal deep meanings through her music video imagery and self-composed music. The track “0414” is based on her true feelings, saying in an interview, “While I always tend to fear meeting new people, I met a new person and my worries nonetheless came true, so here I complain, ‘why does this only happen to me?'”
HA:TFELT – Honest and edgy
Having come from one of the most famous K-pop groups, the Wonder Girls, Yeeun was first expected to come out with catchy pop songs in her solo debut. But she transformed herself completely with a new stage name, Ha:tfelt, with honest songs about her pain, heartbreaks, growth, and rude awakenings. While it’s no surprise when K-pop singers sing about feelings, Ha:tfelt’s lyrics run deep. Along with her first solo album, she also released a book about her personal struggles. She says in an interview, “For me, it was for therapeutic purposes. I’ve been going to counseling for about a year now, and the therapist recommended that I start writing. I wasn’t sure whether I could write or whether writing was for me, but when I started, it all just poured out. It was the beginning of untangling the complicated emotions that I had inside of me.”
She was once a trace of her former self as a highly guarded and produced girl group member. She’s now unafraid of opening up about her turbulent years and inspires others to overcome theirs. Netizens and critics found it hard to match her message with her former image, but soon, she gained recognition and acceptance. Her new sound incorporated different influences: rock, ballad, Latin, house, and electro-pop. She says that no matter what genre, it’s music that helped her survive.
Jessi – Sexy and proud
With her unapologetically sexy image, Jessi is taking ownership of her own style and sexuality — and never letting the media or other people objectify her. Korean netizens and the general public are often highly critical of artists with a “bad image,” especially with those who have tattoos, talk in a rough manner, or simply those who don’t fit into their standards of a “perfect star.” But Jessi goes beyond this just by being her true self and letting her personality shine through her music. Her genre can’t simply be put in the rap or hip hop category because she embraces her multicultural upbringing by seamlessly bringing both her bold, outspoken New York influences and creative Korean roots into her work.
From the get-go, she has been inspiring her audience to become confident and have self-respect. In her latest single “What Type of X,” she sings, “I’m a different type of beast/ But it’s ok / I ain’t got to be the one / Be the one just for you.” She’s a strong unni and she deserves all the attention she’s been getting!
Lim Kim – Bold and revolutionary
One would probably remember Lim Kim as the pretty young girl who had a unique voice and sang cheerfully in a colorful music video about being in her 20’s. She took a four-year hiatus and came back stronger, wiser, and more unapologetic than ever. She transcends the “K-pop Box” according to Billboard by embracing her identity, her ethnicity, thoughts about herself and the world through “Generasian.” She goes back to the rich history of traditional Korean sounds and gives it her own modern twist, without appropriating or reducing it into an overly produced music that has lost its meaning. Instead, she creates an impactful sound that cannot be boxed in any genre, combining English and Korean lyrics to make her story heard all over the world. Some music experts identify her music as folk-rock, indie pop, or simply dance, but that ultimately defies her purpose: “I need to change up this game/ Don’t identify self in the male gaze/ I’m raising my voice to be heard/ Building my world,” she sings on “Sal-Ki.” “Decolonize from weakness/ Overpower their system.”
Lim Kim not only wanted to break free from the rigid K-pop system but also from the industry’s expectations and categorizing of women in particular. She says in the interview, “I wasn’t really feeling that I can’t do something because I’m [a] woman. But after I debuted it and started my career, they kind of put me in this box that is called ‘Woman.’ There were so many stereotypes that female singers have to be in K-pop’s system. You have to be pretty or you have to be cute. You have to look good always like if you’re a female singer. So that was kind of the first time that I realized that, ‘Oh, I’m a female singer, I’m a woman.’ She emphasizes this in the lyrics of “Mago,” “Women are born strong/ We raise our power / Rise.”
One of her ultimate goals aside from stepping over the boundaries of genres, contrived image, and gender, is to connect with her identity as Korean and redefine the world’s perception of what being an Asian is or should be. In this highly precarious social environment where Asians are living in these days, with hate, racism, and brutal attacks directed towards those of Asian descent, perhaps Lim Kim’s music is both an answer and a battle cry: “We living dreams, making dreams/ Feel me, see me, queen/ I’ll never bow to you/ This is Asian phenomenon / Yellow female strikes back.”
Hey Soompiers! Which empowering artist is your favorite? Is there anyone else you’d like to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!
DianneP_Kim is an English magazine and online editor based in South Korea. She is the author of a K-pop style book published by Skyhorse Publications, New York, and has recently released her second book about BTS. Check it out on Amazon, follow her on Instagram @dianne_panda, and subscribe to her YouTube channel at iwonderkorea!