These days, there are several groups with no Korean members that could be considered part of the loose K-Pop umbrella, including NiziU and WayV as well as Z-Girls and Z-Boys. The first-ever all-non-Korean K-Pop group, however, came several years ago: EXP EDITION. In a recent Reddit Q&A, member Koki opened up about how he felt making that leap.
While EXP EDITION originally began as the thesis project of Korean college student Kim Bora, who wanted to that K-Pop formula, it wasn’t long until they became a full-fledged group. In 2017, they debuted with their first single, “Feel Like This.”
The group went on to release a mini-album in 2018 before fading away, but many veteran K-Pop fans still remember the quartet and its members: Portuguese American Frankie, American Hunter, Croatian American Sime, and Japanese German Koki.
Four years after EXP EDITION’s debut, Koki recently opened up about his experiences on Reddit. The former star revealed that he first auditioned for Kim Bora’s thesis at Columbia University in New York, but when things got serious, the group traveled to South Korea for the first time. At the time, Koki didn’t even know much about K-Pop, but he was quickly thrust into its world.
During the group’s training phase, Koki reveals, each day was “brutal.” The members would wake up at 6:00 a.m. and travel on three subway trains to get to their studio, where they’d rehearse and practice their skills for four to six hours. Then, they’d make the hour-long commute home to eat, shower, and rotate between Korean lessons and vocal training.
After EXP EDITION’s debut, Koki (the group’s maknae, visual, vocalist, and sub rapper) says music show recordings were equally “hellish,” involving very early mornings and long waits to perform on stage. But what did it really feel like to debut in a K-Pop group with no Korean members?
When the group’s debut was announced, they were immediately met with mixed responses. While some were excited to see K-Pop branch out, many reacted with animosity and felt that EXP EDITION was taking away from Asian artists and appropriating the genre. When asked what he thought about all this discussion, Koki admitted, “We were definitely aware of all the conversations being had.”
However, he went on to say that the group didn’t really have time to consider the response to their debut and promotions. “We just had to keep going,” he explained. Plus, with regard to any form of xenophobia or discrimination, Koki says that most of the people EXP EDITION met were “more interested [or] supportive than anything.”
We either didn’t experience [xenophobia] much or were too oblivious to recognize it. I’m sure if I actively read the Korean messaging boards… I’d have a better idea
That said, Koki and the members definitely came across some issues as foreign artists. For example, while he did try to socialize, Koki says that it was pretty difficult for him even though “non-native Korean idols and idols from other countries kind of stuck together.”
On top of that, Koki confessed that leaving the industry was difficult because of the “mental prison that K-Pop idols endure.” In fact, he says it took him three years to begin living freely after trying to free himself from the mark the K-Pop industry left on him. When the decision was made to stop promoting, Koki says he was initially upset, but now he realizes it was for the best.
Completely freeing yourself from the pressure of the industry is incredibly difficult, especially if you entered that world as a child. I feel the most pain when I see friends of mine struggle to overcome that after leaving. I can’t force them out of it because it’s literally inconceivable if you haven’t had any other experience.
Of course, along with the low points came the high points. Some of the best moments for Koki included seeing dedicated fans at music shows and performing at colleges—even though “sometimes people would also be like “Da fuq [sic]?”
These days, 28-year-old Koki is living in Los Angeles, California, and working on his own album. Looking back, he admits, “In reality, maybe we only got into the door because of how we were promoted and what we focused on.” Now, he also wishes he spent more time engaging in the discussions being had around the idea of all-foreign K-Pop groups.
I wish we spoke more candidly to people and engaged in the conversations being had online. I wish we were more true to ourselves and focused on enjoying our time instead of clawing for some impossible standard.
That said, when it comes to being part of the first K-Pop group with no Korean members, the half-Japanese, half-German star says it was inevitable even if EXP EDITION hadn’t debuted. “With so much foreign love for K-Pop,” he explained, “What we accomplished was going to happen sooner or later.“