With BTS shows packed and BamBam joining the Warriors, the Bay Area has become a K-pop hotspot

BTS performs “Butter” at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards in Las Vegas in April. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

What a time to be a K-pop fan in the Bay Area.

The region has become a top destination for top artists from the hyperkinetic and mind-blowing genre of Korean pop music touring the United States. Global superstars BTS have been visiting the Bay Area since 2015. A-list K-pop girl group Twice performed a triumphant concert at Oakland Arena in February, and veteran rap trio Epik High sold out the Fox Theater in Oakland in April.

These are not isolated events. It’s been 30 years since Seo Taiji and Boys captivated Korea by releasing what is widely known to be K-pop‘s first song (the new jack-swing-influenced “I Know”), and 10 years since Psy has launched “Gangnam Style”. “Today, the competition has only intensified as four major South Korean entertainment companies dominate the landscape: YG Entertainment (Big Bang, Blackpink), SM Entertainment (Aespa, Exo), JYP (Twice, Stray Kids) and Hybe (BTS, Tomorrow x Together).

K-pop group Twice performs their first Bay Area concert at Oakland Arena in February. Photo: JYP Entertainment

These major players have perfected – for better or worse – the apprentice-to-idol system that fuels a global obsession. The system closely mirrors professional wrestling. Budding idols are scouted by companies and spend grueling years training and honing their singing, rapping and dancing skills, until they are deemed ready to debut as a soloist or as a within a group. This path is often broadcast via popular audition/survival shows like “I-Land”, “Show Me the Money”, and “Produce 101”.

K-pop artists have broken through the language barrier by engaging other senses. Subtitled YouTube videos, Korean reality and variety shows, and intimate testimonial videos called VLives connect fans and artists and form an intense community and emotional bond.

The result is an industry that is responsible for pouring billions into the South Korean economy, which – with the popularity of its award-winning film (“Parasite”) and television (“Squid Games”), as well as its mouth-watering cuisine and trend-setting – centers the country as a pop cultural force. It was nicknamed “Hallyu”, or Korean wave.

And American companies are paying close attention to it.

Netflix’s investment in Korean dramas has paid off during the pandemic with many new fans watching shows like “Crash Landing on You,” “Vicenzo,” and “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay,” topped with the thriller of award-winning dystopian sci-fi “Squid Game,” which reached No. 1 in 94 territories and topped its US charts for weeks. The success prompted other streaming services to add K-dramas to their lineup. waiting: Recently premiered “Snowdrop,” which features Blackpink’s Jisoo, while Apple TV+ has “Dr. Brain” with Lee Sun-kyun and “Pachinko” with “Boys Over Flowers” ​​actor Lee Min-ho and Oscar-winning “Minari” actor Youn Yuh-jung. K-pop is also coming to Broadway this fall via a splashy new musical.

Locally, the Golden State Warriors have recruited K-pop idol BamBam to be their global ambassador. His collaborative single with Oakland singer Mayzin, “Wheels Up,” was released in April, the first release from the team’s new content production company, Golden State Entertainment.

K-pop musician BamBam performs at halftime during a game between the Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Chase Center in San Francisco in April. Photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

“I still feel very surprised and honored,” BamBam told The Chronicle via email from Korea, where he’s been busy working on a new album with his beloved K-pop group, Got7.

We understand why the Bay Area NBA team decided to double down on the 25-year-old singer-rapper and the family K-pop genre: he is a talented and multilingual artist and a true fan of hoops (“La way Stephen Curry plays is super awesome,” he said) with strong name recognition overseas, and the Bay Area has a diverse population, with 36% of San Franciscans identifying as Asian or Pacific Islanders, according to the 2020 census.

For his part, he believes that the region is an attractive destination for its beauty, good food, climate and kinetic energy.

“The Bay Area is a place where K-pop is very well known and listened to,” he acknowledged, “so as an artist, we would like to go and meet fans in the Bay Area to show them more K-pop. – pop energy.

Another example of K-pop’s staying power came last year when BTS’ label Hybe (formerly known as Big Hit) announced a partnership with Universal Music Group’s Geffen Records to create both a new K-pop label and a new boy group in America. Pioneering K-pop conglomerate SM Entertainment also announced a partnership with MGM to find members for a new offshoot of Korean group NCT called NCT Hollywood.

Even the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — the sign of all things musically cool — had its biggest K-pop presence yet last month: Epik High, Got7 member and solo artist Jackson Wang , rapper CL (and his reformed group, 2NE1), and girl group Aespa.

Tablo (left) and Mithra Jin of Epik High performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Riverside County last month. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

For Kevin Roger Teng, Pip Reyes and Chesca Rueda, the enthusiastic co-owners of San Francisco K-pop store SarangHello, this growing recognition is good for business. Their specialty store on Taraval Street in the Sunset District focuses on all things K-pop: CDs, glow sticks, picture cards, posters, magazines and other ephemera.

Teng believes K-pop groups are drawn to the Bay Area because of its cultural diversity and openness, as well as its reputation as a tech hub. Rueda said their customers – affectionately referred to as “SarangBaes” – don’t fit a practical type: they are young, old, in-between, Asian and non-Asian.

“It’s basically everyone – in school or close to retirement,” Rueda told The Chronicle in a video call from the store. “They all love music.”

SarangHello (a coat rack built on the Korean word for “love”) recently celebrated its second year as the Bay Area’s first K-pop specialty store. In 2020, Teng and Rueda quit their software engineering and photography jobs and started doing their own research, going to Stonestown Galleria and asking random people if they were K-fans. pop and if they would frequent a physical store.

“We got exactly 100 respondents,” Teng said. “Eighty-one percent of them knew K-pop; 57% loved it.

SarangHello owners Kevin Roger Teng (left), Chesca Rueda and Pip Reyes. Photo: SarangHello

Teng recalled a customer who seemed so overjoyed when she found the K-pop store that she burst into tears when she felt her obsession was validated.

“Music and artists have such a positive message for people,” Rueda said. “That’s why whole families and people of different ages, ethnicities and genders love K-pop. It’s for everyone.

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