South Africa is home to a growing number of K-Pop (Korean pop music) fans, and it should come as no surprise.
K-Pop has reached unrivalled fame on a world stage. Psy’s Gangnam Style to date has over three billion views on YouTube, and just the other day Korean boy band BTS became the first K-Pop group to reach number one on the Billboard 200 album charts with Love Yourself: Tear.
The Atterbury Theatre became a K-Pop heaven last weekend, when the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in South Africa hosted the 2018 Changwon K-Pop World Festival regional round for the second time.
The Changwon K-Pop World Festival is a tremendous affair. Korean embassies all over the world have been taking part in the competition since its inception in 2011. Each participating country has a regional round where they choose one vocalist and one dancer as the overall winners. The embassy has sent recorded videos of the winning performances to Korea where judges will choose 12 finalists overall to compete for the world title in October.
This year, the judges – Ambassador Jong-Dae Park, So-Young Jeon, Dwain Loubser and I – witnessed gifted performers strut their stuff. There were 18 competitors in the vocal category, but it was Persis – Joy Persis Lupiya, a film student from Zambia – whose rendition of Lee Hi’s ??? ?? (Hold your hand) had the judges charmed and entranced. Fellow classmates at the African Academy of Cinematic Arts in Maboneng – Hlengiwe Shelembe and Khanyisile Khumalo – supported her with their smooth dance moves.
Persis had told Lindsay Katlego Setlema – a fellow student at African Academy of Cinematic Arts – about the competition, and his dance cover of Danger by Taemin had the audience jigging in their seats. The atmosphere was electric; sweat dripped off his beaming face as he moonwalked to a Korean beat. There were 12 contestants dancing for the title but no one could quite keep up with him.
The student from Meyerton explains how he fell in love with K-Pop: “I used to find her (Persis) watching these music videos every time, so I ended up watching the videos with her. It was SHINee music videos. I realised that I was actually enjoying it, my interest started there.”
“I would be over the moon with joy if I made it to Korea,” Lindsay says. “I’d even consider relocating. Koreans are such nice people, hey! I felt so much love on the day of the competition, their hospitality is unparalleled.”
Persis is as excited about the idea of going to Korea: “Just winning first place in the vocal category was a big surprise to me, but if I get a chance to go, I’ll do my very best not to let South Africa down.”
She says she was shocked when the judges called her name: “For the rest of that day, I didn’t fully believe that I won, and half expected someone from the organising committee to call and tell me there had been a mistake. There was certainly a lot of talent at the competition this year, so it was a very humbling experience. I didn’t expect it at all. I just participated for the fun of it and to meet like-minded people.”
Lindsay shares her disbelief: “I still can’t believe that I won. It hasn’t sunken in yet. The thing is I’ve never won a competition before, so this was so overwhelming.”
But only one can go to Korea. Persis says: “I honestly wish there were a way we could both go, but that’s not the case. I don’t really feel like there’s competition because I’m rooting for him anyway. Lindsay would certainly do an amazing job.”
“Well, initially this competition was for Persis,” Lindsay says.
“I was supposed to just go and support her. So I’ll keep supporting her 100%; she deserves to go to Korea.”
Persis’s love of Korean popular culture shines through: “I’ve been a K-Pop fan for just over three years now, and when I found out about the competition last year and learned that the winner stood a chance to go to South Korea, I entered. Unfortunately, I got third place then. But the experience was so much fun; I vowed to enter again this year. And I did.”
She loves everything Korean. “A friend of mine introduced me to K-Pop and Korean dramas. Through these media, I learnt much about Korean culture, and it’s surprisingly not very different from my own culture in Zambia. So it was very easy for me to understand some of their customs. I just love the dedication that K-Pop idols have to their craft, and the heart-wrenching stories that Korean drama writers come up with are impossible to get over.”
The Korean embassy in Pretoria has indeed established itself as a hub for cultural exchange. There’s always something happening: a Korean movie night every last Wednesday of the month, an annual “Remember Korea” event for those who’ve worked on the peninsula, and a host of competitions like the K-Pop festival, throughout the year. And at all of these events, there’s always free Korean food. To get involved and taste nom-nom mashisayo kimchi**, visit the Korean Embassy in South Africa on Facebook.
* Such fun!
** Very delicious spicy, fermented cabbage