The world of K-pop is known for its vibrant colors, catchy tunes, and immense talent; however, racial diversity has never been a strong suit within the industry.
For international fans of K-pop who aren’t East Asian, it can be difficult to find an idol they can deeply relate to, seeing as Korea, like most Asian countries, is largely racially uniform.
Alexandra “Alex” Reid became the first African American musician to slowly break down this barrier in 2015 as the first Black K-pop idol. As a former member of the group BP RaNia, she was exposed to the glitz and glamor of the industry as well as the grueling work schedules and all of the additional challenges that come with living in a foreign country.
“I got into K-pop when I was scouted at a recording studio in LA and flew to Korea about a week or two later,” Alex told NextShark. “I had been a longtime fan of K-pop but didn’t pursue a career in it because I didn’t see any idols who looked like me, so it seemed like an impossible dream.”
However, when the opportunity to pursue a music career in Korea’s competitive entertainment industry was presented to her, she didn’t hesitate.
“I mean it literally was not even a question whether or not I should do it. I love hard work, getting better, and am always striving to improve,” she said.
From that point on, she dedicated her whole life to a career in the industry, which meant spending less time with family and friends, and no chance for a serious relationship.
“That’s how I knew it was more than a dream for me — because I love even the struggle of this business more than the security of a ‘normal’ life,” Alex said. “I am just as passionate about the sacrifice as I am the payoff.”
Of course, being a fan of K-pop and having the drive to becoming an idol are two completely different things.
“A lot of fans on some level dream of becoming a trainee and debuting, but it’s important to realize what they’re signing up for, and all of the sacrifice, sweat, and tears it entails,” Alex explained.
“The physical toll was very taxing, but the mental aspect was the most difficult part of becoming a K-pop star for me.”
Being in the public eye as an idol meant that Alex had to sacrifice much more than just privacy and leisure time, “A lot of respect you become accustomed to as a human gets at the very least overstepped and at times completely trampled over when you’re an idol. You start to accept things you would never accept in real life because you are so passionate about what you are working towards… and that can be a slippery slope.”
In addition, the musician was immediately hit with the realities of living and working abroad — struggling with the communication barriers and culture shocks, as well as the moments of isolation they can bring.
“It was more than not knowing my schedule or what people were telling me to do. It was the ostracism of not being understood or felt,” she recalled.
“I knew that I was being misunderstood and even misjudged a lot of times, and it was a struggle feeling like I was powerless to change that. No matter how hard I studied or how fast I learned, it was always too little too late. I had to find a way to be okay with being alone and develop a figurative force field around my heart to protect my happiness… and I did that.”
South Korea, being a racially homogeneous country like most places in Asia, is not always receptive to racially diverse talent. Luckily in her case, Alex describes her overall experience with Korean locals to be overwhelmingly positive.
“I felt very accepted and welcomed by Korean fans. Any racism I experienced in everyday life or behind the scenes, I attributed to ignorance and did my best to treat it as an opportunity to educate and enlighten rather than take it personally and shut down,” she told us.
Through the tough moments, her adoring fans cheered on to keep her going.
“So many wonderful Korean fans supported me; writing letters of encouragement, gifting me thoughtful tokens to remind me of America, and coming to music shows holding up signs and cheering extra loudly when I came out,” she continued.
With her new platform, Alex was able to pave the way for future non-East Asian idols and inspire K-pop fans who are deemed to be different and oftentimes excluded from the spotlight.
“It was so cool to represent something for them that I never got to have as a fan myself- someone who looked like me to make my dreams feel possible,” the singer told us. “That is something so much bigger than my body. Touching strangers all over the world makes it feel like I’m doing something important with my life, and I’m humbled to be in that position.”
And she’s right, Alex’s role in the K-pop industry was very important and long overdue. With her influence, she has shown younger fans and industry professionals that the world of K-pop needs diverse faces.
“I definitely think the world of Korean entertainment is warming up to the idea of opening doors for more racially diverse talents. With its recent spike in international success, it only makes sense that more races are represented,” she commented.
“I am cheering on everyone who auditions, so I hope they really get out there and go for it.”
Since Alex left the bright lights of the K-pop scene, she has returned stateside where she has been writing and producing her own music, blending the genres of American and Korean pop together.
“Since relocating, I finished my album, much of which I wrote while in Korea. I have mainly been focused now on writing a book about my struggles as a Black, non-Asian K-Idol.
“It is completely honest and sheds a lot of light on what really happens behind the scenes. I plan to release the album and book together because they give context to one another, and the emotional place I was in while creating the music.”
Both as a member of a girl group in Asia and as a solo artist in America, the one thing that has stayed constant with Alex is her tireless work ethic. Her drive and passion led her to the series of events that she describes to be one of the best experiences in her life and for those who want to follow in her footsteps, she had a few words of advice:
“My advice for all aspiring idols is to treat your life as if you are a trainee. Practice consistently to learn the kind of discipline it takes. Study Korean diligently because it will make your transition immeasurably easier than mine. Above all, protect your happiness at all costs. If it stops making you happy, then it isn’t worth it.”
Featured Images via Instagram / thealexreid (Left, Right)
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