The trend of K-pop has continued to dominate the entertainment industry, with a wave of support pouring out across the globe in recent years. In a market that has been met with immense success for a select number of K-pop groups such as BTS and BlackPink, there is much anticipation for how it will develop and maintain its distinct trajectory.
JYP Entertainment, established by Jin-young Park and considered to be among the "big 3" entertainment companies in South Korea, may have unlocked the potential answer through the latest introduction of VCHA, which means “illuminate” in Korean. VCHA is an American K-pop girl group formed under the Korean training system and set to promote within the market as a global group.
What sets the rookie group apart from others in the K-pop industry in particular is far from the often flashy concepts; it is the group's unique cultural and ethnic combination of members.
VCHA was formed by JYP Entertainment and Republic Records through a reality competition series called "America to Korea," also known as "A2K." Participants chosen during the first round at regionals were required to complete several missions to prove their musical potential. The competition held two boot camps: one in Los Angeles and one in Seoul. Only six girls were chosen for the final team: Lexus Vang, Camila Valdes, Kendall Ebeling, Savanna Collins, Kiera Grace (KG) and Kaylee Lee.
Compared to the western music industry, K-pop groups from reputable Korean entertainment companies have historically only ever been composed of individuals of Korean, Asian or partial Asian descent. However, VCHA's formation breaks the status quo, with members ranging from white and Latino to Black, Korean, Vietnamese and most notably, Hmong descent.
Vang, who ranked first during the finale and is also the group leader, is the first Hmong American to be officially placed in a K-pop group's debut lineup.
The Hmong people, an ethnic subgroup of the Miao people from China, migrated to southern Asia during the 19th century. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmongs to assist the United States in the Secret War. Following the war, many fled Laos in fear of retaliation from the communist party and were granted asylum in the U.S.
Vang's achievement comes at a time when the Hmong American community has begun to make subtle, but resounding, steps across several fields.
Sunisa Lee was the first Hmong American to compete for the USA gymnastics team and win a gold medal in the Women's All-Round Final at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. Lee is one of Vang’s biggest inspirations as an aspiring artist.
"Even though she's obviously in the Olympics field, I still looked up to her and wanted to be like an idol as well," Vang said in a group Instagram live with her teammates. "And, especially seeing all of the support from all of the Hmong community, my families, relatives, it's made me feel like super emotional because I didn't know I was gonna be here one day being able to show little kids in the Hmong community that I could do this. I can't explain it. It just makes me really happy inside, and it also makes me want to cry sometimes."
The rookie group has already begun to make waves with a few pre-debut singles, specifically "Y.O.Universe." Aside from the single's uplifting message that centers on how embracing one's unique existence is the prime catalyst to reaching one's true potential, it also managed to rank #1 on the U.S. Billboard's "Hot Trending Songs Powered by Twitter" chart.
Rankings for the platform are calculated according to the number of X, formerly known as Twitter, mentions within a week, evidently displaying the outpour of support from fans and a strong anticipation for VCHA's official debut.
Within the industry, however, the concept of having non-Asian individuals perform under the title of a K-pop group has not always been positively received. Several past groups with similar concepts attempted to enter the market but were largely met with aversion.
EXP Edition was the first K-pop boy band without a single Korean member. The group was initially established as a thesis project in 2014 for then Columbia University graduate student Bora Kim. Kim, who grew up in South Korea, saw the growing recognition of K-pop and wanted to venture into what really differentiated the K-pop genre–was it limited to being Korean alone?
After successfully scouting members Kim believed fit the concept, training began, and soon enough, the band released their first single, "Luv/Wrong." Once Kim's graduate program ended, both Kim and four of the original six members ultimately chose to continue to focus on promoting the group.
The group received mixed reactions from the public. According to Kim, people in Korea were welcoming and showed support. However, that didn't minimize the heavy backlash the group received, accusing them of cultural appropriation, referring to them as "fake K-pop" and even sending death threats to the members.
LANA, who is referred to as the first Russian solo artist in the K-pop industry, was not met with a brighter fate. After two years of training in South Korea, LANA debuted in 2019 under HICC Entertainment with the single "Take The Wheel." She promoted her single through performances on MBC Music's "Show Champion" and Mnet's "M Countdown."
Despite her warm appearance, LANA was mocked for her aspirations of thriving within a Korean-dominated industry and was often ridiculed as being a "Korea boo," a derogatory term used to describe individuals who are obsessed with Korean culture to the extent of disassociating themselves with their own ethnicity.
LANA has since signed an exclusive 360 management contract with WILD Group.
Jin-young Park, an executive producer of A2K, mentioned in the first episode that he began the show with the hope of finding,"a team of artists that America and the whole world will fall in love with."
The drastic contrast between public reaction and recent achievements of VCHA to past groups who roamed on similar grounds is a paradox, the effect of which is not yet clear. But, as of now, there are vibrant expectations for the group's upcoming but yet-to-be-disclosed official debut date.
Heaven Xiong is a senior majoring in human resources, management, international studies and journalism, with a minor in economics. She is a writer for The Campus Citizen.