Holland is walking the path less travelled with pride.
The South Korean singer, commonly referred to as the ‘first gay K-pop idol’ in the media, made a massive step for queer representation in his home country when he emerged onto the music scene last year as an out and proud artist, putting his sexuality (and his heart) on the line as he sang about discrimination and wanting to escape to a place where he can love freely on debut single Neverland.
The music video featured a same-sex kiss, which disappointingly gained it a 19+ rating in South Korea. Despite this, it still managed to rack up over one million views in under 24 hours, and received a mostly positive response from music fans. Since then, he’s dropped his first mini album, the self-titled Holland, and continues to provide a voice for South Korea’s queer community.
“LGBTQ rights in Korea are still not very progressive in comparison to some other countries,” he explains. “Even the fact I debuted [as an openly gay singer] in Korea gained lots of attention here. I want to be a person of good influence by sharing my story and music with the public, and by interacting with fans.”
As he prepares for his upcoming full-length album – which we’re promised is coming soon – we caught up with Holland to talk about life for the LGBTQ community in South Korea, why it’s so important for him to highlight same-sex romance in his music despite the potential for backlash, and what his experience has been like as an openly gay man in the K-pop industry.
Congratulations on releasing your first mini album Holland! How does it feel to know that people are listening to it and enjoying it?
I am just so amazed, and I feel so loved, way more than I ever thought I deserved. I also do feel a sense of responsibility and pressure to do better and work harder. I want to be able to reach a point where lots of people accept that I am indeed worthy of love and respect. I am also so grateful for the fans who fully understand what I was trying to say with this album.
Where did you get your inspiration from when creating the mini album?
It’s a combination of my past relationship history and the messages I’ve wanted to tell my fans. It’s 100% my story, and my story only. I really tried to put all my raw emotions that I have felt over the past year – both before and after my debut. In the end, it’s ultimately myself that inspires my own music.
What is it like living as an openly LGBTQ person in South Korea?
I think the industry you’re in makes a huge difference. Because I work with people from music or even other various sectors, I have not experienced a ton of difficulties so far. However, I do often hear things from others that I don’t really need to hear, and I do not have the same legal rights as everyone else, like marriage equality. But I try not to get hurt because I have people that love me for who I am, and I always try to focus on self-improvement and boosting my self-confidence. Honestly speaking, this is just my case. There are still lots of young people out there who are emotionally wounded and have faced difficulties due to their sexuality because a lot of their families are not very accepting of different sexual orientations. I am hoping – and trying – to be a supporter or a mentor to them.
What was your coming out experience like?
It was quite difficult. I faced severe bullying and physical violence from schoolmates for being gay. It wasn’t easy to just move on with my life and brush off such a traumatic experience like that. I wanted to prove to the world and haters that I was also worthy of being loved. Also, it is extremely rare to find public figures who showed support and attention to the LGBTQ rights, so I decided to become that person. I started writing songs and eventually was able to share my love stories/experiences with the public. My family accepts me and loves me for who I am. They know that it’s not important what gender of a person I love.
Were you worried that coming out as gay would affect your career?
Honestly, I only thought about how It would hurt my friends, family, and other people around me. At that time I did not really have much going on in my career so I did not really worry about it hurting my career. I was actually quite fearless because a big part of me had been screaming, ‘I cannot live like this anymore!’
Do you believe there are other LGBTQ people in the K-pop music industry who are too scared to come out of the closet?
Of course! Even I would tell those people to really think hard about the aftermath before coming out. In Korea, the aftermath of coming out as a K-pop idol is tremendous because they’re in a position where they need to be well-liked by as many people as possible.
K-Pop doesn’t really have any openly LGBTQ stars. What has your experience in the industry been like as a gay man?
It is a very sensitive and risky topic. I think the industry can be very commercial-focused but it can also be a huge supporter. A lot of my colleagues support me. But I do understand the position that people in that industry are in – they have to be careful, and they may have to risk a lot if they get me publicised or broadcasted. Overall, it is true that I do face more difficulty being broadcasted in Korea.
Your music video for Neverland featured a same-sex kiss. Why is it important for you to show queer relationships in your videos?
There are so many stories you hear about heterosexual couples, in the media and in real life too. But people do not realise that there are also many stories about same sex couples too. But in Korea, it is hard to find these stories. I felt frustrated how same-sex love is regarded as something ‘wrong’ or to be silent about. I wanted to show that there are in fact many people of different sexual orientations and that their love is nothing less than a heterosexual couple’s love. It’s just as beautiful.
The video received a 19+ age rating when it was released. Do you think this was homophobic?
No one really explained to me exactly why this got a 19+ age rating so I really do not know the exact reason. But not necessarily thinking it was homophobic, I just thought. ‘Oh, do they think a heterosexual kiss is love but a homosexual kiss is sexually explicit material?’
What is the message behind your latest single Nar_C?
The main message of Nar_C is to love yourself. It’s a song for fans who struggle with their self-worth and identity. I’ve learned that I deserve to be loved, just like everyone else, and that I don’t have to hide who I am. In the music video, you can see a couple who’s been in a long term relationship, and they start to resemble each other, even the characteristics they both dislike of themselves. They end up breaking up, which is followed by a scene featuring daffodils. The meaning of daffodils is self love. Through this song I want to say that you have to love yourself first before loving anybody else. I hope GAY TIMES readers like the song.
K-pop is becoming popular here in the UK and in America. Why do you think it’s happening now?
I think K-pop has its own unique colour that people are drawn to. For instance, choreographies are usually very powerful in K-pop, and each member’s charm is very emphasised. There are very vibrant performances and catchy melodies. Also, this is just my personal opinion, but I think a lot of people love their genderless sides.
Do you want to break through into Western markets in the future?
Of course! I love working with people from diverse backgrounds and getting to know them. I really want to contribute to creating a culture that’s more accepting and open towards LGBTQ people. I had such a great time in the UK and America from my business trips. I will work harder to share the stories and messages I want to share to the fans over there.
Do you have plans to release more music soon?
I am planning to release a new album sometime this year. Although I have been releasing songs, I still consider myself as a pre-debuted artist. I really did not think that so many people would notice me, so I feel a sense of responsibility to perfect my upcoming album. I am really going to prepare so much and for a long time for a full-length album because a full-length album is really significant.
Words Daniel Megarry