Leaving behind the name ‘K-Pop Night Out‘ has been a long time coming for KOCCA‘s premiere Korean showcase at SXSW, now rebranded as ‘Korea Spotlight‘, yet it’s perhaps the most mainstream lineup of Korean artists to hit Austin, TX to date.
As Angela Killoren, Chief Operating Officer for CJ E&M America (and who oversees KCON), revealed at the SXSW panel ‘How K-Pop Grew Beyond Niche‘ this year, the hottest thing right now and one of their recent targets to bank on is Korean hip-hop. With Junoflo, DPR Live, and Crush on this year’s ticket, rebranding as Korea Spotlight wasn’t just a way to lessen the confusion of whatever the hell K-pop means these days, but to narrow its focus on the mainstream hits in Korea and what could have bubbling potential to cross over stateside successfully. That didn’t seem like the objective of this showcase when it debuted at SXSW in 2013, but it’s clear that it is now — and that’s a good thing.
Korea is a big player in the entertainment industry and you only had to peek at how much traffic it moved at SXSW to see its growth in action. The general admission line to get into The Belmont wrapped around the block. The only other venues to see such an influx at SXSW were for shows that included bigger names, which gives you an idea of the serious business Korea is starting to bring to America.
While the fanbases that rolled through SXSW in previous years were mostly there for closing K-pop acts, this year felt like the crowd was much more diverse across genre lines. On top of the hip-hop artists listed above, this year’s lineup also included Say Sue Me, CIFIKA, Lee Hi, and KARD, and the people that turned out to Korea Spotlight were hyped for just about everyone.
Housed in the contemporary space The Belmont for the third year in a row, with its many levels and open layout, Korea Spotlight starter pumping indie rock at 7:30 PM with four-piece band Say Sue Me, who held the crowd’s attention pretty well as they kicked off the night. Considering that big-ticket band Hyukoh couldn’t make it to SXSW, Say Sue Me’s light rock melodies filled in the void just fine for any rock fans in the building. As someone who’s been to this thing since the beginning, it’s interesting to see Korean rock phased out of the focus at SXSW, at least in recent years, and instead integrated within a spectrum of genres that is truer to form in the country’s representation at the festival.
Junoflo returned to SXSW, this time as a solo act — at least for the most part. His set included an interesting lead-in from DJ Zo, who hit everyone with a bit of nostalgia spinning Backstreet Boys, “Macarena,” and … Spongebob Squarepants? It was an odd segue to say the least, but as soon as Junoflo went in with his staple hype song “FLO” the show was back on track and as lively as ever. His setlist largely consisted of songs off his recent EP ‘Only Human‘, like “Undercover” and the dope anthem “Real Ones“, but because this was a Feel Ghood Music segment, we couldn’t leave without a mini family reunion.
Near the end of Junoflo’s set, the stunning Ann One joined him on stage to perform her recent single “This Ain’t Love“. Her sultry vocals were a hit with the crowd and added a dazzling touch of sophistication to Junoflo’s firey 40 minutes at The Belmont.
Artist-on-the-rise DPR Live was also incredibly well received, even if it took him a while to get comfortable for it to sink in. It wasn’t until past the half-way point in Live’s set when he decided to take off his hat, finally allowing everyone to see his pretty face and for him to connect on a more intimate level with his fans.
DPR Live’s set really did cultivate an impressive amount of energy. As I “worked” the event, I kept maneuvering in and out of the building all night — partly because the venue was so packed, and partly because there was seating inside — and I swear everywhere I turned people couldn’t get enough. Everyone went nuts when he hit them with “Know Me“, “Cheese & Wine,” and, of course, the infectious “Right Here Right Now“. That and the fact that he had such a piece of eye candy (DPR director, former C-Clown member Christian Yu) on stage might have won him additional brownie points. I mean, daaaaaaaaaamn.
This might have been DPR Live’s very first US show, but the reception at Korea Spotlight was an encouraging sign of his popularity and, hopefully, a confidence boost for him to consider another run through our neck of the woods soon.
Crush proceeded to put on a killer show, and killer looks, as well, serving the best men’s fashion of the night in an Americana ensemble made up of a black and gray denim jacket with a stars-and-stripes lining and Comme Des Garçons pants with a bandana accessory. It was a nod to his US audience, who handed over their devotion in the form of wild chants and unified praise for the R&B superstar.
Crush flexed his professionalism by how well he led the momentum in his set. He didn’t fully disrupt the hip-hop flow of the night but instead embroidered it with some of the smoothest jams on the lineup. “Woo Ah” was as sexy as you would have expected, with “Crush On You” inviting fans to jump in during the chorus. The dude knew exactly how to work this crowd, and with every velvety run in a slower track came Crush riding on the beats of faster-paced ones.
There was no shortage of hype and satisfaction in Crush’s set, and it was absolutely pleasing to know that most of the outpour of love at Korea Spotlight was for his God-given-gift as a singer above anything.
PLOT TWIST: About halfway through the night, my back started to give out on me. It was kind of the worst feeling ever, both because I knew I had hit a breaking point, physically, and because it meant I could very likely miss the rest of the showcase (I did). Immediately after Crush wrapped up his set, I made the call to pack my things and head home. Being downtown for one night at SXSW is grueling alone, but Friday marked my sixth day out and I think my body had just had enough. Thankfully, Yaaaaaas, being the badass queen she is, stayed behind for the rest of Korea Spotlight, so hang on tight for her recap of the rest of the show.
Photo Credit: Yaaaaaas