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Entertainment Music 19 Mar 2020 Once a rejected face ...

Once a rejected face, this K pop singer is a rage now

Published Mar 19, 2020, 10:38 am IST
Updated Mar 19, 2020, 10:38 am IST
Today, 50-year-old Korean-American singer Yang Joon-il is enjoying an unlikely comeback
Korean-American singer Yang Joon-il  (AFP)
 Korean-American singer Yang Joon-il (AFP)

Seoul: Thirty years ago his floppy hair, make-up, and flamboyant fashion sense outraged audiences, who threw stones at him as he performed on stage and threatened to beat him at shows.

Today, 50-year-old Korean-American singer Yang Joon-il is enjoying an unlikely comeback, re-discovered by the YouTube and social media generation through online clips and hailed as a forerunner to today's K-pop stars.


The K-pop industry is now estimated to generate $5 billion a year and many of its male stars are celebrated at home and abroad for their gender fluidity, while Yang, who was once shunned for exactly that  is often compared to current idol G-Dragon, lead of hugely popular band BIGBANG.

Standing in front of a 2,000-strong crowd at an appearance in Seoul, the middle-aged singer felt speechless as they cheered: he had never experienced such mass adoration.

"There are no words to describe what that moment was like. I felt like I could not breathe," Yang said.


He is "extremely surprised" by his new-found popularity, he adds. "I'd like to ask them: 'Why do you like me?'"

It was a marked contrast from his early music career.

In the early 1990s, the South was emerging from decades of military rule, but a nascent cultural renaissance had yet to influence social values and neither his appearance nor performance style conformed to Korean norms of the time.

Nationalist sentiment was widespread and his culture-crossing background he was born in Vietnam to Korean parents who later emigrated to the US was unwelcome.


He was once banned from radio shows for speaking English on air and a civil servant told him that "people like you take away jobs from us Koreans"

Once, he recalled, an audience member faked a handshake to pull him violently down to the ground from the stage, telling him: "You need a beating."

Fans remember being ridiculed for supporting him.

"At karaoke bars, people would just turn off the machine when his music played," said Yi Duk-jin. "People said he was too weird, too strange. He spoke English, wore earrings and had long hair despite being a man."


Yang quickly faded into obscurity, working as an English teacher until he moved to the US in 2015.

He struggled to make ends meet with a wife and toddler son to support and confesses to feeling suicidal until he secured a job as waiter in Florida, working 14 hours a day. 

 Yang's big break came three decades after he first began performing.

In 2018 South Korean television stations started streaming long-archived pop TV shows on YouTube, and millenials many not even born when he made his debut discovered him.

Word spread until it was picked up by mainstream media, and in December he made his comeback television appearance, pulling off his signature New Jack Swing-inspired dance steps.


The singer's rise to fame comes at a time when intergenerational conflict is mounting in South Korea.

Tamar Herman, a K-pop correspondent for Billboard, says fans are looking "nostalgically at the past".

Bringing "hidden gems" like him to light, she added, "gives audiences a sense that they can change the past at a time when changing the present is hard".