Bobby Kim: The Heart of a Performer and Soul of an Artist

Note: This article was written for The Korean Quarterly and relates the events of a concert attended by this author in September, 2010.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Wonju City, about a 2-hour drive from Seoul, and the first of the two concerts that will close out Bobby Kim’s “Heart & Soul” tour is about to begin. The lights come up, and with the audience in eager anticipation; he takes to the stage, trim and urbane in a light-colored double-breasted jacket, open-necked shirt, with an elegant flair reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr.

Kim opens the show with “Hotel California,” the signature hit from 1976 for country rock legends, the Eagles. And immediately you know, this is going to be a very personal journey into the musical world of Bobby Kim.

4n7a4088

Photo credit: Oscar Entertainment

After the concert, Kim graciously spared some time from his rest period before the final show to respond to a few questions about his career, sharing both past experiences, his professional philosophy, and future aspirations.

Once introductions were out of the way, our attention immediately turned to the extraordinary range of the concert’s set list. After opening with the Eagles’ number, Kim ventured into Motown territory; later he engaged the audience in a sing-along of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” one of the last songs recorded by the Beatles – selections revealing his culturally diverse background and tastes. He spoke of how artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and others influenced him and shaped his musical vocabulary while growing up in California. Rock, soul, reggae, Kim professed a passion for a wide variety of musical genres. Throughout the concert he’d demonstrated this versatility, letting his warm and flexible voice soar through the R&B and soul-tinged songs from his latest album, “Heart & Soul,” and prior releases, such as the well-received  “Love Chapter: 1.” In a later set, Kim traded the elegantly tailored look and sound for well-worn jeans, tee, and jacket and hit back hard with the rap numbers. In both instances he was equally at home and had the audience at his command.

Another important contributor to his musical story is his father, Yong-geun Kim, a professional trumpeter, who moved the family to the States to pursue his own vision, and in doing so, exposed his son to both a wide musical world and different cultures. This eclectic sampling of genres from an early age has taken root in Bobby’s talented mind. One of the things he expressed great pleasure in was borrowing from this broad spectrum and incorporating it in new ways in his melodies. A perfect example of this can be found in one of the numbers performed during the concert, the lovely 소나무 (“Evergreen”), which borrows from the German Christmas melody, “O Tannenbaum,” and develops it into a poignant ballad.

Bobbykwave

Photo credit: R Nystrom

Apparent during the concert and supported by his remarks, Bobby Kim is a generous artist, ready to share the stage with those who bring the same passion to the music. The concert featured Kim sharing the spotlight with Ghan-D and Juvie Train, performing a number of songs from their Buga Kingz releases that pulsed with energy. Their joy in performing together was visible and set the audience to dancing in their seats and in the aisles with equal abandon.

This is due, perhaps, to his appreciation for the struggle to be heard. Debuting in 1994, Kim’s entrée to the professional world was not an easy one. Often referred to as the “grandfather of rap” for his early work in that genre, he admitted that being on the leading edge did not translate into success. Highly respected by his peers, he collaborated with a number of artists in the Korean music industry. In a voice that was modest and low-key after the efforts of the concert, Kim recounted how his solo recordings came about: while writing and shopping songs produced for other artists, he was encouraged by those who listened to the demo tracks he’d cut to record the songs for himself. His work as a solo artist was favorably received and in 2004, his recording of the song, 고래의 꿈 (“The Whale’s Dream”), topped the charts.

Bobbykpinetree

 

Bobby Kim singing “The Whale’s Dream” (R Nystrom)

Along the way Kim has made conscious choices as a performer and a professional. He doesn’t want to take the path of the idol singer, performing on endless array of variety shows. He’s worked diligently to craft his music and wants to earn the respect of his audience through his music. The path he’s chosen has been at times slow and he’s met with his share of frustrations and disappointments, but his voice reveals both pride in the way he’s achieved his goals and a measure of determination to continue his journey in a way that is emotionally and creatively rewarding. Upon hearing his story it was evident that Kim’s music must indeed come from both his heart and soul. The words to the opening track of “Heart & Soul” are part anthem, part mission statement for Kim: “Free, so free, I do.”

What does the future hold for Bobby Kim? He is currently working on a single that he is featured on with Korean rapper Double K and will be produced by a famous Japanese producer. Several months ago it was also announced that Kim will be releasing an album and holding his first concert in Japan, with a targeted dates in mid-November. What will this mean for the artist? With the growing interest in Korean music evident in Japan, the potential exists for a successful expansion into a new fan base of some of the largest consumers of music in the world. This represents a new challenge for Bobby Kim, and one that he has the talent and determination to take on.

When asked about plans to return to the States and an opportunity for fans here to enjoy his performances, Kim welcomed the possibility and expressed an interest in doing so. All that’s required is the right invitation to make that a reality. In the meantime, Bobby Kim’s fans will have to content themselves to enjoying his
growing body of work on CDs.

Bobby Kim Discography*

Solo Albums

  • Heart & Soul (2010)
  • Love Chapter: 1 (2009)
  • Follow Your Soul (2006)
  • Beats Within My Soul (2004)
  • Holy Bumz Presents (1998, reissued in 2005 as Ground Zero)

Buga Kingz

  • The Menu (2008)
  • The Renaissance (2005)
  • Bugalicious (2001)

* Bobby Kim is also featured on recordings of other artists such as Drunken Tiger and the Brown Eyed Girls, and is featured on the OSTs for a number of Korean drama series, most recently for “Dr. Champ.” A smartphone application for “Heart & Soul” is also available on iTunes. Bobby Kim is represented by Oscar Entertainment.

Akanishi Jin vs 2AM

Within the past few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to attend two big concerts for American fans of Asian pop music – the first US appearance of Japanese performer Akanishi Jin and the Korean group 2AM, performing with the Wonder Girls – and to be right up front for both. This gave me the perfect opportunity to compare the events on a more intimate level and gauge their impact on me and the audience, and the differences could not be more pronounced.

Akanishi Jin: You & I

Invited to perform as a solo artist at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles, Akanishi Jin had the opportunity to assemble a show and live (or die) without the help of his fellow KAT-TUN group members. This was a bold experiment for the young man: although he’s performed solo in a few venues in Japan where he has a ready made and rabid fanbase, doing a concert in the US would require significant preparation. The concert would be in English, and while he’s spent time in the States before working on his language skills and has made strides, it would still be a challenge.

But ticket sales would not be an issue: a significant proportion of seats were sold to that same dedicated fanbase from Japan, many happy to make the trip to see their idol perform in a more intimate club setting than would be possible at home. My concert companion and I found ourselves the fortunate possessors of seats in the second row, stage left, right in front of the steps to the stage where performers could come down and into the crowd. Needless to say, we were excited to see how the show would play out.

We had zero expectations, knew nothing beyond the work of KAT-TUN, and seen a few promotional videos. What would the music be like? Would he be singing songs from his “Olympos” CD, where he sings under the name Lands? “You & I” would seem to imply a very fan-oriented, sexy, intimate show. Yes, we were excited, and the Japanese fans in the audience a thousand times more so!

Jinpic

So, what was the outcome? How was the show?

Points to Jin for his hard work and his English skills, but this show needs a lot of work if it’s going to live up to the name “You & I.”

“You & I” implies that there will be a connection between the performer and the audience. With an artist who has made his fame as much for his looks as his group performance work, you might expect that Jin would reach out to the audience through eye contact, singing to the audience, and, one might say, make love to the audience. But if that was the idea for the show, it failed miserably in its execution.

From start to finish, Jin failed to connect with anyone not performing with him onstage (he surrounded himself with 2, 4, or more dancers in most every number), and often looked as if he was performing within himself. With our prime vantage point, we watched song after song for some sense that he was connecting to the audience – at one point he stood not 4 feet in front of us, on an extended portion of the stage and waited, waited for him to turn and sing out to the audience, look out to the audience, and waited in vain! At no point did he show us more than 1/4 of his profile, directing his attention to the action onstage.

He also hid his voice behind the demon autotune. Song after song, his singing voice was altered,virtually every stanza, every chorus, by autotune. Judicious use of autotune can add an intriguing note to a song, but every song? The entire song? You cannot claim to be a singer if autotune is your staple companion. The songs, some written (in whole or in part?) by Jin, where mostly forgettable riffs, simple tunes, simple lyrics. Perhaps the greatest disappointments of the evening was that he did not perform any of the numbers from the “Olympos” album, a generally respectable offering.

No, I take that back. The greatest disappointment of the evening were his wardrobe choices. Throughout the costume changes, number after number, Jin appeared in outfits that swamped his shape, hid his face, obscured his personality. Hats, hoods, sunglasses, baggy jackets, overalls, shorts… everything he wore seemed designed to hide the man within. At no point in the entire concert was his face completely visible to the audience. While loyal fans may find this acceptable and swoon with delight, I left the event feeling cold and certainly not part of the “You & I” experience.

2AM, guests of the Wonder Girls

What a difference experience was had just a few weeks later while seeing 2AM perform in Chicago as the guest of the Wonder Girls at the House of Blues! The 4 young men (Lee Chang-min, Im Seulong, Jo Kwon, and Jung Jin-woon) this week celebrated 2 years of singing together as 2AM and were on their first tour of the US as well. Maybe it’s due to the relative newness of celebrity, or the cultural differences between Japanese and Korean artists, but these young performers (ages 19 to 24) appeared delighted with the opportunity to connect with their fans.

Recording of 2AM performance from the concert, fancam by yours truly, and yes, turn the volume way down on your computer before playing! Screaming ensues!

The contrast between the two concerts was striking. Yes, Akanishi Jin was performing nominally as a solo artist but his show was cluttered with dancers (mostly popping and locking) and autotuned melodies delivered with an aura of nervous tension. Chang-min, Seulong, Kwon, and Jinwoon sang in turn and demonstrated the strength, beauty, and clarity of tone that would make each more than capable of a compelling solo career, but when performing in harmony they create a sublime sound. During each song they sang with visible emotion and reached out with their eyes and their gestures to connect with the adoring audience.

Unlike their “Oneday” counterparts, 2PM (who I had the pleasure of seeing as well 6 weeks ago and who also acquitted themselves favorably), choreography takes a back seat to the song and the personality of the artist and the result is harmony – harmony with the audience, harmony with each other. Their delight in seeing the audience was genuine and the love that flowed back to them was equally genuine. This was indeed “You & I” as it should be.

One can only hope that Jin will grow as an artist and shake off his jitters, leave behind the addiction to autotune, and learn how to connect with the audience. He would do well to take a few pointers from the 4 men of 2AM. As for 2AM, their skill is matched by their personalities and the future looks very bright for them. I hope that JYP brings them back to the US again soon – how about a “Oneday” concert, Park Jin-young sshi? This fan is waiting!

Tickets in hand, another adventure in the works!

I’ll just plead insanity right now… But Yolette and I are going to meet up in Los Angeles to get a taste of what a Japanese idol concert is like first hand. We’re going to KAT-TUN member Akanishi Jin’s solo concert at Club Nokia.

Ananjin

See above for why we’re happy to have row 3 seats. Can you blame us?

O.M.G.O.D. what a great concert!

Video: Fan cam (mine) of one of Son Ho-young’s numbers, just a sample!

The duo took the stage together once more for a short set of numbers that expanded into several encores, with the audience demanding more. Eventually, the singers had to call it a night and left the stage a little after 1:00 AM, much to the disappointment of the fans who would have willingly spent hours more enjoying the beautiful harmonies and exuberant dance moves.

Kim Tae-woo and Son Ho-young will be heading to Seattle for 2 performances and then on to Vancouver. If you’re in those neighborhoods, I encourage you to beg, borrow, or steal a ticket to their next event! You won’t be disappointed!