K-Pop was the centre of conversation in 2018. There were multiple breakthrough moments and a spike in attention to Korean music in the highly-competitive American market. Record-breaking group BTS no doubt opened doors for Korean artists and played a role in K-Pop’s rise as a recognised industry globally this year.
While on the other side of the world, the Korean pop phenomenon’s appeal has expanded to a new and existing audience in the UAE and it has seen moderate growth in 2018. Even K-Pop boy group NCT 127 mentioned ‘Dubai’ in the English version of their 2018 track ‘Regular’, months after their performance in the city this year.
K-Pop has steadily attracted fans locally and became a mainstay of the ‘Korean Wave’ or ‘Hallyu’, which refers to the growing popularity of Korean pop culture.
The Middle East is a new and emerging market and K-Pop groups have been seen carving their place in the Emirates.
Hundreds of fans witnessed a historic moment in Dubai in January, when one of South Korea’s most popular boy bands Exo landed in the city to watch the premiere of their Korean-language track ‘Power’ added to The Dubai Fountain’s playlist.
Due to popular demand, the choreographed fountain system’s first K-Pop song was played on three separate occasions this past year.
Much like Exo, other K-Pop artists have had a pre-existing fan base. In 2016, the first Middle East edition of KCON, an annual Korean cultural convention that featured the likes of Monsta X, Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon, Ailee, Super Junior’s Kyuhyun and more, drew more than 8,000 fans and other curious people.
Two years later, SMTown Live World Tour VI in Dubai, the biggest K-Pop concert in the UAE and SM Entertainment’s first joint Arab-region showcase, drew 15,000 fans, solidifying the genre’s popularity and influence in the Arab region.
Zainab Shaikh, a 14-year-old fan, said that the achievements this year were “one of the best things that happened”.
“Because of the K-Pop festival held here, I feel like not only others have gotten to know about K-Pop but K-Pop has acknowledged Middle East fans as well,” she says.
Groups such as Snuper, Apink as well as R’n’B singer Wheesung are some names who have held mini-concerts in the Emirates.
BTS has pretty much taken over the world with their socio-political music, impeccably choreographed dance routines and proactive social media presence. Although they haven’t returned to the Emirates since their KCON performance in Abu Dhabi, their local fan base is still growing and it has been evident this year, from the distribution of PUMA x BTS Basket Patent Sneakers and LG Q7 x BTS edition phones in Dubai, to their local cinematic debut ‘Burn the Stage: The Movie’ hitting screens and high ranking on the iTunes chart.
Fans are becoming savvier online to mobilise and have rallied around a variety of independent campaigns to gain their favourite artists’ attention as well as the public’s, whether it’s voting for the songs to be played on the radio in regular rotation or streaming songs on music platforms. Projects such as Exo’s display on Burj Khalifa’s LED screen — arranged by Chinese fans — along with UAE fans of Super Junior renting out time on Dubai Ice Rink’s LED screen in honour of the act’s 13th anniversary, are some examples.
K-Pop’s listenership has seen signs of an increase in the country, with BTS songs along with Dua Lipa and BlackPink’s collaboration track ‘Kiss and Make Up’ being played on local radio stations. iTunes has also seen Korean acts from Stray Kids, Red Velvet to SHINee and iKON ranking high on the charts.
Annmol Augustine, a 21-year-old student, believes that K-Pop has grown compared to the last few years.
“I feel K-Pop is now not only a thing in Asia but also the Middle East and around the world,” she says.
She added that she wasn’t sure ‘K-pop fever’ had spread in the Middle East until she saw it at The Dubai Fountain’s Korean song premiere.
Last week, 374 respondents in the UAE participated in a self-created survey posted on Twitter. Fans voted BTS’s movie screening as the highlight of K-Pop in the UAE this year with 182 votes, followed by the highly-anticipated SMTown Live concert with 165 votes.
As for their favourite K-Pop groups, Big Hit Entertainment’s BTS received the most votes. Exo and girl groups BlackPink, Red Velvet, and Twice were also included, in order of votes.
IU topped the list for favourite soloist this year and was included among others such as female singers Sunmi, HyunA and Chungha. While fans’ favourite subunits were EXO-CBX, Oh!GG, and NCT’s three subunits — NCT Dream, NCT 127 and NCT U.
The UAE has become more receptive to non-English music and it has opened the doors for more Korean artists to perform in the UAE. K-Pop group Momoland and rookie group Lucente will be kicking off the new year with a concert.
“I do think there’s a huge K-Pop following in the UAE and its growing,” adds Shaikh.
K-Pop fans are expecting more exciting things for the new year.
“More K-pop concerts, K-pop convention or possibly anything that will connect with the K-pop fans in the Middle East,” says Augustine. Being an Exo fan, she would love to see the group’s solo concert in the UAE.
In the survey, fans also mostly voted for more K-Pop concerts, specifically BTS and Exo concerts.
Although entirely sung in Korean, K-Pop proved that pop speaks every language. The Korean invasion is most definitely here.