Korean Rapper BewhY Talks Conquering America After First U.S. Tour

Caitlin Kelley
BewhY performs at Stage 48 in New York City on Nov. 12, 2017.

When you watch the first episode of Korean hip-hop survival show Show Me the Money 5, the audition at SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium is crawling with 9,000 wannabe rappers. But in the grand tradition of reality show editing, jump cuts show judges Simon Dominic, The Quiett and Kush dramatically turning around when it’s rapper BewhY’s turn to spit. Zion. T flashes a big smile at him, and an instant replay homes in on his line, “Real recognize real.”

Sure enough, BewhY won the fifth season of the popular series last year, his cultural reach soon becoming omnipresent throughout Korea. His distinctive style even inspired comedic impressions by big names like Super Junior’s Kyuhyun and balladeers BTOB. And now the former underground rapper is forging his own path as an in-demand artist and doing what generations of artists have done before him: trying to make it in America.

BewhY arrives backstage after soundcheck for his Nov. 12 show at New York’s Stage 48 with his lanky frame devoured by the pea soup green couch he's lounging on. The angular Caesar cut that he’s known for frames his face, and his canvas jacket is covered in illustrations of Looney Tunes characters.

He dreams of hitting the charts in the States, which led him to head on a six-stop tour around America in November, bookended by dates in Los Angeles and New York. But why America? “The root of hip-hop started in America,” he tells Billboard through a translator. “I really respect hip-hop in America -- but also at the same time, with my language and skill, I want to compete with American hip-hop artists.”

You only need to look as far as the track list of his new album, The Blind Star, to see where he has his sights set. BewhY harnesses the image of a legend in the title of his song, “Bichael Yackson,” replacing the letters M and J of Michael Jackson’s name with the phonetic abbreviation of his own name, BY.

His ambitions to move up the ranks in the rap game become apparent later in the night at his New York show when he performs the Show Me the Money 5 cypher “Who you?” He contributed a verse on the original track alongside fellow contestants G2 and One as well as Dominic, but at his solo showcase he adapts the idiosyncrasies of the other rapper’s verses to his own flow with ease.

Given that he’s a South Korean rapper with Stateside dreams, it’s hard to ignore that his countrymen, BTS, are making waves in the States, charting on the Hot 100 with Korean-language singles. But he’s forging a path separate from the idolsphere, working in a genre where lyricism is the centerpiece. And he happens to be well-known for his clever and complex rhymes. So there’s the very real risk that his lyrics will get lost in translation abroad.

“Hip-hop fans, most of them think very highly of the importance of the lyrics,” he says. “It's difficult to gather all of the global hip-hop fans because it's lyric-based. But then there's also a lot of fans that are fans by the impression of sound. So that's where I want to put my priority first.”

He tells Billboard his voice is an instrument as the booming bass of his song, "9ucci Bank," causes the walls of the backstage room to rattle around him. The visceral blast of sound juxtaposes with his introspective demeanor offstage. He puts care into his words even though his native tongue will be reorganized in the grammatical jumble of translation.

BewhY operates outside of the pre-planned media construction that characterizes his nation’s main cultural export, K-pop. He’s open about the fact that the title of his album refers to a period when success set him on a materialistic bender. Turns out that “9ucci Bank” is more than a ferocious self-brag where he’s “emptying the store like buying second hand.”

Before BewhY started making money he recalls perusing a Gucci store and looking in a mirror, where he noticed a store employee checking him out from head-to-toe. “I felt really awful,” he says, his Bernie Sanders-inspired Balenciaga cap perched on a coffee table. “You know, someone checking, 'Can you afford this?'” So he resolved to empty that Gucci store one day.

When his profile skyrocketed in Korea after winning Show Me the Money 5, he discovered that spending money was fun. “I was really into chasing the things that caught my eye,” he says during his stage banter at the concert.

But his devotion to Christianity led him to an epiphany that he shouldn’t be in the rap game for the money. “I started having that feeling [that I] was trying to fill myself with expensive things,” he says. “And those things began to [take] me farther from the reason I started music.” He credits his girlfriend and God for digging him out of his spiral of designer brand-induced materialism.

BewhY’s faith-based rhymes stick out in Korea’s hip-hop scene, which encourages rappers to be as edgy as possible.

Christianity is the foundation of his approach to music because he believes that his music affects souls. “I believe that in music itself, there's a spirit,” he says. “There's a lot of power in music. And God gave an angel this power before in music. Because this angel wanted to become like God, He kind of kicked him out. So the angel made music to be misused in a lot of ways. That's what I think.” The biblical reference to a fallen angel adds a parabolic dimension to his own narrative of redemption from materialism. BewhY’s incorporation of his faith isn’t forced. In fact, one of his highest charting songs is inspired by scripture.

On the surface, “Day Day” -- which hit No. 2 on Korea’s Gaon chart -- is a feel-good tune ostensibly about dancing like it’s your “birthday day.” BewhY’s deadpan flow skillfully rides the funky beat, accented by a wavy wah-wah guitar-line that recalls Isaac Hayes’ iconic “Theme from Shaft.” The meticulous production was spearheaded by Show Me the Money 5 judge Gray, whom BewhY later calls a “genie” in English.   

The lyrics were actually inspired by a biblical verse, Hebrews 11:1, which reads, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Viewing his aspirations in the context of this guiding principle, his attempt to crossover in the States seems less like the product of braggadocio than the intent to fulfill God’s plan. “A dream that others cannot mock is not a good dream,” he tells the crowd at Stage 48 in Korean. Then he switches to English: “Dreaming is free.”

Note: All quotes have been edited to first person from the translator’s use of third person.