Pop

How Chung Ha Brought K-Pop and Latin Music Together Like Never Before

Chung Ha
Courtesy of MNH Entertainment

Chung Ha

"I said yes to everything," the "Demente" singer says of her boundary-pushing debut album, 'Querencia.'

Long before she became an international K-pop star, South Korean singer Chung Ha spent several years of her childhood in Dallas. As she took classes to learn English, however, it was her Spanish-speaking classmates who caught her ear.

“It was really new for me,” she tells Billboard over Zoom from a conference room in Seoul, surrounded by a few face-mask-wearing members of her label team. “I always wanted to understand what they were saying.”

Fast forward to 2021, and the 25-year-old has made one of the highest-profile crossovers between K-pop and Latin music to date. “Demente,” from her just-released debut album, Querencia, is a sunny dancefloor summons that finds Chung Ha teaming up with Puerto Rican breakout Guaynaa and singing in both Korean and Spanish, with pronunciation skills she honed over months of lessons.

“I think it’s amazing that a K-pop artist takes to heart the assignment of learning a language, and her interpretation is very good,” says Guaynaa’s manager, Andy Martinez. “She’ll be able to reach new markets.”

In the world of K-pop, no genre is off-limits: In addition to the usual cocktail of explosive hip-hop and EDM, its biggest hitmakers have touched everything from folk to R&B to disco. In the last few years, Latin sounds have increasingly entered the mix, particularly as reggaetón's popularity has grown around the world. “Some of the most passionate K-pop fans are based in Latin America — especially in Brazil — so artists are always looking for ways to further connect with their fanbases in these regions,” says Ronny Ho, head of dance and electronic development at Spotify.

Yet Querencia’s ambitious and sophisticated sampling of global sounds may mark a turning point for K-pop’s international reach. “Chung Ha is groundbreaking because of her ability to dabble and collaborate successfully in a wide range of genres,” Ho says. On Querencia, that doesn’t stop at “Demente”: There’s also the Caribbean bounce of “Play,” the boogaloo beat of “Masquerade,” and the bossa nova grooves of “Lemon” — all of which sit alongside the more familiar club anthems and rock-tinged ballads.

“I don’t think there’s been a record like this,” says Sean Miyashiro, CEO of 88rising, the U.S.-based, Asia-focused label and management company that signed Chung Ha last year in a partnership with her Korean home, MNH Entertainment. “What this shows is that she can do anything. She can do any style. She can do any sound. She can do it well, and she does it with respect. She’s never going to do anything without giving it 100% or understanding the texture of it all.”

A nimble vocalist and magnetic dancer, Chung Ha first debuted in the short-lived reality show group I.O.I. before launching her solo career in 2017 and releasing a handful of EPs. Pushing herself on Querencia, she says, was always her goal. She rapped harder, sang more English material and got more conceptual, splitting the album’s 21 tracks — with an hour run time, Querencia is relatively long for a K-pop solo project — into four thematic chapters.

“I said yes to almost everything,” Chung Ha says with a laugh. “It was fun exploring new parts of me. That’s why there’s a [chapter] called Unknown, and ‘Demente’ fits in there because I never thought I would speak in Spanish. That was a big unknown.” (In addition to her Spanish lessons, Chung Ha says she relied on a fluent friend to coach her through recording.)

Though Chung Ha had mentioned her interest in exploring Latin influences to her team early on, she didn’t start that process in earnest until she heard an early version of “Play.” “It wasn’t really on my list of demos [to sing],” she says, “but I was like, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’” After she linked up with 88rising, Miyashiro suggested she lean into Latin music further, and helped bring “Demente” to life.

“We worked with a lot of different Latin producers on it,” says Miyashiro. “We sent them the song, and they were like, ‘This is not even reggaetón, this like a different genre of older, classical pop music.’ Everybody was so excited. Chung Ha didn’t want to just infuse a song with some sounds, she really wanted to do it.”

Songs like “Demente,” Chung Ha says, wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago, when streaming was just starting to chip away at genre and cultural barriers in the music industry. “I think that today everyone is more open,” she says. “I'm so thankful for that and for all the K-pop artists out here with us [pushing boundaries].”

That shift has set Chung Ha up for success behind the scenes, too. In addition to the 88rising partnership, she also signed with ICM Partners last spring for global representation outside of Asia. “The album is just the beginning,” Miyashiro says. “This, to me, is the start of her development as an artist and what she means as an Asian female pop star to the universe.”

Launching a debut album during a pandemic, of course, had its challenges — including the fact that, last year, Chung Ha tested positive for COVID-19. (MNH reported that she was asymptomatic.) With promotional opportunities limited, she and her team focused on keeping a steady stream of singles coming while staying in touch with her fans.

In K-pop, pressure to maintain a flawless image is high, yet Chung Ha becomes especially animated as she talks about getting vulnerable with the fan community she calls Byulharang, which roughly means “shining like stars together.” A song on the album named after them opens with the lyrics, “It’s OK not to be fine.”

“I thought it was OK to share the parts of me that were having a hard time, the parts of me that were struggling,” she says of Querencia. The album is named after a Spanish concept describing a kind of emotional stronghold or safe space; it’s something Chung Ha learned about in therapy, a process she happily shares with fans over VLive (a South Korean app similar to Instagram’s livestreaming feature).

“I constantly tell them what we talk about [in therapy],” she says. “‘She asked me this question, so I’m going to ask you this: What do you think?’ That's just what keeps us more open. Music is all about opening up and sharing.”

And more music is on the way. Querencia has only been out for a few days, but Chung Ha says she’s already prepping new material, teasing an unreleased collaboration in addition to a video for “Demente.” After that? “I think I’ll be working on my next album,” she says. “Just trying a lot more experimental things that I haven't done, and seeing what happens.”

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