From the catchy melodies to the glossy music videos and intensely devoted fanbase, Holland is a K-pop idol through and through — with only a few differences to distinguish the 22-year-old from his pop peers. The first being that the South Korean singer isn’t signed to an entertainment agency (which act as the all-in-one management and production companies in charge of K-pop acts) with the second being that he’s an out, gay singer (the first self-identifying K-pop “idol” to be gay in South Korea where rights for LGBTQ people are mostly non-existent). Yet when coming out has been considered a career killer in Korea in the past, Holland has been thriving online with more than 1.3 million followers across platforms, soaring in influential pop-culture moments like the Dazed 100 list, and scoring Billboard chart accomplishments including a Top 5 entry on the World Digital Song Sales chart — just like today’s biggest K-pop stars.
Perhaps best seen with acts like BTS and B.A.P — who, initially, struggled to connect commercially in their home country — K-pop has proven that the international digital community can be more welcoming than their domestic industry. Holland seems to be the next artist to prove how interacting with followers and releasing quality, heartfelt material can ultimately get an artist noticed above any societal norms and industry standards.
After connecting with Billboard — thanks to fans emailing Holland himself and communicating through personal text messages — the independent artist reacted to his chart feats, spoke about the inspiration behind his latest releases, and went deeper into the connection he has with his followers and why that will be even more important in the next stages of a growing, global-minded career.
Billboard: I need to congratulate you on your success so far. “Neverland” charted higher than some other new K-pop songs on Billboard‘s World Digital Song Sales chart seemingly without any help or backing from anyone or agency. First off, what was your reaction to that news?
Holland: I feel like it was a miracle that I made it that far on the charts. But what was really touching and really surprising to me — and I didn’t really think it was a big deal at the beginning — but the reaction I got in general for having a song about two men, and how it received so much support from so many people that I’m really grateful and thankful that I pursued music. I want to give a type of comfort to my fans and even though I didn’t think it was a big deal to have a scene with two guys, it did have so much impact.
Are you in the midst of signing with an agency or do you represent yourself?
Everything that has to do with my management with schedules, artistic direction, I do. It’s really all run by me for now. But after I made some progress with “Neverland,” I do now have an outside A&R team that is helping me, but mostly the management is done by myself. But if I do sign with an agency, you’ll be the first to know. [Laughs]
At this point fans know your backstory, but I love that you are sharing more personal reflections in your music. You most recently came out with the double singles “I’m Not Afraid” and “I’m So Afraid.” Can you take us through the reasoning behind releasing the two contrasting songs.
“I’m Not Afraid” is about how I was able to come out to the public while making my debut as an artist and “I’m So Afraid” deals with the fear I had before my debut and coming out in general. I felt like it was important for my fans to be able to know my feelings behind coming out to the public and thought it would bring some kind of comfort, but I thought it was also important to show the fear.
“I’m Not Afraid” is a very different sound than the R&B style of “Neverland” — it actually reminds me a bit of Troye Sivan. How did that sonic change come about?
So, right now I’m exploring a lot of genres and I’m still in the process of finding my musical identity and characteristics that are going to fit me best. I didn’t have any specific reason for choosing the genre or style I did for “I’m Not Afraid,” but I did want to try a trendier style and sound. After discussing with the composer, I felt like it was the best fit. You know, I’m just exploring, I’m still taking vocal lessons, and I’m finding what will be the best genre I should be pursuing. For now, I just want to explore and experiment with as many musical styles as I can possible.
Personally, I felt the video for “I’m Not Afraid” had a very beautiful message about how LGBTQ people can feel comfortable and “not afraid” when around those in their community. Did I get that right?
The message is really how you identify with it and how you feel personally, but a bigger aspect and message I generally wanted to deliver was that it doesn’t really matter who you are, where you come from, what race you are or whatever background you have, you shouldn’t have any fear: Just be who you are. After my debut, I’ve messaged with fans and realized they come from all different places with various backgrounds. It was mostly for my fans to know and get the message that they shouldn’t be afraid and they should be who they are — wherever they come from, whatever they’re interested in or whatever they look like.
Social media has played such a huge role in your career. Like you were saying, people from around the world have come out to support you, they sent you to the top of the Dazed 100 list. Do you think you would have found this connection, say, 10 years ago?
The new generation, or “millennials,” they watch more YouTube than TV, and there’s more people who directly follow and directly engage on social networking sites than they do with television so I’m lucky enough to be in a time where I can pursue my career without having the pressure of trying to be on TV or trying to break into the industry that way. I can do things on my own and engage with my fans through the Internet. Ten years ago, there was no such thing. It would have been a lot harder to be able to pursue my musical career because this would have to go through that strict process of trying to be on a TV show so I feel like I’m really lucky to be in a time where I can do the music through the Internet and engage with fans in that way.
If you are gay and going through a hard time, Never blame yourself.
I can be there for you.
— HOLLAND (@HOLLAND_vvv) May 20, 2018
Your relationship with fans really is special. I think my favorite message that you’ve shared was, “If you are gay and going through a hard time, never blame yourself. I can be there for you.” Why is it important for you to share these kinds of message?
I know how lonely being gay can be — I’ve felt that. I also know how much comfort and encouragement you can give someone going through a hard time when a special message comes from one of their favorite celebrities or an artist or someone that you look up to. It’s knowing how much of a support that can be that I wanted to share that with fans. But also I don’t want my fans to think I’m someone that I’m in an “icon” or “bigger” than them — I just want to be their friend and have them know that they can share stories with me to be closer with me.
That specific message was one of the ways I wanted to tell them, “Hey, I’m here to talk, I’m here to listen.” It’s one step to getting closer to them as a friend rather than “an artist.”
That’s really sweet. What advice would you give to someone who’s still figuring out or may be struggling with their sexuality?
Thank you. There’s always a message I tell my fans, and it can be considered in a more general way, but I tell them “You need to be confident with who you are to be able to be you.” You can’t hurt yourself or blame yourself for feeling a certain way or doing certain things. All those emotions can be very confusing and I get that you feel different. But whatever you do, you have to be confident. I just want to tell them to own it! I want my fans to look at me and find some type of comfort by watching my journey and listening to my music. I really don’t want my fans to question or blame themselves, I want to encourage them to be confident and lay it all out there. I’m not trying to say, “Come out!” because I don’t know if I don’t if I’m in position to tell people this. But whatever you feel, own it. You have to love yourself and you have to be confident to be able to be able to do anything. That’s really the main message I want translated to my fans.
In your opinion, what needs to be the next step for equality in South Korea?
I think the biggest thing is that the general public needs to get more familiar [with LGBTQ people] through movies, music, general content and media representation. I also hope more people come out and show how there’s nothing different between gay and straight people, and that it’s normal and that it’s real. It’s so hidden right now that most people don’t have the opportunity to get to know anything. I think the most important thing is for people to come out and more content to be made [with gay representation] so that people can see being gay is normal. But there’s also a generation gap so it’s going to take time. So, number one, is for people to get familiar and, number two, is time. One day…
And looking to your future, what’s coming next for you?
This is the first time I’m telling anyone about this, but I’m going to start a crowdfunding campaign in hopes of going on a world tour. I’m going to finish my mini-album next, and then hopefully go on a world tour so I can meet more fans.
One final, fun question that every K-pop idol needs to answer at some point in their career: What’s your ideal type?
Oh, so hard…I’m into good-looking men! [Laughs] I like handsome men, but I’m really attracted to someone who really excels at what they do. Whatever they do or whatever job they have, someone who does really well and is really passionate and devoted in their career is what’s really attractive to me.