With his two new singles, MRSHLL has achieved a small-yet-groundbreaking feat in the super-closeted Korean entertainment industry where actively promoting a gay artist was simply never an option — until now.
The Korean-American vocalist (born Marshall Bang), who first publicly came out through an interview with Time Out magazine in 2015, is exploring new territories with “Circle” and “Home,” both released on his label FeelGhoodMusic’s new compilation album Feelghood. Although the attitude toward homosexuality is slowly shifting and the gay community has made substantial progress, Korea still clings tightly to anti-LGBT stigmas, making it nearly impossible for any celebrity or public figure to be honest about their sexual orientation.
“Most of my friends in Korea told me it was social suicide,” MRSHLL shares with Billboard during an interview at a coffee shop in Gangnam. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and I understood the risks going into it, but I just wanted to be authentic and be open from the get-go.”
After moving to Seoul from New York City in 2012, the brave decision to make his official debut as a gay artist in the world of highly conservative K-pop came “almost organically,” he says. “I don’t think I consciously made a decision to be the ‘gay singer’ of Korea. I wasn’t trying to make a scandal or create buzz; it literally just happened in the most organic and natural way.”
While Bang was never secretive about his sexuality, he says he didn’t broadcast it either. “People just presumed that I was gay. It was kind of understood, I guess, for the things I would say, and it never really came up so I remained silent. And for the most part, I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t really think it was in their vocabulary to really understand what it means [to be gay]. I know [Korea] is a lot more progressive than what it used to be, but there are still a lot of misconceptions about the LGBT community here.”
Despite growing public support and awareness, homosexuality is still widely misunderstood in Korea. Prevalent and embedded stereotypes against the LGBT community leave little room for tolerance. More often than not, queer people are shunned, shamed and discriminated against. This largely comes from the reality that untruths and mischaracterizations are left unchallenged — something MRSHLL personally experienced.
“Just the other day, my close friend, whom I consider as family, jokingly, or maybe not, said he wasn’t sure if I befriended him because I was attracted to him. Like, really? That kind of set me off a little bit. We are not attracted to every single man! Maybe he was joking or maybe he was speaking the truth, but whatever it was, it just shows that straight men are still uncomfortable around gays and the misconception is still very much a thing.”
Bang hopes to shatter these stereotypes, bring more visibility to the LGBT community and help people deal with their struggles with his music. Still, he’s quick to note he’s not trying to be the representative of all “rainbow people” of Korea. “That’s just way too much pressure!” he adds. “I can’t be a perfect role model because I’m human and I’m going to make mistakes.”
He continues, “There’s also a healthy amount of fear of just being labeled as the ‘gay one,’ because I’m more than that label. But if people want to put me under that category, then so be it, because I’m proud to be, and I would never say no to that responsibility, but if I can help people in a positive way then that’s amazing. At the end of the day, I’m just a musician. I just want to do music, and be accepted as a legitimate musician first and foremost. Everything else is secondary for me right now.”
After years of pursuing music on his own and failing to find a label that allowed both musical and personal freedom, MRSHLL is finally making a name for himself under the guidance and support of legendary rap veterans Tiger JK, Tasha and Bizzy—otherwise known as MFBTY. “I can’t even imagine how I would have done it without my label,” he says. “My sexuality was never an issue with them and it never came up. I was never forced or told to ‘tone down,’ or asked not to say something, and that means everything.”
While no major heterosexual public figure or industry company have publicly voiced their support of homosexuality, FeelGhood is flipping the rules and altering the course of Korean music history by giving MRSHLL an equal opportunity. “I seriously cannot think of any other label [in Korea] that would do what they’re doing,” he says of FeelGhood, who let him stay true to his personal and artistic identity. “I’m truly grateful.”
As a lead-in to his debut Korean EP coming later this year, MRSHLL revealed the two English Feelghood tracks, both of which boast atmospheric, electro-R&B productions where he lets his luscious falsetto and airy vocals tell personal stories of confusion and insecurities (“Circle”) and finding acceptance (“Home”).
Even though his public coming out was met with support and acceptance at large, he adds that “it wasn’t always easy and definitely isn’t as smooth-sailing as it may seem.” The oldest of three sons, MRSHLL is still struggling for acceptance from his mom, who is an evangelical Christian pastor. “I thought my mom was slowly opening up to the idea, but we haven’t talked since my interview with NBC,” he says with a sigh. “It’s painful sometimes because it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Yet, MRSHLL’s courageous move to take the risk of potentially hurting his career by coming out in an industry that remains resistant to social change is truly inspiring. Not only will this help send a positive message to the many LGBT individuals who are still struggling to kick open that securely locked closet door, but also help pave the way for an embrace of sexual diversity in Korea.
“I think that’s why I came out in the first place: I don’t want being gay to be a negative thing,” he explains. “It is often viewed as that, but I want people to know that there is nothing wrong with me. I’m not psychologically damaged or confused. The only thing that is different is that I’m attracted to the same sex. Everything else is just me and it’s a beautiful thing.”