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MRSHLL On "Show Me What You Got," Lack Of LGBTQ+ Representation In South Korea & Being Inspired By Drag Culture

MRSHLL

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MRSHLL On "Show Me What You Got," Lack Of LGBTQ+ Representation In South Korea & Being Inspired By Drag Culture

R&B pop singer MRSHLL is paving the way for LGBTQ+ artists in South Korea. He talks to GRAMMY.com about his latest music, his inspiration and experience in the industry

GRAMMYs/Jun 30, 2021 - 01:29 am

Except for maybe billionaires, the pandemic wreaked havoc on most people’s lives. Korean-American R&B singer based in South Korea MRSHLL was no exception. Shows in Europe and his performance at SXSW were swapped for watching Netflix and eating take out. With concert money having dissipated, he relied on other jobs like participating in an online concert organized by a German artist and a writing gig to get him through the month. And just when he decided to release music, he was diagnosed with a herniated disk that put a stop to everything. Severely in pain and under heavy medication, he filmed the music video for "DO U" featuring the rapper Queen Wa$abii. 

"There were very difficult times. At moments I worried about how I was gonna pay for rent next month. Then something would come at the last minute and then I was able to pay for rent and feed myself," MRSHLL told GRAMMY.com over a phone call recently about his struggles throughout the pandemic. "For some reason, by the grace of the big woman upstairs, I was able to survive 2020 and somehow I am able to survive 2021."

Born Marshall Bang, MRSHLL’s journey began simply by chance. He had quit music because of a throat issue and was working as a hairstylist in New York. Until one day, a South Korean TV producer found one of his old singing YouTube videos. She had reached out and invited him to a singing competition show. Thinking he wouldn’t last long on the show given he could barely sing one song without his throat hurting, he hopped on a plane to South Korea the next day. At his arrival, he was immediately on camera, and what he thought would be a two-week visit ended up being a stay for the whole length of the show. Seven years later, he’s still going.

At the time of his musical debut in 2015, MRSHLL was lauded as South Korea’s first openly gay singer. Only one other performer, the K-pop singer Holland, has emerged since then. The lack of LGBTQIA+ visibility in pop music in South Korea is crystal clear—MRSHLL, Holland and pop singers like Harisu, the first trans woman entertainer in the country, are opening doors for more artists. And though South Korea’s views on the LGBTQIA+ community are slowly progressing, many would argue there is still a long way to go—the country still criminalizes sex between men in the military for one. More recently, an outbreak of coronavirus in Seoul connected to clubs frequented by LGBTQ+ people last year unveiled fervent homophobic sentiments. On the k-pop front, some artists in the idol industry have increasingly become more vocal about supporting LGBTQIA+ rights, though there has yet to be an openly queer member in a group.

Being an openly queer artist in Korea is still a radical act and not one many dares to commit. But for MRSHLL, who first publicly came out through an interview in 2015, it was important to be his authentic self. "For me, being queer every day isn’t scandalous. If anything, it’s just boring, it is what it is. It’s insane that it’s still this controversial thing," the "POSE" singer said. "It’s a bit of a lonely road since there are not many of us doing this openly yet. Until that happens, I’m going to keep churning out music and art and things that show the different aspects of who I am. Not just as a queer artist, but [as] an artist. In doing so it is queer art. It’s art made by a queer person."

True to his identity—transgressive, queer, and fabulous— his work reflects everything that makes MRSHLL himself. Last year’s "DO U," as the title suggests, is a celebration of unique individuality. "Starlight" is visually a luxe, hazy featuring big, puffy tulle and satin tops and lace applications on the face. "Deserve better" featuring CHAI highlights velvety runs and the rest of his vocal splendor. His genre-blending style lies somewhere in between the mix of his R&B vocals, house music and chill pop, and everything else around, above, and below that.  

Merely two weeks after recovering from his herniated disk injury, MRSHLL spoke to GRAMMY.com from his home in South Korea about being a queer artist, LGBTQIA+ representation in k-pop, and his upcoming music. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Happy Pride! How did you usually celebrate in Korea pre-pandemic?

They call it the Seoul Queer Festival here. It's all love and color, and people are all decked out in fabulous rainbow wear. I performed at the official pride after party two years ago and that was an incredible experience. There is something to be said for when you're performing for random people as opposed to performing for people in your community. People who are like minded individuals, that understand and know the experience and the journey. I think it’s just really special as a queer artist. I really enjoyed the experience, the support, the energy, the love that you feel. It's just so palpable and it’s super rad. I love my community. 

What motivated you to pursue a music career in Korea as an openly gay/queer artist?

I don’t think I ever started off my journey thinking, "I’m gonna be an openly queer artist in Korea." That was never in the cards. When I got to Korea, I was like, "Okay, I guess the opportunity is here for me right now, let's see where this goes." I had some friends already in the music industry who really helped me get acclimated to the culture and things like that. And in terms of me starting my career in general, just out from the get go, I didn’t want me being queer to be anything "controversial." I didn’t want it to be something I was hiding or to become a scandal later on. 

What has your experience been like? Especially now that your latest work has been very queer-presenting?

I love it. I am also someone who is also ever changing, ever growing and I believe that my music and my look keeps evolving. Our art evolves with us. All the different things that I have experienced in my life have played into what I create and what I make. I will be figuring out who I am and my identity for a long time because it changes as we grow and mature in life. I went through a mental health journey, first when I originally came out, and then when I came to Korea. Dealing with all the cultural differences and figuring out cultural cues and things as a Korean American navigating that space and navigating the music industry as a queer person. 

Would you say you’re a k-pop act?

I feel like the k-pop umbrella is such a huge category. It seems like a lot of people put any Korean artist under the K-pop umbrella. I make pop music that has tinges of R&B and house music. I wouldn’t say I am not k-pop, but I don’t know if I would say that I am 100% k-pop. If you were talking about an artist who does Korean popular music, then sure, that is me. You can categorize me anyway you want, I will be making music the way I want no matter what. People can put me under the k-pop umbrella if they want and I am okay with that. And if they don’t want to, I am okay with that too.

In the past few years, some major k-pop idols have increasingly become more vocal about supporting the LGBTQ+ community, and some have included queer people in their music videos. What are your thoughts on this?

I say the more the merrier. Of course, I would love to see more openly queer artist in general. I love seeing more representation with drag queens or dancers who are more queer presenting or more sexually fluid presenting. I also am ever so slightly wary because I don’t want it to become a shtick, a trendy gimmick. I am not a gimmick. Being LGBTQIA+ is not a gimmick, this is real life, this is who we are. You can’t use our culture and our people for your own commercial gain. Sometimes it can be trendy and sometimes it can raise awareness for us. I think it depends on the situation. As of right now because it’s so devoid of representation in general, I am happy to see these k-pop idols are hiring these femme presenting dancers and drag queens, and doing it so far in a way that is powerful—they are normalizing it in a way. I want them to actually support the LGBTQIA rights aside from visuals. Things like tagging their dancers and showing up to pride events to show support, being more present where it counts and being prepared for the risk that comes with crossing the "line." The friends I have in the idol world have always been supportive of me. 

You and Holland are the main representatives of the LGBTQ+ community within the music industry in South Korea. How do you feel about that?

There should absolutely be more. I want to see openly lesbian artists and sexually fluid artists and non-binary artists. I want to see all of it because there's just so few of us. I know they are out there. But, you know, we are waiting. 

You’re working on your first full-length album and are releasing singles leading up to it. What can you tell me about that?

I have a dance single coming out at the end of next month and the song is called "Show Me What You Got." It’s my first all in Korean release this year. There is a music video for it. This will be my first time doing drag makeup. Two drag queens did my makeup for this music video. It was almost an entirely queer production. I was super proud of it. It will be my last dancey single before my actual album. My album will hopefully be out before the end of this year. I don’t want to rush it and make sure everything is perfect for everyone to hear. There will also be some guest features that I am super excited to share. I am very, very excited.

And now, I’m also very excited. And how cool that you have drag moms now! 

I know! I love and respect drag queens so much. I feel like they are kinda otherworldly, just almost like the future of people. They are like love come to life. I feel like I can get so much inspiration from drag culture. The fashion, the performance, I think they are kind of like angels, to be honest with you. I love them. 

You’ve said your single "Metamorphosis" was showing the fully realized version of yourself. What do you mean by that?

When I was younger, I didn’t know anything and I was unsure of myself and who I was. And like "Metamorphosis," I grew into a more realized version of myself. I know I am not at 100% yet because I always want to leave room for growth. I am becoming more of who I am. It was a big change for me not only for musical direction but for visuals as well. And so I think everyone will see what that means in my first solo album.

Last year, you released multiple singles, almost one per month. What is that experience like as an independent artist?

Everything got canceled [last year] because of the pandemic. I had a few months where I was super sad and super down. After about 3 months, I was like, "Okay, you can’t let 2020 go to waste, you have to do something. Let me just release music. So I have things to perform once the world opens again." So I started with "I Don’t Wanna Know," which was a very queer collaboration with Vardaan Arora who is an Indian-American artist based in the States. I just started pumping out songs starting in the summer, I was creating visuals and I was just grinding. I am fortunate enough to have people who wanted to pump out creative stuff—no matter if we were on a bare bones budget or no budget at all. Being an independent musician is not easy, especially in these times. It was a difficult year, but it gave me an outlet to express myself. 

What’s something you’d wish people outside of Korea, or even the k-pop fandom, would know about the Korean R&B scene?

There is actually not too much out there. I feel like, in a way, there is an R&B revolution that is gonna happen. I’m excited to see more of the Korean R&B scene grow. There are a lot of upcoming artists that I am super excited to see expand and grow, and get more recognition. 

What are some of your next projects?

"Show Me What You Got," coming at the end of July. There is this documentary thing coming out where I partnered with this brand coming soon. I can’t say who it is yet. On top of the first full length album, I am also working on my first all English EP, which should come out next year sometime. 

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Beyoncé & JAY-Z To Be Honored With GLAAD Vanguard Award

Beyoncé and JAY-Z

Photo: Larry Busacca/PW18/Getty Images

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Beyoncé & JAY-Z To Be Honored With GLAAD Vanguard Award

The GRAMMY-winning pair will receive the honor for their work as LGBTQ+ allies at the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles on March 28

GRAMMYs/Mar 13, 2019 - 01:44 am

On March 11, GLAAD, the LGBTQ+ social justice non-profit organization, shared they will be honoring Beyoncé and JAY-Z for their work as allies of the gay community at their 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards.

The GRAMMY-winning pair will be presented with the organization's Vanguard Award, which, as GLAAD explains, "is presented to allies who have made a significant difference in promoting acceptance of LGBTQ people. Beyoncé and JAY-Z are longtime allies and supporters of the LGBTQ community who use their global platforms to share messages that inspire and change the world for the better."

The annual awards ceremony celebrates "fair, accurate and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues" in the media, recognizing LGBTQ+ changemakers—and their biggest allies—across music, film, TV, print media and more.

"Beyoncé and JAY-Z are global icons and passionate defenders of human rights and acceptance for all people," GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement on their site.

She continues: "When Beyoncé and JAY-Z speak, the world becomes inspired and when it comes to LGBTQ people, their voices of acceptance have been heard loud and clear. We could not be prouder to stand with them to send a message of love during the biggest LGBTQ event in the world and to honor their work to bend the arc of justice forward for LGBTQ people, people of color and marginalized communities everywhere."

GLAAD points to the couple embracing the queer community on their social-media platforms, in their music and videos, and more. They highlight Beyoncé choosing to include queer individuals and couples in her videos for "All Night" and "Formation," the latter which won Best Music Video at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. They also underscore her advocacy for the community, as she continues to speak up against laws that would discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community and proudly supports marriage equality.

The org explains that JAY-Z also publically supported the nationwide passage of marriage equality, and points to examples of celebrating LGBTQ+ leaders in his work. The music video for "Family Feud," from his 4:44 album, opens with a quote from the late social justice writer James Baldwin, a queer black man, and features a cameo from transgender activist Janet Mock.

"Smile," also from 4:44, tells the story of Jay's mother, Gloria Carter, who came out as a lesbian publically for the first time on the song. Both Jay and Carter were presented with GLAAD's Special Recognition Award at the 2018 event for the touching, personal song and video.

Jay and Bey are among the top GRAMMY winners of all time. Most recently, at the 61st GRAMMY Awards, they each earned another GRAMMY, for the collaborative album they released as The Carters. The powerful LP, Everything Is Love, won Best Urban Contemporary Album.

GLAAD will also hold an awards ceremony in New York City on May 4, where another GRAMMY-winning musical/pop culture icon, Madonna, will be honored with the Advocate For Change Award. The nominees up for awards this year include GRAMMY winner Brandi Carlile, GRAMMY nominees Janelle Monáe, SOPHIE, plus Hayley Kiyoko, Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan and BROCKHAMPTON.

The L.A. event will be hosted by Ross Mathews and will feature special guests that include the cast of "Queer Eye" and GRAMMY winner Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons.

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BTS Release Stunning Music Video For 'Map Of The Soul: 7' Single "Black Swan"

BTS - "Black Swan" Music Video

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BTS Release Stunning Music Video For 'Map Of The Soul: 7' Single "Black Swan"

The striking visual is the latest offering from the South Korean septet's chart-topping album

GRAMMYs/Mar 4, 2020 - 11:19 pm

BTS are back with another stunning music video off their newly released, chart-topping album Map Of The Soul: 7. Today (March 4), the global pop superstars released the official music video for "Black Swan," the first single off the album.

Simple yet striking, the "Black Swan" video shows the South Korean septet deliver a gorgeous dance performance inside an equally beautiful theater. Directed by YongSeok Choi and co-directed by Guzza, both from the Lumpens creative collective, the visual depicts the members of BTS transforming from swans into the song's eponymous black swans onstage. 

The "Black Swan" video follows the group's recent cinematic visual for Map Of The Soul: 7 single "ON," which last week (Feb. 28) broke YouTube's record for most views for a video premiere. Last month (Feb. 21), BTS released the Kinetic Manifesto Film: Come Prima, the first visual for "ON" that unfolds like a short film.

Released last month, Map Of The Soul: 7, BTS' fourth studio album, is breaking records around the world. Already the best-selling album of the year worldwide, the album topped the Billboard 200 chart, their fourth No. 1 album in the U.S., while lead single "ON" currently sits at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, marking their highest record on that chart to date.

Read: BTS Talk New Album 'Map Of The Soul: 7': "The Genre Is BTS"

In an interview with the Recording Academy last month, BTS explained their creative approach to Map Of The Soul: 7, which sees the group exploring everything from pop ballads to hip-hop jams.

"I think it's less and less meaningful to divide music into genres now," BTS member Suga said. 

"The genre is BTS. That's the genre we want to make and the music that we want. New genre," the group's Jungkook, V and J-Hope added. 

Map Of The Soul: 7 follows a dazzling performance from BTS at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards last month. They joined Lil Nas X in a star-studded performance of "Old Town Road" that also featured Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo and Mason Ramsey

Map Of The Soul: 7 marks BTS' first full-length project since their 2018 album, Love Yourself: Tear, which topped the Billboard 200 chart and solidified the group as the first Korean act to accomplish that record-setting feat. It's also the second installment in BTS' ongoing Map Of The Soul series, which launched with the chart-topping Map of the Soul: Persona EP last April.

Why is K-pop's popularity exploding in the United States?

BTS Donates $1 Million To Crew Nation To Support Out Of Work Concert Crews

BTS at 2019 GRAMMYs

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

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BTS Donates $1 Million To Crew Nation To Support Out Of Work Concert Crews

The generous contribution comes from the K-pop supergroup and their management company, Big Hit Entertainment, and follows a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter earlier this month

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2020 - 12:04 am

BTS and their management company, Big Hit Entertainment, have donated $1 million to Crew Nation, Live Nation's COVID-19 relief fund for out of work live entertainment staff. The K-pop superstars would've been on tour for the majority of the year, before coronavirus turned live music and the rest of the world upside down earlier this year.

Read: BTS Talk New Album 'Map Of The Soul: 7': "The Genre Is BTS"

"This is one of the largest artist donations that has been raised for the Crew Nation fund since its conception," a statement, shared by Variety on June 22, noted.

The event behemoth launched the fund in March with an initial $5 million, pledging to match another $5 million of donations from employees, artists and fans, according to Variety. Event crew personnel who typically make at least half of their income from live events can apply for one-time grants of $1000 via Crew Nation. Individuals living and working in any city/country can apply.

Related: Metallica Launch Month Of Giving, Asking Fans To Support COVID-19 Relief Efforts Together

Over 70 live concert crew members who were originally scheduled to work at BTS’ concerts before the postponement (or cancellation) due to COVID-19 have received funding so far, 20% of whom are veteran crews who have worked in live performance industry for over 16 years. This contribution will help aid 1,000 live concert crews to receive relief, according to the announcement.

"It is very unfortunate that the music industry has to go through such difficult time at the moment," Big Hit's Global CEO Lenzo Yoon wrote in the statement. "We hope our contribution to Crew Nation could help support many live concert crews around the world."

More: BTS, Big Hit Entertainment And The BTS Army Donate Over $2 Million To Black Lives Matter

"If it weren't for COVID-19, we would have been happily touring across the world with many of our live concert crews by now," BTS added. "We are aware that a lot of communities need help due to COVID-19, and we wanted to support the music industry crews by making a donation. We hope to meet again on stage very soon."

The generous contribution comes just several weeks after BTS and Big Hit donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter Foundation, as well as publicly announcing their allyship with the Black community.  

Earlier this month, on June 14, the talented septet shared a live pay-to-watch virtual concert, BANG BANG CON, with their massive BTS ARMY. They also recently released a new single, "Stay Gold," on June 19.

The MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund is also supporting out-of-work crew and all other music industry folks who have been financially affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Learn more about how you can donate to or apply for assistance via the Recording Academy's and MusiCares' COVID-19 Relief Fund.

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GRAMMY.com To Launch New Digital Performance Series "Global Spin" To Celebrate Global Music

Eme Alfonso performs at the International Jazz Plaza Festival in 2018

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

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GRAMMY.com To Launch New Digital Performance Series "Global Spin" To Celebrate Global Music

Launching Tuesday, Sept. 28, "Global Spin" will celebrate exciting genres like Afrobeats, K-Pop and Latin music and will include exclusive performances from Eme Alfonso, Candy Bleakz, and many others

GRAMMYs/Sep 28, 2021 - 06:01 am

Last year, the GRAMMY Awards updated the Best World Music Album category to Best Global Music Album to honor artists across the globe. But why stop there?

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, GRAMMY.com will premiere its latest digital series: Global Spin, a performance series spotlighting artists from around the world. Each episode of Global Spin will feature a performance from a notable artist or group and will celebrate both the creators and their home countries.

Airing biweekly on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m ET on the Recording Academy's official YouTube channel, Facebook page, Instagram page, and Twitter profile, Global Spin is the new home for global music on GRAMMY.com, where the celebration of the genre and the international artist community is the focus. With electrifying artists like Cuban singer/songwriter Eme Alfonso and Nigerian rapper Candy Bleakz confirmed for performances, Global Spin will keep fans of the international music community plugged into one of the most exciting lanes in all of music.

"Music is one thing that transcends borders," Alina Vission, a Content Producer at the Recording Academy and the creator and co-producer of Global Spin, tells GRAMMY.com. "We're excited to celebrate the global music community and take our audience on a trip around the world through music."

"I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to help showcase global music and to shine a light on all the talented musicians across the world," Hillary Melin, Senior Editor/Producer at the Recording Academy and one of the co-producers of the series, says of Global Spin.

Read: ​​Olamidé On The Ascent Of Afrobeats, Supporting Newer Artists & His Subdued New Album UY Scuti

A platform to support international artists, Global Spin is born out of the exploding global music scene taking the world by storm today. Whether it be Nigeria's dynamic duo of Wizkid and Tems sweeping the world off their feet with their chart-topping track "Essence" or South Korea's BTS serenading their way into the millions of hearts of the BTS ARMY, global music and artists are dominating today's worldwide music industry like never before.

Shawn Thwaites, a Project Manager in the Recording Academy's Awards department and genre manager for Global Music, partly credits the international growth of global music to the new and rising wave of Afrobeats artists. Still, he notes Afrobeats and global music at large are nothing new; pioneers like Fela Kuti and boundary-pushers like Brazil's Djavan laid the foundation for today's scene decades ago. "It's always been here—we're just catching on," Thwaites says of the global music sound.

As Afrobeats and Afropop continue to rise in the global music sphere, Thwaites also points to "the whole continent of Africa" as well as regions like Brazil, Trinidad, Barbados, Latin America, Asia, and beyond as locations with thriving music scenes to watch. "There's so much music all over this world. Global music is truly global," he reflects.

Read: Altin Gün On 'Yol' & The Future Of Global Music: "We Like To Think We Defy Genres As A Band"

With the ongoing evolution and proliferation of music technology and social media, global music continues to reach new audiences across international borders, while the genre's established artists and rising stars are pushing the sound's boundaries to new heights.

"I would love for global music to find a way to connect more with the fans," Dominican singer/songwriter and producer the Change tells GRAMMY.com via email. "Within the next five to 10 years, I would love to see more activities that help us spend time with our fans, because in the end, we owe them everything that is happening to us."

"The growing interest in global music means a lot more people from different walks of life and different parts of the world will now be able to relate to my genre of music: Afrobeats," Ghanaian Afropop, dancehall and R&B singer/artist MzVee adds. "I believe music is a global language that transcends all boundaries, and I want to reach fans in every corner of the world, despite the differences in language and genres. My dream is to see global music reach every corner of the world, for global music to break all barriers, to see my music being consumed by everybody, [regardless of] the differences in language, culture [and] religion."

"I'm very happy that [audiences] want to explore and open new doors. I believe that when we learn from other cultures, we grow as human beings," Eme Alfonso tells GRAMMY.com by email. "I would like the people to understand that when they are listening to music from other parts of the world, they are feeling the history, the reality, and the conflicts of a country, because artists reflect their life and problems through art."

But perhaps Haitian DJ/producer Michael Brun said it best: "Global music is the future of music," he bluntly told GRAMMY.com in 2020. "As the world continues to become more interconnected, music culture no longer has borders. The fusion of sounds breeds innovation, and global music artists are at the forefront of that movement."

That innovative movement now has a new home on GRAMMY.com with Global Spin.

Tune in to the sounds of the world with Global Spin every other Tuesday starting Sept. 28, at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m ET on the Recording Academy's official YouTube channel, Facebook page, Instagram page, and Twitter profile.

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