It’s been over two years since K-Pop fans have set foot in a concert venue. The joy of live performances was denied in favor of global safety and the closest any fandom could come to their favorite acts was via a streamed concert, online content, or albums. But the evening of November 14, 2021 saw an expo hall in Ilsan full of eager fans and, arguably, even more eager performers in a live concert meant to lift spirits and bring joy amidst the global situation. At 7PM (KST), The K-Culture Festival – 2021 World K-pop Concert (B.I.T 4 U Concert) brought together 15 acts to re-introduce the performers to their fans and bring back the joy of the live concert to 2021.
Hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea and Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange at the Korea International Exhibition Center (KINTEX) the momentous event of about 3,000 people closed out the two-day K-Culture Festival that featured aspects of Korean culture from food to beauty to K-Pop. The lineup of the 3-hour concert was a massive and well-thought out affair hosted by featuring names new and old, and highlighting the best of Korea’s talent including dance crews Hook, Jinjo Crew, and the multi-media Show Design Group; musical acts Project Wero and international act Kehlani; light artists The Painters; and Taekwondo experts K-Tigers along with a lineup of K-Pop and K-Hiphop acts Brave Girls, Loco, Simon Dominic, ITZY, Aespa, PENTAGON, NCT Dream, and SHINee’s Key. Their performances were hosted by Lia from ITZY and Jeno from NCT DREAM and punctuated by MENTs, video greetings from the idols, and events with fans joining via video chat from all over the world.
First on stage was Hook, an all-female dance crew that appeared on the immensely popular “Street Woman Fighter” that then segued smoothly into the 4-member girl group, Brave Girls who started off the K-Pop portion of the concert with their 2021 summer tune “Chi Mat Ba Ram.” The energy of the audience was bubbling and palpable as fans clapped and swayed while swallowing their cheers and singing (because those actions were not allowed as a guideline precaution during the pandemic.) Unable to stop smiling, the quartet beamed as they introduced themselves to the rippling audience who were just as happy to see them. “We Ride” followed, a 2020 “hot” release that joined “Chi Mat Ba Ram” for its first truly live performance since its release. The audience, gloved in protective handwear following pandemic concert guidelines, clapped enthusiastically as the girls segued into a MENT and took time to greet two foreign fans via video chat before rolling into 2018’s “Rollin’.”
Next on stage was one of Korea’s top hip-hop crews, the Jinjo Crew, who danced to a blues breakdown played by traditional Korean instruments while dressed in Joseon garb. Then Loco stepped on stage with only his DJ to join him, calling for “Respect,” which he received in the form of waving arms and clapping gloved hands. Active since 2012, Loco showed his experience and ownership of the stage and had the audience pumping their arms to his groovy beats during “Too Much.” He jokingly sang all call and answer parts with himself as the audience wasn’t allowed to participate. Between songs he chatted and mentioned how he missed hearing the cheers of the audience, but he wanted them to remain healthy and safe. It was to be a repeating pattern over the night with each artist, wishing to hear the audience’s voices, but also wishing them health. “It Takes Time” and “We Are” followed, testing the audience’s will to stay verbally silent as his groovy rhymes were almost too much not to cheer for.
Then labelmate Simon Dominc dropped in for “No Break.” Even though it was just the two of them bouncing rhymes off of each other, the entire hall filled with their energy. After a short greeting, they continued with “At Night” and jammed, feeding off each other’s hard-hitting lyrics and diction. Loco bowed off stage to let Simon Dominic take over with “DAx4” and self-titled “Simon Dominic,” a huge crowd favorite. His low, dulcet voice was pitted against the rapid fire rapping, creating a captivating performance. Then he too wished the audience good health during the season and the pandemic and wished to soon hear their voices. What followed next was a succession of short cuts of “GOTT,” “Make Her Dance,” “Baddest Nice Guys,” “Stay Cool,” and “Lonely Night” that flowed through each song and transitioned as smoothly as Simon Dominic’s rapping. One short MENT later where he lamented his painful choice of shoes, he ended with “MOMMAE” and “Who You?”
As the rapper left the stage, the crowd was treated with a pre-recorded greeting and short interview by first ITZY and then PENTAGON. Then Project Wero took the stage, a group that is a happy blend of traditional Korean instruments and performance styles with a modern twist in the form of drums, guitars and covers of K-Pop songs like BTS’ “Mikrokosmos.” They paved the way for the next artist, Aespa, who walked on stage in front of their very first live audience. Formed in 2020, the artists have only met fans through the virtual stage and events – never personally. Their excitement to be live was infectious and the audience delighted in their performances of “Black Mamba” and “Savage,” both performances exceptional in nuance and execution. When they spoke to the audience during their short MENT, they expressed their appreciation of performing in front of a live crowd – and the crowd appreciated them right back.
Transitioning away from Aespa was the K-Culture group “The Painters” who used light to create fantastic scenes of Korean creativity and success such as depicting the world famous “Squid Game”, famous Korean landmarks, Tae Kwon Do, K-Pop artists, and the word “Loco,” which created a flawless neon green segue into ITZY’s first performance. Like all those who performed before them, the quintet flourished in front of a live audience, hitting the “Loco” choreography with extra sass. By the time their MENT started, they were grinning warmly while catching their breaths and greeting their fans for the first time since their debut year. “Wannabe” was, sadly, the last song of their stage, but they were very much themselves as grooved to their joyful spring tune from 2020.
Next, international fans filled the screens as Jeno from NCT DREAM MC’d and then introduced the K-Tigers, the Tae Kwon Do performance team who stirred emotions with their performance to a medley of beloved K-Pop tunes from Super Junior’s 2009 classic “Sorry Sorry” to BTS’ 2021 “Permission to Dance.” A quick black out welcome the next act PENTAGON with “Baby I Love You” – and the boys were visibly energized by seeing the audience in front of them. Their MENT was an adorable greeting mixed with such heartfelt thanks to their fans that thanked fans multiple times for the experience. It was followed by “Do or Not,” which was definitely a highlight of the evening. The boys settled into their performance, delivered another touching MENT before closing out with the powerful 2018 hit “Shine.”
To warm the hearts of the fans, one of the night’s MCs, ITZY’s LIA, serenaded everyone with a snippet of Kehlani’s “Everybody’s Business” in introduction of the American performer who joined virtually to perform “Nights Like This.” In her short greeting to the fans and Korea, she expressed appreciation of how popular her songs are in Korea and also mentioned she’d like to collaborate with Taeyeon, Blackpink’s Lisa, and BTS. Then she performed “Water” and “Crzy,” both of which seemed more soulful after her kind message.
One of the most magical performances of the night followed Kehlani, The Show Design Group (SDG), a b-boy group whose art is magnified but light and other visual and media effects. In a unique interpretation of traditional Korean dress, music, and art, the SDG brought a special beauty to Korean cultural history with its performance in LED-enhanced hanbok.
NCT Dream took to the stage with “Ridin’” after a beautiful light-based transition on the large screens. A step away from their more youthful image, the boys powerfully performed their more mature concept on the live stage. NCTizens present bubbled with excitement during the MENT as NCT Dream thanked them for their love and support and reminded them to stay safe and healthy. Then it was time for the first live performance of “Hello Future” and “Hot Sauce.”
Closing out the 3-hour concert was SHINee’s Key who just dropped his first EP in September 2021. The 13-year veteran owned the stage from the first pose he struck for “Yellow Tape.” With razor-sharp precision, he performed to the songs he had personally creatively cultivated – and they saw their first live stage. Immediately following dance pop tune “Yellow Tape,” Key jumped into quirky “Helium” with enough attitude and energy to fill the entire hall. During his MENT, he thanked everyone for coming even though the next day was Monday and echoed the thankful sentiments of his fellow performers. He closed out the concert with “BAD LOVE,” a glorious finish to an amazing night.
All the acts came out for a final bow to close out the first live concert in K-Pop, a concert that is expected to help resurrect the live music market. If the reactions of both artists and fans are anything to go by, live concerts are welcome (as long as they are done safely). It is difficult to describe the feeling of freedom and joy that connected everyone that night, to describe that first step away from the virtual world into the world of live performance suffice to say that it was indeed magical. Here’s to many more live concerts that K-Pop fans all over the globe will be able to enjoy.