A significant trend in global music in 2022 was the phenomenal success of the high-energy, fun-filled South Korean pop music, known as K-pop, signalling a major shift in the established order of an industry long dominated by Western acts.
Data released by music streaming services reveals that their top markets in Africa, Kenya included, were part of the global wave that drove the K-pop boom. Kenya was among the top three consumers of K-pop in Africa, along with South Africa and Nigeria.
Four of the top 5 streamed K-pop songs in Sub-Saharan Africa were by the fanatically popular boy-group BTS group or a solo project by one of their members.
My Universe, a collaboration with the British pop band Coldplay was the top-streamed K-pop song in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Other songs were Left and Right by American singer Charlie Puth featuring Jung Kook of BTS and the Korean group’s Grammy-nominated, first fully-English single, Dynamite and Butter.
“Surprisingly, there was a 93 percent year-on-year increase in K-pop streams in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2022, accounted for by over 3 billion hours of streaming,” says Phiona Okumu, Spotify head of music for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Okumu explains that available data shows that K-pop is not just a passing phase but has a devoted and growing fanbase in Africa.
Just as the music connects with a specific demographic in most parts of the world, so too in Africa, with 88 percent of K-pop music streams from people below the age of 29.
YouTube, Tik Tok and other social media sites have broken down geographic and cultural barriers in the industry and ensured that music from virtually any corner of the world could gain popularity.
The success of K-pop is based on years of winning fans with its infectious melodies and high-energy fun, creating a sound is designed to be enjoyed visually just as much as it is heard.
Mark James Russell in his book K-Pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution says more than just music; K-pop is about fashion and style, fun, beautiful stars and their adoring fans.
Russell, who has written about Korean music for publications like the New York Times and Billboard magazine, says at first glance, the beats and dancing and videos appear like a variation of American pop, ‘but the closer you look and the more you listen, the more differences you notice.’
He writes: “It is like everything is a little bit louder, the images brighter, the style flashier – it is just more.”
The K-pop mania has not happened in a vacuum: K-Dance, K-theatre, television dramas (K-Drama), arts, design, and fashion have all grown in tandem as part of what is known as Hallyu (Korean Wave).
A rigorous system for auditioning and creating pop talent starts right from teenage, only the very best are trained in singing and dancing for years before they make their debut.
Since 1990, the government in Seoul has offered support for the creative industries through subsidies and funding as a means to gain soft power for the country.
South Korea was a pioneer in wiring the entire nation with broadband internet networks to make their entertainment shareable with the world.
A turning point in the global rise of K-pop came in 2012 with the worldwide success of the goofy techno-rap song Gangnam Style by Korean US college dropout Psy, the first video to ever hit 1 billion views on YouTube.
The song was hailed by Barack Obama as an example of how people around are being “swept up” by Korean culture, while British publication The Economist described Korean pop culture as “Asia’s foremost trendsetter”.
A decade later, the K-pop mantle has firmly been passed on to the seven-member group BTS, a global export whose songs, videos, merchandise and tours rake in between $3 and 5 billion a year.
They were the main reason; one in 13 foreign tourists visited South Korea in 2017, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. They spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in 2021 and, last year were invited to the White House to meet US President Joe Biden to discuss Asian inclusion and representation.
A member of the group Jungkook performed at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November. At the end of 2022, BTS announced a hiatus to allow its members to serve compulsory 18-month military service in South Korea, leaving the BTS Army of fans in a frenzy.
In the cutthroat world of K-pop, where new groups are churned out in a conveyor belt, there is no guarantee that today’s heartthrobs can take their stardom for granted.
What is guaranteed is that the formula that has generated so much global success will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.