EXCLUSIVE: First LGBTQ+ K-pop group LIONESSES discuss queerbaiting in the industry, being a lighthouse for the community, their musical journey, and more
LIONESSES, a four-member K-pop group, is writing history in the South Korean music industry. DAMJUN, Kanghan, Foxman, and Lee Malrang debuted on November 2, 2021, as the first open LGBTQ+ K-pop group. Their debut single, Show Me Your Pride, was a fitting introduction to the group’s message of inclusivity and representation in an industry that severely lacks it.
With the dream of being a lighthouse for sexual minorities in South Korea, LIONESSES’ self-written and self-produced songs demand attention towards the nuances of a queer person's life and aspirations in the country.
In an industry that avoids the slightest of dating rumors (but loves using skinship to queerbait fans, often called "fan service") and in a society that still discriminates harshly, LIONESSES stands as a proud LGTBQ+ K-pop group that brings the minority's struggles to the forefront with their heart-warming lyricism and songs, hoping to inspire generations.
In an exclusive interview with SK POP’s Afreen Khan via email, LIONESSES poured their hearts out explaining the processes behind their soft yet hard-hitting music, a dream of inspiring more out-and-about LGBTQ+ K-pop groups, the importance of the popular LGBTQ+ friendly neighborhood in Seoul, queerbaiting in K-pop, and more (including a spoiler for their future releases!).
"I hope to get out of a society where it is natural to hide": LIONESSES members discuss their aims, struggles, and musical journey
Q1) First of all, thank you so much, LIONESSES, for taking time out for this interview. Can you please introduce yourselves to our readers?
Lee Malrang: Hello. I'm Malrang, the maknae of the Queer boy band, LIONESSES. Nice to meet you guys.
Kanghan: Hello, I'm Kanghan, the countertenor of this team.
Foxman: Hi guys, I'm the hyung of LIONESSES, Foxman. I sing and rap in this team.
Damjun: I'm Damjun, the leader of LIONESSES, which is the first LGBTQ+ boy band in K-pop. Anyway, I recently cut my hair short! (I asked a close hair designer to make me look like Park Seo-joon from Itaewon Class, and he made me into a kind of acorn!)
Q2) LIONESSES debuted as the ‘first openly LGBTQ+ K-pop group.’ Both the group’s name and title sound courageous. How do you feel carrying the lantern of being the first group standing for LGBTQ+ representation in the music industry?
Lee Malrang: I am very grateful and happy. It's also kind of a burden... but I'm trying to work hard with a humble heart.
Kanghan: I live my life with gratitude every day. Our purpose of debut is not necessarily defined as "representing a community," but if it's comforting for people who are struggling like us (LGBTQ+) in their lives, I feel happy things as a singer. So I always have small resolutions in my mind.
Foxman: Thank you very much and I'm really happy and feel nervous (similar to a kind of nervousness to being a star who just debuted) in being a representative now, but I think we'll have to work harder.
Damjun: It's hot! (laughs) That's a joke.
To be honest... I watched [K-pop singer] Jessi always mentioning Yoon Mi-rae and showing her respect, saying, "Unnie (Yoon Mi-rae) paved the way for us (female MCs)" and I thought “Who can be the Yoon Mi-rae for our community?”
I think all the gay Korean people of our generation could walk to Hong Seok-cheon, who is a huge lighthouse for the community. For the next generation of young children, I now want to return what I received from Hong Seok-cheon, a great actor and source of my courage.
Q3) What were the struggles you faced prior to debuting? Is it still the same or has it reduced with time?
Foxman: Before our debut, we couldn't make any song about our community because we couldn't come out and say this thing openly, but now we can talk about LGBTQ+ people's life publicly, within our music. It makes me happy.
Lee Malrang: It was a big concern to open up my identity and work. But as I was shown and loved, the anxiety and fear disappeared a lot.
Kanghan: I can't think of any big difficulties. I think it's a sudden gift. I'm always thankful that I'm receiving a lot of attention and love, and I thought I'd continue to do opera before my debut, but now I think I sing more LIONESSES music than opera.
Damjun: The difficulty I had before my debut was the time that I had to self-justify by rejecting numerous audition and debut offers that were offered to me, for the fear of being caught as a gay person, and the difficulty after my debut is... the workload!!! There's a lot!
I'm living as a singer, composer, lyricist, musical arranger, sound engineer, music producer, art designer, video editor for our YouTube channel, SNS page manager, paperwork manager, vocal coach in art high school, and graduate student for master's degree...(laughs)
I'm holding out by consuming all kinds of nutrients and red ginseng, and these nutritional supplements work very well... (laughs) I'd say it's thanks to the love from my beloved fans rather than nutritional supplements.
Q4) Since your debut in November last year with Show Me Your Pride, you have released three singles in total. The comments sections under all the music videos seems positive, but a majority of them seem to be from international viewers. How are the Korean fans reacting to your music?
Lee Malrang: There is still little response in Korea, so I'm working hard to promote the song in Korea.
Kanghan: There are more and more fans in Korea, and because of that, I have recently been contacted by acquaintances and loved by Korean fans.
Foxman: Korean fans, please support us a lot. (makes a heart) I think we'll be loved more and more because we're getting more and more known.
Damjun: Compared to Korea, it seems that overseas fans like our music, but now I think Korean fans are getting a good response.
The performance on Korean streaming sites is getting better, and after the Christmas Miracle incident, I watched the news and I was curious, so I opened YouTube to watch our music video and saw comments such as, "I like the song," and "They sing well." There are people who show reactions like that.
Actually, the Korean public can't stand the fact that we are LGBTQ, but they also can't stand singers who can't sing. (laughs)
Q5) One thing I absolutely love in your songs is how you don’t make big promises but talk about experiencing the most basic things with your loved ones, such as taking a walk in a park without anyone snarling at you. Is it a conscious choice to show people how the LGBTQ+ community is deprived of even the smallest things in life?
Kanghan: That is a difficult question. I hope to get out of a society where it is natural to hide because of the absolute fear of living as LGBTQ+ sexual minorities.
Foxman: I think it's probably because they're so attracted to even a little conversation or expression of affection of gay people. I think it should be changed a lot because straight people overreact and get angry just by watching gay people publicly do a tiny touch.
Damjun: The songs I'm making are extremely personal. Like the lyrics of Show Me Your Pride, I came out of the closet and found over 100 people like me drinking at the gay bar in Jongno.
As in the lyrics of Christmas Miracle, I felt the man I loved at that time as an angel God sent me.
Damjun (contd.): In Will you be my Groom? the lyrics say, "Let's ignore the noise of people who don't know about us. Let's go somewhere just the two of us." I was in a relationship with some guy then and I wrote it thinking of going to my mom's villa on a country island, which was just two hours away from Seoul! (laughs)
I think the fact that personal things I have experienced are sympathized with not only Korean gay people but also LGBTQs around the world is because of the similar oppression we are experiencing in our lives.
Music does not belong to the composer or singer, it belongs to the people who listen to it and feel it. When someone listens to the lyrics, they feel, "Oh, this is really my story."
If the songs I make can play such an important role in someone's life, wouldn’t it be a great honor as a composer? Thank you so much for loving us.
Q6) Let’s talk about the mysterious masks. Visuals play an important role in the Korean music industry. Whose idea was it to debut without revealing faces and who selected the masks?
Foxman: It was Damjun's idea. We thought, "How can we find an item that enables us to communicate with our fans in this society?" We wanted to express that wearing the same mask becomes a community.
Lee Malrang: It was a concept that Damjun decided on. All together, It also means projecting the ego of LIONESSES.
Kanghan: It was the idea of leader Damjun. And the mask that we wear has a symbolic message, and not just to cover our face. The mask we wear symbolizes the "face of a lioness," and rather than thinking that it is a mask for us, we hope that it will become a mask for the LGBTQ community in Korea and gain positive energy from a group of lionesses, not LGBTQs. Join us!
Damjun: That was my idea!!! The motif came from the Korean indie band "Mimi Sisters" who always wore thick sunglasses and sang with no expression. When someone asks about "LIONESSES", at least you're like, "Oh, those people with masks?" I wanted that strong image. (laughs)
Damjun (continued): And I also considered the performance of wearing a mask and taking it off to express "coming out" in the first song, and most of all, I want to think of it as a symbol of a group that can protect each other in this mask.
I hope our masks will be used as symbols to protect each other just like tattooing the symbol of the gang on someone's shoulders, as if those who saw it could not harm them because people feel afraid of the gang's retaliation.
I'm thinking of replacing our team's trademark with a mask and a different concept soon, but I'll make sure that DEN (fandom name) can buy it with the concept of goods. Let's wear masks together!
Q7) Recently, K-pop artist HOLLAND posted that he was attacked by a stranger due to his sexual identity being public. Excluding DAMJUN, do you think you made the right choice by choosing to protect your identity?
Foxman: I think there are a lot of different opinions, just like there are a lot of different people, but there are some people who don't like us, and there are people who like us. I don't want to force people who don't like us to "like me," but I want to let you know that people like us are alive and exist here as people.
Kanghan: I didn't start LIONESSES because I thought what I chose was the right thing to do, I started thinking about what "I could do.” I'm thinking about what kind of message I can talk about with my voice.
Lee Malrang: I feel that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people is taken for granted or normalized, like HOLLAND being attacked by a stranger is a normal experience for our community. I also feel that being attacked because of your sexual identity is absurd.
Damjun: I was as angry as I could have been attacked the same as him, when I heard about the incident. Even though I've never met HOLLAND, and I've never spoken to him, there are only a few gay singers who people know the face of in Korea, including him and me.
The incident happened in Itaewon, where people like us could be safe. I knew the same thing would have happened if I were there, not HOLLAND. So, I couldn't control my anger.
How terrible must HOLLAND have felt? But I want him to be able to recover his wounds safely and in peace of mind.
Damjun (continued): However, since our team's trademark mask is "a safety device that covers our faces to protect us," I don't think the rest of the members are in a position to watch the current incident in a "safety" situation.
Our bodies and hairstyles, especially our members' "unique voices that can't be of more than one person in South Korea," have been released to the public around the world. Anyone who can recognize it without a mask can recognize it. (Actually, Han said that people around him recognized him just by hearing his voice.)
So, as I said above, I never thought of masks as a shield that covers our faces.
I, who have already revealed my face, wear a mask together during the performance, and it's a matter of musical judgment about which member will be the main character in the music video for which song to take off the mask.
It's not just a matter of being a gay celebrity, wearing a mask, or not being a celebrity. I think this is a hate crime problem faced by the entire LGBTQ community.
Rather, I intend to constantly show my face to the public and continue to work. So that the next generation of young HOLLANDs and young Damjuns can travel around everywhere, including Itaewon, without fear.
Q8) HOLLAND’s incident has once again triggered the much-needed conversation around Korean LGBTQ+ artists. One of them is the sensationalized queerbaiting of K-pop idols but marginalising real non-heterosexual artists. What are your thoughts on it?
Foxman: I believe that if we do it with faith rather than with emotion, we will gradually become more natural.
Damjun: First of all, is it okay for us to keep mentioning HOLLAND's name in our interviews, when he suffered from a terrible incident not too long ago? I'm a little cautious.
Aside from that incident, queerbaiting in the K-pop industry has been a practice that I have criticized by directly mentioning it since my debut.
In fact, in the process of accepting fans, I think it's possible to imagine idol members as gay. However, I was sick and tired of the entire industry's marketing practices that blatantly exploit it.
So, if "the LGBTQ party is excluded, but only the gay image is used for marketing," I chose "the LGBTQ singer enters the K-pop industry himself" rather than getting angry not to use the image.
I believe that finding what I can do is faster than blaming others. I did what I could.
Q9) Do you think the K-pop industry’s perception about LGBTQ+ artists has changed over time? Can you elaborate a bit on how you think it has?
Foxman: It's increasing, but I don't think it's changed much yet.
Kanghan: The times are changing, so it is clear that thoughts and values are definitely changing, but I think Korean society is still looking at each other because there are many people pointing fingers at each other from behind.
Lee Malrang: I feel a little bit better with the activities of many human rights activists. But I also feel that I still have a long way to go before I feel equal.
Damjun: Of course, I can't say that the atmosphere of the K-pop industry has changed dramatically with our appearance. (Laughing)
I'm sure society is taking a step forward in a good way. The biggest change is that more and more stars are openly supporting LGBTQ, and most of all, media, organizations, and performance officials are now lining up to visit LIONESSES, isn't that the biggest change? (jokes)
Q10) Let’s lighten the mood a bit. DAMJUN, you have written all three songs while FOXMAN co-wrote two of them. What is your creative process like? How do you decide on a theme?
Damjun: I make the framework of the whole song first. When I make rap lyrics, I make lyrics with Foxman. I haven't revealed it yet, but I'm also the rapper of this team. (laughs)
When the message is clear, I ask Foxman to create a rap verse, which might be more difficult for him, but he uses the common motif rhythm throughout the song to create a rap verse that fits the mood of the song.
(When we were working on Show Me Your Pride, Foxman was writing rap lyrics and said, "Damjun, what rhymes end with [u]?", and I was (and I am, and I will be) an ARMY, and I said, "Hyung! Since we're talking about guns in the front line, let's write "We're Bulletproof!" and I secretly hid BTS in our song. (laughs)
Foxman really likes this kind of pop-like, non-tone rap and does it well, so I think he always makes good rap with this sweet music.
If I rap, I'll do gangster rap for songs like Will you be my Groom? (laughs)
Q11) Jongno 3-ga is a place widely known to be a homosexual-friendly neighborhood in Seoul. You also referenced the place in your second and third single, Christmas Miracle and Will you be my Groom?, respectively. What does the place, Jongno, mean to you and the LGBTQ+ community?
Foxman: For gays, Jongno is not just a space for cruising among gays, but rather a home for meeting open-minded friends and socializing with new people.
Damjun: What I'm saying is most accurate because I wrote both songs, right?
The person who said the lyrics "I'm not going to let go of your hand anymore, it's going to be like Jongno everywhere." In Will you be my Groom? I said, "Everywhere will be like Jongno, I'll make it true for us." The speakers of both songs are the same person! (laughs)
In fact, I want to build a world view where songs and stories are linked like MCU through LIONESSES's music.
So the last line of the rap verse of Show Me Your Pride is, "Call us friends, we'll be the candles in your dark room." and the first line of the rap verse of Will you be my Groom? is "I'm a candle that lights up your dark room." (laughs)
Q12) I noticed KANGHAN getting emotional and a tear running down their face during the verse “Some said, if we love each other, we’ll go to hell” in Will you be my Groom? music video. Was it tough filming the scene? Would you like to share any behind-the-scenes moments from the music video?
Damjun: This is what Han (Kanghan) would say... (laughs) I'm frowning especially in the same angle, right? Like a man full of determination...
It was on a cold winter beach in February, and the sea breeze blew so hard (in the direction of our faces) at the port that it was so hard for me to open my eyes and stare at the camera. My eyes were so hurt. (laughs)
But still... Han cried because he was sad...Right?
Kanghan: I'll tell you the behind story later on. Please watch our music video and interpret it freely. Your interpretation is correct (laughs).
Q13) KANGHAN, your opera voice is one of the things that stands out graciously and demands attention. You’ve also majored in opera, classical music, and are the drag queen ROOYA. Can you tell us more about your journey from opera to drag and finally K-pop? Do you feel like you’re living a double life?
Kanghan: It's not a double life, but it's bound to look like that.
As a countertenor Kanghan, I want to continue my career as an opera singer and have a very busy daily life because I have to continue my activities as a LIONESSES member.
And Drag artist ROOYA is [persona] who boosts my own artistic sensibility and my self-esteem. ROOYA is not an opera singer, but another self who likes to sing Haha... I think you'll be able to see ROOYA from time to time during the LIONESSES’ music.
Q14) FOXMAN, as a former K-pop idol trainee, how does it feel to truly be yourself in a group such as LIONESSES? Did you ever think it was possible to be open with your sexuality and promote in an LGBTQ+ group?
FOXMAN: I'm very thankful so much, and it's nice to be able to work as a team like this and I hope there will be more teams to follow us. Also, since I like sports, I am thinking of revealing my body if I am more confident (laughs), I think it will help to promote it to some extent.
Q15) DAMJUN, you have participated in composition, songwriting, and vocal direction on all three LIONESSES tracks. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other groups?
Damjun: The difference between me and the other team is that I'm behind the wheel of all the music. Of course, there are many composers who are better than me, and teams that work with more than 10 composers on credits often produce good songs.
However, as mentioned above, the biggest advantage possible because all the songs come from me is that I know all the stories between the songs and can connect them.
Any song that's coming out next may be connected to the music of LIONESSES. I think that's the biggest advantage that all the songs have. The downside is that I spend half of my time sleeping. (laughs)
Q16) LEE MALRANG, you have quite a few years of age gap with your hyungs. How does it feel being the group’s maknae? What are some things that you have learnt from them and some things you have taught them?
Lee Malrang: It's fun and hard to live as the youngest in this group. Still, I learn a lot from other members. I learned a mindset and attitude as an artist from my members as they teach me a lot.
Q17) I noticed LIONESSES members occasionally share fanarts on their individual Instagram accounts. Has there been a memorable fanart or moment that makes you feel you have somewhat succeeded in becoming a “lighthouse” for young LGBTQ+ artists?
Kanghan: I remember receiving a painting that explains ROOYA and KANGHAN as one fanart and I liked that picture the most. Of course, the other fanart is really lovely and thank you. And there's a fan who draws fanart every time. She drew me crying at the end of the music video for my third single album. I'm so thankful for that. It's very precious to me.
Damjun: We're still rookies in our sixth month of debut to be a lighthouse, so I'm really touched by the fan art that the fans draw.
A funny episode was that I uploaded a picture of my dog on Instagram, and then the video was uploaded to TikTok saying, "Damjun's dog is the cutest among K-pop idol dogs!" It was a fascinating and fun moment for me.
Q18) We’re halfway through 2022. What are a few things you would like to achieve by the end of the year?
Foxman: A mini concert with face-to-face meeting and communication with the fans!!
Kanghan LIONESSES' mini concert!
Lee Malrang: I want to be on a music show. Whether it's cable or radio, I want to go on music shows.
Q19) When can DEN (fandom) expect new music from LIONESSES? Can you tell us a bit about the future release? Its concept or maybe a spoiler?
Damjun: My biggest goal is to make sure that the songs I'm working on are released safely, and I'm able to meet you on many stages this year, so I hope I can appear on the show.
The summer song, Bon Voyage! which is currently scheduled to be released in June, is at the end of the work, and by August, there may be another surprise change for you! (laughs)
Joining the LIONESSES’ trio Show Me Your Pride, Christmas Miracle, and (my personal favorite) Will you be my Groom?, will be their upcoming song, Bon Voyage!. What story the group will weave with their lyrics, remains to be seen.
With increasing conversations around the LGBTQ+ community and artists, LIONESSES are surely paving their own way in the K-pop music industry.