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BIBI: Meet The Enigmatic Princess of K-R&B

She grabbed the world’s attention thanks to her bold artistry and now we can’t get enough

Riddhi Chakraborty May 28, 2022

“At the end of the day, I’m just being authentic to who I am. It’s still insane to me that there are people out there who can relate to my experience.” -BIBI. Photo: Courtesy of Feel Ghood Music exclusively for Rolling Stone India

“No lie, I thought, ‘Am I on a hidden camera prank show?”’ It’s a few weeks after Coachella 2022 wrapped up, and BIBI still can’t believe she made her debut at one of the world’s biggest music festivals–that too in front of a crowd of over 100,000. It’s been a couple of days since she landed in Seoul after what she describes as one of the most “unreal, nerve wracking, and wonderful” experiences of her life, and she’s giving me the download on everything that went on from the moment she got the news, to the moment she finished the show. “[I couldn’t believe it] even up until after I got off the stage. Honestly, I’m still processing the whole thing.”

The South Korean singer-songwriter was part of 88rising’s ‘Head In The Clouds’ stage and joined an impressive lineup of prominent Asian acts that included GOT7’s Jackson Wang, MILLI, Rich Brian, and NIKI. Despite it being her first time at the desert festival, she wowed audiences with her breezy and seductive rendition of her mega-hit 2022 track “The Weekend” – pulling hip-hop legend Yoonmirae in for a surprise verse – plus a pre-release preview of her latest dreamy single “Best Lover.” With her soft, breezy voice, penchant for glimmering dark pop and a generous dose of playfully sexy choreography, BIBI was one of the highlights of the entire show.

It’s a little unbelievable that this is the same artist I first met in 2019, but also somehow seems like the perfect progression of her story. I discovered BIBI while I was in Seoul attending a taping of Mnet’s weekly music show, M Countdown. Most artists who have new releases make an appearance on it to perform and promote their tracks, hoping to draw in new audiences thanks to Mnet’s massive nation-wide and global reach. At the time, BIBI was a rookie, promoting her debut EP The Manual For People Who Want To Love and its lead single “Nabi.” She caught my attention immediately thanks to her unique, high vocal tone – surprisingly suited to R&B – and I began my research to learn more about who she was. 

Fate was unusually kind because about a week later, a mutual friend of ours – R&B artist MRSHLL – told me she’s signed to Feel Ghood Music–the same label he was under at the time. He offered to introduce me to the singer-songwriter and we made a day of it, driving a couple of hours out of Seoul to head to FGM’s headquarters. Before I knew it, I was settled right next to BIBI on a comfortable couch at their studio – the central creative space for hip-hop legends Tiger JK, Yoonmirae and Bizzy – surrounded by Tiger JK’s massive collection of vinyls, talking about R&B, Soundcloud and the story of why BIBI decided to make music.

BIBI is the Hip-Hop and R&B digital cover star for Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue. Photo: Courtesy of Feel Ghood Music exclusively for Rolling Stone India

“When I was 14, I bought a shitty little mic,” she’d told me that day about how she began her journey. “And I downloaded a version of a music software program… for free.” There was collective laughter at this from the entire team at FGM who had joined us for the conversation and I got to see BIBI through their eyes: a funny, charismatic and talented artist who leaned on music as a way to be herself completely. For her, writing songs and diving into the honesty hip-hop provided was a way to express her thoughts, emotions and worldview away from the prying eyes and ears of bullies and critics. She started out by uploading her creations on to Soundcloud, and regardless of whether anyone was listening or not, made sure to always put out at least one track a month (“Art is still art even without an audience,” she reiterates during our 2022 conversation). She began collaborating with various underground artists from the Korean hip-hop and R&B scene and somehow one of the tracks she featured on found its way to Korean hip-hop originator and MFBTY member, Yoonmirae. “It wasn’t necessarily like, ‘Oh, let’s sign her as an artist,’” BIBI recalls. “It was like, ‘Oh, this girl is good. Maybe she can write melodies for us or songs for us. Let’s set up a meeting.” 

That meeting was the stepping stone to where BIBI is today, representing South Korea on global stages under the mentorship of Yoonmirae and Tiger JK. She’s grateful to them for giving her a platform and guiding her, but she’s also proud of how she’s been able to hone her craft to communicate her message to the world. “At the end of the day, I’m just being authentic to who I am,” she says, adding, “It’s still insane to me that there are people out there who can relate to my experience.” Her success with releases like 2020’s “Kazino,” her 2021 EP Life Is A Bi… and more recently, the global blow-up with “The Weekend,” hasn’t erased that funny, charismatic musician I met three years ago at MFBTY’s studio. BIBI is still BIBI; the only difference is that now there are millions more listening to her songs. The age of sending songs into the void is over.

In this much-needed catch-up with Rolling Stone India, BIBI details the behind-the-scenes story of her thrilling debut at Coachella, reflects on her massive success, opens up about the stories behind her most iconic releases, and unveils what she’s got planned next.

First off, I want to start with Coachella – what an outstanding performance! What does it take to prepare for events at such a grand scale [Head In The Clouds 2021 was also another stunning example] and ensure your artistry and message come through to a brand new audience?

For Coachella, we started the initial prep and planning at the beginning of the year via many, many Zoom meetings [laughs] and things got real once we landed in L.A. several weeks prior to show day. We had rehearsals pretty much every day leading up to it, learning and adjusting the stage direction, choreography, etc. It’s important to me that it feels and looks authentically ‘me’ in every moment – from the initial concept, to the costumes, to bringing my legendary special guest and unnie [big sister] Yoonmirae, my team and I are involved in every step of the way to ensure that happens. I want to keep pushing the envelope in new ways, not only for myself, but to inspire others as well.

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You were in the U.S. for a few weeks with your label Feel Ghood Music and it was amazing to see you all over the news, at the Grammy Museum and more. What were some of your favorite moments from this trip aside from Coachella?

The food in L.A. is insane, plus Korean food is easily accessible – which is always a plus! [Korean restaurant] The Boiling Crab… so delicious! We [the FGM family and I] basically rented a big house for the month for rehearsals, shows, and other promo work – it’s the longest I’ve stayed outside of Korea, so it did feel like I was somewhat experiencing L.A. life, though I’m sure I barely scratched the surface. I definitely took advantage of our swimming pool and jacuzzi, and the free time I had was spent simply relaxing on the couch. But one of my favorite things is to just chill and hang out with my FGM family doing seemingly mundane things like stuffing our face during movie nights [laughs]!

Something that a lot of musicians talk to me about is making the jump from being the Soundcloud ‘underground’ artist to getting their ‘big break’ and making an impact on an international level. As someone who has had a journey just like this, how would you say you’ve evolved from the BIBI we knew from Soundcloud, to the BIBI who is now a global R&B star?

All I know is that when I first started out, I was more focused on what I wanted to say. And while that’s still the case today, I tend to now create songs with my fans, my BIBIbullets, in mind, and universal themes – of course in my own “naked BIBI” way – that everyone can relate to and enjoy.

I know you’ve been writing songs since your early teens and you began because of your love for hip-hop, but was there a particular moment where you knew this was what you wanted to do with your life? What solidified the dream for you?

I started writing songs in middle school because I needed an outlet to express myself – even if no one listened. Art is still art even without an audience. But I knew I was going to make music forever no matter what… but it’s still fascinating [and frankly, insane] to me that people listen to my music. I can’t be more grateful to be able to do what I love.

Why did hip-hop particularly appeal to you so much above any other genre?

I think the honesty of hip hop – especially in the lyrics – was something I was drawn to.

I think for most of the world, the major kick-off point was “Kazino”– people truly understood what you were about and it shocked and fascinated them. What brought those lyrics and the message of that video to you?

At the time, a lot of my songwriting tended to gravitate towards romantic, lovey-dovey subjects and I felt myself unconsciously boxing myself in. That was a red flag for me. I needed to switch things up and get back to my gritty, unabashed self – which is when the phrase “everything in life is a gamble” came to me… which eventually became “Kazino.”

You’ve mentioned that when you write songs, your emotions lead the process and help you create a story out of those feelings. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you begin work on a new track? 

My songwriting process usually starts off with a spark of some sort. It’s pretty random. An idea or maybe a phrase will pop up – it can be from my dreams or something I remembered from a previous conversation – and then I’ll start to build the concept from there, fleshing out the lyrics and melody as I go along. I’m pretty open to experimenting with any and all genres and sounds, as it’s merely a vehicle to carry out what I want to communicate.

Do the songs represent different characters or is BIBI the main character experiencing these various stories?

The different characters that I emulate in my stories are all an extension of me and the ‘BIBIverse’… I have so much stuff swimming around in my mind that thankfully gets an outlet through my art.

What would you say is the biggest difference between BIBI and Hyungseo? On the other hand, what ties them together?

I would say BIBI is the ultimate “popstar” while Hyeongseo is young and naive, nervous and afraid. But at the end of the day, both parts – essentially me – just want to be loved.

Although they all share a similar touch of darkness and the supernatural, all of your music videos are extremely different from one another – you always change concepts and keep your audiences guessing about what you’ll do next. How does the process of creating the storyline for a video begin? What is usually the starting point?

The starting point is an image. Reflecting my emotions, the image is usually taken from or based on my childhood. I usually build my songs around it – a collage of words, words that have left scars on my heart.

I think finding happiness in one’s darkness is something that isn’t as highlighted. Our world is full of ups and downs, joy and despair. And being able to digest and communicate those dark concepts and sadness in a beautiful way, is art.” Photo: Courtesy of Feel Ghood Music exclusively for Rolling Stone India

All of your videos are also known for their strong messages that sometimes criticize society and point out some of the uglier aspects of human nature. What pushes you to be so vocal about these themes? Have you ever felt fear or hesitation before putting out a particular video?

I don’t criticize, I’m just saying what I want to say. Like the real world, my world is also full of not-so-positive moments and it seems like there are many out there who sing about only the good ones. I think finding happiness in one’s darkness is something that isn’t as highlighted. Our world is full of ups and downs, joy and despair. And being able to digest and communicate those dark concepts and sadness in a beautiful way, is art.

What are some of your visual inspirations to create the worlds that we see in your work? Do you have any key influences?

I am absolutely head over heels [in love with] movies and am inspired by directors like Quentin Tarantino – his films were my ‘nanny’ growing up. I also have so much adoration, love, and respect for director Park Chan-Wook. 

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In addition to your character in “Kazino,” I absolutely loved the ‘Goddess BIBI’ in the MV for “Life is a Bi…” and the confrontation between the two BIBIs. Can you tell me the story about that moment in the MV?

It’s a battle between good and evil as both BIBIs fight for love from me. It’s the inner struggle within myself.

I want to talk about “The Weekend” of course, because it’s blown up worldwide to such a massive extent – first with your original release, then via the remixes that featured Milli and 347aiden. Can you tell me a little bit about the writing and production process behind the track? Did you guess that it would go absolutely viral the way it has?

Before I go into the backstory, a big shout-out to Max & Kyle, Pink Slip and Dava for creating this awesome track. It was one of those typical Feel Ghood family studio nights where Tasha [Yoonmirae], Marshall [MRSHLL], Tiger JK, and I were listening through several all-English demo tracks that were sent to us and as soon as “The Weekend” came on, I knew – along with everyone else – that it was a surefire hit. There was something about the song that turned our little listening session into an instant party – we all broke out dancing, and I immediately went into the recording booth to record it. Definitely one of those memorable Feel Ghood moments.

Every artist involved in a “Weekend Remix” brought a different element and spiced it up in new ways that breathed new life into the record. I really loved MILLI’s remix, and we ended up meeting in real life at Coachella and became really good friends. It was super meaningful for me when I got to perform a Coachella-exclusive remix version featuring Tasha – the person who discovered me – together on the Coachella main stage; it was definitely a full-circle moment.

I love so many of your collaborative releases – “Galipette” with Lolo Zouaï was so unexpected and refreshing, so was your feature on Chancellor’s “Automatic” [another underrated favorite of mine that I had on repeat] and more recently “Is this bad b****** number?” with Jeon Soyeon and Youngji [super fun]. Does your artistry shift based on the musician you collaborate with? How do you decide if a particular collaboration will be the right fit for you?

Big kisses to all the strong, like-minded women I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with. I think at the end of the day, regardless of who is asking for the collab or feature, I have to love the song, and if time permits, I’m usually down. And thankfully, all of the artists that I’ve been blessed to work with understand and respect my artistry to let me explore and be the ‘me-est me’ on their tracks.

You’ve worked with so many incredible artists from around the world – have any Indian musicians caught your attention? Is there anyone from our country you’d like to work with?

I actually really enjoy the musical/dramatic aspect of Bollywood films and while he’s not necessarily a musician, I’d love to work with Aamir Khan!

You’ve also worked on several K-drama OSTs and established yourself as a prominent name in that branch of the industry – Twenty-Five-Twenty-One, Beyond Evil and Our Beloved Summer are some of the drama OSTs you’ve lent your voice to [I was particularly obsessed with “Timeless”]. How does the process differ when making music for an OST as compared to making music for yourself? What are some of the things you need to keep in mind during the experience that we as an audience might not know? 

I feel like the OST world is a whole separate lane – it can seem a bit more calculated as it has to make sense for a particular scene in the film or drama. In some ways it’s easier because all I have to do is focus on singing, but in other ways it’s more difficult as the artistic freedom is more restricted. But sometimes, I end up infusing my own flavor anyway and persuade the director.

We’ve talked about this before, but I feel it’s something that needs to be revisited now that Korean music – across all genres – is being recognized globally. Would you say K-R&B is different from R&B around the world? 

No, I don’t really dwell on genres… but I’ve always been a big fan of R&B music, period. And if it wasn’t for R&B artists that paved the way, there would be no K-R&B.

“I started writing songs in middle school because I needed an outlet to express myself.” Photo: Courtesy of Feel Ghood Music exclusively for Rolling Stone India

Everyone I speak to about you says you are one of the key front runners leading the Korean R&B and hip-hop scene right now. Critics, fans, other musicians and more feel like you’re a fantastic representation of what Asian artists are capable of. How do you feel about these labels and what does it mean to you?

Tell me more. Please, don’t stop. No, really… tell me more [laughs]! Jokes aside, I’m humbled and deeply appreciative. At the end of the day, I’m just being authentic to who I am. It’s still insane to me that there are people out there who can relate to my experience.

We all have our own interpretations of your work, but what is the message that you hope to put out with your artistry? What is the legacy you want to leave behind?

I don’t really have anything in particular to leave behind – the only thing I really care about is that whoever is listening to my music takes something away from it.

Are you planning on releasing a full-length album soon? Any spoilers or hints you can share with us about your plans for new music?

Yes! I’m working on my very first full-length album – I cannot wait to share it with all of you. But what I can tell you is that I have 13 brand-new songs ready to go!

From when you dropped your first EP The Manual For People Who Want To Love, to your latest Life Is A Bi…, I’m personally extremely proud of your evolution as an artist. It’s been such a pleasure to see you succeed and forge such a brilliant path in the industry. What are you most proud of regarding your own artistic growth so far? Additionally, what are some goals you still want to achieve in regards to your music?

Thanks to the guidance of my bosses, I feel like I’ve leveled up in so many ways, not only in singing and production, but also about how to carry myself as an artist – though I don’t really listen to them [laughs]. In terms of music goals, I already have everything… except for maybe love. I always want more love and need more love.

Stream BIBI’s EP ‘Life Is A Bi…’ below:

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