ZELO: No More Misconceptions
The former B.A.P member gets candid about life after being in a boyband, the release of his first solo album in May and building his own brand
Before meeting Choi Junhong–best known by the mononym Zelo–I take a moment to walk down memory lane and re-watch one of my favorite music videos by his former group B.A.P. It’s their 2012 debut track “Warrior,” and all the six members are blonde, confident and embody the term ‘swag’ quite literally. Zelo (just 15 years old at the time) comes onscreen halfway through, spitting fire at a speed that most other idol rappers in the scene couldn’t really compete with.
“Warrior” was about the injustices of a corrupted society and set the tone for what the band would come to mean to their fans: a symbol of revolution and the representatives of the power of the youth. They shot to fame rapidly by tackling taboo topics like mental health, societal pressure and politics in their lyricism–which some of the members, including Zelo, were actively involved in writing. B.A.P and Zelo have both been a part of my life for several years now and it takes a moment to absorb the fact that I will be meeting him face-to-face.
When we meet in Seoul a few days later for his photo shoot for Rolling Stone India, the honesty and raw truth in his lyricism is one of the first things we talk about. “At one moment, I’m telling myself to be careful,” the now 23-year-old rapper says when I ask if he had any fear around taking on these topics over the years. “But then afterwards, I feel like I have to tell the story that I have inside.”
In addition to their powerful lyricism, B.A.P were known for their stellar, story-based music videos which tended to portray scenes of gang wars, sting operations, revolution and more. A lot of fans’ earliest memories of B.A.P include their action-heavy and cinematic music video for 2013’s “One Shot,” which pushed them to new levels of fame. It all hit a roadblock in 2014 when it came to light that the band had reportedly filed a lawsuit against their label TS Entertainment for unfair working conditions and profit distribution. The long, drawn-out court case put a halt on all their activities, pushing them out of the spotlight for several months. They reached a settlement and were able to make a comeback in 2015, but the hiatus cost them a significant chunk of their fanbase. Since then, they’ve strived twice as hard to make sure their message still gets out there, whether it was their last release before disbanding (2017’s “Hands Up“) or their solo ventures since. Zelo hopes to push this legacy forward, but finally do it his own way. “I always had the thought that it was not going to last forever,” he says carefully. “So I was always kind of exploring on my own in order to fulfill these musical desires that I had.”
He explains that he wants to show his fans a part of himself that he’s always wanted to bring to the fore, a Zelo whose identity is more than being the bubbly maknae (youngest) of B.A.P. Those who follow his somewhat low-key SoundCloud account have probably had a taste of what he’s talking about–it’s a treasure-trove of self-composed solo tracks that dip into trap, Latin pop and hip-hop, treading sexier territories than what his image in B.A.P allowed. (He’s surprised when I bring it up, saying with wide eyes, “You know about my SoundCloud?!” Indeed I do, and it’s something more fans need to check out.)
From there on we bond over a mutual love for hip-hop, B.A.P’s incredible seven-year legacy, and our hilarious height difference (he stands at a cool 6’2″ to my 4’11”.) He’s very elegant, quieter than I expected (the swaggy 15-year-old from the “Warrior” music video flashes briefly through my mind), curious and intelligent; he asks if he can be involved in the art direction and suggests camera angles, poses and selects the outfits that will go best with the concept. What was supposed to be an hour’s shoot melts into four, but he’s excited, and this in turn excites the whole crew. Afterwards, we talk about everything from Wiz Khalifa to the misconceptions around K-pop, the release of his first solo album in May and building his own brand. By the end of the conversation it’s clear to us all that Zelo is ready to embark on a journey he is more than prepared for. Excerpts:
When did you first know that you wanted to become a musician?
When I was young, I actually attended a music institution. But even before then, I was exposed to the K-Pop world through a Korean program called X-Man. A lot of senior artists came out on the program–H.O.T, TVXQ, etc. When I saw them, I dreamed of becoming a singer.
How did you first get into doing your own songwriting and production? Is there a particular track that you are especially proud of?
In the beginning, I would just copy songs by other more established artists (check out his impeccable use of Lil Wayne’s “Six Foot Seven Foot” instrumental here) and just practice by doing that, but after doing that for a while I started writing lyrics and melody using elements from my own story. There is a song I am proud of, but it’s coming out this May. This is the first song that I feel in my heart I am really proud of. I’m still in the process of getting more training, so I don’t want to limit myself too much in terms of genres just yet. It’s impossible to tell what kind of music will be popular in the future. I think of my songs as a ticking clock, and I am trying to make things in a style that my fans will like.
What artists are you currently listening to?
I listen to a lot of rap by Wiz Khalifa. Honestly though, there are a lot of artists that I listen to but can’t remember. I listen to a lot of music on YouTube, and there are some great artists out there making music with a lot of subscribers. But since often I just accidentally overhear a song at a café, or listen to music on YouTube, or look it up and download songs at random, I can’t remember the songs by name.
I also wanted to talk to you about your songwriting, because whether it is your own solo stuff or your work with B.A.P, your writing has always been very honest. You do get very vulnerable, which I love. Do you ever have a moment of fear before you put out songs like that?
There are always parts that I am hesitant about. At one moment, I’m telling myself to be careful, but then afterwards I feel like I have to tell the story that I have inside, something that listeners can enjoy and sympathize with. So I’m trying to write more songs like that.
I think you’ve always done that. Your entire career with B.A.P left a powerful legacy within the Korean music industry, as well as outside it. You’ve left a strong mark on fans. How did you know that this was the right time to start a solo venture?
When I was part of a boy group, I always had the thought that it was not going to last forever. So I was always kind of exploring on my own in order to fulfill these musical desires that I had. This desire continued to grow, and as it grew I continued to prepare for my eventual solo debut.
You’re a senior artist in the industry and you’ve seen it evolve for quite a while. What is something that has changed that you really liked?
K-pop has been able to get so many more peoples’ attention in the last several years, so way more opportunities are now available to show people my music, and myself. I think this has been really great.
Do you think that the term ‘K-pop’ carries a sense of erasure? That is when people hear the word ‘K-pop,’ they assume that K-pop artists can’t do production, or can’t do songwriting?
After being in a boy group myself, like I said before, I wanted to spend more time fulfilling my personal desires, but time spent on team activities was definitely far greater. So even if a K-pop artist has the desire to study production or songwriting, it’s… challenging.
Is it because a lot of the focus goes on the team’s image and not what you are each individually contributing to the music? How do we change the misconception?
I think the way to change people’s minds is by continuing to make music. I believe that when you show people what you have created, this kind of misconception can be changed. But no matter what, because there are still people who are going to say these things, and you’re going to hear these underestimations of people in the K-pop industry. In my own experience, when I was in B.A.P, I was doing some production, and writing my own songs, but people would say I was ‘too young’ to be writing about serious topics. They made this character for me. I always had to be thinking about how my work would look in the context of the team, but sometimes it was like everyone wanted to go in a different direction. I think that’s why I am working so hard at producing and writing now that I am a solo artist.
I was telling you about how many fans you have in India, and how there’s so much respect for you as an artist. How does it make you feel to know there are fans that live so far away in a different culture, but still find strength in your music and who you are as a person?
I feel amazing. The music I made is finally being shown to everyone, but there was a long process that went into that, so hearing that my music has touched so many people makes me feel really great.
Do you feel a sense of pressure because so many people look up to you? Because you’re very young yourself, is this ever something that stresses you out?
Honestly… since I am just looking within myself, I don’t feel burdened or stressed. I’m just focusing on making things in the way that I like, and happily making music.
What’s cool is it that so many of your fans have grown up with you. We have gone through life with you. Do you think it’s important, the process where fans and an artist grow up together? Have you learned anything from your fans?
This isn’t the first time I’ve received this question. The last time I thought about the answer to this question, I was thinking about it so seriously, but it was so difficult to answer. But the way I feel now, it’s like someone has been with me as I continue to do this thing that I love, and when I think of this person who has always been next to me, I think of it as such a precious thing. I feel like I have learned so, so much. How is it that people are able to continuously write letters, and write things on social media, and do these things to give me strength? When I look at those letters, I am so touched. Sometimes when I look at them, I feel acclimated to it. But then there are the times when I am so tired, or when I feel like nothing can make me happy, but then I hear these kind words from these people and… it’s like they’re my close friends, or my family. It’s so special and precious.
Right now India is in the middle of a hip-hop revolution, and so many artists are popping up and rapping about honesty, politics and social class. What about hip-hop makes it such a good vessel for these sort of messages? Why is it such a good way to address these topics?
In rap, there’s less of a focus on having a pretty melody and more focus on what the rapper’s own thoughts, and what they want to say. Because there’s less emphasis on the melody, you make more of what you actually want to say be heard. I like being able to tell my own stories through my songs. I think that’s why I started doing rap in the first place.
What’s one thing you hope your fans take away or learn from your new music?
What I want to tell my fans… I’m trying hard to express myself. So instead of particularly putting one feeling or another into my music, I feel like I kind of exploded into the songs [laughs.] So when everyone hears this album, I think people will see this energy behind it that is unique to me.
Do you have message for your Indian fans?
For seven years as a part of B.A.P, I knew that there were many fans in India and I kept wanting to do something there. But I’m going to do tons of activities and events in India, so I would appreciate it if you could just wait a little bit longer. And in May, my mini album is going to be coming out. So if you’re patient for just a little while longer, I will work to give even more gifts to you in the future.
Photographs: Greg Samborski for Rolling Stone India
Art Direction: Riddhi Chakraborty and Zelo