I don’t really get K-Pop. But my girlfriend Sam does.
She’s a big SHINee fan—or Shawol, as they call themselves—and she’s always tried to get me into them. We send each other music recommendations a lot, and she would constantly send over songs from her favorite group. She’d send me other songs, as well: music from Korea, Japan, or Indonesia that she liked or found interesting.
I skipped over most of them, put off every time I had to listen to something that wasn’t in English or Filipino. The idea of not understanding the lyrics distracted me too much from the admittedly jivey beats—I was also too lazy to look for a translation. But this Valentine’s Day, a new boy band released a single on their YouTube channel. When we connected for our usual call, Sam had a massive smile on her face. “You gotta watch this!”
It was another boy band, but this time, they didn’t look Korean or Japanese. They were sitting on a jeepney. The first two verses of the song flowed beautifully in Tagalog, before someone brought it down and started rapping. I could see Sam on the side of my screen, doing her best to keep up with the rap. Considering the jeepney—with neon characters in Baybayin—and what I could remember from the old SHINee videos she made me watch, I had a guess of what this was: K-Pop, but in Filipino.
Once the video ended, Sam gave me a proper introduction: this boy band was called ALAMAT, this was their debut single ‘kbye,’ and they are part of the emerging genre of music called P-Pop.
On top of the singing and dancing performances presented in blockbuster music videos, P-Pop groups provide their fans with entertaining content through online variety shows and vlogs. These videos also give fans a glimpse of their hard work and camaraderie as friends and roommates; in ALAMAT’s case, their vlogs even started with the members’ auditions.
The group was established by Viva Entertainment and Ninuno Media through a talent search in 2020. Trying to find pieces for the next big boy band, they found nine talents from nine different parts of the country: Taneo from Kalinga, Tomas from Albay, Valfer from Negros Occidental, Jao from Pampanga, Mo from Zambales, Gami from Bohol, Alas from Davao, R-Ji from Eastern Samar, and Kin from Quezon City. Though Kin left shortly after the release of kbye, the remaining eight continued on together, creating a multilingual musical mash of pop, hip-hop and folk music.
Like the P-Pop and K-Pop groups before them, everyone in the group sings and dances, while Mo, Alas, and Valfer show off their rapping prowess. But what makes ALAMAT unique is the integration of each member’s own culture into their visuals and sound: Their music makes use of their own regional languages, and each member is dressed in outfits borrowing from their heritage and tradition.
In the weeks that followed, Sam was obsessed with ALAMAT. She’d play the kbye music video during our nightly calls, her smile rising as the video’s neon colors danced across her face like a spectacle of New Year’s fireworks. This became her (and subsequently my) nightly routine as we did our school work over Zoom. She usually tutored me in Philosophy, but during these calls, she took her place as my professor of P-Pop.
Back then, I could only enjoy what I fully understood at first listen.
Amidst her lecture about Taneo’s Kalinga patterned clothing, the excitement in her voice reminded me of a conversation I had with our friend—a diehard TWICE stan—a while back about Nayeon’s front teeth. He had talked about how Nayeon’s smile stands out while still blending perfectly with the rest of TWICE; in the same way, Sam raved about how Taneo's top made him distinct but still fit seamlessly with the group when they lined up for their dance sequences.
As Sam and I had nights filled with discussions about Philippine culture and music created by Filipinos, I couldn’t help but feel like these conversations were on the stilts of K-Pop: We talked about regional languages and lyrics, and then their training and personal lives. We talked about the group as artists and then the group as people—something I recently learned was common among K-Pop fans.
I’m in no way an expert in South Korean music; my knowledge is limited to whatever I overhear my friends talking about. But more than the trivia and recommendations, it was the fans that intrigued me most: Their hype trains for new music start at the artist’s first teasers, lasting for months on end and kicking into overdrive once the song drops. From organizing streaming marathons to renting out billboards for comebacks, it shouldn’t be a surprise that BTS’ recent hit Butter sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks straight, or that Super Junior has held the #1 spot on Taiwan’s K-Pop album charts since 2017—that’s 200 weeks, with five different albums—and counting: K-Pop fans are determined to see their idols succeed.
Their passion is incredible, and overwhelming at the same time. I’ve certainly never talked about my favorite bands or artists this way, but such is the foundation of K-Pop.
The emergence of Korean music as we know it today dates back to around the 1990s, but the Korean Wave (or “Hallyu”) really hit the Philippines in the late 2000s, blowing up considerably when former local actress and singer Sandara Park debuted in the girl group 2NE1 in 2009. Once Filipinos started paying attention, they found that K-Pop performers were all-around entertainers: singers, dancers, and variety show personalities. Fans sang their songs and learned their dances, then watched shows to learn more about the people behind the performers. With subtitles and translations, Filipinos transcended the language barrier, and nothing could stop the influx of their support.
After Super Junior held the first solo K-Pop concert in the country in 2010, more artists came and more fan bases grew. Before the pandemic hit, Korean artists held concerts, fan events, and variety show tapings in the Philippines nearly once a month. Many Filipino fans also began learning the language and taking an interest in other forms of Korean media and culture.
At the time, I found the idea of listening to music I couldn’t actually understand strange, and even a bit wrong. I remember switching channels every time Super Junior or 2NE1 flashed on Myx, hoping to find a song I could understand playing on MTV, instead. Back then, I could only enjoy what I fully understood at first listen. It was only as a college senior, at the obsession of my girlfriend, that I realized 12-year-old me may have been too dismissive: I barely understood six of the seven languages ALAMAT used in kbye, but now it inspired wonder. Much like how millions of K-Pop fans developed an interest in South Korean culture, ALAMAT pushed Sam and I into the curious space of regional languages.
I had a guess of what this was: K-Pop, but in Filipino.
These days, K-Pop has become a worldwide success, naturally leading to its influence in the local music scene. The rise of groups like SB19, ALAMAT, and BINI have firmly established P-Pop as a thriving addition to Filipino music. This seemed like a natural effect in response to a global phenomenon, but as I listened to kbye over and over again, I couldn’t help but wonder if P-Pop was truly ours: While these nine Filipinos were clothed in our fragmented culture and sang in their culturally personal ways, their direction is guided by the K-Pop industry. Like other K-Pop groups, they were formed through auditions and training sessions. They follow K-Pop trends. They even live and train like K-Pop idols, all of which is documented on YouTube.
Does P-Pop belong, then, among the waves of K-Pop’s influence? Or does it belong in the roster of OPM, or Original Pinoy Music? When I asked Sam, she explained how they can operate in both spaces: ALAMAT is a product of K-Pop’s influence, and is also something Filipinos can call their own. I knew she was right, but my 12-year-old self refused to believe that the answer was that simple.
I tried to argue for both sides of the question, and troubled her (and myself) with the over-complications of cultural appropriation and capitalist exploitation. Dismissively—and probably rightfully so—Sam stopped listening to me in favor of learning the choreography to kbye.
Left with my curiosity, I thought it best to go straight to the source and talk to ALAMAT directly. I sent emails, Facebook messages, even Twitter and Instagram DMs. I stood by my phone hoping for a reply for days, but a little over a week went by and all I received was radio silence. I eventually decided to stop trying, feeling like I was approaching Creepy Fan territory the more time passed.
Instead, I extended the question to a few K-Pop loving friends, who echoed Sam’s sentiments. That pushed me closer to the edge of defeat, but Sam mercifully pointed me in the direction of her sister’s colleague who may be able to help: Krina Cayabyab from the University of the Philippines College of Music. Thankfully, she replied, and we set up an interview.
In the days leading up to our conversation, I felt less sure about the validity of my question. Why couldn’t it be both? What was wrong with both? Flustered and nervous, I realized I couldn't find the answers to those questions, either. I told Krina as much, but like any good teacher, she assured me that there are no stupid questions.
“So where does P-Pop belong?” I blurted out. “Is it bound by the gatekeepers of the K-Pop industry? Or is it something Filipinos can call OPM?” She could tell that this question had bothered me for some time. Smiling warmly, she began to explain.
While P-Pop shares a seat with Filipino rappers, disco stars and pop singers, it also does so with K-Pop groups.
To understand the inquiry, she said, we had to start with the history of OPM: While unclear who officially coined the term in the late 1970s, OPM was essentially created by record labels to separate music made by Filipinos from all other music. In other words, after centuries of colonialism, it was an effort to segregate everything Filipino-made from everything else. Though it sounded like the protection and preservation of Filipino music, it was also a marketing ploy anchored on Filipino nationalism: A bubble had been cast over Filipino music so that no one could harm it, but it also made it difficult for anyone else to enter.
Geographically, this bubble was kept within the confines of Metro Manila, since most major labels and recording studios operated there. Suddenly Krina’s tone shifted and her warmth turned into irritation. “What would you call everything else, then?” she asked. “What about those outside of Manila? Non-Tagalog and non-English music, what are they called? Do they even want to be called OPM?”
The idea behind OPM was that what was authentically Filipino was cloudy, and it needed to be brought to light. But the intricacies of trying to encompass an entire nation’s music production would soon catch up with OPM; as time passed, the addition of foreign and modern music influences blurred any real definitions attached to it. Before my question about P-Pop could be answered, I had to first understand what it truly means to create original Filipino music.
“Bringing it into the 21st century, it's difficult because you have a lot of these different perspectives on what we should call our own music,” Krina continued. “Is OPM a certain style? Is OPM just from the 1970s? Shouldn't everything be OPM?”
She then introduced me to the idea of transculturalism: like mixing blue and yellow to make green, musicians have been mixing different sounds to make something new and original. Their blues and yellows are honored in the creation of greens—cultural appreciation, not appropriation.
Filipino music has seen this time and time again. During the American colonial rule, when jazz music filled our streets, Luis Borromeo and Katy de la Cruz embraced jazz’s African-American roots and placed Filipino sensibilities right next to it. More recently, our local hip-hop artists have adopted almost every style of contemporary music. Listening to Matthaios, I’m reminded of the cool R&B eruption of the early 2000s, but only briefly as his rhythm hops around my head like no one else. Even Shanti Dope flexes the fast paced flows emo-rappers have long been acclaimed for.
So why did I think P-Pop could fit neatly into the confines of one specific culture, location, or genre? What made it any different from the others? I immediately wanted to kick myself upon this realization, but the flurry of light-bulb moments stopped me.
P-Pop, then, can be placed as a mixture of K-Pop and regional/folk Filipino music. OPM was created to distinguish music made by Filipinos, but it has ultimately become a cultural space where every artist and listener can connect under one commonality. OPM has the impossible endeavor of being shaped and represented by all Filipinos—past, present and future. In that way, every Filipino artist holds an impact as to what OPM actually is.
Is P-Pop bound by the gatekeepers of the K-Pop industry? Or is it something Filipinos can call OPM?
I did my best to articulate to Krina the wonder I felt. Just hours ago, my thinking was two-dimensional, and now I could see the topic with more depth and substance. While fixating on the concepts of industry and classification, I had forgotten about artistry and its essence in culture. Before we said our goodbyes, she suggested I speak to one of her colleagues, an expert of the underground hip-hop scene—artists obsessed with artistry.
Dr. Lara Mendoza is a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University Development Studies program, and has studied rappers who found success not through record labels and recording contracts, but a do-it-yourself attitude and hustle. The “DIY Culture” as Dr. Lara calls it, cultivates authenticity in the underground hip-hop scene as artists are given the freedom to create whatever they want—blending sounds and rap styles together to their liking.
“The best thing that’s happened really is the democratization of the music industry—you don’t need the labels, you can just upload [your music] on YouTube,” Dr. Lara said in short but loud bursts, like she was at a concert with music playing. “DIY culture, they did it themselves and that’s one thing the undergrounders are proud of. They define their own brands.”
These underground rappers are the gatekeepers of their particular scene; they protect its values and principles to ensure that what is created is personal and true. With the international recognition of the local rap battle league FlipTop, and the individual success of its artists, the underground hip-hop scene has found success without adhering to the conventions of industry.
Likewise, P-Pop is a young genre with all the potential in the musical world. As it walks its own path along with K-Pop and OPM, its gatekeepers are not one or the other, but a growing network of artists and fans. It adds new shapes, colors and sounds to today’s OPM, much like how Filipino rock bands and rappers did before them. It is a constantly evolving definition. As Krina says: “In the end, OPM is still a nationalistic identifier, and it is not owned by anyone.”
Though OPM sounded like the protection and preservation of Filipino music, it was also a marketing ploy anchored on Filipino nationalism.
By asking one simple question and receiving some not-so-simple answers, I’ve realized that the integrity of Filipino music is shared among all Filipinos. It isn’t (and can’t be) bound by the conventions of an industry or scene. The artist must be original and authentic, while the listener must be curious and open. Those responsibilities are interchangeable and need to work simultaneously, but such are the complexities of sharing one space.
Sam was right; ALAMAT could simultaneously operate in the spaces of K-Pop and OPM. I didn’t like that answer because it felt dismissive of ALAMAT’s cultural intricacies, but now I realize that it was actually my question that was dismissive: Choosing between K-Pop and OPM reduced P-Pop into an isolated genre, pushed into a corner of cultural appropriation. While P-Pop shares a seat with Filipino rappers, disco stars and pop singers, it also does so with K-Pop groups.
At first, I couldn’t comprehend how vast the network between artists and listeners could be through transculturalism. I tried to connect the dots between P-Pop and possible listeners they could draw in but I’d always stop in awe. I’d like to believe that like how Filipino fans learned the Korean language because of K-Pop, there are now foreign fans who want to learn Filipino, or maybe a different regional language, because of P-Pop.
Perhaps, the better question is not where does this belong, but rather how does this belong? Does it honor its roots? Does it try to be authentic and honest? As listeners, I think we should ask ourselves the same questions. Although that’s just a guess; I’m sure those questions vary by artist and by listener.
What I am sure of, though, is that I have a lot of SHINee to catch up on.