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New York-Born K-Pop Band Makes Debut in South Korea Amid Criticism

EXP EDITION, which began as a graduate thesis project at Columbia University in New York City, has debuted in South Korea.
The lineup of EXP EDITION, a K-pop band born in New York.
The lineup of EXP EDITION, a K-pop band born in New York.

It began as a thesis project in graduate school a few years back at Columbia University in New York City. But in August Bora Kim got the chance to return to her native South Korea to try to carve out a niche for her K-pop boy band.

What makes the group different is also what makes it controversial — none of the members are Korean.

“I really believe in the project and the boys,” Kim told NBC News. “So I’m really excited to have all the resources, the right platform, and the right channels to really showcase what we’ve been dreaming of.”

The four-man band, renamed EXP EDITION, made its South Korea debut this week with its single “Feel Like This.” The group also performed on a popular South Korean reality show, which aired Thursday, according to Kim.

Short for "Korean pop," K-pop is a music genre made popular in South Korea since the early 1990s that incorporates singing with highly choreographed dance moves.

RELATED: Making the K-Pop Band: Can a Non-Korean K-Pop Group Succeed?

Kim said they’re still gauging audience reception since they’re just getting started in South Korea. The members moved to Seoul in August and have been busy acclimating to their new home, Karin Kuroda, Kim’s associate, told NBC News.

While immersing themselves in the Korean language, the performers have also been working hard on their singing and dancing routine, Kuroda said.

“They went with it full throttle right after moving here,” she said.

Founded in early 2015, EXP EDITION had originally planned their South Korea debut for this past winter, Kim said. But they had to delay it after one of the members was hobbled by a broken ankle, she said.

Since releasing their teaser and music video, EXP EDITION has received positive feedback on music distribution sites from Korean K-pop fans, according to Kuroda. Their appearance on “I Can See Your Voice,” the music reality show, was also a hit among Koreans, Kim and Kuroda said.

But the band has taken flak from some English-speaking K-pop fans.

On the YouTube page of its “Feel Like This” music video, some commenters outright dismissed EXP EDITION, saying they shouldn’t meddle in a music genre that they believe is reserved for Asians. Others zeroed in on what they thought was a poor performance.

And then there was race.

The original EXP lineup.Courtesy of 'I'm Making a Boy Band'

The group was slammed for being all white, Kuroda said, though one performer is half Japanese.

“The last time that we had this controversy, people were really attacking us for being non-Korean,” Kuroda explained. “And this time around, two members who are no longer in the group...were people of color, so now people are attacking us that we are all white boys.”

But other English-language commenters came to EXP EDITION’s defense. Some praised the band’s vocal skills and effort. Some urged detractors to give them a chance.

At least one picked up on what Kuroda has said drove the project in the first place — thinking about what K-pop really is and what makes it Korean.

“It’s a bit interesting to see the different perspectives that people are giving us,” Kim said.

The "I'm Making a Boy Band" project produced EXP, a K-pop group made up of non-Korean performers. (From left to right: Bora Kim, Samantha Y. Shao and Karin Kuroda)Courtesy of 'I'm Making a Boy Band'

Controversy is nothing new to EXP EDITION. The group initially drew criticism for its original name, EXP, which stood for “experiment.” Some fans accused the band of trying to imitate a well-known K-pop group called EXO, an allegation that Kim and Kuroda have denied.

They eventually changed the name to EXP EDITION. Doing so not only helped with potential copyright issues, Kuroda said, but the name also embodied the group’s latest phase — their “expedition” to South Korea.

Kuroda and Kim said they have more in store for fans, including upcoming performances and additional songs to release.

“Before it was really hard to operate this project because we had such limited resources,” Kim said. “But now we have investment, we’re a fully functioning entertainment company, and [are] really learning the K-pop industry.”

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