On Monday, the inevitable happened: It was confirmed that Kim Hyun-ah, stage name HyunA, had officially parted ways with Cube Entertainment, the company she had been working under for the past decade, both as a soloist and as part of two different girl groups.
This is the supposed conclusion of a monthslong saga. The drama started in early August when she went public via Instagram about her two-year relationship with Kim Hyo-jong, stage name E’Dawn, fellow artist and member of boy group Pentagon. Almost immediately, their careers were put on hiatus.
That this was a direct response to their relationship is definite. News previously broke that HyunA and E’Dawn were being outed, but the company later claimed everything was still being sorted out. It wasn’t until Monday that a resolution was reached on HyunA’s part, with E’Dawn remaining suspended until further notice.
If you’re not acquainted with K-pop “idol” culture, this sounds ridiculous. Firing two of your most accomplished clients over a relationship hardly sounds like the most financially responsible decision. But this is the reality of being a K-pop “idol” — nearly always, it means sacrificing your personal life for your career, enduring endless training and being expected to smile glamorously the entire time.
I may not qualify as a “K-pop stan” — a term used to describe the most devoted fans of the genre, especially those who are active online — but I am a fan of HyunA, and I respect Korean idols immensely.
At the time they revealed their romance in August, I was back home with my best friend, Bryant. There is little in life that Bryant loves more than K-pop. So when the post went up, it was immediately the conversation topic.
Little did I know it was going to be every day’s conversation topic on my Twitter feed.
There’s so much overlap between fans of anime and fans of K-pop that we may as well be siblings. And because I’m quite the active anime fan online, I was sent into a weekslong spiral of intensely keeping up with the smallest news updates; every day I witnessed the pleas shared by countless fans around the world as they begged Cube to reconsider, fearing irrevocable damage to E’Dawn’s career — he is newer to the K-pop scene than his veteran girlfriend. Their online comments and rants all had a common theme: defending these artists’ right to a personal life despite their entertainment labels believing otherwise.
As I observed this online fiasco, I noticed a clear divide: International fans unanimously voiced their support, whereas Korean fans were the most upset, as they tend to be much more conservative in terms of how devoted they expect their “idols” to be. But K-pop has gone global — the “K-pop world” isn’t just Korea anymore. It is now literally the world. Boy group Bangtan Sonyeondan, otherwise known as BTS, made history this year when it started making American headlines. K-pop is on the rise in the international market, and I’m calling it now: It’s only getting wilder from here on out.
In her letter to Cube’s CEO, HyunA writes about “(her) deteriorating health in order to sacrifice for the Cube that exists today.” Now that Cube has officially let HyunA go, this has become so much more than just relationship drama. It has become about reforming an industry that has become culturally significant around the world and yet continues in its unfair treatment of those who are making it so successful in the first place. It is a betrayal of the artist and a betrayal of the artist’s followers.
I love music enough to create it, to write about it, to critique it, to consume it at all hours. It’s exciting to see K-pop rapidly grow in popularity, inspiring non-Korean fans to become acquainted with a culture they may not have known much about otherwise, and it’s exciting to see U.S. audiences consuming international media. Over the past few years, I’ve watched K-pop go from something my friends had to be quiet about liking to an international phenomenon topping the Billboard charts.
So when Cube decides to disregard the sentiments shared by millions of diehard K-pop fans around the world, it sends a very clear message: It doesn’t care. And as an artist and music critic, I can’t help but find this disregard unacceptable. Rather than addressing the problems with how these artists are treated — something finally being discussed through major outlets after years of it being an elephant in the country — Cube is perpetuating a brutal cycle. Rinse and repeat, on to the next to-be-disgraced artist.
I also think the situation, while something to be angry about, is especially poignant. It’s troubling to see artists who inspire your own artistry being treated the way Cube treated HyunA and E’Dawn.