Four years ago, I moved to Korea without speaking the language. Now, I'm K-pop's first African idol.

Four years ago, I moved to Korea without speaking the language. Now, I'm K-pop's first African idol.
  • Fatou Samba is a Senegalese-Belgian rapper and singer of the K-pop group Blackswan.

  • Blackswan is one of the rare K-pop groups where none of the members are Korean.

  • Samba spoke with Insider reporter Yoonji Han about her career path and the global future of K-pop.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Fatou Samba, a Senegalese-Belgian rapper and singer who's part of the K-pop group Blackswan. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I first came across K-pop when I was 15 years old. We were outside during break time at school, and my friend was on her phone when she said, "Fatou, you have to look at this."

It was a music video of SHINee's debut single "Replay." Later that day, I decided, "Okay, I'm going to do this."

Ever since I was 5 years old, I've always known I have to do something with music, to perform. Without music, my life has no meaning.

I was also in a dark period mentally in my teenage years. My relationship with other people was not good at all. I luckily had my parents and my friends, but I thought to myself, "I can't do this anymore. Why am I still here?"

Moving to a new country

I had moved to Belgium when I was 12 years old from Senegal, where I was born. I remember Senegal being very warm, very family-oriented. Even the neighbors are our families — I'd be walking outside around noon and a neighbor would be like, "Fatou, come inside. We're eating lunch."

Moving to Belgium was a big shock because the warmth and family culture I'd grown up with was not there. It felt cold. I couldn't speak the language at first, so I couldn't talk to anyone. That made it even more cold.

But when I watched the music video, I discovered that K-pop has such a positive, bright, and self-loving message. That's what really drew me in.

Not only that, but many K-pop singers are in groups, so you work together with people. It's like a family setting, like what I'd grown up with in Senegal. That really attracted me.

Blackswan k-pop group
Blackswan is a K-pop group where none of the members are Korean.Courtesy of DR Music

Pursuing K-pop

I first went to Korea for vacation when I was 23 years old, just to check it out. I'd only seen Korea through a screen. Not only that, there were no African K-pop idols, so I was like, "Let me see what the vibe is."

I fell in love with the country — its culture, its architecture, its nature, its food — and realized that this was it. This is where I was supposed to be.

I moved to Korea one year later. It didn't require a huge adjustment period for me. It wasn't a big shock because the biggest shock I got was moving from Senegal to Belgium. I figured I'd stay open-minded, since every country's going to be different.

There were moments when people would just stare, like, who are you? Why do you look like that? And in my mind, I'd think, "Why are you staring? I'm just like you. There's nothing really special going on over here, just a different skin color."

I modeled for a month. That's when I met the CEO of DR Music, who asked me if I wanted to train with his company. I was like, "That's my dream."

Training to become an idol

When I first started training to become a member of Blackswan, the most difficult thing was the language. I could understand Korean, but it wouldn't come out of my mouth. I felt lonely, because I couldn't communicate with any of the other trainees.

It was also difficult mentally. Here, they expect perfection, but when you first start, you're not going to be perfect. I definitely have unrealistic standards and want to be perfect on stage, and that tendency made me especially hard on myself in the beginning.

I trained for seven hours a day, six days a week: dance practice, working out, vocal lessons, rap lessons. In my spare time, I learned Korean on my own, watching variety shows and dramas.

Fatou Samba from the K-pop group Blackswan
Fatou performs onstage.Courtesy of DR Music

Opening doors for diversity in K-pop

My debut stage was during the pandemic, so there was no one in the crowd except for the cameras. But it was still such a magical thing. What I remember really feeling was the music. We'd practiced the song for a year, but it felt so new, so real.

Blackswan received positive reactions from K-pop fans, but there were some, more internationally, that were saying, "How are you a K-pop group if no one is Korean?"

K-pop means Korean pop music, so anything sung in the Korean language. You also train in the Korean training system. There are K-pop idols that are not Korean, but are Japanese or Chinese. You don't have to be Asian to make K-pop.

We're all from different countries — the other members are from India, Brazil, and the US — and we bring our different cultures to our music. For example, in our comeback single, "Karma," we integrated Indian culture and music. The next time, it could be African-influenced, or Brazilian. There are so many things we can do that other groups can't do.

Blackswan is a new starting point, a new generation. Now, you see other groups with non-Asians coming out too from the big K-pop companies like JYP and HYBE.

We opened the door in K-pop, which I'm very proud and thankful for. Blackswan is a breath of fresh air that's going to be bring a lot more breaths of fresh air into the industry.

Read the original article on Insider