MANILA -- Addictive melodies performed with slick choreography in synchronized perfection are undoubtedly the hallmarks of K-pop or Korean pop music.
So when a particular video of a five-member boyband strutting with such stage perfection stormed social media, many were impressed to find out that not only were the performers Filipinos, they were actually singing and dancing to a Tagalog tune.
Enter Sejun, Stell, Ken, Josh, and Justin, who are collectively called SB19, the first all-Filipino idol boy group trained by a Korean entertainment company under the same system that catapulted K-pop artists into global stardom
But make no mistake. They may be schooled by a Korean group, styled in what most would deem Korean fashion, and sounded like other K-pop groups, but the boys made it clear right from the start that they want to create a new genre of P-pop or Philippine pop music and are not mere K-pop copycats.
“Hindi po talaga namin ginagaya ang K-pop,” Josh, the lead rapper, said. “Siguro maraming maninibago doon sa new kind of style na binibigay namin sa Pilipinas pero kaya nga po kami nandito ngayon kasi ‘yun po talaga ang goal namin.”
[We are not trying to copy K-pop. A lot of people are probably not used to our style but that is what we are trying to bring here in the Philippines, that is why we are here. That is our goal.]
That same goal, in fact, was the story behind the group’s name.
“SB19 siya kasi ang meaning ng SB is ‘sound break,’” Sejun, the group’s leader, explained.
“Ang main goal ng group namin is to break into the music scene of the Philippines with our new and fresh music. Tapos ‘yung 19 naman nire-represent niya ‘yung youthful generation. At the same time, it’s the collaboration between the Philippines and Korea. So, ‘yung country codes ng Korea (82) and Philippines (63), pinagsama: 8+2+6+3 equal to 19.”
[It's SB19 because 'SB' means sound break. Our group's main goal is to break into the music scene of the Philippines. And then 19 represents the youthful generation. At the same time, it's the collaboration between the Philippines and Korea. Adding up the country codes of the Philippines and Korea are equal to 19)
'IBIBIGAY KO ANG AKING PUSO'
It was in October 2018 when the group made its debut with “Tilaluha,” a ballad about unrequited love.
Written by the boys themselves, the track was SB19’s attempt to court the Filipino audience with their penchant for sentimental songs.
“Tayong mga Pinoy ‘di ba mahilig tayo sa mga hugot songs, ‘yung tipong lyrics na tatagos hindi lang sa puso mo, sa buto, sa balunbalunan mo?” Stell, the group’s main vocalist, said.
“Kami po P-pop, OPM. Gusto po namin Pinoy ‘yung makakaintindi at para sa Pinoy po ‘yung kanta namin. Kaya gusto po namin ‘yung kung paano namin siya bubuuin eh para po talaga sa Pinoy. Kaya hugot Pinoy po.”
[Filipinos love sentimental songs with heartfelt lyrics, right? And we're P-pop, OPM. Our song is for the Filipinos and we want Filipinos to understand our music. That's why when we created the songs, Filipinos are our main target.]
Though many were impressed, it was clearly not enough.
Nine months later, this will be followed by another self-written track “Go Up,” a song that became an anthem for the group.
“‘Yun yung istorya ng SB19,” Josh said. “Kung ano po ‘yung paghihirap namin gusto po naming i-share sa buong mundo at ma-inspire din po ‘yung mga nangangarap din po, ‘yung mga aspiring na gustong makamit ‘yung mga pangarap nila.”
[It's SB19's story. We want to share to the world what we've been through and for other dreamers like us to be inspired in achieving their goals.]
Just like most K-pop songs, the sound was upbeat with a feel-good vibe, punctuated with fired-up rap verses in rapid succession of alternating beats and multi-layered harmonies. But the lyrics are mostly in Tagalog with a smattering of English words and phrases.
“Binuhos na po namin lahat dito sa kantang ito. Tapos nandun na rin po ‘yung pagpe-prepare namin sa choreography. Umabot nga po ng 30 times a day po kami nagpa-practice,” Josh added.
[We gave everything in this song. We also did the choreography. It came to a time when we were practicing 30 times a day.]
Both singles were recorded and shot in South Korea, but here, the boys got the chance to collaborate with Korean music producer Oh-won Lee of RealBros, who has worked with several K-pop acts like Stray Kids and Wanna One.
“First time niya po maka-work ‘yung mga Filipino artists and then nagulat po kami kasi sinabi niya sa amin, na hinding-hindi ko po makakalimutan, nagulat po siya sa skills ng mga Pinoy… Super proud ako… Sobrang nakakataba po ng puso ‘yun,” Stell said.
[It was his first time working with Filipino artists and he was amazed at the talents and skills of Filipinos. I was super proud when he said that.]
But Sejun was quick to point out that while the Korean producer guided them in the process and gave suggestions from time to time, they were given a free hand in deciding what was best for their music.
“Talagang hinayaan niya lang kami kasi alam niya for the Filipinos ‘tong gagawin namin,” Sejun added.
[He gave as a free hand because he knew that what we were doing was for the Filipinos.]
And it was that same song that piqued the interest of the social media fandom.
Just like how K-pop reached global popularity, it was also social media that proved to be the game-changer for fans to see what SB19 can offer.
A single post on Twitter highlighting the boys’ well regimented sing and dance routine earned hundreds of likes and retweets overnight, echoing in various corners of the Philippine social media sphere.
“Sobrang na-overwhelm. Sobrang nabigla po ako kasi po ‘yung nangyari po overnight lang po siya eh. Nagulat na lang po kami someone posted our dance practice video, and then boom,” Sejun said.
[We're overwhelmed. We're shocked because it happened overnight. We're surprised to see that someone posted our dance practice video and then boom.]
“Tulad ng mga normal na Pilipino nangangarap lang din po kami and we’re super overwhelmed po nung nalaman po namin na gano’n na po ‘yong reactions ng mga tao, na marami pong nakaka-appreciate sa mga ginagawa namin,” Josh added.
[Like other Filipinos, we're simply dreamers and we're overwhelmed when we learned of the people's reactions, that a lot of people are appreciating what we're doing.]
As social media went abuzz praising the rookie group’s prowess, fans have started to recognize the members whenever they are out in public. Their usual past time of eating street food has never been the same, with fans calling out their name while they’re at it. Even in jeepneys, there are fans who would ask for photos. One time in Josh’s case, he was surprised to find a handful of students waiting outside his house.
All these are still new to the boys and for Justin, the “maknae” or youngest member and the appointed visual of the group, he admitted that he is still baffled by the attention they are now getting.
“Parang hindi ako makatulog kasi parang iniisip ko po, parang napapraning ako, iniisip ko na ‘hala, totoo ba ‘tong mga nangyayari? May kailangan ba ‘kong gawin? Parang hindi ko po alam kung ano’ng nangyayari… Gano’n din ba ‘yung nararamdaman po nung ibang tao na nakakaranas ng same situation? ‘Yung mga ka-group ko rin ba hindi makatulog?”
[I couldn't sleep thinking, as if I'm getting paranoid. I asked myself, 'Is this for real? Do I have to do something?' I didn't have an idea what was happening. Is this how people in this situation feel? Are my members reacting the same?]
“Go Up” has already reached 2 million views on YouTube, the practice video for the same track at 1.2 million views, and the number of subscribers for their channel is continuously rising. Their TV guestings are consistent top trending topics on Twitter and other social media sites. Just recently, the group shared the stage with K-pop icon PSY, GFriend, and Up10tion for an event in South Korea.
'HANDA AKONG HARAPIN ANG LAHAT'
Like most idol groups nowadays, SB19 is a product of a brutal cutthroat system within the idol mill ecosystem where only a few among countless hopefuls will survive.
“’Yung challenge po na makipagsabayan ka sa mga trainees para sa isang spot, sobrang hindi mo na iisipin na magpahinga. Iisipin mo na lang ‘practice, practice, practice, practice.’ ‘Yun na lang tatatak sa isip mo kasi gusto mo talaga ‘yung spot na ‘yun,” Stell, the group’s main vocalist said.
[Competing with fellow trainees for a single spot was really hard, you wouldn't think of rest anymore. All you'll ever think is 'practice, practice, practice, practice.' That's what's going to fill your mind because you want that spot.]
In 2016, Korean entertainment company Show BT branched out in the Philippines, announcing a big audition as they were looking for talented Filipinos who wanted to become professional performers.
At that time, Stell and Josh were already in a group who did dance covers and saw the audition as an opportunity to jumpstart their idol dreams.
There, the two met Sejun, who at that time was working as a data analyst in Makati City.
“Pinagsabay ko po actually ‘yung work and training, kasi po kailangan eh. I have my responsibilities sa family. Eventually dumating ‘yung point na hindi ko na talaga kaya kasi medyo mahirap ‘yung competition between all the trainees. Sobrang intense,” Sejun said.
“‘Kaya sabi ko ‘let’s give it a shot.’ Parang gusto ko talaga eh. Ito ‘yung pangarap kong maging isang performer. That’s why I gave up my work and focused on being a trainee.”
[I was working and training at the same time because I have my responsibilities to my family. But there came a time when I could no longer do both because of the tight competition among trainees. It was too intense.]
Justin was still a student at the time. He was friends with Josh, who then urged him to attend the company’s workshop. His skills were noticed and he was invited by the trainer to continue the process.
Ken was still in Zamboanga and was the last to join the company.
Contrary to what has been written about SB19, the group did not train in South Korea. Instead, Show BT brought the mechanisms used to train aspiring K-pop idols in the Philippines.
From Monday to Saturday, the boys would march their way to training, working from 2 p.m. onwards. Usually, the day would end at around 9 p.m. except when there were things to improve on or new routines that needed perfecting, requiring them to work overtime.
“’Yung weekly evaluation po namin talagang nerve-wracking ‘yun kasi ‘yun ‘yung paghahandaan mo ‘yung performance mo. Tapos papanoorin ka ng ibang trainees as well as your teacher… Sobrang nakakakaba. Tapos tatanggalin ka nila if hindi maganda ‘yung performance mo. Talagang ligwak ka kaagad,” Sejun explained.
[The weekly evaluation was nerve-wracking. That's the performance that you'll have to prepare for. Other trainees and your teacher will watch you. And then you'll get cut off if they don't like your performance. You're eliminated right away.]
Sometimes, the threat of elimination would come unexpectedly.
“Biglang dadating ‘yung boss, magugulat ka na lang evaluation na. Parang last week sinabi ‘eto practice-in ninyo. Tapos makikita mo na lang darating ‘yung boss, ‘patingin nung pinractice mo.’ ‘Yun na po, evaluation na po pala ‘yun,” Stell added.
[Sometimes the boss would arrive and an evaluation will be held. The routine was given the previous week but then the boss would arrive and will ask you to show what you've practiced. And that's it, you'll be evaluated.]
And it wasn’t just the pressure. The physical toll was punishing, to say the least.
“There was a time na talagang nagkakaroon na ako ng mga pasa sa mga joints ko, sa mga ligaments, kasi talagang ‘pag sa stretching itinutulak kami. As in kailangan dumapa ka sa floor… ‘Yung iba umiiyak na sa sobrang sakit… May sumisigaw,” Sejun said.
[I had bruises all over that my joints and ligaments are in pain. The stretching alone was really painful, you'll be pressed on the floor. Some trainees were crying, others were shouting in pain.]
For Ken, the pain followed him all the way to sleep.
“May time po na ‘pag natutulog ako di ‘ko ma-stretch ‘yung legs ko… ‘Yung tiyan ko po, buong body ko po sobrang sakit. Two hours din po ‘yung body conditioning namin so sobrang sakit po talaga niya sa katawan. Tapos every day naming ginagawa and sa loob po ng isang linggo, isang beses lang po ‘yung pahinga namin,” he said.
[I was sleeping and I couldn't even stretch my legs. My stomach, my entire body was in pain. The body conditioning was done in 2 hours and it was really painful. We did that every day and in a week, we only had one day of rest.]
But becoming a Korean-style idol is not just about skills in singing, dancing, or rapping. More than the quest for performance perfection, the entire process puts emphasis on personality development. And discipline is a must.
“‘Yung pagtayo, kung paano ka makipag-usap sa mga tao, ‘yung bagal at bilis ng pananalita mo, pati ‘yung intonation — lahat po itinuturo. Pati po ‘yung mga pagtungo… Lahat po,” Sejun explained.
[The way you present your self to people, the way you talk, the tempo of your delivery, even the intonation — everything was part of our training.]
From their trainee days until now, Hong Ganda, a former Korean stage actress, has been guiding the five-member band. She arrived in the Philippines in 2015, but was already familiar with the country having studied in Iloilo to improve her English skills prior to her stint in Show BT.
“I have some very good memories in Iloilo… So when I got a proposal to work here in the Philippines, there was no hesitation,” she said.
Still, understanding the differences in culture was one of the challenges she confronted early on. And one of them is the notorious “Filipino time.”
“It was a little bit hard… Because in Korea when you are training there are two things you must follow: punctuality and sincerity,” she said. “In Korea, there is no mercy. You should be kicked out from the company because it’s a kind of promise to the audience. When you go to the stage you should be early so you can show them great performance.”
But Hong Ganda said the members were quick to learn all these.
“They try to accept and understand that Korean culture because they understand that this is the best way to become good artists,” she said.
'WALA NANG IMPOSIBLE'
They have survived the selection process, overcame debut jitters, and are now earning praises from the audience they desperately want to please. But SB19 is well aware that their fight for their music still has a long way to go.
Recognizing that in a country still dominated by Western influences and at the same time enamored by the very same K-pop that influenced the group, they know that it would take more than a viral social media post to achieve stardom.
“Hindi po natin masasabi baka po panandalian lang po ‘tong attention na nakukuha namin kaya mas iniisip po namin na mas galingan po namin para kung ano po ‘yong nasimulan po namin mas tumuloy,” Stell said.
[This could be temporary, the attention we're getting. That's why we want to do better so we could continue what we've started.]
But the mission remains clear — establish ascendance in the Philippines and everything else will follow.
“Our first goal is we should be recognized by Filipinos first, then we can go to other countries,” Hong Ganda said. “That’s why they are a P-pop group.”
“Mahirap po i-please ang mga Pinoy,” Stell admitted. “Pero nakikita ko sa mga kapwa natin na very open din po tayo sa mga bagay-bagay. Siyempre po sa una maninibago pero as long as nakikita na nagiging okay at nagiging maayos naman… habang tumatagal, natatanggap, na-appreciate po natin.”
[The Filipino audience is hard to please. But I also see that we're open to new things. At first the audience are not used to it but as long as they see improvement, as it goes along, people will be accepting and they will appreciate.]
And so the work continues for the boys — perfecting their vocals and moves in endless practice loops, writing more songs, and ushering in a stronger fandom that would help carry their cause of becoming successful idols.
“Talagang nagpo-focus pa kami para i-improve ‘yong sarili namin at para maging mas malupit ‘yung performance namin sa inyo. Kasi promise talaga namin kailangan ‘pag tumayo kami sa stage, maipapakita namin na eto kami, eto ‘yung pinaghirapan natin, eto ang Pilipino. At the same time, maipagmalaki sa buong mundo ‘yung talento na mayroon ang Pilipino,” Sejun said.
[We're focused in improving ourselves to give the audience only the best performances. We promise that everytime we stand in that stage, we present our hardwork, that this is the Filipino talent. We want the world to see the kind of talent that Filipinos have.]