According to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brazil is home to 36,540 ethnic Koreans or people of Korean descent. That makes it the 12th country with the largest Korean diaspora community globally and the largest in Latin America overall, with numbers just slightly below the U.K. and above countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and France. K-pop and its adjacent music are no strangers to global influences. From producers of all nationalities working in the industry to releasing songs in multiple languages and even some of its biggest idols in the game like BLACKPINK’s Lisa and GOT7’s Jackson being non-Korean, it begs the question — why are there so few Korean-Brazilians in the industry?
“That’s a really good question, but I think it’s too [complex] to explain. I don’t even know how to answer it,” rising rapper Vapo tells Remezcla. Born Heo Won-hyuk in South Korea, he moved to São Paulo as a kid and lived there for 14 out of the 18 years of his life, where he was affectionately called Bruninho (a diminutive for Bruno). However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world with waves of uncertainty in 2020, it prompted him and his family to relocate back to the peninsula.
The change represented a new beginning for the young star, who then decided to pursue his passion for music more intently. A mere three months after arriving in Seoul, and despite having only a “household-level” fluency in Korean, he auditioned for the 2021 American Idol-style reality competition show High School Rapper 4 (HSR4) — and passed. Although he didn’t win in the end, it served as a crucial launchpad for his dreams. He caught the attention of Koreans and Brazilians alike and had the chance to work with some of his lifelong idols in Korean entertainment, such as Simon Dominic, Jay Park, and BIBI. As of now, he just released his second single, “Gone,” featuring renowned Korean rapper Loco — another one of his favorites and his thoughtful mentor on the show.
“Collaborating with Loco was one of my biggest dreams come true,” he says via Instagram DMs in Portuguese, as if casually chatting with an old friend. “He always gives me advice, what can be done to enhance the quality of a song, etc.” But talking about this opportunity also reminds Vapo of how much he has grown. “To be honest, after High School [Rapper], a lot of people think we keep in touch with most artists. Even I thought so, but sadly, that’s not how it is,” he reflects. “With time, we end up losing the strong bonds we developed. It’s not bad, but it’s something that we can’t do anything about. Time passes and we can’t keep in touch like before.”
“Gone” itself displays that maturity, showing a more intimate, careful side of Vapo. “What inspired me to write this song was a real event in my life. I had to say goodbye to a person that I loved and enjoyed having by my side,” he explains. In the music video, he delivers a heartfelt performance after realizing that his relationship is doomed. “In the future, I intend to enter more in the acting field. I put in a lot of effort [into it]. But one thing that helped me during the recording was that I was sick,” he types, followed by a line of “kkkkkkkk,” the famous Brazilian laughter. “It helped me act like I was in pain.”
These anecdotes pop up unprompted, a reflection of Vapo’s youthful aura. “I believe that one of my characteristics [I like the most] is that I’m joyful,” he ponders. “I bring good emotions to people around me.” It’s that kind of self-awareness that shows how fast Vapo has matured through his experiences. Between his stint in HSR4, the release of his debut single “Sirius,” and now, he realizes that the more quality music he puts out, the more appreciation he’ll receive back one day. And it’s important to focus on the “one day” part of the statement. “We don’t get everything back right away. Everyone has their own time for things to start flowing and working out,” he explains.
Living outside of Korea for so long hindered him “very much so,” but things are slowly improving. “I’m still getting used to Korea’s culture,” he says. “I learned how to live within Brazilian culture, and they are both very different from each other.” According to Vapo, the differences are rather general than specific. Details like the use of honorifics even when talking to people who are only one year older than him were some of the hardest to get used to.
“Brazilian culture is one that I fall in love with every single time, about every little thing that I learn,” he adds. “It was something really good, having learned a culture that I never knew I would live through. It helped me and influenced my music a lot, and it always will.” He considers himself a Brazilian at heart and makes it a point to bring that influence into each of his songs. Whether it’s making references to his life back in the country or consistently adding Portuguese words to his raps, there is no Vapo without a little bit of Brazil in it. “The Portuguese language was something that I lived with during my whole life, so if I live with it, I believe I can’t throw it away. I must take it with me until the end.”
“The Portuguese language was something that I lived with during my whole life, so if I live with it, I believe I can’t throw it away. I must take it with me until the end.”
The nuances and obstacles in the path of Brazilians who want to make music in Korea are many. There’s the financial instability, the abysmal language barrier, and the over 24-hour flight distance, just to name a few. Currently, Vapo and K-pop girl group Blackswan’s Leia, who is of Japanese ascent, are the only ones with Brazilian roots in the industry — if you don’t count soloist WOODZ, who lived in Brazil for two years as a teenager.
While Vapo might not know how to explain the opening question of this piece, he is sure that, “If you really want something and go after it, you can make anything happen. Me and many other artists, like Leia, are living proof, too.” The hardest part is waiting for your turn to flourish. “That’s when the people who are really there for the music show up,” he says. “The ones who can wait for their own time, because they really love what they do.”
The chorus from his HSR4 hit song “Meu Tempo” (“My Time”, in English) sums up this philosophy: “I’m from Brazil / I’m a stranger here / But I’m fluttering / Wish me all the best wishes / It’s like a dream, meu tempo, tempo.” As long as Vapo continues to follow his own advice, the future is undoubtedly bright. And time is undoubtedly his.