Sitting inside a black van parked in front of a Times Square hotel, six members of the veteran K-pop group Super Junior discuss the then-upcoming Mexico-Korea World Cup game with Dominican-American singer Leslie Grace. “I just know. I can feel [it],” said Siwon Choi, a member of the group, about Mexico beating their team. “We love Mexico, honestly. Too passionate,” he added. “Yeah, I think the most passionate,” replies Grace, who met up with the group for the first time since joining them on the Latin American leg of their Super Show 7 World Tour in April.
“You know, now the World Cup’s going on, and you hear on the news that every time there’s a goal or there’s a penalty kick, there’s a seismic motion in the city,” Jeongsu Park, better known as Leeteuk, told Remezcla through a translator. “We feel the same kind of reaction when we’re in Mexico. And it’s pretty amazing to get that energy and that feeling whenever we go to Latin America and have a concert.”
Grace caught up with the members of Super Junior — Donghae Lee, Eunhyuk (real name Hyukjae Lee), Yesung (Jongwoon Kim), Shindong (Donghee Shin), Choi, and Park — just ahead of the group’s participation at the KCON New York conference in Newark in late June. The “Duro y Suave” singer would join them onstage for the stateside debut of their historic trilingual collaboration “Lo Siento.”
The collaboration is a cultural product that could have emerged only in the post-“Despacito” era, where industry stakeholders are once again recognizing the power (and profit) of multilingual music. “Despacito,” a song predominately sung in Spanish whose record-breaking performance on the charts transformed it into a global phenomenon, tied for the longest-reigning no. 1 song in the country. J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” another bilingual global pop experiment, peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. But the last two years also catapulted BTS — a group with all South Korean members who sing in Korean — to become the biggest boy band in the world. Historically, the U.S. music market has been apprehensive about accepting international, non-English-language acts. But with the renewed visibility of Latino pop stars in the mainstream sphere, and K-pop fans vigorously streaming their favorite acts, it was only a matter of time until the music industry took a step further and saw the value in connecting these traditionally isolated markets.
It was only a matter of time until the music industry took a step further and saw the value in connecting these traditionally isolated markets.
Just a few weeks before their Latin American tour kicked off, Super Junior released the Korean- , English-, and Spanish-language track “Lo Siento” with Grace and production duo Play-N-Skillz as a gift to their Latin American fans, who still strongly support them even though they’re on their thirteenth year as a group. “Ever since we debuted, we had a big following in Latin America and they loved us from the beginning, so we always wanted to find the right opportunity to collaborate and sing in Spanish,” Park, the group’s leader, explained.
Tapping into the global music industry is nothing new for Super Junior. After debuting as a 12-person group in 2005 and adding another member the next year, the boy band became Hallyu (Korean wave) pioneers by blending electro pop and R&B into their music, even as they survived multiple lineup changes over the years. They were pioneers in breaking into the Chinese market by dedicating a specific subunit, Super Junior-M, to release songs in Mandarin, bolstered by two additional Chinese members. They were so popular in the C-pop world that 2010’s “Bonamana” topped a Taiwanese chart for 52 consecutive weeks. And while Super Junior-M spearheaded Hallyu in China, the primary team also helped popularize K-pop in Japan and other Asian countries.
The tale of Super Junior wanting to acknowledge their Latin American fanbase with a song especially for them is a sweet one, but there’s no denying that “Lo Siento” emerged at a time when Caribbean genres are fueling mainstream sounds. Being innovators in their field, the focus on Latin America made sense, and if any K-pop group was going to do it, it would be them. “Since we debuted, we’ve always tried to challenge [ourselves],” Choi said. “Our slogan is ‘No challenge, no change.’ So we’re trying to open the door to a new market.”
With its Spanish guitar and subtle dembow riddim, Latinx Super Junior fans (also known as ELF) immediately celebrated “Lo Siento.” The track debuted at no. 13 on the Latin Billboard digital sales chart, becoming the first K-pop act to appear on a Latin Billboard chart. The music video surpassed 20 million views two weeks after its release, three times more than what their latest Korean single “Black Suit” had accumulated since November of last year.
But even with all the accolades, what makes “Lo Siento” extraordinary — and different — is the collaboration with Grace and Juan and Oscar Salinas of Play-N-Skillz. Tango, pop-reggaeton, and dembow riddims aren’t unheard of in K-pop, but actual Caribbean and Latinx writers and producers are. On “Lo Siento,” not only did Play-N-Skillz have the opportunity to add their spin on the original track presented by SM Entertainment, Super Junior’s label, but Grace worked with songwriters Mario Caceres (Maluma’s “Felices los 4”) and Yasmil Marrufo (Becky G’s “Mayores”) on the Spanish lyrics. Super Junior gives full credit to SM’s A&R team for reaching out to Play-N-Skillz and thus Grace, who tapped her for the collab.
“We always wanted to find the right opportunity to collaborate and sing in Spanish.”
A rarity for K-pop, “Lo Siento” is a true joint collaboration of artists, producers, and writers working in the culture Super Junior wanted to tap into, and not just another attempt to replicate the style dominating pop music, without any of its originators. The three acts embarking on a joint tour was also an exercise in cross-cultural collaboration done right, as they had the opportunity to share each other’s platforms. While Play-N-Skillz produces songs for everyone from Lil’ Wayne to Hilary Duff, and Grace is billed as The Princess of Bachata, they weren’t performing at the arena level before the tour. “I’m just glad to be a part of it. I’m glad that from the moment that the idea was presented to me, I loved the song, and that they thought of me, because it really has grown my fan base to a degree that I don’t think alone I would’ve been able to conquer in such short amount of time,” Grace said.
But Super Junior also benefited from the association with Grace and the Salinas brothers. “I think that through me, a lot of people have now put their eye on – even beyond K-pop, but definitely K-pop because it’s having a moment. But [they’re] just being open to cross-cultural collaborations, which now more than ever, our audience, like [Latin music], is more open to hearing it,” she explains. During the tour, Grace and Super Junior often appeared on Spanish-language TV shows, where she acted as the bridge for Latinx audiences who aren’t K-pop fans to digest the Korean act.
Just like in Latin America, the K-pop crowd that gathered at New Jersey’s Prudential Center for KCON embraced the Bronx-born singer like one of their own when she joined Super Junior onstage for “Lo Siento.” Though the crowd couldn’t sing her verses back like she had heard on the tour, the excitement about her presence was palpable. “Thank you Super Junior for making this moment possible. I have had such a blast collaborating with you guys and this is only the beginning,” she said onstage. “Como diríamos nosotros — as we would say in my language — esto es solo el comienzo.”