5 Acts to Watch at KCON 2018

Posted June 22, 2018 4:51 p.m. EDT

When BTS’ “Love Yourself: Tear” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in May, K-pop began yet another serious bid for U.S. mainstream acceptance, six years after the breakout of Psy’s viral hit “Gangnam Style.” But for hundreds of thousands of U.S. K-pop fans, BTS arrived in America long before — as part of the 2014 Los Angeles KCON lineup.

KCON, a festival that brings Korean pop stars into proximity with its die-hard fans, has grown exponentially from its inaugural 2012 edition in LA into a globe-trotting envoy reaching K-pop fans in Japan, the United Arab Emirates, France, Mexico and Australia. Last year it attracted 43,000 to Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, where it will return for the fourth consecutive year this weekend. The East Coast version of the event showcases popular and emerging acts that might not draw well enough outside South Korea to independently tour the States on their own. Here is a sampling of acts worthy of note:


Heize isn’t the typical K-pop act American fans have been exposed to or seek out, which is to say she isn’t what the Koreans would call an “idol.” But her last few singles have swept the South Korean charts. Singing and rapping over a fusion of pop, hip-hop and jazz, Heize draws on an eclectic mix of genres yet doesn’t fit squarely into any one. Her music is dulcet enough for the coffee shop set, but still has a bite. Before she started releasing a streak of No. 1 hits in South Korea, including “Star” and “Don’t Know You,” she competed on the TV show “Unpretty Rapstar 2” and finished a semifinalist.

Red Velvet

Unconventionally campy but wildly popular, this quintet sidesteps the usual persona for K-pop girl groups (cutesy and sexy), landing on an aesthetic that alternates between quirky and soulful. Some of their best-known tracks are similarly unorthodox for the genre: “Red Flavor” was conceived originally for the British group Little Mix by the Swedish songwriting and producing team Caesar & Loui and “Bad Boy” came from the Stereotypes (a crew that won a Grammy for its work with Bruno Mars).

Super Junior

Super Junior is one of the boy bands that has ruled K-pop for much of the past decade, but is lesser known among newer U.S. K-pop fans because its members have been taking turns completing South Korea’s compulsory military service. It’s had as many as 13 members at its peak (15 if you count its Chinese affiliate), but currently has a roster of seven. The group’s 2009 smash “Sorry, Sorry” was instrumental in spreading the Korean wave across Southeast Asia.


This group caught its big break in 2014, when cellphone footage of a mesmerizing live performance of “Up & Down” by one of its members, Hani, went viral and racked up more than 26 million views on YouTube. Up to that point, the group had toiled for three fruitless years and saw personnel changes both in its lineup and management (half its original members bolted to launch a separate group, Bestie). Armed with powerful vocals, impeccable choreography and one of K-pop’s most legit female MCs, EXID seized its breakthrough moment and cranked out edgy songs like “Ah Yeah” and “Hot Pink.”

Wanna One

The reality competition TV show “Produce 101” has been something of a national obsession in South Korea, inviting comparisons to “American Idol.” The inaugural season spawned the girl group I.O.I, and last year it introduced the boy band Wanna One. Made up of the top 11 out of 101 contestants, Wanna One has scored four consecutive No. 1 releases in South Korea.