Just a little over a year after exploding onto the K-pop scene, the young nine-member boy band Stray Kids stands onstage thousands of miles away from their home in Seoul. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is packed with thousands of fans, called STAY. The majority female audience — strikingly diverse in ethnicity and age — is shouting the opening “na-na”s of “My Pace,” the band’s gritty breakout hit about trusting in your own path and not comparing yourself to others. It’s one thing to hear it on the track, but another entirely to hear it thundering from nearly 3,500 young people in a cavernous space. It’s an empowering, rollicking battle cry.
K-pop has often been likened to a “factory” by the media — a “machine” that pumps out bands on a conveyor belt and hands them hollow, algorithmic pop songs to lip-sync as they move in perfect synchronization. The new generation of South Korean pop groups proves that stereotype resoundingly false. And few subvert it more than Stray Kids — with members Bang Chan, Woojin, Seungmin, Hyunjin, Changbin, HAN, Lee Know, Felix, and I.N — whose inventive mix of EDM, rap, and rock rebel against the norm, and whose sincere, self-penned lyrics are inspiring the rising generation to speak up, because they have something to say.
“We want to be remembered as a team that not only makes good music, but makes the kind of music that really influences and helps people,” fox-faced vocalist and youngest member I.N tells Refinery29 ahead of the second the band’s two sold out shows in Newark, the first stop on the on the U.S. leg of their “UNVEIL Tour 'I am…' world tour. “That's one of our biggest dreams.”
“I don't think it's fair for anyone to say K-pop is a machine. It’s a stereotype."
Ingrained in Stray Kids’ DNA is their creative agency. Bang Chan, Changbin, and HAN — known as 3racha — have written and produced the majority of the group's discography, but all nine members have had writing credits on their work, which isn't often seen from young bands in the industry. This ownership has allowed them to experiment and play with their sound, and even their videos — many of their visuals are of them singing and goofing off, filmed on GoPros (as one does when not questioning your entire existence). It’s also allowed them to showcase each member’s versatility. While many K-pop group members usually have defined roles within a group, there’s a joke within the fandom that Stray Kids sometimes feels like it has nine rappers and nine vocalists — whether it’s vocalist Lee Know dishing a scorching opening rap in “District 9,” or rapper Hyunjin letting his gentle tenor shine in “불면증 (Insomnia).”
It’s also this personal, hands-on approach that not only allows them to tell their stories as authentically as possible, but has allowed them to speak even more directly to their fans. This line of communication to the generation they speak for is the most vital to their success thus far, so the perception that their work could be anything but personal is ill-conceived.
“I don't think it's fair for anyone to say K-pop is a machine. It’s a stereotype,” says Bang Chan, turning contemplative. “But I think the reason why people might think that is because the way K-pop is built is very well-organized, and performance-wise everything is precise and well-crafted. What some people probably don’t understand is that we think of it as a gateway that allows artists to reach out to their fans.”
Stray Kids discography weaves a narrative that begins with the fictional dystopia of District 9, in which they are prisoners of a suffocating system that tries to define them. They then explored their own identities throughout the group’s I Am… trilogy as they grappled with questions that plague both them and their fans, who are growing up along with them.
“The question that we always come back to, that everyone asks themselves, that I ask myself is, 'Who am I?'” says 21-year-old Australia-raised leader Bang Chan. “I think I've been thinking about that from a really young age. Honestly right now I haven't found out who I am, and I'm still trying to figure that out. Through our music we wanted to express that and reach out to those who feel the same way, so we can have a connection with one another.”
In March, they released a new, more confident chapter of their story, Clé 1: Miroh, led by the massive, boisterous single “Miroh.” Pulsing with brassy beats and lion’s roars, the song, according to rapid-fire rapper Changbin is about “gaining the confidence to face new challenges.” The visual, set in a Hunger Games-esque world, finds the members organizing a rebellion and literally grabbing the mic from the elite class in charge.
If anything, this is the machine that Stray Kids actively fight against — societal expectations and unmanageable pressure put on young people today. And while songs on Clé 1: Miroh such as “Victory Song” and “Boxer” share the same dauntless spirit, the group still leave room for vulnerability. “19” is a haunting, echoing song written by HAN about his fears as he teeters on the cusp of adulthood.
“When I was 19 [Koreans calculate age differently], going into my twenties, I was excited to become an adult,” says HAN. “But as the time actually came closer, I had so many emotions and thoughts running through my head. I was scared, but I wanted to express my feelings to my fans who are going through the same thing through this song.”
Before Stray Kids debuted as a group, they were on a self-titled musical competition TV series. Felix and Lee Know were cut from the group, to the devastation of the other members, but were later added again after proving themselves once more. This emotional rollercoaster that the members endured is partially to thank for their close bond, and why the group treat each other and their STAYs like family. That and the examples set by their own families growing up.
“When we were young, whenever we went through hard times, my mom would always try to cheer me and my sisters up,” says Australian-Korean Felix, whose deep bass tone is in striking contrast to his lithe stature. “This example of loving and supporting one another is something I carry with me constantly. She inspired me to want to help other people, make others feel better by surprising or comforting them.”
“I'm so thankful to my mom for giving me unconditional love,” adds honey-voiced eldest member Woojin. “I learned a lot from her — she takes so much care in how she interacts with other people and keeps good, healthy relationships with the people around her as well.”
This all helped build the foundation of what Stray Kids is today — a group of young people who, by acknowledging their fears and faults, want nothing more than to unite with those who understand them across language and geographic borders, using the tools at their disposal. And even with only a year under their belts, it looks as if their message is already resonating.
“Each and every one of you have your own special story, right?,” Bang Chan said as the Newark show neared its close, and after fans finished a vibrant “We love you!” chant to the nine young men on stage. “[...] So I feel like today is not just STAY and people being in this beautiful venue: it’s a thousand stories all inside this really big space. I’m just glad that through music — and through the music that we make — we can gather all these stories and relate to each other. I think that’s really fantastic.”