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Who’s running the show? Korean singer-songwriter Sunmi poses the question over the pulsating synth beat of “Addict” to a sold-out Toronto audience.
But we hardly need to wait to the end of the song, or for the 10-foot high letters spelling out “ME” to appear on the screen behind her, to know the answer.
While it’s no secret that the K-pop takeover of North America is already well on its way, the interest in the genre has largely been dedicated to boy groups like BTS, GOT7, and SHINee, who have all toured in Canada and the U.S. within the past three years.
Now, 26-year-old Sunmi now finds herself alongside other artists like girl groups Red Velvet and BLACKPINK, blazing the North American trail for other female K-pop acts.
“It means a lot as a solo female artist that I could perform in North America,” she tells us through an interpreter, backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
“Boy groups centre their performance around powerful, military-style movements,” she says. “I’m petite, but on the stage I want to be powerful and energetic on my own.”
No track exemplifies this duality of delicate-yet-fierce better than her 2017 hit “Gashina.” Though Sunmi had released solo tracks before, “Gashina” marked a new phase of her career. It was her first release after the disbandment of Wonder Girls, the girl group she debuted with back in 2007.
“Gashina” went on to be one of the biggest hits of the year, topping Korean music charts and even peaking at No. 3 on Billboard’s World Digital Songs chart.
The title itself has multiple interpretations; it can translate to “thorns” or “Are you leaving?” but is also considered an unsavoury term for a woman. The song’s choreography underscores that dichotomy further: At the top of the explosive chorus, Sunmi cups her face and smiles before the searing beat drops. She then throws her hand into a gun shape, her expression quickly shifting from cute to cutthroat.
Her follow-up singles, including “Siren” and “Heroine,” both from her 2018 EP, Warning, were equally as audacious. The trend continued with the video of her most recent release, “Noir,” which puts the performative nature of social media on blast.
In “Noir,” Sunmi takes “doing it for the ’gram” to a new extent, faking scenes to make her life look more glamorous, all for the likes, subscribers, and follows.
“Attention seekers themselves make fun of attention-seeking behaviour,” says Sunmi.
Enjoying that contradiction, the video shows Sunmi fabricating beach-side snaps in her living room and taking selfies in front of a torched car.
Though the video is a blistering hot take on influencer culture, Sunmi says she “didn’t mean to be sarcastic or critical.” “It was more me laughing at myself,” she adds.
Wrapping in Washington D.C. earlier this month, Sunmi’s recent eight-city tour was her first North American circuit as a solo artist, but she’s definitely no stranger to the industry.
Sunmi’s former group, Wonder Girls, was making waves in the Western market long before 2019, even supporting the Jonas Brothers’ 2009 world tour. That same year, their English version of the single “Nobody,” became the first K-pop song ever to appear on the Billboard Hot 100.
But even with that historical accomplishment under her belt, it’s clear that Sunmi still has more sides of herself to share with her fans—her debut album is currently in the works.
“I’ll be more famous,” she told the audience during her Toronto show, half-jokingly. “Please memorize my name.”