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K-hip-hop touches down in Kansas

Rappers Ted Park and Parlay Pass will return to VIVO Live in Overland Park on Dec. 2, with special guest Liu Khang.

Fans of Korean and Korean-American music in the Midwest may no longer have to travel long distances for shows, thanks to a Kansas City community radio host.

After spending a couple months in South Korea, American rappers Ted Park and Parlay Pass boarded a flight to Kansas City, en route to headline The Big K-Hip-Hop Show. Waiting for them there, a lively Midwest crowd starved for Korean culture — plus letters of welcome signed by KC Mayor Quinton Lucas.

“We in Kansas City!” Parlay says, outside VIVO Live in Overland Park, just hours before his set. “Actually nah, we not even in Kansas City, we in f-cking Kansas, bro! I ain’t never been here before, but sh-t we here.”

Two Korean-American rappers perform on stage in front of a crowd.
Lucius Pham
Parlay Pass and Ted Park perform in front of a crowd at VIVO Live.

Since 2021, the pair have collaborated on a string of successful singles, including “Link,” “Black Air Force 1,” “Walk Through” and “Crazy Rich Asians” produced by Xansei, plus the recently released 2.0 remix with Dbo, Dok2, Eric Reprid and Paul Blanco. On their most recent trip to Korea, the two cooked up new music, shot videos and linked up with Korea-based artists, family and friends.

While Parlay Pass hails from Atlanta, Ted Park — who has produced music under K-pop superstar Jay Park’s international hip-hop label H1gher Music and even collaborated with the former 2PM member on the super-meta Parlay/Ted joint “Dance Like Jay Park (Remix)” — was born in Wisconsin and cut his teeth in the Madison scene.

What is K-hip-hop?
This can be confusing, as ‘Korean’ can be used to describe music both stylistically and geographically. The term K-pop generally refers to popular music produced in South Korea.

The term K-hip-hop can refer both to the more hip-hop-focused subgenre of South Korean-produced pop music, as well as music produced by American artists of Korean descent, like Parlay and Park.

“K-pop doesn’t get a lot of [Western] radio play, per se, even though it’s a huge thing right now,” says Park. “But, we actually had the number one song on 93.1 JAMZ in Madison. Most requested song, first-ever number one from a local artist. Even though I don’t live in Madison no more, that’s my home forever.”

These days, Park resides in Los Angeles and doesn’t get out to the Midwest much. Following successful concerts in cities like Eau Claire and Madison, Park and Pass have been exploring new tour stops in the Midwest.

“I’ll admit that I don’t spend enough time in my hometown,” says Park. “Finally coming back to Madison in October for my first homecoming show in six years. Trying to do more stuff in the Midwest, like what we doing right now.”

A community radio station gets into K-pop

Listening to 90.1FM in the Kansas City area, you may hear this promo: “Did you know that KKFI has a K-pop show? It’s Hallyu Wednesdays from seven to nine, with Emma, Meighan and Trish. Why not listen in?”

Meighan Peifer, or Meighan X as she’s known on-air, is the co-host of "Rhythm & Seoul Radio" on KKFI 90.1 FM, a community radio station in Kansas City. The show has carved out a permanent home for itself every Wednesday evening. Its tagline: “Music from the Heart of Seoul to the Heart of KC.”

Hallyu Wednesdays, named after the first international surge of Korean culture in the '90s and 2000s, is comprised of two shows. "Eastify," hosted by Emma Fousch, focuses on early Hallyu hits and throwbacks, while Rhythm & Seoul Radio, co-hosted by Peifer and Patricia Doherty, delves into K-pop history, delivers the latest in K-culture news and spins recent releases from the U.S. and South Korea.

The sun shines over a community radio station in Kansas City.
Lucius Pham
KKFI 90.1FM is in Kansas City.

“It's important to get it out when it first drops,” says Peifer. “When I was in training, I started monitoring when new songs come, when do they typically get pushed out on commercial radio, and I noticed the Western influence versus anything that was not Western. Those individuals that were not Western artists, it was sometimes, on average, three months before their song would even come out on air. And yet, if it was a Western artist, even collaborating with an Asian artist, that song would be out within two days, or three days. A good example is ‘Bad Decisions’ with Snoop Dogg and BTS and Benny [Blanco] was out within two days of dropping.”

Other K-pop smashes that benefited from Western collaboration include “Boy With Luv” by Halsey and BTS; “Let’s Shut Up & Dance” from Jason Derulo, LAY (Zhang) and NCT 127; and BLACKPINK’s “Ice Cream,” both written by and featuring Selena Gomez.

Woman in pink Hello Kitty shirt stands in front of a railing at the 2022 American Music Awards.
Courtesy of Rhythm & Seoul Radio
"Rhythm & Seoul Radio" co-host Meighan Peifer poses at the 2022 American Music Awards.

Peifer and her team are committed to connecting the KC area with around-the-clock music and news from a country 14 hours ahead, regardless of their proximity to American artists. And fans are thankful, often traveling from all across Kansas for K-culture shows and experiences, like cupsleeve events.

"We find a lot of people just here they're in love with an idol, or two, or three, or this group, or that group," says Peifer. "A lot of people in our community, I love, they don't just stand one group. Like, VERIVERY is coming here. We're going to go support em. They're not as large as, like, Monsta X, or ATEEZ, or Stray Kids, but we're going to support them because they're coming to our communities. They're coming to Lawrence, but we will go and support them. People will drive from Leavenworth, people drive from Topeka, people can drive from Springfield to come to us."

"Rhythm & Seoul Radio" has come a long way. Peifer, wanting to involve herself with KKFI, began at the station as a custodian, eventually making her way into the booth and onto the air. Even during her unenviable stint as the 2 a.m. DJ playing K-pop for long-haul truck drivers crossing through Kansas, Peifer stayed committed to putting on a thoughtful and informative show for appreciators of K-pop.

Now armed with a prime time weekday evening slot and a small team helping with blogs and social media management, Peifer is able to quadruple her efforts. K-pop at KKFI, once only available nocturnally, now broadcasts every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m, and can even offer translators for Korean-speaking guests.

“We don't want to misrepresent,” says Peifer. “We don't try to present information that we don't have background on. We don't try to present words that we can't pronounce. We have a translator on air if we need one. So when we bring an artist in that is more comfortable speaking their first language, absolutely, I have a translator available.”

Interviews with local and touring acts are a big part of "Rhythm & Seoul Radio;" their first in-studio guests were a KC-based K-pop dance group called ETHEREAL. And whenever a visiting K-pop act hits the area, Peifer is first on the scene, followed by legions of loyal fans — many willing to travel great distances.

Two Korean-American rappers perform on stage.
Lucius Pham
Ted Park and Parlay Pass perform at VIVO Live.

“And that's what I love about this community is that anybody that comes, we're gonna go and support because we value them,” says Peifer. “And we want to show them the respect that we want to see them and we want them to come back. Because we're a secondary market here just like Iowa, we rarely get concerts here. We really have to push and pull for it. And so we're trying to change that.”

Peifer’s dedicated to bringing Korean artists directly to Kansas. That’s what led her and the "Rhythm & Seoul Radio" team to plan, promote and produce a hip-hop show with an impressive bill of up-and-coming Asian talent: a first step in making KC a return destination for touring acts.

The Big K-Hip-Hop Show

Ted Park and Parlay Pass headlined The Big K-Hip-Hop Show on Aug. 26. Lewis Park, a Seoul-based emo/hip-hop act, was also flown in and kicked things off. He was followed by Kazi, a hyperpop artist from New York, with main support from Liu Khang, a Vietnamese-American rapper representing her home town, Kansas City.

A Korean artist is washed in blue light.
Lucius Pham
Lewis Park performs at The Big K-Hip-Hop Show.

"Damn, it's crazy," manages Park over the screams and whistles of the crowd, "I was in Toronto last weekend for like 2,000 people...Ya'll way more lit, bro!"

The all-ages show attracted an all-ages crowd, there for the “K” in “K-hip-hop” more than the hip-hop. The BLACKPINK fans that night undoubtedly outnumbered the Black Star ones. Regardless of what brought everyone together that evening, the audience was unified in noise and energy, which both filled the venue.

To the American-born headliners, the flexible nature of “Korean hip-hop” as a genre isn’t frustrating, but they do emphasize the importance of distinctions. Like their contemporaries Dumbfounded and Jessi, Parlay and Park rap largely, if not exclusively in English, but never shy away from including features from Korean-speaking artists.

“A lot of our friends are artists in Korea that are doing well that are in K-Hip-hop,” says Park. “I feel like for us, we’re Korean-American artists. We’re American artists that are also Korean and we want to kind of be the bridge and bring our own sauce to both America, Korea and the rest of the world.”

A Korean-American rapper grips a microphone.
Lucius Pham
Kazi performs at The Big K-Hip-Hop Show.

As attendees walked into VIVO Live, they were greeted by volunteer Rashida Lewis, who snapped flashing LED bracelets onto their wrists. Concertgoers were also given tickets, redeemable for a decorated pillow to take home. Some people cashed theirs in early for something to squeeze during the show.

The pillows were an effort championed by Peifer and opener Lewis Park to promote mental health awareness, emphasizing the importance of sleep to maintain a positive attitude, especially in young people. Peifer says shows with a cause or message give audiences more than just the music to take with them.

A Vietnamese-American rapper autographs a fan's pillow.
Courtesy of Live Black Palms
Liu Khang autographs a fan's 'sleep' pillow after the show.
A Vietnamese-American rapper poses with a fan holding a pillow.
Courtesy of Live Black Palms
Liu Khang takes a photo with a fan.

“My now-16-year-old got me into this in like 2017,” says Lewis. “She took me down the rabbit hole. She said ‘so Mom, this is what I like now.’ And then I had all the same questions everyone had. And then I started watching. And then I learned the song ‘Paradise’ by BTS, word for word. Yeah it was downhill ever since.”

Lewis is one of the handful of women, or “Committee,” behind "Rhythm & Seoul Radio," and serves as the organization’s historian. The Committee met and grew together online, sharing K-culture among themselves and an increasingly “huge” community of K-pop-loving Kansans across dozens of Facebook groups.

“I’m in a melanated K-pop stan group, I’m in a BTS group, NCT group, Monsta X group, Seventeen group, smaller K-pop groups,” Lewis says. “It’s bad, I have an addiction.”

Liu Khang performs in front of crowd at VIVO Live.
Lucius Pham
The VIVO Live crowd floods the stage with cellphone flashlights as KC rapper Liu Khang performs.

Bring it home

Live experiences for American K-pop fans outside of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are limited. It’s not uncommon for committed fans to travel thousands of miles to see their favorite artists on American soil. En route to BTS’ Permission to Dance On Stage (PTD LA), the group’s first tour post-lockdown, Lewis recalls her a-ha moment.

“When we went to PTD LA, when I tell you two-thirds of Kansas City airport… two-thirds of the airport was going to LA," says Lewis. "Everybody had some BT21 on them. You could tell who were fans. Everybody. And we were just like, ‘Do you see this? Why isn’t Kansas City in this?’”

Alina Sysouchanh is from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and has been living in Olathe, Kan., for years. She found out about The Big K-Hip-Hop Show from Ted Park’s Instagram.

“I love K-pop! I’ve been into it since 2008 when Wonder Girls came out with ‘Nobody.’ And then after that I just divulged into all these other artists like Jay Park, Jackson Wang, SNSD, 2PM. It’s different than American music that you hear from every day. It’s just something to go back on because it’s Asian heritage that I really like.”

Sysouchanh grew up in Iowa and was accustomed to having to travel for a good show. Now a stone’s throw away from Kansas City, and in the same position, she wishes K-pop fans like her had more convenient options.

“I listen on Spotify, I listen on YouTube and everything like that,” says Sysouchanh. “I went to my first K-pop concert last month in Chicago, but I was hoping there was more here in Kansas City... F-cking inflation, bro.”

A Vietnamese-American woman spits into the microphone.
Lucius Pham
Liu Khang performs at The Big K-Hip-Hop Show.

Liu Khang was born and raised in Kansas City, a city not known for its Asian rap scene.

"Culturally, when I'm around other Asian people that I grew up with, the fact that I'm a rapper is like crazy to them," says Khang. "I've actually never, before this show, I've never performed with another Asian artist. I just don't think there was any other Asian artist to get in contact with that was in the area. It was honestly a culture shock for me personally, because I'm usually the culture shock, but just to be around other culture shocks was super dope."

For the first time in her career, Liu Khang looked around and wasn't the only Asian rapper. She was also appreciative of the time spent offstage with the other performers, sharing details about their businesses and families.

"I thought it was dope that I was even given the opportunity to be on this bill. Even though it was a Korean show, the whole purpose or intent behind the show was to put a spotlight on Asian artists, specifically in hip-hop and R&B."

A month after The Big K-Hip-Hop Show, Ted Park and Parlay Pass announced a four-date, year-end mini U.S. tour hitting New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Kansas City. The pair will return to VIVO Live on Dec. 2, with special guest Liu Khang.

Lucius Pham is a writer, producer and videographer based in Des Moines, where he graduated with a bachelor’s of journalism & mass communication from Drake University. Since 2022, Lucius has profiled artists for IPR News and Studio One, including Dionne Warwick, Ginuwine, Pictoria Vark, GZA, McKinley Dixon, spill tab, Ted Park, Caleb Elliott and many more.