There’s a point during our discussion of Korean music and its current influence over pop culture where Terry Im – the musician popularly known as KRNFX – says Koreans are “pretty much like the cool Asians right now.”
He says it jokingly, but the observation may ring true to those who visit tomorrow’s Korean Festival Houston at Discovery Green. The free, public event runs from 11 a.m. til 9 p.m. and will feature an array of music and dance performances headlined by KRNFX, whose beatboxing talents have definitely made him cool right now. Making the music with his mouth, Im has been able to parlay his skills into a career, one cultivated by the modern record shop, a.k.a. YouTube, where millions of fans have found and heard his beatbox covers of popular songs.
Tomorrow’s festival, which is organized by the Korean-American Society of Houston and enjoys title sponsorship from Houston Area Hyundai Dealers, marks a return to the Bayou City for Im, who was here only months ago to shoot a Mountain Dew Green Label video with singer J.R. Aquino. The video features enough footage of Houston to suggest Im saw the sights, but he says he’s planning to stay a little longer this trip and get to know the city a little better. He sees some similarities between Houston and his hometown, Toronto.
“It’s a pretty clean city, in terms of architecture and just the way the whole city looks, it looks really cool," he says. "It’s definitely got a more modern feel to it. It was awesome. The food is amazing, obviously. Everybody was really very nice as well, which is kind of like Toronto, everybody out there is pretty nice, very accommodating and very polite. It’s a beautiful city.”
“This will be my first time performing in Houston, so it’s definitely a different feeling since I’ll actually be performing in front of people," adds Im. "I feel like it’s a different vibe. I’m definitely more excited because I feel like I’m going to be able to experience more of the city and the culture because the last time I was around I was only in for a day. This time around, I’ll be in for a couple of days, so I’ll get to see a little more.”
Like most festivals that focus on a specific culture, Korean Festival Houston will present acts that focus strongly on heritage and are family-oriented: acts like KORUS, a children’s choir that sings Korean stories; and Lee Yun Hwa, a traditional Korean dance group. They’ll dominate the first part of the day. Organizers tabbed Austin’s Maribel Rubio & 512 Sound and KRNFX to cater to Saturday night’s downtown crawlers.
Im recalls being a kid, like the ones who might be performing during the day at K-Fest, growing up in a musical family. His father was a pianist and Im’s first musical inclinations came from listening to him play classical music. His sisters played instruments and he learned flute and piano. As a seventh-grader, he found the drums, which would be his gateway to destinations like “Canada’s Got Talent,” the World Beatbox Champinships and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
“I kinda just grew up in that world and when I got to the drum kit eventually I just fell in love with the beats and the rhythms," he says. "From then on I was like, ‘You know what? This is what I wanna do.’ And then I started playing around on the beatbox and I was like, ‘Oh, well, why don’t I just beatbox and then I won’t have to carry a drum set around.”
His set tomorrow evening will be “one man, one microphone.” Im says he prefers not to plan a set too fully, so he can play off the vibe of the crowd. What Im does is amazing. For instance, he teamed with another artist who enjoys immense Internet popularity, Daniela Andrade, to cover Sia’s “Elastic Heart.” See for yourself, but the result is incredible and got us wondering just how long it takes to arrange a fully-layered beatbox for a track like this.
“That one in particular was only like a two- or three-day powwow,” says Im. “That one was pretty spontaneous. It can take up to weeks or months to arrange different videos and covers, but that one in particular was a quick and spontaneous one. It’s funny because sometimes those are the best ones, the quick and spontaneous ones.”
Im says he was drawn to beatboxing because he could do it anywhere. But what’s helped take his work everywhere was the practice he put in learning his instrument, hours of learning from mistakes, frequently resulting in chapped lips and a sore jaw. He shared that key to success with Houston’s young, aspiring musicians.
“I feel like, from the young stage as an artist, the best thing you can do is practice, practice, practice. That’s really what it comes down to. Once you get to a level where people can’t deny your talent and your skill, it’s like, okay, now you’re the one running the show.”
We can’t let KRNFX go without asking just one K-Pop question. It’s the one that leads to his determination of where Koreans place on the current “cool Asians” scale.
“I feel like K-Pop and Korean music and the culture out there has evolved so much over the years," he says. "Really, right now, it’s a very trendy thing, even out here in ‘the west side,’ in North America. You’ve got this K-Pop group, Big Bang, they just did a recent tour, they’re selling out arenas in North America, which is pretty unheard of. It’s not like they’re some legendary, iconic star. They’re just a bunch of dudes, who are obviously talented and obviously marketed in the right way, and you’ve got them selling out arenas.
“It’s pretty crazy having some dudes from Korea, from the other side of the world, selling out packed stadiums,” continues Im. “The kind of power and influence that K-Pop and Korean culture have right now is kind of at an all-time high. It’s a pretty amazing time right now to be a Korean person — we’re pretty much like the coolest Asians right now.”
KRNFX headlines the 2015 Korean Festival Houston, Saturday, October 17, at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. The event is free and open to the public. For a complete list of performers and more information on the event, visit www.koreanfestivalhouston.com.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.