Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

LGBTQ+ K-Pop Group LIONESSES Talk ‘Courage’ in Honoring Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey & More Pop Icons for New Single

By Michael Jun 12, 2024

In both America and South Korea, June marks Pride Month, with the 2024 celebration seeing one of K-pop’s rare representatives deliver a universal anthem honoring global pop icons.

The first-ever LGBTQ+ boy band to come from the K-pop scene, LIONESSES has been bravely pushing for representation in Korea and reaching the world with its consistent string of all-inclusive anthems like “It’s OK to Be Me” and “Show Me Your Pride” since debuting in 2021. Minus the group’s leader and music producer Damjun, LIONESSES’ countertenor Kanghan, vocalist Lee Malrang, as well as its former member and rapper Foxman who exited in late 2022, all perform in masks to conceal their identities in the socially conservative South Korea where LGBTQ+ people face prejudice, discrimination, and social stigmas with few protections compared to other developed democracies. But the music video to LIONESSES’ latest single “Like Christina Taught Me” not only shines a spotlight on a range of pop icons — including the titular Christina Aguilera — but sees Malrang stepping into the international spotlight by taking his mask off for the first time on camera.

“Like Christina Taught Me” has a bouncy, R&B-pop beat to back the trio’s range of vocals delivering encouraging words and finding comfort in the music of larger-than-life superstars that so many queer kids do. Referencing two of Xtina’s singles from her defining Stripped album from 2002, they sing on the chorus: “Know that you’re ‘Beautiful,’ like Christina taught me in that song / Trust ‘The Voice Within’” followed by an Aguilera-esque growl.

With the mix of English and Korean lyrics, LIONESSES also pay tribute to Mariah Carey (“Yes, MC, I believe within my soul, hold on tight I won’t let go’ / I can ‘Make It Happen’”), Whitney Houston (”Learning to love yourself,’ like Whitney taught me in that song / ‘The Greatest Love of All’”), and Michael Jackson (“Yes, MJ, I’mma start to love that man/ That ‘Man in the Mirror”).

Inspired by the band members’ actual experiences, the accompanying music video depicts the LIONESSES members in a classic Korean school setting, navigating bullies and ridicule from their classmates but finding secret solace in a smiling partner and coming closer to their true selves — like Kanghan showcasing her drag persona and Malrang removing his mask in the final seconds of the video in a beautiful moment of public courageousness.

Despite wins like successfully repealing bans from Korean-television broadcasters for their music, LIONESSES and their associates also deal with an onslaught of abuse from religious zealots in South Korea. Whether or not LIONESSES tops the charts, the representation and stories that Damjun, Kanghan and Malrang bring in a public setting are important steps in creating a greater music industry and world where all are accepted regardless of sexuality, gender identity or the other aspects that make each human precious.

Watch the “Like Christina Taught Me” music video below and read on for an extensive interview with LIONESSES members.

Congratulations on your new single, LIONESSES! What does the song mean to you all personally?

Kanghan: “Like Christina Taught Me” is about inner beauty and embracing it. As the title indicates, it’s a collection of artistic energy that brings together musicians talking about “beauty.” I needed time to accept myself, especially during my career in LIONESSES and taking off my mask and showing my drag queen ego to the public. But that’s when I got courage and hope from watching the drag queens who were already active in Korea. It’s the same for music, for drag, for dancing: being able to fill that courage indirectly to someone who needs it, which inspired me to bring that into my life. In particular, I know that this song was inspired by the lyrics “You are beautiful, no matter what they say” from Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” I remember Damjun introducing us to this song about all our beauty.

Lee Malrang: It seems to be the hardest song to sing live out of all the songs released so far, but since it’s named after the diva we admire the most, I’m always practicing hard to sing more perfectly. [Laughs]

Damjun: I made this song to give back to my fans the courage that all the great musicians cited in this music, including Christina. So I went back to Young Damjun from my childhood era in this music video, and even appeared in the video wearing my school uniform! [Laughs]

Even after I debuted in LIONESSES, I still work as a vocal coach at some art high schools because I can’t just send my students off to another coach so easily. I thought just having one actor playing the role of my friends was not enough, so I brought my students to the set and asked for their help. It was a special experience for me to act in the same uniform next to my students — but my students will still laugh when we talk about it.

“Beautiful” and “The Voice Within,” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Mariah Carey’s “Make It Happen,” Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” Korea’s legendary diva Yoon Bok-hee’s “You,” and BTS‘ “Answer: Love Myself” — the message that all these songs have given me is, “It’s OK.” No matter how much you are loved by others, I think accepting yourself is the beginning of all courage. I want to remind anyone who will listen to this song that all this music has told me and that if you feel OK about yourself, everything’s going to be OK.”

Damjun, you wrote, co-produced and vocal directed “Like Christina Taught Me.” Can you tell me about creating the song?

Damjun: “Like Christina Taught Me” is a song that I made to return the comfort given by Christina Aguilera, our great diva, and to our fans DEN. Almost three years have passed since my debut, time flies so fast but Christina is an artist who is almost everything to me. I’m sure my fans have often seen me say in live streams and Instagram posts, “80% of what raised me was Christina Aguilera.” That’s how much she’s incorporated into my singing skill — I’m still way short of her but I’m trying to do my best. Sometimes just humming her songs that I sing to fans on live streams such as “I Turn to You”, “Beautiful,” “The Voice Within,” “Ain’t No Other Man,” “Hurt,” and her version of [James Brown‘s] “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” in her whistle register. [Laughs]

I’ve been dreaming of becoming a K-pop idol ever since I was a little boy and I’ve had a lot of opportunities come my way — come to think of it, I auditioned singing “The Voice Within” when I was in high school — but when I thought about if I was ever caught being bisexual, I thought Korean society, back then, would destroy my music career and all my loved ones. So, I gave up opportunities every time. For a long time, I worked as a singer in advertisements, a wedding singer and vocal coach but with my debut with LIONESSES, I accepted a lot of things. I accepted by myself. I thought, “I can make my story into music and tell it to people” and a lot of stories that I had suppressed have been made into music.

Just like how [Christina] helped me not to let go of my dreams, singing “You are beautiful, no matter what they say,” I want to give courage to my younger fans: “Know that you’re beautiful, like she taught me.”

Why did LIONESSES want to honor Christina Aguilera not just in the lyrics, but also in the title?

Kanghan: Because we all love Christina! [Laughs] She is an icon of our generation. Especially for me as a drag queen, she is an important figure who taught me how to be a diva.

Damjun: For me, Christina has been the vocal teacher I’ve never met for the past 20 years. When I have to sing a new song that I made, rather than cover someone else’s song, there are times when I just don’t know how am I supposed to sing it. Every time I face that kind of pinch, I find an answer thinking, “What would Christina do?”

When I first auditioned to become a singer in 2007, I was a little gay boy in ninth grade. Before that, I had opera singing training, but I wanted to be a pop star just like her. That’s when Christina came to do a concert in Korea — it was a world tour when the Back to Basics album was released and tens of thousands of people flocked to Seoul’s Olympic Stadium to see her. She appeared in a white suit — oh, all of a sudden, I feel like a ninth-grade boy talking about this! [Laughs] — but I wanted to go to that show so my mother paid me an advance for almost a year’s worth of allowance, I borrowed money from my friends, and managed to buy a ticket. And yes, she took the stage with her baby bump and touched tens of thousands of people.

I fell in love with her Back to Basics character of “Baby Jane” with songs called  “Candyman” and “Ain’t No Other Man.” She introduced to me retro-vibe music when she released that album and that’s when I first started searching for and listening to music from earlier generations of musicians such as Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown. Recently, I participated in CUMA 2024, a joint concert of Korean and Japanese LGBTQ+ jazz musicians…it was also Christina who first introduced the jazz music I sang in this performance!

I will love her music forever. You know, if you have someone you love, you want to share it with them when you watch a good movie or eat something delicious, right? I wanted to share the music that I love with my beloved DENs, just like that. And if there is anyone who is a little boy like younger me who is torn between dreams, talents, and fears, I want to tell him this: “It’s OK to chase a dream,” as Christina told me through her music.

You’ve shared a couple songs already, but what is everyone’s favorite Xtina songs and videos?

Malrang: Oh god…I really feel like I’m a teen-girl fan of Christina. I like “What a Girl Wants”, “Come on Over (All I Want Is You)” and “Genie in a Bottle.” Of course we discuss, “Who’s going to be Christina’s part when we sing ‘Lady Marmalade?’” every time we meet. [Laughs]

Kanghan: Actually, I didn’t know much about pop music before I was an opera singer, but I mainly liked Christina Aguilera’s most popular ballads then. Now, I love her boldness and I’m turning into a big fan, but “Like Christina Taught Me” in particular gave me a chance to reflect on “Beautiful” and think again about the huge comfort it gave us. My favorite song right now is “Dirrty.”

The music video of “Beautiful” has many outsiders wandering, not feeling positive about themselves, being bullied by many people, but eventually finding their true selves. That’s what I’ve been through in my life too so I think this song has the most special meaning to all LGBTQ+ people of my generation.

Damjun: I especially like all the songs in the Back to Basics album, I guess I can’t forget the first time I actually saw her at a concert. My biggest goal in high school was to sing “Candyman” perfectly once…it’s still hard to sing! I also remember practicing notes one by one, while performing the intro line of “Ain’t No Other Man,” playing it a halfspeed. I also like her version of “Climb Every Mountain” [from The Sound of Music] and “Do What U Want” with Lady Gaga. Actually, I like her music from start to finish, so this answer is just a list of her songs that come to mind right now.

I also liked the recently remade version of the “Beautiful” music video. Is it OK to call the entire animation Mulan as the music video for “Reflection”? [Laughs] Her music was also used as a theme song in the movie…I liked the red background of “Loyal Brave True” and the background production using Chinese characters because it felt like modern art. My favorite, though, is definitely “Candyman.” Everything about it makes me feel like I’m an American Navy [SEAL] from another era.

Malang: I like “Candyman,” too! I once dreamed of being an American pin-up girl. I wanted to be a pin-up girl to make guys stand up — just kidding!

You also honor Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson in the song. Can you share how these artists are inspirations too?

Kanghan: Michael Jackson is the “King of Pop” that all earthlings know, right? I remember when I was young I would play along with his dances. As a performer, I respect him so much for being a sensation that will go down in history. One of my role models, Korean gospel singer Sohyang, specifically mentioned that the singer she respect the most is Whitney Houston so I listened to all of her music. Sohyang and Whitney are the singers who inspired me a lot in my life.

Malrang: I especially really like MJ’s “You Are Not Alone.” I used to cry a lot when I first heard it when I was little and I actually listen to it every time I had to endure something by myself. This song always gives me a lot of strength.

Damjun: Before our comeback in the second half of last year, I talked to my fans about sponsoring a UNICEF campaign together. I said, “All pop musicians, including K-pop artists, are like Michael Jackson’s children. Everyone inherited his great legacy and is making their own music. So, I wanted to do ‘Heal the World’ with DENs just like Michael did to the world.” The same goes for Whitney Houston’s voice. Perhaps Christina, whom I keep referring to as an icon, is also considered to be the greatest diva to have inherited her legacy. My entire life has been a practice process to sing like them.  

The quote from “Make It Happen” by Mariah Carey was a little more significant to me. My other two members are Christians, but I have no religion. However, after releasing “It’s OK to Be Me” in 2022, I became strongly opposed to religion in my mind when the song was banned from broadcasting on the grounds of “homosexuality” by MBC. When fans around the world protested, the broadcaster reversed it and I was attacked a lot by Christians in Korea for the reversal. Pastors incited the congregation by praying that “We should call [broadcasters] as a group to get those gay singers out of the entertainment industry.” Thousands of them went to the broadcasting companies and protested to get us out of the K-pop industry. Since Han and Malrang are Christians, so I don’t know how they would feel, but I was at the height of my aversion toward Christianity at the time — I had death threats messages from Christians in Korea and malicious complaints where they systematically attacked me. From that, I hated a lot of music, including “Make It Happen,” which had a Christian message. 

However, I couldn’t deny the consolation and courage Mariah gave me. It’s the homophobics that attacked me that are bad, but not all religion and religious music is bad. Eventually I even listened to the great gospel songs that Mariah released — her music comforted me so much that I felt so stupid in the moments when I turned a blind eye to it because it had a religious message. So, I quoted “Make It Happen” in our [new] song, as opposed to any of her countless other songs, intending to forgive everything I suffered and give a hand of reconciliation to Christianity. The Korean diva Yoon Bok-hee’s “You” quoted in this song also had a religious message but I thought that ultimately, her willingness to be a comfort and joy as a voice for everyone was more important.

And as I’ve mentioned since my debut, as an ARMY — an old ARMY [Laughs] — I wanted to include the message that BTS gave me. They’re the idols of all idols now, but when I was working as a vocal coach and rejecting debut offers before I debuted as LIONESSES, I was unhappy and pessimistic about everything in the world. When BTS first came out with the message “Love Yourself,” I thought to myself, “It’s easy for you guys because you’re straight.” Then, I came to know about the hardships they’ve been through, saw their efforts, and fell in love with their music. I felt so ashamed of myself for not accepting the messages that BTS had conveyed simply because they hadn’t had experiences as LGBTQ+ and that’s how special all the songs in the album Love Yourself: Answer are to me. When I listened to their music and sincerity in the past, I felt so grateful for the messages that told me to overcome. Everyone has their own struggles, and we’ve concluded that the way to overcome them is to “love yourselves,” as all the great musicians mentioned in this song have said.

Thank you for sharing all your stories. Have you dealt had any comments or bans with “Like Christina Taught Me”?

Damjun: [LIONESSES’ 2021 single] “Christmas Miracle” was banned by the Korean broadcaster CBS [The Christian Broadcasting System] on the “charge” of being LGBTQ — or, to be more precise, “a singer who harms the Christian spirit.” Exactly a year after that, “It’s OK to Be Me” went through the same thing at MBC, Korea’s largest broadcasting station, but MBC resolved the misunderstanding when the director called our company directly and apologized after complaints from fans and the media. The deliberations corrected it as a broadcast-approved song, but as a result the aforementioned attacks persisted for months. There were Christians who filed complaints with the school and education office where I worked as a coach and begged me to fire them. But now that I think about it, not everyone has the experience of being worshipped by pastors, right? [Laughs] So, I think I’ll have fun accepting it even if it happens in the future? “Like Christina Taught Me” has not faced any problems yet, but even in the face of discrimination, I want to sing this song firmly and convey more of the message to the world.

Malrang: Actually, “Like Christina Taught Me” has scenes revealing bits and pieces of my school years. My actual high school years were hell. They’d call me “lady” and “transgender” as insults, and I was sexually harassed a lot by them. I cursed and swore a lot so I wouldn’t get beat up by the bad guys, and even now, I still end up saying things that aren’t very refined, so my boss and Damjun used to be concerned about me. [All laugh] But even when a celebrity with LGBTQ+ image appeared on TV, bullies rushed to hit me. One day when news of a queer celebrity’s suicide was reported, they said, “This is your future; you won’t die comfortably.” But now it’s all in the past — I like how much happier I am after overcoming all of this in the music video.

The video is also significant because Malrang removes his mask for the first time and Kanghan shares her drag persona. Congratulations on this big step! What inspired these decisions?

Malang: Last year, when my grandmother passed away, I had a lot of think about my life. During that time, it occurred to me that I had lived my life lying to my family for 30 years, as if I had put a thin layer on my life. I was wearing a mask and coming out to the fans and the world, and bravely starting my career, but I couldn’t muster the courage to come out to my family. So, there were many conflicts with the label about unmasking. As such, my grandmother’s passing was a turning point for me since I felt I was constantly lying to the public and to my family. I then addressed my concerns to Damjun who, in producing of this wonderful song, gave me the opportunity to come out again to my family and the public. I felt that I no longer wanted to play a deceiving role, but more than anything, I feel relieved to be able to proudly stand in front of my family now.

Damjun: There was a Christian who attacked us before said, “They hide behind the mask because they know they are ashamed of themselves.” But you know, our mask was rather in solidarity with fans anywhere who could not come out immediately. Of course, I’ve shown my face since our debut but they tried to spread the argument that “they’re hiding behind the mask because they’re ashamed of themselves”, and they only captured and watched footage of the other members wearing masks except my face on the Internet.

Kanghan: My alter ego, the drag queen “Rooya,” was also first revealed to the world through LIONESSES’ music videos. In fact, I’ve dressed up in full drag-queen makeup and outfits for Rooya, but pre-LIONESSES I was only dressed up alone in my room and was never seen by people. I’ve been admiring the queens in the musicals Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Kinky Boots and I believe that revealing the drag queen as a LIONESSES member is a way to bring back the inspiration I’ve received from them. I hope that I can continue to show you the new Rooya through LIONESSES.

Malrang, I’ve heard you’re related to another famous singer, Jeon Soyeon of (G)I-DLE! Have you two connected over music?

Malrang: We are cousins, so we met often on holidays. When she and I were very young, I taught her how to play the piano just once and she has already become the best composer in the K-pop industry so I am always proud of her and her talent. If that short memory is a musical connection to her, it can be said that it is a connection, but as you know, family members don’t usually talk about work.

I originally made my debut in 2009 in the past, and Soyeon supported and listened to me a lot. After that, I was growing my world as an indie musician and as Soyeon prepared to become a K-pop idol, I talked with her about her mindset as an artist and attitude on stage. But when my little sister became a successful musician and started (G)I-DLE‘s world tour, I cried a lot when I came back from the concert hall. I was so proud of her and for being able to so perfectly connect with such a large audience.

So, when I released this single, I decided to reveal my bare face to the public and, at the same time, I came out to her. She has given me a warm support and has given me a lot of support for my future as a K-pop artist. If I could say a word to my little sister Soyeon as an older brother, through this interview, I would like to say, “As your older brother, I will always try to be a good, fellow singer that you are not ashamed of.”

Anything else you would like to share with Billboard readers or maybe Xtina herself?

Malrang: Christina unnie! Next time you visit Korea, make sure to have a glass of soju with mala xiang guo [the spicy Chinese spicy dish that’s popular nowadays). And let’s sing a “spicy” song together!

Kanghan: I still vividly remember how you came out on RuPaul’s Drag Race and supported the drag artists. Because you are the goddess of all the drag queens, I am honored to continue to love your music as great as you have given the LGBTQ+ community. 

Damjun: Christina, you’ll have no idea how much you are loved by singers who come after you. Especially for LGBTQ+ boys and girls, like me, who got the hope to live by hearing “You are beautiful” from your music…as a singer who wanted to be like Christina, I think the best I can do is to share the courage and comfort I received from you to my fans again. So, I’m still working hard to resemble you. Christina, I believe that beauty comes from love. Everything that is loved becomes beautiful. That’s why I, as a crooked adolescent boy, was able to become as beautiful as I am now based on the love you gave me through music. I was reluctant to love myself, but your music did so I want to make this song that conveys the message to someone, “Oh, this song loves me.” Because if someone’s having a hard time loving yourself, you can be loved by these kinds of songs first. I love you — to “the voice of our generation” from “the boy of your generation.”

And I’m especially grateful to the people who are fans of countless stars, including my dear DEN, and I want you to know that your presence gives us the strength to live and to create. We, all the musicians can be exist because we have fans. Also, my solo songs will be released in the second half of this year or the first half of 2025…I feel I will be able to sing about more personal things in my solo.

Kanghan: My dear DEN, you know we are always together, right? I hope this year’s Pride Month will have happier and more queer days.

Malrang: Our new single needs a lot of attention, right? [Laughs] We always try to read all the comments. We’ll wait for you, we love you!

By Michael

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