It was on an inconsequential day in April that SB19 received the biggest news of their career to date: that they had become the first Filipino act to be nominated for a Billboard Music Award.
For their fans – collectively known as A’TIN – seeing SB19 competing in the Top Social Artist category against the likes of Ariana Grande, SEVENTEEN, BLACKPINK and BTS was a moment of hope. After all, the fan-voted award was one of the first laurels BTS picked up in the United States before they properly flung open the gates for K-pop’s world domination.
Josh was live-streaming a gaming session when they got the news, and he couldn’t hold his tears back (during NME’s interview, Justin and Stell unsuccessfully prod him for a repeat performance). Ken, on the other hand, was visiting his hometown in more sombre circumstances.
“My grandmother passed away around the same time, so I didn’t really know that we got nominated,” he says. “When I found out, I was really happy: ‘Oh my goodness. Is this the time? Is this the time that we’re going to go to the US?’ That was the thought that came to my mind.”
It was a dreamlike moment for SB19, who a little over two years ago had been debating if they should call it quits – until their dance practice video for 2019 single ‘Go Up’ went viral.
“Now, whenever I think about the hard moments, everything was worth it,” says the group’s leader Pablo. “All the hardships that we went through. Sometimes we couldn’t eat, we would sleep on the floor. Even though we experienced that, the sweetness that we’re experiencing right now, it’s all worth it.”
SB19’s awareness of their origins seeds their newest EP ‘Pagsibol’. One of its six tracks is ‘Mana’, named after the Manananggal, a creature from Filipino mythology capable of separating the upper half of its body from the lower one; as the torso takes flight, the feet stay rooted to the ground. It’s metaphorical poetry to SB19’s ears: as they soar higher, a part of them still stays connected to the soil that birthed them.
This is where ‘Pagsibol’ departs from SB19’s debut studio album, 2020’s ‘Get In the Zone’. Where on the latter, they were greenhorns ready to take on the world, ‘Pagsibol’ is peppered with tributes to everyone who has walked beside them on their collective journey. It’s the product of maturity and the realisation that success is not something one can achieve alone.
“We have a song for our parents. We have a song for ourselves, to boost our morale. We have a song for our fans,” Pablo says of the EP. “We wouldn’t be here because of ourselves alone. We owe it to our fans who have been there for us. Back in the days, we were performing when there were only seven people watching us. What can we say about that? We’re just really, really thankful.
“Everything in this EP is about our roots, where we came from, what we should do, who we are as people and as individuals,” he adds.
“We owe it to our fans who have been there for us”
The five members of SB19 – Pablo, Josh, Justin, Stell and Ken, who all go by their first names – found themselves together after making it through a rigorous talent search in 2016 by ShowBT Philippines, a subsidiary of Korean company ShowBT. While in the midst of this gruelling first phase, the road from the training room to the stage seemed longer than ever.
“These days, we have interviews, practice, and performances. But during [our traineeship], we got sick of it. Everyday, six times a week, we would do the same thing,” Pablo recalls. But no matter how repetitive or tiresome it was at the time, SB19 look back on the training fondly.
“I really miss those times,” Pablo admits. “Back in the days, when we were in our old studio, sleeping on the floor and training, it was really hard but also really sweet. It built our foundation [for] what we are right now. So yeah, I’m really thankful for those times.”
In the years since their traineeship, SB19 have grown into performers brimming with confidence in their talent, approach, and art. As the views on their music videos climbed and sparse performance venues began to fill with hordes of fans, a precocious complexity also crept into their work. It spoke to a group that could look inwards for inspiration. ‘Mapa’ is an emotional tribute to their parents and their sacrifices, while ‘SLMT’ pours out gratitude to their fans. ‘What?’, which kicked off the era of ‘Pagsibol’, is their personal anthem for the days when confidence dips, while ‘Mana’ is the endearing reality-check, celebrating how far they have come but always remembering the hard days gone by.
Pablo wrote all of the EP’s six tracks, and is slightly awed at how much he’s grown as a songwriter.
“Sometimes, I am amazed by how fast I can write one song,” he says, remembering how in his trainee days he would scramble to put down his ramblings on paper on the way to the studio. “When I got home, I would continue to work on those. [Now] I can write multiple songs in one day.”
For Stell – whose sleek choreographed routines have become one of the group’s trademarks – growth meant reckoning with his own insecurities.
“Whenever we would release something, I’d be really nervous. I needed to create the choreography because we did not have an in-house choreographer to teach us, but I was not very confident,” he admits. “There was a time that I always doubted myself. ‘If I do this, maybe they won’t like it. Maybe fans will not like it, or other people will criticise my work.’ That’s why I decided not to do it [for a time].”
Just like everything they do, SB19 figured it out together.
Recalls Stell: “We talked as a group and [the other members] told me: ‘You don’t need to be the best. You don’t have to think of whether other people will like your craft or the choreography. You just need to be confident and be proud of yourself.’ That was the time I said to myself: ‘Yeah, they’re right!’ Maybe I just needed to push myself, and boom!”
“When we started, we didn’t just want to be famous, we wanted more for our culture as well”
This trust is what makes the SB19 fabric seamless. Conversations happen beyond the realm of words with this band: Where Pablo trails off, Josh finishes his sentences. Jokes and jibes ping-pong between Justin and Stell at a dizzying speed. Ken remains the tempered, silent pillar throughout, speaking only when the others prod him to, and only after glancing at them from the corner of his eye. This charismatic dynamic could be chalked up to the sheer amount of time they’ve spent together, as well as the struggles they’ve collectively endured, but that would be doing a disservice to the conscious efforts SB19 put in to build these relationships.
“[We have] an activity we do everyday: We hold hands for like 10 minutes and talk about our problems with each other so we can build a better relationship,” Stell reveals. It’s a practice the group picked up as trainees and still do to this day.
“Our teachers used to say: ‘When guys hold hands, they become serious’,” Justin laughs. “But we’re used to it. After 10 minutes, we hug each other.”
Josh adds: “It helped us to come closer to each other. Especially if we have problems, it feels like we’re family because we forget everything after it.”
Though SB19’s star is on the rise, they’re still finding their footing in what is still a nascent industry. Though the Philippines has had boybands for years, many of them emulating K-pop groups from the earlier Hallyu wave, SB19 is a leading light in this current wave of Pinoy pop. Dubbed P-pop, artists in this wave nod to the influence of K-pop – but aim to achieve stardom on their own terms as Filipinos. Other groups in this growing field include BGYO, BINI and ALAMAT.
As SB19 move forward in this fertile territory, the belief they have in one another will be what sees them through. In May, they ultimately lost the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist to BTS, who’ve held fast onto the title since 2017. But for them, the nomination was just the beginning.
“When we started, we didn’t just want to be famous, we wanted more for our culture as well,” says Josh. “We want the world to know that if other countries can do it, we can do it as well. We can help the economy of the Philippines. We can help our culture, our resources… A lot of negative stuff has been happening in the Philippines lately. I feel like we really need to live with a purpose.”
SB19’s ‘Pagsibol’ is out now