Hwasa is striding around the stage at the OVO Arena Wembley, telling the crowd at HallyuPopFest London 2022 how happy she is to be performing for them tonight (July 9). At one point, she puts one hand over her heart and hurriedly taps her chest, excitedly explaining the emotion of “deoki deoki”. Even without an interpreter translating her words into English over the PA, it’s clear what she means – her heart is fluttering fast from the feeling of being back on stage.
Backstage, earlier in the day, the singer and rapper uses that same phrase and gesture, fingers flickering over her pink and black sequin, tiger-striped jumpsuit. “Through this job, everything about life has been so impactful and stimulating, and I’ve gotten so used to that,” she explains to NME via a translator. “If it’s not stimulating, I struggle to feel happiness, I struggle to feel… deoki deoki.” She repeats the two words with a firm nod.
The MAMAMOO maknae and accomplished solo artist in her own right is well-known as an idol who is candid and unafraid to speak her mind. Over the last couple of years she’s shared her battles with finding motivation, happiness and creative satisfaction in a world stifled by the pandemic. Her sense of identity, too, took a hit because she was unable to get on stage and do what she does best. Although she seems to be in her element at HallyuPopFest – and has had the opportunity to return to the stage at other festivals in Korea and further afield recently – she says it’s something she’s still trying to work through.
“Even now, I find it quite difficult,” she says with a solemn look on her face. “I’m still in the phase of trying to find a balance and trying to feel alive.” Artists going through the same emotions as Hwasa might instead find solace in the studio, but that’s not been working for her either, as she admits to feeling dissatisfied with a lot of the music she’s been making. “I definitely wasn’t ready mentally for the pandemic. I feel like I lost a lot of my bright side, so I’m still trying to adapt and adjust back to that side of myself.”
In the face of that, last November Hwasa shared a three-track single, ‘Guilty Pleasure’; listening to it with no further knowledge of her personal struggles, you’d never be able to tell it came from someone feeling so stuck and unhappy. ‘I’m A 빛’ served as a playful apology to her friends and family for not taking good care of them and being “overly sensitive at times”, the vintage R&B of the English-language ‘FOMO’ came from a position of strength, while the softer ‘Bless U’ shared a message of gratitude for a loved one.
After ‘Guilty Pleasure’, her plan was to work on her first full-length solo album. “But it’s not been going as smoothly as I’d hoped, so that’s slightly on hold,” she sighs. Still, she knows what she’s looking to make next – asked how she wants to challenge herself on her next record, she shakes her head and laughs. “I don’t like challenges – just short, impactful fun,” she grins. “After some thought, I realised I don’t have a lot of very energetic and fun songs in my portfolio so that’s what I’m going to work towards.”
The Hwasa catalogue might not be jam-packed with hype songs like some other idols, but that’s not to say her music is boring. Quite the opposite: The rapturous reception her closing song gets from the crowd is evidence that you don’t always need to be leaping around a stage with sounds to match to get an audience going. The sun-kissed pop of ‘Maria’ is a highlight of her set, the star confidently and flawlessly switching from purred verses to a belted-out chorus while weaving her way through a choreography of body rolls and high kicks. Two years since its release, it still shines as a bona fide masterpiece.
“As an artist, I don’t think Hwasa would exist without the members [of MAMAMOO]”
“‘Maria’ is a very meaningful song to me,” she says fondly, nodding to lyrics that contain a message to herself (Maria is Hwasa’s baptismal name) penned after experiencing judgement, criticism and hate from the wider world. “Oh Maria, I’m saying this for you / Why are you trying so hard?” she asks at one point. “You’re already beautiful.”
“I was envisioning and planning this song ever since I was a trainee,” she reflects now. “With some luck – be it the lyrics, be it the song, all aspects of it – it really fell into place as I wanted. I’m a very, very big fan of ‘Maria’.”
Hwasa might have had to endure her fair share of struggles in her early career but now, she’s got the respect of the K-pop industry, fellow artists and fans across the globe. For the latter, the 26-year-old has come to represent a specific type of star: one who inspires feelings of self-empowerment through her lyrics and refusal to change herself to fall in line with societal and beauty standards placed on women.
“I’m very passionate about this topic – it’s something I think about a lot and very deeply,” she nods when NME mentions it to her. While she’s often heralded as a hero in this department, she admits to grappling with the same feelings as her fans. “To be honest, even this morning, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘Ah, my face is so swollen’, and I didn’t really want to look into the mirror anymore.” She mimes her dissatisfaction with her reflection before breaking into a big laugh that suggests those thoughts have since passed.
Through admired as a self-empowerment icon, she’s come to accept a few key facts of life. “Before, I saw the beauty in only the big things, but now I see the beauty in small things as well,” she explains. “At the end of the day, we all have faults – including me – so I understand and appreciate how everyone else feels and I feel exactly the same.”
In the eight years since she made her debut with MAMAMOO, Hwasa has grown a lot. Looking back on her 18-year-old-self, she says she had to “learn how to love everybody, not just her”. “She was very strong,” the translator begins to explain tentatively until she interrupts him, and he changes her reply: “She was a little bit bitchy.” “Yes, bitchy!” she exclaims, clapping her hands together, a broad grin on her face.
She credits her bandmates as the impetus behind her transformation into the bright, gregarious woman she is today. “I learned a lot from them socially,” she says affectionately. “As an artist, too, I don’t think Hwasa would exist without the members.” She points to the lack of variety in body types and appearances in female idols back when the group was being formed. “[Agencies] would look at our looks, you had to be shaped a certain way,” she says. “But because we were being judged as a group, I believe I managed to get through that hurdle.”
Later this year, MAMAMOO will return with a new album, which the four-piece are working on at the moment. Their youngest member is remaining tight-lipped over what to expect for now, though. “I don’t know! I don’t know!” she giggles in English when NME ask her for a hint. “One thing I can say for sure is I’m very excited and we’ll be able to do a concert with the members too,” she grins. We’ll take it – whether solo or part of the group, the prospect of witnessing a Hwasa performance will always inspire “deoki deoki” levels of excitement.
Hwasa’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is out now via RBW Entertainment. MAMAMOO are expected to make a comeback later this year