COVER STORY

Why SB19 is the Pinoy boy group to watch out for

The P-Pop boy group discusses the fleeting quality of viral internet fame, almost giving up, and their plans for the future.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the night SB19’s Go Up dance practice video went viral on Twitter, members Sejun, Stell, Josh, Ken, and Justin were all in their respective homes, resting after a day of hard work.

The boys filmed the video, a three-minute-and-twelve-second clip of them practicing the choreography the Saturday prior, and posted it on their YouTube channel that Monday evening. It was nothing out of the ordinary for the P-Pop group, who debuted in October 2018 with minimal fanfare and had gotten used to the lull on their social media platforms.

In fact, after over four years of training and seeing multiple colleagues come and go, they were just about ready to quit. Josh recalls what they had to go through during that period: “Kasi nag-debut kami. We felt it, and we were very proud of it,” he says. “Pero alam mo ’yun, ‘yung reality na 'pag pumupunta ka ng mga event, hindi ka naman talaga sinusubaybayan ng maraming tao.”

Go Up was meant to be SB19’s last shot at making things work. And for a couple of months after it was released, it looked like they weren’t going to — until that fateful September night. By some chance, a well-meaning user posted the dance practice video on Twitter and Facebook, promoting the group and saying that she “didn’t feel any cringe at all” while listening to their song. Her post quickly gained traction, and soon enough, SB19 was thrust into the spotlight of internet fame.

The members mostly didn’t know how to feel after their phones started blowing up with notifications (well, all except Ken, who went to bed early because their WiFi at home had just expired; he had no idea what was going down online). When they saw each other in the practice room a day later, they were still in a daze. If anything, they were shocked at how appreciative and accepting the general public seemed to be of them.

Photo by JL JAVIER. On Josh: Mohair bucket hat from PROUDRACE, sweater vest from SMALL CHANGE KYOTO, and trousers from BURBERRY.

Photo by JL JAVIER. On Justin: Oversized button-down and windbreaker from PROUDRACE and shorts from FEAR OF GOD.

Photo by JL JAVIER. On Ken: Button-down shirt and trousers from RAF SIMONS and boots from PROUDRACE.

“Hindi ko talaga inexpect na ganun siyang tatanggapin ng mga tao,” says Ken. “Kasi [in-expect ko ’yung] kabaliktaran po, na mas madaming mag-bash sa amin. Alam naman natin na dito sa Pinas, parang ayaw nila sa K-Pop na dating kasi it looks very feminine sa kanila. Nakasanayan natin na medyo Western ’yung dating [ng songs], heavy ‘yung beat, medyo bouncy.”

Call it perfect timing (a few “dance” groups had gone viral around the same time for being sub-par) or just sheer luck — this was finally going to be SB19’s big break, however unintentional it was.

But even then, the members were skeptical of what to make of their newfound fame. They had sleepless nights worrying about what could happen next, fully aware that going viral didn’t guarantee success. “Sa industry dito, hindi pwede maging complacent,” says Sejun firmly. “Kung gusto mo may marating ka, kailangang 'pag may nagawa ka, pagigihan mo pa more than ang ginawa mo before.”

That week, the group met with their company heads to discuss the next step for SB19. It was then that they mapped out new ventures, from becoming more active on social media through their vlogs and tweets, to a nationwide free concert tour. It was a strategy on the side of their company ShowBT to further grow the fandom, and if these past few months are any indication, so far they’ve been doing pretty well.

***

When the boys arrive for our shoot, they are four stops into their planned 10-concert series. It’s been a whirlwind few months since that viral video, and they haven’t really gotten much rest since then. Despite having to postpone their Zamboanga show due to fears over the COVID-19 outbreak, this week they have multiple schedules, including radio and TV guestings at major broadcast stations. They now live together to make it easier to move from place to place (“at para wala nang ma-late!” chimes Justin).

SB19’s fans, called A’TIN, have been consistently keeping them at the top spot of Twitter’s trending list, effectively making the group a mainstay on Billboard’s Social 50 chart. They recently peaked at number 11 — a feat that prompted even K-Pop columnist Jeff Benjamin to write about them for the site. To illustrate how big of a deal this is, the K-Pop group BTS’s meteoric rise in the US began from that same chart.

Sejun acknowledges that they wouldn’t be where they are now without their fans. “Sobrang lakas ng fandom namin — A'TIN. Hindi ko alam kung paano nila ginagawa, pero sobrang thankful kasi malayo ‘yung reach namin,” he says.

These days in the local scene, pop groups don’t typically make as big of a cultural impact as solo acts, bands, or even love teams. In an age where fandoms have the power to propel their favorites to superstardom with just a few taps, the A’TIN fandom moves quickly and strategically, with organized official accounts for news and updates, trends, and voting.

Short for Sound Break 19, the group was formed by ShowBT Philippines, an entertainment company run by Korean businessman and former comedian Robin Geong. The company has been in the business of bridging Korean and Filipino culture since 2015, having produced content like the Korean variety game show-inspired Aja Aja Tayo.

Photo by JL JAVIER. On Sejun: Varsity sweater from 2ND STREET OSAKA, knit top from MISSONI, and workwear pants from DICKIES.

Photo by JL JAVIER. On Stell: Vintage sweater vest from 2ND STREET OSAKA and trousers from CALVIN KLEIN.

On paper, the group operates just like your run-of-the-mill K-Pop group, with their trendy hair, styling, and perfectly in sync choreography mastered through hours of practice. Each member even has a title — Sejun is the leader, Stell is the heavenly voice, Josh is the most charismatic member, Ken is the sexiest main dancer, Justin is the pinakamabait na bunso.

To clear things up, their strengths at the moment are Sejun for vocal and rap, Justin for vocals, Stell and Ken for vocals and dance, and Josh for rap and dance. But as Justin notes, these labels only describe what their strengths are currently, and are likely to change over time. “Parang Super Saiyan 1 pa lang kami. Mage-evolve pa, mae-enhance pa ‘yung skills namin,” he says.

Despite all these similarities, SB19 is not trying to be a K-Pop group. After all, CEO Geong (or Tatang Robin, to A’TIN) wanted to create the country’s first ever boy group trained under a Korean company. Judging from the moves that they’ve made so far, the focus is more on employing K-Pop strategies to see if they could work in the Filipino market rather than trying to be a Korean group. At the end of the day, they aren’t planning to make it big in South Korea — the goal is to promote Filipino music and talent here in their home court.

As a collaboration and cultural hybrid, the members underwent an experimental training system that merged certain Korean elements with Filipino ones, where adjustments would be made to make it more convenient for the members to showcase their individual skills.

Employing the Korean training system in a Filipino setting was generally unheard of here, and technically a giant risk given all the cultural differences they’d have to consider. Even then, the cultural exchange is one of the most interesting aspects of the training, says Justin, as the boys and their Korean superiors get to teach each other how things work in their respective cultures.

One of the most useful lessons, they say, involves the concept of manners and discipline in Korea. “Meron kaming mga mandatory na, kailangang mag-‘Annyeonghaseyo’ kami sa kanila kapag nakikita namin sila,” says Josh. “Kailangan talagang ganun, bawal bastos.” The members didn’t think much of it at first, but they are thankful that they have earned a reputation for being very well-mannered and polite.

***

It was a last-minute decision for the group to make Go Up their comeback song. Though they received their latest single Alab first, they ultimately settled on the former because of how it accurately described their journey together. Much of it was a matter of meeting the right people and following their dream to be performers. “Parang networking lang,” jokes Stell. It took them around three years of training before they finally debuted as a group.

Out of all of them, Sejun trained the longest. He auditioned after meeting their Korean trainer, singer and musical actress Adie Hong (Teacher Hong, or Hongganda as fans refer to her) at a Korean musical that she acted in. Born John S. Nase, his stage name is just a play on his birth name, actually devised to make it easier for Teacher Hong to remember, but it eventually stuck.

Stell and Josh, meanwhile, were both part of the same cover dance crew prior to joining Show BT. It was through that crew that they were able to meet BTS at a dance competition held in South Korea. The experience, they say, was what spurred their passion for performing and encouraged them to audition when the opportunity arose.

Justin and Ken came a bit later, during and after a period where more than 80% of Show BT’s trainees decided to leave. At the time, the stakes were pretty high for most of them — many of whom were working students juggling part-time jobs with training, and uncertainty of the future was not something they were willing to gamble when it was their families’ well being on the line.

At one point, it was only Stell who remained. Sejun and Josh left for a brief moment, returning only after having second thoughts. “Naisip ko rin, si Stell nag-stay. Parang meron pa rin sa mind ko na, hindi ko kayang iwanan ‘yung passion ko,” says Josh of his decision. “Magiging empleyado na lang ba ako? Sasayangin ko ‘yung pinagdaanan namin? So bumalik ako.”

Sejun adds that their success is bittersweet, “‘Yung pagiging kilala ng grupo natin, masaya, pero medyo may sad part since naiiwan namin 'yung matagal naming kasama na ka-grupo namin dati.”

***

As far as strategy goes, SB19 is given a certain degree of autonomy when it comes to lyrics and choreography. The production process usually begins with them getting a track from their Korean producer. Sejun then starts on the lyrics by himself, asking for help from the members when there are blanks that need to be filled.

Once the lyrics are finished, Stell works on the choreography. Though admittedly not a choreographer, he is proud that every release from SB19 is truly a collaborative effort between its members, with both the choreography and lyrics being a mishmash of all their own ideas. “Nagca-clash minsan ng ideas, pero ‘yun po ‘yung maganda, na lahat may input and kapag pinagsama-sama namin, mas maganda ang kinalalabasan,” he remarks thoughtfully.

The group confesses that they’re still exploring different genres and seeking to evolve given how each member has their own personal preferences. “Maganda po niyan, every time magre-release ng kanta, gusto namin bagong flavor or masu-surprise ‘yung mga tao. Hindi ‘yung katunog ng before or parang ganitong kanta,” says Sejun.

Photo by JL JAVIER. On Sejun: Bomber coat from PROUD RACE, t-shirt from GOSHA RUBICHINSKIY, jeans from VETEMENTS, and boots from SAINT LAURENT. On Stell: Hat from UNIQLO, denim jacket from SM YOUTH, and trousers from CALVIN KLEIN. On Ken: Coat, sweater vest, and trousers from RAF SIMONS. On Josh: Button-down shirt from UNIQLO, varsity sweater from 2ND STREET OSAKA, trousers from PALACE, PEACE MINUS ONE NIKE AIR FORCE ONE shoes, and archival hat from YOHJI YAMAMOTO. On Justin: full suit from SAINT LAURENT.

***

CEO Geong arrives at the shoot before they begin, showing just how hands-on he is as a boss. The way he talks to each member makes it clear that he is the one who calls all the shots. From the creative process to events planning, the CEO is involved. As Ken explains, the whole concept of the “Alab” music video — from the idea to make the opening dialogue in Korean to the symbolism in each individual member’s setting and color — were all the CEO’s idea.

Last December, the group signed a recording contract with Sony Music Philippines as a way to expand their reach internationally as well. When asked, CEO Geong revealed that they plan to release SB19’s first full album this coming March, composed of seven songs, including “Love Goes.” A single release is also slated for May, with other single releases planned throughout the year.

2020 is looking to be an exciting year for SB19, and they know it. Individually, they’ve all got different dreams: Justin wants to try acting, Stell wants to try other fields of entertainment like hosting, Ken and Sejun want to try releasing their own music. But when asked about their goal for the group, they all answered the same thing: to promote local music and “P-Pop culture” internationally.

Sejun summarizes all their thoughts: “Gusto ko po kasi katulad sa Korea, maging sobrang progressive ang arts and culture dito sa Philippines kasi sa totoo lang po, sobrang daming Filipinos na talented talaga na hindi nabibigyan ng opportunities,” he says. “Feeling ko po kung mas tutuunan ng pansin ang arts and culture ng Philippines, which is sobrang rich talaga, feeling ko makakatulong sa economy kapag nakilala tayo ng buong mundo doon sa larangan na ’to.”

It’s a noble vision for sure, but one that isn’t too far off given the heights the group has reached in such a short amount of time. To add a little more flavor to the mix, Josh adds a something that gives us goosebumps: “Sana may mas sumunod sa amin at makasama pa namin, para pareho kaming umangat. Kung ano'ng sinimulan namin, mag-iwan ng history.”

***

Styling by RIK RASOS and MAVERICK LACSON for Proudrace Studios
Hair and makeup by ZIDJIAN PAUL
Creative direction by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA and DON JAUCIAN
Videos by SAMANTHA LEE
Produced by DON JAUCIAN
Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA