Big Ocean, first K-pop act with hearing impairments, makes 'music for everyone'

Members of boy band, the first K-pop group with hearing impairments, is set to debut on April 20 with ″Hope.″ [PARASTAR ENTERTAINMENT]

Every debut of a new K-pop group marks the fruition of thousands of hours of practice and hard work coming to life, but the words challenge and triumph resonate on a much deeper level for Big Ocean, Korea’s first trio comprised of young men with hearing impairments, set to debut on Saturday.

This Saturday, April 20, is Korea’s Day of People with Disabilities, and Big Ocean will debut as the first K-pop idol — as the profession is referred to in Korea — with hearing impairments.

Big Ocean's members are Kim Ji-seok, Park Hyun-jin and Lee Chan-yeon. Kim was born with a hearing impairment, while Park lost part of his hearing at age 3 and Lee at age 11. Lee had cochlear implant surgery on both ears, Park has an implant in only one ear and wears a hearing aid in the other, and Kim only wears hearing aids.

The group will debut with a remake of first-generation boy band H.O.T.'s hit track "Hope" (1998) sung by the three members with a twist in the choreography to also incorporate Korean, American and international sign language.

When the Korea JoongAng Daily visited Parastar Entertainment’s headquarters in southern Seoul on Monday, the members were busy practicing in the studio, just five days ahead of their grand debut.

A large screen with a visual metronome kept the members in sync with the music, and their wristwatches also vibrated on each beat. At one moment during the practice, Park told Kim to regroup to redo the last part, but Kim didn’t quite catch what he said. Instead of repeating himself the same way, Park signed at Kim to come over, which Kim immediately understood and followed.

“We usually talk to each other, but we end up using sign language if sometimes we don’t get each other,” Park said.

Members of soon-to-debut boy band Big Ocean practice the choreography for their upcoming single ″Hope″ on April 15 at a studio in southern Seoul. [PARASTAR ENTERTAINMENT]

“We try to talk to each other so that other people can participate in our communication,” Kim said. “But our hands get busier and faster when we feel rushed. Sometimes, we just communicate with our eyes and read each other’s lips.”

All three members spoke in clean, distinct voices during the interview after practice, their disabilities virtually undetectable except for when a reporter didn’t clearly enunciate their question or turned in a way where their mouth couldn’t be seen.

Debuting is no easy task for any K-pop trainee, but the challenge is amplified for the three young men, for whom every little task demands that much extra effort: memorizing when to start and stop singing since they can’t fully hear the sounds; checking the monitor and their watches for the beat; communicating with each other through the noise and much more.

“Honestly, I still can’t believe that I’m debuting,” Park said. “I’m so worried, but at the same time so excited about who will be there to see us perform. I’m also curious about whether I will be able to keep up with the cameras moving around on the stage while I perform.”

The following are excerpts of the interview between Big Ocean and the Korea JoongAng Daily, edited for length and clarity, where the members talked about their debut, endeavors and goals.

K-pop trio Big Ocean set to debut next month [PARASTAR ENTERTAINMENT]

Q. What do you want to get across with your first single? Is there something that you especially wanted to emphasize in your debut song?

A. Park: It will be different for the other two members, but when I think of hope, I think about happiness, positivity and brightness. It’s all about positivity. There’s light and darkness in this world, but I want to spread the goodness of everything you can think of in the light. There are parts of the song that emphasize this.

Kim: In a way, our very being as Big Ocean is positivity, right? H.O.T.’s “Hope” is all about stopping the hate and joining together for the future, so we think that we are the perfect people to spread that spirit — both visually and sound-wise. We really believe we can pull this off well.

How long did you have you train to become idols?

Park: We trained for about a year and a half. One of the hardest things was not eating — having to stick to a very strict diet. But the most difficult of all was trying to get our song and choreography in sync with each other, while we were on an empty stomach.

What frustrated me the most was that I knew what I had to do; I knew how I should move my arms and my legs, but they just wouldn’t move the way I wanted them to. The fact that I didn’t have full command over my body really stressed me out.

Kim: We all have different hearing abilities, which means that our reflexes and reactions toward the same sound are also different. This made it harder for us to get our dance in sync, but we knew that we couldn’t — and shouldn’t — use our impairments as an excuse. We asked everyone at the agency for every little detail and just practiced and practiced until we shoved all the moves into every cell of our body.

Members of Big Ocean, set to debut on April 20 [PARASTAR ENTERTAINMENT]

Is there anything that feels particularly difficult while you perform?

Kim: Singing is really difficult — because you can see how you dance, but singing? It’s entirely up to your hearing and your vocal muscles. There are times when we try to match our pitch but we all hear ourselves differently. Plus, the hearing aids don’t work properly when my own voice is louder than the sound from the outside because the vibrations from my voice affect how it works. So when it’s time for us to sing loudly, it’s really difficult to know when exactly to stop, because we can’t hear the outside music.

Park: It’s really difficult for us to “feel” the beat of the music, especially while we’re singing. Dancing’s the easier part, but the vocals really needed the extra practice.

Why did you choose to become K-pop idols?

Lee: I actually had no interest in K-pop. I used to work as an audiologist at Korea University Anam Hospital, but Troy Kotsur, an actor with hearing impairments, became our ambassador and I was invited to talk with him along with Korean hearing-impaired actor Kim Il-woo. They told me about the Big Ocean project, and that’s how I came to begin everything. I developed my affection for the genre through all the lessons.

Park: I was a YouTuber during my university years. I usually made content about the misunderstandings surrounding people with hearing impairments, and I was cast in an EBS TV show, where I met model Kim Jong-wook. He introduced me to his agency, which was Parastar Entertainment, and I was introduced to the “K-pop idol with hearing impairments” idea. I immediately said yes because it was something that I really wanted to pursue, and I craved the challenge.

Kim: I used to be an Alpine skier, but I became more interested in acting and arts. I practiced for a year and a half, but it turned out that competing with ordinary people was tougher than I had anticipated. It was difficult for me to communicate with the judges at auditions, which meant that I couldn’t fully show off what I had prepared. But I didn’t give up on my dream of working in the arts for the disabled, and I was cast by Parastar Entertainment’s CEO [Haley Cha] and started my new chapter here.

Members of Big Ocean, set to debut on April 20 [PARASTAR ENTERTAINMENT]

Were your parents supportive of your decision?

Lee: Absolutely not. They asked me why I would leave a perfectly fine job and go down a difficult path. They were against me doing this for so long, but they eventually gave in because I was so adamant.

Park: I actually majored in computer engineering and was on my way to becoming a cyber-security engineer, so they tried to talk me out of running toward an unstable future instead of a much more stable one. But I proved myself to them one by one — with the number of followers on my YouTube channel, by appearing on TV shows and now doing this.

Kim: I just didn’t tell them at first (laughs). I was working a part-time job at a cafe while doubling as a trainee. One day I asked them, “Will you be on my side no matter what?” And they told me that they believe that I will do well regardless of what. So I told them I wanted to become an idol, and they were completely on board.

Are you not worried about the reactions you might see from some people after your debut?

Lee: Honestly, I’ve heard every mockery there is out there ever since I was young. So no, it would take a very creative insult to hurt me. It might sound sad, but really, I just don’t care about what others say to me.

Park: I’m not worried about the hateful messages. But what I am concerned about is the possibility that we might unintentionally hurt or offend someone, especially people with hearing disabilities. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words really won’t. It’s not me that I’m worried about, but other people who may get hurt.

Members of Big Ocean, set to debut on April 20 [PARASTAR ENTERTAINMENT]

What are your goals as Big Ocean? What would you like to hear from the audience or fans?

Lee: Rather than getting complimented from the very beginning, I hope that people stay tuned with our activities and say, “I can see that you’re getting better and better with each new event.” I want people to think that we’re a team that gets better with time.

Big Ocean is the world’s first idol group with disabilities, right? That title does give us a sense of pressure, but we’re opening up a new scope, so I know that it has to mean something and seem refreshing in some way. Some people might find our concept difficult to grasp, but I hope that we can amaze them with our performance.

Kim: We’ve already seen people commenting on our YouTube content, saying that we give them energy and make them happy, that we give them the positive vibes they need in their lives. I hope to keep seeing people who are encouraged by us and what we do. And I hope people watch us as we push our limit to the maximum.

Park: I know this is difficult, if not impossible — but I hope that someday, we won’t even need the idea of “barrier-free.” I hope that the idea of being disabled just becomes a trait that someone has of their bodies. The fact that we still have to label someone as disabled and treat them differently feels like the very restraint that disables someone. I think Korea has been relatively slow in such efforts, but I hope that we’re on our way to such a society.