Photo Story: downtown’s K-pop subculture on display at Stray Kids concert

Lead vocalist, lead dancer, rapper, and producer for Stray Kids Chan performs beneath red lighting at Arizona Federal Theatre, formerly Comerica Theatre, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

Fans from across the Southwest lined up around the Arizona Federal Theatre on Sunday to see Korean pop band Stray Kids perform, highlighting the impact the genre has had on the Valley.

Korean pop, also known as K-pop, is a genre of popular music from South Korean artists.

K-pop first gained attention from American fans when South Korean singer Psy’s song “Gangnam Style” became popular in 2012. Since then, K-pop has seen a spike in international attention as more groups tour the US.

Stray Kids, a K-pop group that debuted in 2017 under the record label JYP Entertainment, is one of the first Korean music groups to visit Phoenix.

Fans wear bracelets handed out for free by other concert attendees, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

Phoenix was the group’s sixth stop on their “District 9: Unlock” tour, promoted by SubKulture Entertainment.

This show saw a lot of fan excitement as early as 10 a.m., when a crowd first began to queue for the 8 p.m. concert.

As the time until the concert ticked down, a mixture of K-pop songs played across Fourth Avenue. Fans like Davina Thomas gathered to participate in what is called “Random Play Dance,” where random K-pop songs are played for fans to jump in and dance to.

Thomas was joined by members of NXT, the K-pop dance cover group she is part of. Groups like hers are collections of fans that cover the choreography of K-pop groups.

NXT is just one of the many K-pop related groups that can be found across Arizona, such as AZSKORE, another dance group, and Kpop in the Desert, an event-planning group that hosts gatherings in Arizona to provide a way for K-pop lovers to interact with fellow fans.

Fans hold designed banners handed out before the concert for a fan event, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

For Thomas, the 12-member dance group started out with flyers, along with a love for the music and choreography of K-pop.

Thomas and her fellow NXT members often attend events in Phoenix and across Arizona meant specifically for K-pop fans. It was the expansion of these events that caused her to notice a surge in K-pop’s popularity in Arizona.

“At every event it gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said.

Eight hours after the first fans lined up at the venue, the doors opened and a sea of people began to flood into their seats.

It didn’t take long for the same energy from outside the stadium to fill the room with screams and excitement.

The LED screens began to separate, and as the beat dropped everyone was on their feet and lightsticks were waved in the air. Lightsticks are similar to flashlights in that each K-pop group has one with their own specific design that lights up for fans to wave during the concert.

Stray Kids perform at Arizona Federal Theatre, formerly Comerica Theatre, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

Between powerful hip-hop, slower contemporary, and a short addition of Haka dancing, the show covered most genres of dance. With videos to fill breaks, the theatre was never met with a moment of silence.

From pop songs like “Get Cool” to slower songs like a ballad remix of “I Am You,” fans kept a consistent energy through each new song.

Though many of the lyrics in each song were in Korean, fans had the words memorized and sang along to entire songs.

As the set slowed down for a break, the members of Stray Kids had a moment to address their fans. While discussing the previous stages that took place, they also took time to express what they wanted for Phoenix fans.

Main rapper, vocalist and producer of Stray Kids Changbin smiles at the crowd while performing at Arizona Federal Theatre, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

“For today we are going to be your happiness,” rapper, vocalist and producer Changbin said.

The concert continued with fast-paced dances and fast rhythms, along with slower-paced songs that allowed the members of Stray Kids to wander the stage and get closer to fans at the front of the stage.

As the group’s 2018 song “Grow Up” began to play, a sea of pink emerged as every fan in the theatre raised a banner that was designed by fellow concertgoers and distributed before the concert. These banners read “Stay together you and I, I’m by your side” in a mix of Korean and English.

Fans of Stray Kids, Stays, were named with the idea that the group wanted their fans to stay by their side.

The group that organized the banner project, Stays in AZ, explained that they chose to include lyrics from Stray Kids’ song “I Am You” to depict a message that the Arizona fans stand together with the group and are with them no matter what.

Esperanza Reyes helped plan, fundraise for and distribute the banners outside the theatre.

Reyes explained the group raised $700 solely through posting on social media about the project and printed 3,000 posters to show Arizona’s support for Stray Kids. She explained that becoming a fan and being a part of the community has impacted her life.

“I know I’m not in this alone,” she said.

Main rapper, lead vocalist and producer for Stray Kids Han looks into the crowd while performing at Arizona Federal Theatre, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

Following the fan project, Stray Kids’ members gave their parting words, many of which involved appreciation for their fans’ support.

“You guys are our happiness,” rapper and vocalist Han said.

The happiness he spoke about could be felt by concert attendee Michelle Quillin.

Quillin is a local teacher who uses K-pop as a way to teach her students to look at the world without prejudice. She explained that she began to play K-pop music for her students as a way to show them that you can enjoy other cultures and customs.

She said students were often reserved about the idea of listening to the music due to it being in Korean, but would over time become more open to it.

Fans record and wave lightsticks as Stray Kids perform at Arizona Federal Theatre, Feb. 9, 2020. (Hope O’Brien/DD)

It was after last year that K-pop truly made a difference in Quillin’s life.

She left the school year wondering whether she even wanted to continue to be a teacher, and cited listening to and loving K-pop music as the reason she was able to regain a positive outlook on life.

“I walked in with K-pop in my veins and all of a sudden my entire outlook was different,” she said.

Contact the reporter at [email protected].