While it is a special time for everyone, Christmas Eve is particularly poignant for j-hope. When he travelled from Gwangju to Seoul on 24 December 2010, to become a K-pop trainee, the worst cold spell in 30 years had just hit the country. What dreams was he having as he slept in the dark dormitory, a 16-year-old boy in a new environment? After a long, cold winter, the era of BTS began to unfold.
“I closed my eyes for just a moment, and here we are, BTS,” j-hope says with a sheepish grin, having just changed into a glamorous outfit. He is taking part in a photo shoot for the cover of Vogue. Excitement still hangs in the air from the recent online concert BTS Permission to Dance on Stage, held at Seoul Olympic Stadium, Korea. j-hope is on top of the world. In the midst of a dazzling, seemingly endless summer of success, he sings of hope. Aptly, Hope World happens to be the title of his first solo mixtape, released back in 2018.
“It was my debut mixtape, and I thought of it as a business card of some sort,” j-hope shares. “I wanted to show the kind of vibe I liked and my musical direction.” He became the first Korean solo artist to chart on the Billboard 200 (Billboard’s main album chart) for two weeks in a row. Meanwhile, in 2019, his song ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, gaining further global popularity. The music video for the track, featuring Becky G, has garnered over 316 million views. As well, he was one of the songwriters/composers of ‘My Universe’, a collaboration between BTS and Coldplay. And he holds the joint distinction, along with RM and SUGA, of being the first Korean musician with songwriting credits for three songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. BTS, the first Asian group to be named Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards, performed with Coldplay at the 2021 awards show. This would have been unimaginable a few years ago. BTS is moving forward at a phenomenal pace.
In April 2017, j-hope and RM went to see Coldplay perform at Seoul Olympic Stadium. “As a fan, I wanted to see them play, but I also wanted to study how they put on a stadium concert,” j-hope says. “Coldplay are famous for their stadium world tours, and we dreamt of those tours, too.” About a year later, their dream came true. The Love Yourself tour, which began at Seoul Olympic Stadium in August 2018 and included a stop at Tokyo Dome, drew 1.04 million concertgoers from 20 cities in Asia, Europe, North America and South America. The following tour, Love Yourself: Speak Yourself (in 2019), included a performance at Wembley Stadium, in London, the UK. j-hope, who was up first on the solo stage at the time, delivered a perfect performance of ‘Trivia 起: Just Dance’. The lyrics of ‘MIC Drop’—“The core of world business, first on the casting list, sold out”—are not just an idle boast, but the reality for BTS. Despite numerous challenges, BTS have rewritten the history of K-pop, and everyone wants a piece of them.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin expressed his excitement about collaborating with BTS by saying: “It’s like a dream coming true.” The singer of the famed British rock band also said j-hope’s ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ was his favourite song. In the music video for the song, j-hope performs with dancers from over 50 countries while wearing a necklace with his childhood photo on it and wearing rings sporting Korea’s national flag on both hands.
A top underground dancer, j-hope began dreaming of becoming a singer in sixth grade and became famous for his dancing on Geumnam-ro and Chungjang-ro streets, in Gwangju. Though a lot has happened, his passion for dancing remains intact. j-hope’s facial expression in a dance studio, when practising intensely on his own, is entirely different from when he is on stage.
“When I enter that space,” he says, speaking of a dance studio, “many memories, past emotions and a sense of responsibility bubble up. And I’m also reminded of who I used to be.” First thing after arriving at a dance studio, he visits the restroom. “I empty my bowels before relaxing my muscles,” he admits with a laugh. “Then I listen to the music I’ll be dancing to that day, absorb the vibe and rhythm in my body. That’s how I focus. To be honest, I can’t practice for as long as I used to. In those days, I was crazy about dancing. Now, I just do enough for it to stay enjoyable! If I feel I need to practice some more, I’ll keep going. So the amount of time I rehearse varies.”
During spare moments during BTS’s world travels, j-hope works on songwriting. He is the type of person who gets his inspiration from daily life rather than his imagination. His candid, sincere songs bring fans joy and comfort. Now that he has achieved all his aims and dreams, what more does he want? “As I always say, I learn a lot working on albums,” he admits. “I think I came to like myself a little more and was able to grow as a person while working on the Love Yourself album. These days, I muse about what happiness means. Sometimes, I receive less comfort from human beings than from animals like dogs—small creatures that I can’t even talk to. Small interactions like that give me lots of happiness.”
“I think I came to like myself a little more and was able to grow as a person while working on the Love Yourself album”
He says that when there is a pause in his schedule, he spends most of his time at home. For someone who is one of the busiest people in the world, these are precious chances to rest. “Actually, I don’t do anything special when I’m alone at home,” he says. “When I take a break, I tend to veg out and watch TV because I do too much when I’m working. I have a regular routine, but now and then I sleep till noon.” Of course, music is always on his mind; creating music has become such a large part of his life that he even works on music while taking a break. “That’s the only thing I can do.” It is the sort of answer you would expect from a workaholic.
He knows that fans are waiting for his next mixtape, and he wants to make it worth the wait. Having a dedicated work ethic, he is strict about the deadlines he sets for himself. But more important are the results. j-hope says he has been in a bit of a slump. “I got into music through dancing, and I still need help when it comes to music. Not long ago, after meeting various producers to share my music and get some feedback, I faced a dilemma. I realised that the musical direction I’d chosen was tough, and I lost confidence. I’m anxious to move beyond this difficulty, but it’s been slow going, and this makes me feel ashamed. I couldn’t help but ask, ‘Is this my limit?’ But I’m in the process of gradually overcoming this challenge.” j-hope adds, fairly matter-of-factly, that he ended up scrapping the entire batch of songs and started over again. The way he overcomes a slump is to continue ploughing forward! Obstacles don’t stop him. Nor do they faze BTS, either.
The first in-person BTS concert in two years is coming up soon, and j-hope concedes: “I’m nervous and excited.” Tickets are sold out for all four performances of BTS Permission to Dance On Stage – LA, a milestone for SoFi Stadium, near Los Angeles. BTS were also part of the Jingle Ball Tour, the largest year-end music festival in the US. The boy who left his hometown to become a singer 11 years ago is expecting to spend Christmas Eve as a nominee for the Grammy Awards, the world’s top music awards ceremony. “I don’t have many memories of Christmas since starting as a trainee,” j-hope says. “I always had something to prepare for or rehearse. And after our debut, I was busy with year-end TV appearances and performances. I have a small wish—to celebrate Christmas this year with my family privately and quietly. It’s becoming harder and harder to have these private moments of happiness.”
j-hope once said on an entertainment programme that if he were to write a memoir, he would start it with “those who guided me”. These include his family members, namely his mother. “After all,” he reflects, “those who loved me were the ones who guided me to where I am today: my six groupmates, my family, our staff and the precious fans. It would’ve been impossible on my own. After taking on this role, I became more aware of what those around me were thinking and feeling. I tend to be heavily influenced by the people around me, and their warmth and sincerity have guided me to where I am today. I’m lucky to have these good people around me.” j-hope attributes his and BTS’s good fortune and success to the positive influence of those around him rather than to his own efforts. He believes that it is his turn now to give back the tremendous love and support he has received to as many people as possible. This could almost be described as a calling.
“I tend to be heavily influenced by the people around me, and their warmth and sincerity have guided me to where I am today”
“When I go on stage and face my fans, I’m so glad to have become part of BTS. It makes me realise that I am where I am now because of those people who watch me dance, sing and give me love,” he says earnestly. “That’s the moment when I can truly enjoy being myself, j-hope and Hoseok Jung.” When j-hope looks back on this time many years from now, I am sure he will still be saying the same thing. I ask him what he wants the last sentence of his memoir to be. “‘The people I guided’,” he says. “It may sound clichéd, but it’s true that I have guided many precious people.” The time allotted for our interview has run out, but j-hope’s story will continue. j-hope’s bright, towering world of hope, which will be created with the people he loves—it is all a sweet reverie that I don’t want to awake from.
All clothing and accessories are by Louis Vuitton.
Editor Eunji Shin
Photography Jiyong Yoon
Styling Hajung Lee
Hair Haein Jang
Make-up Sino Choi
For the full cover story, pre-order your copy of the January/February ‘Grace’ issue of Vogue Singapore online now or pick it up on newsstands from 3 January 2022.