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[Herald Interview] Big Ocean out to make big splash in K-pop scene

Deaf trio refuses to be defined by disability

By Lee Jung-youn

Published : June 6, 2024 - 15:57

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From left: Big Ocean members Hyunjin, Jiseok and Chanyeon pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) From left: Big Ocean members Hyunjin, Jiseok and Chanyeon pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

At first glance, K-pop trio Big Ocean might seem like just another new idol group. But, the trio is anything but ordinary. It has broken through a barrier in the K-pop industry with its debut alone.

All three bandmates in Big Ocean — Chanyeon, Hyunjin, and Jiseok — are deaf, and their debut date, April 20, coincides with the Day of Persons with Disabilities in Korea.

Wearing hearing aids and cochlear implants, they introduced themselves as Big Ocean in sign language as they sat down down for an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday.

“We are named Big Ocean because we wish to spread positive energy and hope, just like the peaceful and comfortable feelings that the ocean gives to people,” Hyunjin said in English, adding that he has been practicing the language to communicate with a broader audience.

Hyunjin, 24, lost his hearing due to a high fever as a child and later underwent cochlear implant surgery at the age of 9. “After the surgery, I had a hard time adapting to the artificial sound that comes from the implanted device,” he said, "but playing the piano comforted me."

He became a YouTuber in college, creating content to challenge prejudices against the disabled. He then embarked on the life of an idol trainee after discovering Parastar Entertainment, an agency that supports people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. The trio was formed at the agency.

Jiseok, 21, a former skier, was inspired by BTS's RM to become an idol. “RM made a donation to Seoul Samsung School, a special school for the deaf and hard of hearing, which was used to open dance classes. That's where I learned to dance for the first time. That’s when I first dreamed of becoming a K-pop singer.”

Chanyeon, 26, initially juggled his job as an audiologist at Korea University Hospital and trainee life. “As I began to feel my progress in dancing and rapping, I decided to focus on the path of a singer and show my improvement to the public,” he said.

From left: Big Ocean members Jiseok, Hyunjin, and Chanyeon pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) From left: Big Ocean members Jiseok, Hyunjin, and Chanyeon pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

During roughly 18 months of trainee life, the three underwent intense training. Dance and singing rehearsal is a more complex process due to their different levels of hearing.

“As we cannot get information through sound, devices that show beats through visual and tactile cues helped us. Large displays would show numbers to indicate beats and wristwatchlike metronomes would vibrate to keep us in rhythm,” Chanyeon explained.

Matching the pitch of their voices was also a challenge since they could not fully hear themselves. “We tried singing in the closest possible notes and any shortcomings were adjusted using AI,” Hyunjin said.

Sign language – which is also used as part of their dance performance – was another difficulty. Unlike Jiseok, who had used sign language since childhood as he was born deaf, Hyunjin only started learning it in college, while Chanyeon began as a trainee.

Jiseok explained that rather than simply translating the lyrics, they focus on delivering the overall meaning of the song through sign language.

"We think of the sign language that matches the words we want to use and check details with experts. We are still studying international, American and Korean sign language, and keep refining our approach," he said.

The trio began daily TikTok live broadcasts in their trainee days, which have played a big role in spreading their names and sharing their dream with others.

“Before our debut, we had fewer than 10 viewers per broadcast. But the numbers started to grow, especially notably after we released our debut song,” Hyunjin said. About 203,000 viewers logged on to watch their live TikTok broadcast on June 1 marking the release of the group's latest song "Blow."

The bandmates said they would like to create more fun content -- sharing their daily activities, such as cooking shows, mukbang and cafe visits, for example.

From left: Big Ocean members Chanyeon, Jiseok and Hyunjin pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) From left: Big Ocean members Chanyeon, Jiseok and Hyunjin pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

As with any other newbie K-pop singers, the group's first live broadcast performance on MBC's music show on April 20 was an unforgettable experience.

Chanyeon recalled the moment when his cochlear implant fell off during the live performance for the music show "Simply K-pop." “My left cochlear implant device often falls off, and I’m used to it. It seems like people who were watching were even more scared than I was,” Chanyeon said with a laugh.

“When the device falls off, we can’t hear, which can cause confusion and accidents on stage, so we need to be extra careful. This makes it even more crucial to thoroughly practice the choreography and movements,” Hyunjin added.

Besides such hair-raising moments, there were also touching scenes. Hyunjin mentioned the moment when the audience waved their phone lights in rhythm instead of cheering out loud. It was heartwarming, he said.

Although the group debuted with the title of the world’s first deaf idol group, the three emphasize that they do not want their disability to define Big Ocean.

“We are an ordinary K-pop group, having a hearing disability is merely one aspect," said Hyunjin.

“Rather than focusing on our disability, we hope people see us as a regular idol group. It will be great if people come to realize that we are hard of hearing as they watch our activities, and support us for our hard work," he continued.

The trio would also like to take on diverse challenges as singers.

Chanyeon dreams of contributing to the songwriting after improving his vocabulary and grammar and delving into entirely different concepts than those of previous songs.

“Having released the cheerful ‘Glow’ and powerful ‘Blow,’ I’d also love to try a dark, sexy concept too,” he added with a shy smile.

Hyunjin wishes to create unique music that reflects his auditory world, coming from his experience of hearing both naturally and via artificial sounds. Instrumental music is another goal. “I love playing the piano, so I’d like to perform with each member playing an instrument, conveying emotions through music and melody without lyrics,” he said.

The group’s most important goal, however, is to deliver a live performance, singing live without technical aid or lip-syncing.

“We want to show a fantastic live performance for our fans who always support and cheer for us,” Jiseok said.

"We’ll keep practicing and work hard to make that happen."

From left: Big Ocean members Jiseok, Hyunjin and Chanyeon pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) From left: Big Ocean members Jiseok, Hyunjin and Chanyeon pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)