Photographed by Huang Jiaqi
Styled by Lily Chou
Jackson Wang isn’t used to staying still. But like everyone and everything else in the world, the events of this year have forced him to take a pause. Since joining the Korean pop group Got7 in 2014, the 26-year-old rapper and singer’s pace has only redoubled as his solo career climbed the charts, first in his native China, and now around the globe. “The quarantine was crazy in ways both good and bad,” Wang tells L'OFFICIEL, talking from Shanghai, which he returned to from Hong Kong in May of this year. “I’ve been [going] non-stop for five, six years, and this is the first time that I had no choice but to rest.” Mainland China requires a two-week stay-at-home period for all arrivals, even international superstars. “It really got me to think about and reflect on everything. You know, life.”
Wang spent those 14 days—when he “didn’t shave for two weeks!”—almost entirely rehearsing for an upcoming Chinese dance competition, one of many he takes on. In cramped confines, the young artist practiced his choreo—which often includes his much-admired backflip—before a single bed and tiny mirror that only reflected back half of his body. The performative isolation reinforced his long-standing philosophy: “You have to know yourself to make your own history.” He says, “You really have to do what you love. If you love something, go after it. Don’t hesitate or else you’re gonna regret it one day.”
After moving to Seoul in 2014 and learning Korean, he soon found fame with Got7, which by then had become a seven-boy supergroup, and who have since gone viral with their hip hop chart-toppers and over-the-top live performances that combine elements of martial arts with breakdancing. A few years later, Wang launched a parallel solo career as a Mandarin-language singer in mainland China before taking off internationally in English.
Wang’s successful meteoric solo rise globally has come as Korean pop music—spearheaded by BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, and their energetic fan base—has gained international traction unprecedented for East Asian music. Japan’s J-pop traces back over a century to an initial appropriation of Western jazz, and from the 1960s on it became the inspiration for other Asian nations and territories to create their own fusions of local music and popular western styles. From the 1970s until the early 2000s, Hong Kong’s Cantonese-language Cantopop movement dominated Asia, but enjoyed only niche appreciation globally. South Korea took over the spotlight in the 1990s, with a talent for memorable songs, often with versions sung in multiple languages, mixed with eye-catching videos and equally eye-catching singers. Following in the footsteps of artists like Exo, Wonder Girls, Big Bang, and Ikon, current hitmakers Got7 and girl group Blackpink have further expanded K-pop’s overseas appeal with Chinese, Thai, and New Zealander members performing alongside South Koreans.
Returning, from quarantine, Wang was quickly back to the bustle, managing his company, Team Wang, in Shanghai while his songs became global hits. After snagging his first number one on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart last November with his debut English-language solo album, Mirrors, this May his single “100 Ways” became the first by a Chinese solo artist to reach the Mediabase Top 40 radio chart. The track has since continued to set records on global charts. “I’m not trying to break in or invade or whatever that’s called,” says Wang, when asked about his place in the global music industry compared to that of Asia’s. “I’m a Chinese kid who loves music and is trying to do something different. I just want to share that with everybody. We’re living on earth. If there are aliens, I would love to share my stuff with them too, definitely.”
With meticulously produced videos often referencing Chinese history and his traditional culture, Wang is out to create cultural bridges at a time when so many of them are crumbling, especially between China and the United States. “At the end of the day, the East and West [are] very far apart from each other,” he says. “I feel that when Asian or Eastern people look at Western [society], they don’t know exactly what is going on. And it’s the opposite way in the West. So I’m just trying to share more right now about my culture through music and in my videos visually. But I also love learning about other cultures as much as I love sharing mine; I’m just trying to connect everything together.” Wang pauses, then adds, “I’m also trying to suggest that although we might seem far away from each other, we might be closer than we thought.”
This kind of introspection after such an extraordinary year has forced Wang’s creative history-making into a peculiar focus. Normally, he divides his life in half: spending six months of every year working alone and the other six with his K-pop group members. “It has been really tough on both sides,” he says. “When Team Wang rests, I go to Got7 to K-pop. When they rest, I’m back on my own.” In Mainland China, where local COVID-19 transmissions have nearly been eradicated thanks to strict lockdowns and quarantines, Wang has been able to resume some of his live shows; most recently performing at Hangzhou’s XX Dreamland for L’Oréal, Chengdu’s Play House for Fendi, and Shanghai’s Space Plus for Snow Beer.
Hoping to return to Seoul this fall, and the prospect of another fortnight in quarantine, Wang believes his launchpads—the Chinese and Korean pop industries—are more similar than they are different. Nor does he feel any split between his own dual identities. “Why would you want to differentiate?” he asks. “At the end of the day, there are no boundaries, you know? Chinese, American, Korean, we’re all humans, and I truly feel that. It doesn’t matter if an artist works in Korea or in China, whatever art the artist makes, he or she is still an artist. There’s no difference.”
HAIR Simon Zhao
GROOMING Chunjie Zhang
STYLIST ASSISTANTS Vanessa He, 77
PRODUCTION Rouge Studio
L'OFFICIEL Hommes USA Fall 2020 will hit newsstands starting November 15, 2020.