“Is that… a treadmill?”
Jackson Wang leans forward, squinting at his laptop screen. The treadmill in question is crammed into my too-small living room, a fossil from the first UK lockdown, bought to cure the early Covid-19 anxiety that had driven me to the sofa, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and family-size bags of Doritos. Wang sighs. “I wish I had a treadmill in here.”
“Here” is a Beijing hotel room where the 27-year old Hong Kong native, in a black t-shirt with his hair fluffy and unbrushed, sits stuck in the time-space limbo of travel quarantine. For a multi-hyphenate of relentless energy, this enforced downtime is particularly frustrating. He’s a singer, songwriter, rapper, video director, fashion designer, and entrepreneur – a workaholic whose friends, he laughs, often have no idea where he is in the world. It’s ticking towards midnight his time, but he’s just fine doing back-to-back promo for his new single, the Eighties synthpop of 'LMLY'. “It stands for ‘Leave Me Loving You',” he says. “It’s a love story.”
Wang is, depending on your perspective, either a perfectionist or a control freak, overseeing every aspect of his work, from songwriting to video direction to social media campaigns. He talks me through seemingly every shot of the new single's promo, from the Steadicams to the storyline. “I’m wearing the same outfit as in 'Pretty Please' [last year’s melodic, piano-house collaboration with Galantis], and it’s again in the Eighties/Nineties Hong Kong movie category. I work in a Chinese restaurant, I see this girl and it’s love at first sight. There are sweet moments of us spending time together, but they’re in my imagination. You can tell that I’m weak and I didn’t dare to make the approach [in the first place].” Would he miss such an opportunity in real life? Wang, the man who once claimed he improved his Korean through dating, is caught off-guard. “I don’t know. I haven’t met…” he flounders. “I don’t know, honestly! I don’t even have much time to meet my friends.”
That might be because he spends to much time with his fans. He's spent much of his quarantine downtime on Instagram Live, where he connects with his 22 million followers. Here you can see the breadth and adoration his fanbase; comments scroll past in English, Korean, French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic. This never feels like work to him. “I give everything to my fans,” he says, adamantly. “Everything.”
Granted, there are few musicians who'd claim anything else, but Wang's success, like that of many within the fiercely competitive K-Pop sphere, came hard, and he seems endlessly grateful for the audience on whom it rests. For the past ten years he’s lived in Seoul, seven of them as a rapper/vocalist in K-Pop idol group GOT7. In January, after three world tours, four Korean studio albums and eleven Korean EPs (many of which they co-wrote), GOT7 called it a day. They weren’t, they promised, disbanding but the time had come for a renewed focus on their individual careers.
GOT7 would eventually sell millions of albums but, as a rookie idol, Jackson spent time guesting on South Korea’s variety shows, trying to help his group make a dent in the audience’s consciousness. He proved eminently watchable, in possession of an easygoing charm, magnetic handsomeness, and natural comic timing, oscillating from the mischievous instigator to the long-suffering foil. He could have made being a TV gagman his permanent side hustle, but Jackson wasn’t keen on becoming merely the funny guy, the meme guy. He wanted to be known for music. And eventually he wanted to do his own thing his own way, beyond the confines of a K-Pop agency.
He set up Team Wang in 2017, splitting his time evenly between the band and his solo endeavours. The jokester, as he was seen by many, proved to be an adroit businessman. He’s since released an album, 15 singles, and featured or collaborated on twice as many. He’s partnered with Fendi and Ray-Ban for capsule collections, and has been the face of Armani Beauty, Cartier, and L’Oreal Men Expert. Team Wang has grown to around 60 employees, and houses Team Wang Records (a full service label including production, marketing, distribution, A&R) and a fashion and lifestyle arm, Team Wang Design.
Jackson’s current priority list is succinct: his fans, Team Wang, and his family. “I’ve been separated from my parents for the past ten years,” he says. “Growing up, I felt like my parents were warriors. I think about a lot of stuff they didn’t have to do, like putting me in school [he attended an international school after his local school suggested his rambunctiousness was down to learning difficulties]. Everything that they did for me, as a kid I thought, 'You’re my parents, you have to do that'. But they had their own dreams. It’s my time to protect, love and give them a good life.”
His new goal is building out on all he’s developed. “Your ego never stops. If you have something, you want more,” he says. “Honestly, I got to a point where I started to think, ‘You can’t have everything’.” His life and company philosophy is “Know Yourself, Make Your Own History”. Like any founder, he frequently mentions strategy and product – even referring to his own music as “putting product to market” – and his conversation is peppered with “thankful” and “blessed”. With Team Wang’s continuing expansion, there’s far more riding on his success these days but he's emotionally and mentally prepared for the ups and downs of that challenge.
Some of that readiness is channelled into his music. On 'Alone', Wang's first release of 2021, he sang, “I can accept pain, I can accept failure, I can just let it go”, which he chalks up to his early life as a Youth Olympic fencer. “A lot of it comes from the mentality growing up as an athlete and having a family of athletes. The more you fail, the more you know why you failed, and that makes you stronger,” he says. “Instant success is good but it’s dangerous. You won’t have the ability to maintain it because you’re not stable. You learn a lot from failing and exploring and building your knowledge. Failure takes you to success.”
Although he won’t pinpoint a particular moment he’s felt he crashed and burned, Jackson admits he’s always hard on himself: “I’m thankful for what I have in the moment but I’m nowhere near being satisfied.” The extent to which he pushes to achieve his own standards, and the toll it takes, has been made viscerally clear. He collapsed during a Japanese fan meet in 2017, was hospitalised for overwork in 2018, and broke down at a Chinese fan meet the same year, telling the crowd he was exhausted by anti-fans, of being denigrated for trying to create his own path.
“A lot of different obstacles will stop you from achieving,” he says. “It could be a situation, it can be a human, scandals, gossip, people pointing fingers at you trying to mess around with your mentality. If you don't have a strong mindset, they’re the obstacles that will screw you up. Don’t take it in a bad way. I did and I was really hurt but because of that. I learned not to. You can’t be loved by everybody." He shrugs.
As he gets older, he’s reflecting more on life, paying attention to what’s around him in the moment, and listening more. “Sometimes you learn from the negative stuff, they educate you,” he says, "they" being the global community of K-Pop fans. Gossip, at least, no longer worries him. “It's better than nothing, you know what I mean?” he grins. “You’re giving me attention. Thank you.”
Mostly, he doesn’t have the time to spare for the erroneous chatter. “I’m focusing on my stuff, so whatever you guys throw, go ahead." Recent projects include a third Team Wang Design collection – a now-sold out collaboration with Claude Monet's estate, featuring the artist’s iconic ‘Impression Sunrise’ juxtaposed with Team Wang’s signature black. The reason for an absence of colour in all of Wang’s design is simple. “I like darkness. Because when I close my eyes, I see endlessness," he says. "Black gives me unlimited space and boundaries. You can fly. You can walk, sprint. I don’t want to be trapped in 'you have to do this' or 'this is the way to do it to be successful, this is how they do it'.”
His approach to music and fashion comes from the same place – produce only what he likes and what he wants to “see in this market and society”. That remit now includes other artists. Although busy with the follow-up to 2019’s Mirrors, which he says is "definitely" coming this year, there’s also a weighty parallel preoccupation. “Right now I’m the only one in our artist management department. I’m trying to build this kingdom so I can sign new talents. I need to create a strong, fair environment for new artists to go into. I can’t be irresponsible and just sign them,” he says. Jackson’s intention is to sign those, Chinese or otherwise, whom he thinks are “awesome” and who share “in the same philosophy as Team Wang. This is in progress, it’ll be very soon,” he promises.
It’s all part of an overarching manifesto, one he speaks of frequently, whereby there’s a constant exchange of culture between East and West. “I want to connect more with the West,” he says, “I want to share more of our culture as much I want to learn.” In March 2020, Jackson was the first Chinese solo artist to feature on the US Mediabase Top 40 Radio Chart with '100 Ways'. Mirrors went to #32 on the Billboard Hot 200. After years of bubbling under the radar, K-Pop has exploded into western mainstream pop culture. Idol groups have the most socially engaged fandoms in the world and, when touring, consistently sell out anything from theatre halls to major arenas or, in the case of BTS, stadiums.
In spite of this, xenophobia and racism directed at Asian pop stars by westerners runs rampant, not just via the general public but from how they’re spoken about in magazines and on radio. It’s also often gone unchecked outside of fandoms. A day after this interview, eight people, including six Asian-American women, were murdered by a white domestic terrorist in Atlanta. In the UK, hate crimes against East and South East Asians have risen dramatically over the past year. Jackson took to his Instagram, writing, “Hatred and racism of any kind is not acceptable. As I always say, I truly believe no one is born hating. Those who have hated must have learned to hate. And if anyone can learn to hate then they can learn to love. The world needs love now more than ever. Please use your voice and I will do my best to use mine. Let's uplift each other and make a change together".
In this increasingly volatile climate, Jackson holds ambitions for global solo success, but his determination is uncompromising. He sees the sharing of cultures as progressively intrinsic to art and music. “My method is keep trying until I can’t perform or do music any more. I know it’s hard but hey, what’s easy? The only person that can decide whether you can or cannot is yourself. They’ll be doing a lot of shit to me but if I agree then I’m done, because I agreed,” he says, his voice becoming scratchy. “One day they’ll know you kept trying. I want to create a history that belongs to Team Wang, to us.” This is his chance to step off the treadmill and forge his own path.
Jackson Wang’s new single ‘LMLY’ is out now
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