In 2012, Korean-American vocalist Marshall Bang appeared on an American Idol-style reality competition, Star Audition: The Next Big Thing 3. Now performing under the moniker MRSHLL, he’s poised to become South Korea’s first gay pop star.
Born and raised in Orange County, California, MRSHLL officially came out in 2015, when a friend at Time Out Seoul was writing a profile of him and asked if she could mention his being openly gay. Despite being out to his family and close friends since college, he had his concerns.
“I was worried that I might be typecast as the resident gay artist,” he told Forbes. “But at the end, I was like, ’I’m gonna do me, beau.'”
MRSHLL’s family is deeply religious: His first-generation Korean-American mother is a minister and his father is a deacon at a Korean megachurch.
“I’m gay, gay, gay, gay, gay,” MRSHLL recalls telling his family. “Can we please move on now and learn what that means?” He praises his mother—”an incredible, strong woman”—but says she and his father had no understanding of what being gay meant.
“They come from a community that doesn’t talk or want to know about this topic. But I get where they are coming from, and I’m going to continue to have conversations and try to get through.”
Coming out can be hard for any pop performer, even in the relatively accepting United States. The South Korean market is more uptight, a reflection of the conservative society. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Korea, but there are still strong cultural taboos. President Moon Jae-in has said he doesn’t approve of homosexuality and refused to endorse an inclusive anti-discrimination bill that prohibits hate speech against LGBT people.
“When I was growing up, I was having a bit of an identity crisis—I tried to expunge my heritage to assimilate. As Asian-Americans, we are always seen as ‘other,'” he told Forbes. “But after growing out of that phase, Korea is where, for the first time, I honestly felt like I belonged.”
MRSHLL had stopped singing after a bout with laryngopharyngeal reflux, and went to cosmetology school, which he credits with meeting “fabulous, fabulous people who were unabashedly proud of their identity and who they were.” Then a Korean producer got in touch, asking him to appear on Star Audition: The Next Big Thing 3, and he said he “took it as a sign.”
A recent appearance on another reality show, Show Me The Money 6, had him donning a pair of heels while singing alongside Korean hip-hop stars Drunken Tiger and Bizzy, who have signed him to their label, Feel Ghood Music.
“A lot of my musical influences are black musicians, and I feel like a lot of the music that’s popular today has been paved for us by African-American or black musicians,” he told NBC. “I’m forever grateful to be able to do this music. I will forever pay homage to them for paving the way for a little gay Korean kid to be able to do R&B music.”
MRSHLL is getting ready to drop his first record with Feel Ghood, an eponymous EP featuring a cameo from RuPaul’s Drag Race star Kim Chi. He credits Bizzy and Drunken Tiger with not being afraid to sign an out performer.
“Even now, as I am getting ready to debut in South Korea as an artist I don’t know to what role or image I should put out there,” he writes in a piece for VeryGoodLight. “Since image is everything in entertainment, my record label is strategizing. Do I play the nice, the everyday friendly, relatable gay man a la Sam Smith? Or do I play the moody, keep-to-myself, uber artistic gay, like Frank Ocean? Or something in between?”
He’s also concerned that LGBT South Koreans will not appreciate his serving as their mouthpiece, especially as he grew up in the States. “It’s kind of like, ‘So who made you our representative?’” he told NBC. But he’s been living and working in Seoul for five years now, and is ready to officially debut his own music, his way.
“I feel like all my experiences in my journey so far have led me to where I am today,” he told NBC. “I’m so grateful and thankful that I’m where I’m at. … At the end of the day, people can say whatever they want about me, but they can’t touch the music.”