K-Pop The Odyssey: A journey through law, music, and identity

Law student and author Wooseok Ki explores how K-pop became the global phenomenon it is today with his newly published book, K-POP: The Odyssey.

Not every law student writes a book in their final year of law school. And even if they did, you’d assume that it’d be about law. 

Not for Wooseok Ki. When approached with a chance to write a book through The Creator Institute in partnership with New Degree Press, he jumped at the opportunity and decided to write about something that endlessly fascinated him: K-pop. 

Though it seems like a random decision, upon looking at Ki’s background and interests, it becomes clear why he would choose to dig into one of the most explosive pop cultural phenomena. Cold Tea Collective got to talk with Ki about his upbringing, how he chooses to maintain creativity, and his journey to writing K-POP: The Odyssey

wooseok ki and k-pop the odyssey
Photo submitted

Korean American or Korean?

When asked how Ki identified himself, he paused and said it wasn’t as easy as being Korean or Korean American. From Seoul to New Jersey, then back to Seoul and then Hong Kong, Ki grew up in a mix of different cultures and demographics. As someone who bounced between Asia and the United States, identity is a fluid, complex concept that he is still working through. 

Each city Ki lived in had different demographics of Asians. In New Jersey, he grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood with only a handful of Asian friends. In Seoul, though he attended an international school, his friends were almost entirely Korean. And in university in the Bay Area, he was mostly surrounded by both Asian Americans and Asian international students. Currently Ki resides in Philadelphia, where there are more white people and Asian Americans, rather than Asian nationals. 

Ki called himself someone between being a gyopo, or Korean American, and a Korean native. He received his American citizenship just three years ago, when he decided that he would pursue a legal career in America. He’s hesitant to fully claim the Asian American identity as he didn’t grow up with common Asian American struggles. But nowadays, after voting in the presidential election and networking with Asian American professionals, he is associating more with the identity and culture.

Because of his position between Asian Americans and Asian natives, Ki hopes to help bridge the gap between the East and the West, especially in Asian markets.

But Ki wasn’t always like this. Though currently a man on a mission, in college he was just a dancer. 

Holding onto both creativity and career 

Ki said that he dedicated most of his time to the K-pop dance team at his alma mater, UC Berkeley. This sparked an interest in the entertainment industry. But how could he get involved? 

In his junior year, Ki joined a pre-law club and was assigned to research different types of law. This was where he learned about media & entertainment law. It piqued his interest; perhaps he could combine his creative passion with a professional career. 

So for his law school admissions essay, he wrote about “Gangnam Style.” Blending his experience working at YouTube with his curiosity of the entertainment industry, he analyzed how “Gangnam Style” broke the Internet, and noted how he wanted to be an entertainment lawyer to bridge the gap between Asia and the West.

Now that he’s almost done with his degree, Ki’s perspective has shifted . Initially focused on entertainment law, he is now more open to learning about different industries and legal practices. He found a separate passion for the legal arts and hopes that one day his interests in law and entertainment will mesh together.

But he is also aware that being a lawyer is a tiring job. 

“It’ll be harder as I get older,” he said. “How do I not lose who I was before?” 

Wooseok Ki dancing
Photo submitted

After seeing a member of the Asian Creative Network share her story about being a full-time lawyer and a published children’s literature author, Ki felt encouraged to hold onto his creativity through his law career. And for Ki, creativity isn’t limited to one medium.

“Creativity manifests in different outlets; this year it’s writing. I’ll probably do something else next year,” Ki said nonchalantly, admitting that he didn’t plan on writing a book. Instead, he saw it as another creative project. He hopes that, through this, he will be able to inspire other pre-law students to maintain their creative passions. 

See also: Pride in writing: Sexuality and representation in Lyla Lee’s works

K-POP: The Odyssey 

When Ki decided to write about K-pop, he didn’t expect much. Part of him didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading a book on the topic, but as he started fundraising for the book, he was surprised by how much people wanted to read and learn about K-pop.

Ki clarified that the book is not an encyclopedia for K-pop. “It’s a gateway and gives rudimentary understanding of every aspect of K-pop,” he said. “After that, it’s up to the reader to engage.” 

girl reading k-pop the odyssey
Photo submitted

There are many ways to learn about K-pop, Ki admitted, such as showing a video or a news article, but both aren’t enough. A book, he said, is something someone can read from front to back and walk away with a form of knowledge. If he met someone who wanted to learn about K-pop either of personal interest or for professional knowledge, he could refer them to the book. 

There are several academic and journalistic books available on K-pop, but Ki set out to write about it as an average person. He wanted the final product to be fun, comprehensive, and up to date. Ki wrote about key events in K-pop as they happened, such as BTS’ historic accomplishments in 2020 alone. Additionally, he conducted an ethnography of sorts on K-pop Twitter and forums, engaging with fans to see what was happening in the fandom spaces. 

See also: BTS 101: From behind the scenes to beyond the scene

But he didn’t want to just write from a fan’s perspective either. Ki set a goal to talk to industry experts and, if possible, a star. Ki said that he did the most networking during the pandemic. “People are home and not going outside!” Ki said with a laugh. “I tell my mentees to talk to whomever they want because people are nicer than you think.” 

In the end, it paid off. Ki spoke with Hyuk Shin, an award-winning producer responsible for not only K-pop hits but also Justin Bieber’s “One Less Lonely Girl,” Peter Chun, former YG Entertainment Director, and even K-pop star Henry Lau

Representation behind the scenes

There was another benefit from writing the book; Ki got to connect with influential people in the entertainment industry. Many people were intrigued by Ki as there aren’t many Korean entertainment lawyers fluent in both Korean and English, and in both cultures. This is where Ki says it’s important to recognize that for representation to work, it needs to also be happening behind the scenes.

“Asian talent cannot prosper in the West without the proper Asian human resources like executives, lawyers, journalists, and even radio DJs,” Ki said. He points to journalists who don’t know about K-pop or haven’t done the research, and go on to write articles that propel stigmatized images of K-pop and Korean culture. 

“The ideal solution is that we need more Asian people and Korean people in the space,” Ki said, “but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.” 

Ki will continue to work to bridge the gap. He is planning to do another legal internship in entertainment or tech to sharpen his legal tools. 

“When they need someone to bridge the East and the West through a legal lens, I’ll be ready to hop in and mediate the discussion. That day shall come soon,” Ki said.

You can purchase “K-POP: The Odyssey,” currently a #1 New Release and Top 10 bestseller, on Amazon.

Featured photo submitted.

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