LIONESSES is the first K-pop boyband to be openly LGBTQ+. They debuted on November 2, 2021, with their single “Show Me Your Pride.” The trio, composed of members Damjun, Kanghan, and Malrang, are breaking barriers for queer artists in South Korea. 

In honor of Pride Month this year, the group released their single, “Like Christina taught me.” Active in spreading their messages of love and acceptance, the group hopes to give confidence to queer youth around the world. EnVi spoke with LIONESSES over Zoom to discuss their message and musical direction.

LIONESSES Unmasked

This year marked the second time the group performed at Seoul’s Queer Parade, but also many firsts. Namely, the first time the members all performed without their signature lion mask. Even with plenty of previous live performances under their belt, the members were nervous performing in front of such a large crowd. 

Kanghan talked excitedly about his experience, declaring this past year as his favorite thus far. “We’ve performed before, but this year was definitely more touching.” The members all nodded in agreement. Presenting himself through his drag queen persona, Rooya, Kanghan was able to feel more free onstage. Even with his face obscured by his mask, his eyes shone and his smile continued to grow wider as he spoke. “I felt more in touch with our message compared to two years ago. This year’s focus was our new song as well as directly speaking to teenagers to give them a message of confidence.” 

Malrang was slightly more nervous than the two older members, which he said showed onstage. “I really felt the first moment of being in such a big crowd and acted out a little extra because I was nervous.” He let out a small laugh, reminiscing. “But, I think I felt more brave and comfortable presenting as my true self.”

For leader Damjun, he was anxious about the group’s overall performance and reception. There were concerns about the group’s safety, as well as how they would be able to perform while facing protesters. After the departure of a member two years ago, the group had to redistribute parts and restructure their performances. “At first, I was scared of changing the way the songs were performed, and afraid of showing a gap, or emptiness onstage,” Damjun told EnVi, a frown etching his face. “However, I became more comfortable and less nervous because of the experience. I was able to enjoy myself rather than be scared.” With the crowd’s passionate cheers, the group felt their initial worries melt away.

Battling Broadcasts

While the group has established a fanbase among queer youth in South Korea, they still face prejudice. Even as recently as 2022, their single “It’s OK to Be Me” was banned from broadcasting due to the charge of “promoting homosexuality.” The group had been shunned from public broadcasting for similar reasons before, placing them in opposition to a large population of the Korean public. There have been widespread protests, doxxing, and violent threats made since the group’s debut. “I was too shocked and broken when I first heard the news. I felt very upset about how to approach the ban,” Damjun said, pain in his voice. “After the stations officially apologized, there were protests which made me very afraid.”

Malrang finds they have so many ways to still make an impact, naming YouTube, live performances, and interviews such as this one. Like the translation of his name, Kanghan is strong-minded. “I usually discuss everything with the members first. I know that this type of discrimination will not disappear, so I often tell the other members to not feel offended or hurt.” Having each other as support, they overcome the obstacles of broadcast bans together.

Falling in Love With Music

All three members have different musical backgrounds, incorporated in their roles within the group. Even with a wide range of influences, the trio found themselves dreaming of becoming K-pop idols.

Kanghan is trained and currently working as an opera singer and theater actor. His background in musical theater helped shape his drag persona, Rooya. “I remember practicing the songs from Hedwig [and the Angry Inch] often. It actually influenced my decision to reveal my face through drag.” Majoring in opera and singing, he wondered how he could spread more of his voice to the LGBTQ+ community. When the opportunity to join LIONESSES presented itself, he knew he needed to become an idol.

Malrang, the youngest, remembers being in awe of Lee Hyori performing. Working as an idol for over 25 years, Malrang was impressed by how she was able to sustain her career. “I saw many idols dancing and singing on television and began to practice to be like them. It was then that I decided to pursue singing as a profession.” He further talked of his own dreams to have a career as successful and full of passion for performing.

For LIONESSES’ leader Damjun, he knew he wanted to sing from a young age. “Like the title of our new song, I was influenced by Christina Aguilera at a young age and copied her style of singing.” He went on to audition at various K-pop companies, then took a detour. “I was scared to be an idol and have to come out,” he recounts. “I was so scared of prejudice and decided to do everything but pop music.” He ended up doing various jobs, such as providing vocals for commercial songs, before giving in to his initial dream. With the intent to give others the courage and support he wanted in his difficult times, he formed LIONESSES.

Composing and Creation

Damjun works as the main songwriter and composer of the group. According to him, he starts by setting the concept first, then finding a song or sound reference to work with. “I am usually influenced by Korean gospel, there’s something powerful about it. It gives you a sense of comfort, which is something I want to express in our music.” Among their releases thus far, the sound of Korean gospel is best heard in their song, “Boy with strange love.” 

Above all, Damjun places emphasis on their message of love. Inspired by BTS’ “Speak Yourself” campaign and Love Yourself album trilogy, he expressed wanting to reciprocate their sentimentality. “I felt like the music was loving me, even if I couldn’t always love myself. I wanted to express that same feeling to fans, especially those who are younger.” With this conviction, he composed “Like Christina taught me,” which encourages listeners to be proud of their identities. For queer youth, the song is a reminder that they are not alone.

LIONESSES have the desire to branch out into different genres. Damjun thinks of challenging himself with opera, a genre he stopped training in at a young age. “I’ve already released all the songs I wanted to make as solo tracks, except for a few.” His expression became mischievous as he revealed an influence he hasn’t been able to replicate: Cardi B. The other members immediately voiced their disapproval and made exaggerated faces at the camera. “I’ve made a couple songs for myself inspired by Cardi B’s style, but the members always say they hate it.” Kanghan and Malrang both agreed on wanting to experiment with a rock or idol band style, something classic like F.T. Island or Buzz. 

On Being Lionhearted

When discussing their personal sources of strength, each member had unique answers to give. “I find my strength in watermelon juice,” Malrang shared, in a very serious tone. “Especially nowadays in the summer heat.” Kanghan feels refreshed through his connections to other like-minded people. “It’s true that my own existence can become someone’s strength, but I also just like spending time with people I love. Just a small moment of connection with another person or artist, when each other’s message matches well, is important to me.” Damjun loves the unique relationships that have formed, between LIONESSES and their fans, DEN, as well as among fans. “Everyone needs their own relationships. When I’m performing and meeting with fans I get just as excited performing as I do watching them,” He laughs for a bit. “I feel like a proud parent watching my own kids becoming friends with each other.” LIONESSES are forming their own pride with their sincere care for their audience. If they can touch someone’s heart for even a second, they believe their hard work has paid off.

Moving Forward

LIONESSES are just as fiercely loving as the animal they draw their name from. Their positive energy is infectious, after all who can resist smiling when a group is sending you various hand hearts through video? With closing remarks, the trio made sure to let their fans, DEN, know how loved they are. “I always say the same thing,” started Kanghan. “I love you, DEN! We’ll become bigger idols and continue giving you confidence!” Malrang followed him, thankful for their endless love and support. “LIONESSES will show more developed and cool performances. Look forward to all our future projects!” Damjun finished tenderly, addressing the group’s journey from beginning to present day. “At first, it was very awkward with fans and we were scared of failure. Since we’ve been together three years already, let’s complete a century and be together for the next 97!”

Keep up with LIONESSES on Instagram and X. You can listen to their music on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music.

Interested in knowing all about K-pop boybands like LIONESSES? Check out our exclusive interview with The KingDom here!