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CoCo Avenue Looks To Break Down Barriers As The 1st African-American K-Pop Group [EXCLUSIVE]

By Tony Sokol | February 26, 2016 03:19 PM EST

CoCo Avenue are on their way to becoming a new address in the Hallyu world. Band members Jenna and Jenny are two African-American hop-hop and R&B singers who found Hallyu sounds artistically irresistible. The two members of the first all-black South Korean pop group met after Jenny posted a Facebook status announcing "I want to start a K-pop group." She wasn't alone. CoCo Avenue quickly grew to a six-member unit and first made waves with their cover of Jay Park's "You Know." CoCo Avenue are now stripped back down to a duo and their fans are known as Coco Puffs. Jenny, 23, from St. Louis, Missouri, and Jenna, 24, from Jacksonville, are getting ready to release original music. In May, they will set out on a tour of South Korea. We spoke to them about their recording plans, their musical past and how they ended up pursing a Korean pop sound in a KpopStarz exclusive interview.

KpopStarz: What was your background in music and performance before CoCo Avenue? Were you in any other groups? 

Jenna: Before K-pop I had a background in musical theatre. I took theatre classes for eight years, but K-pop drew me away from dreams of stage, at least in the Broadway sense. As for as music before K-pop, my playlists went anywhere from hip-hop to rock to neo soul to old Disney jams, pretty much everything except country. That one's just always been a big no for me.

Jenny: Before K-pop I was performing R&B on lots of stages around St. Louis. I took part in show choir in high school and had an acoustic band called Breathless Imperfection. In college, I always performed with my keyboard and won a lot of singing competitions which helped me make a name for myself around campus. I listened to a variety of music before discovering K-pop, R&B, J-pop, C-pop, punk rock, pop.

KpopStarz: What drew you to K-pop?

Jenna: Initially it was the dancing. The first couple of videos I watched were dance heavy: "Sorry Sorry" by Super Junior; "Lucifer" by SHINee; "Tell Me" by Wonder Girls and "Bang Bang Bang" by After School. Eventually, more superficial things started to grab my attention. Basically I discovered 2PM and my hormones went a little haywire. But I don't mind admitting that, because it was those things that drew me into the more grounded things I like about K-pop. 

Jenny: What drew me to K-pop was how catchy the music was, how different the video concepts were and I was amazed at how many members were in a lot of groups.

KpopStarz: What did you find most surprising about K-pop?

Jenna: I think people would be surprised at how many sub-genres there are in K-pop. People hear K-pop and imagine bright colors and high voices and immediately say they aren't into it. But there are so many different facets. There's rock, hip-hop, R&B, Rasta, electronic, even, to my despair, country. There's really something for everyone in K-pop if they give it a try.

KpopStarz: Tell us about the differences you see in Korean rap and American rap?

Jenna: Well, this is a hard question for me, because both genres are pretty broad. If we're talking about authentic American hip-hop, I would say a general difference is innovation. Hip-hop is innovative and a lot of what Korean hip-hop is, is an emulation of what they see done here. They make it into their own thing. But American hip-hop is the source. Also, the origins are different. Hip-hop was created to give a voice to people who were being oppressed and had no other platform. Korean hip-hop doesn't have that history, but I won't say it doesn't have a real impact on the music industry. Besides language and, sometimes, content, I really don't see much difference.

KpopStarz: What do you bring to your renditions that K-pop fans might appreciate?

Jenny: I feel like our versions of songs always tend to be a bit more soulful. We always give our listeners a new perspective on the songs we cover.

Jenna: I think, if anything, we bring a theme of inclusion. Our renditions highlight men and women of different size, shapes and shade. It is important to us that every K-pop fan is reflected in our work, that they can look at our covers and say "hey, that person's like me and they're doing K-pop!" K-pop itself is a mixture of many different cultures, sound-wise. It's our mission to bring that mixture out physically.

KpopStarz: What do K-pop artist bring to music that American pop fans might not realize?

Jenny: Dedication. Working with Koreans in the music business has shown us one thing consistently--the work ethic is crazy! Food and sleep are for the weak with these people. It's all about getting everything done when it's supposed to be done, the way it's supposed to be done and producing the best possible product at all times. With dedication like that, it's impossible not to be successful in any industry you take part in.

KpopStarz: How did you choose to cover Jay Park's "You Know?"

Jenny: We loved the sound. Jay Park's entire album was lit, but this song was easily my favorite. I thought we could match its style pretty easily, so when we decided we wanted to cover something from the album, we chose this one.

KpopStarz: Is there much interest in K-pop in St. Louis?

Jenny: Finding people in St. Louis who liked K-pop was like finding a needle in a haystack. The only people who really knew anything about K-pop were my cousin who I converted and my Korean friends.

KpopStarz: What was the first K-Pop cover you attempted?

Jenna: Well, I think our first full cover, when we were a five-member group, was 2PM's "A.D.T.O.Y."  It was for a competition, which we won. {flips hair} Shortly after that we covered F(X)'s "Rum Pum Pum Pum," which was all shot in different cities, recorded with different mics in our bathrooms and dorm rooms, with different camera qualities, and badly edited green screen. We really came from super humble beginnings, but we were doing what we loved, so we found anyway we could to get our covers out. We also covered BAP's "Coffee Shop," which was one of my favorites, because the music video is of our first time meeting and behind the scenes of shooting our A.D.T.O.Y. cover. It still gives me feels.

KpopStarz: Do you keep in touch with former members of Coco Avenue?

Jenna: Well, one's my sister, so I have no choice. {laughs} We have lost touch with two original members, Brittni and Shervonne, but we talk to Jessica often and she's doing amazingly. All of them support us in what we're doing. I know they're happy about all the things we're accomplishing, and vice versa.

KpopStarz: Is race a factor when it comes to breaking into the K-pop industry?

Jenna: I think if we say race isn't a factor here at all we're being naïve. When we perform in Korean, people see our skin, and they know we aren't Korean. That can influence their perception of us, either positively or negatively. We try not to worry about that though. Our goal is to see people who look like us represented in a positive light in the Korean industry, so we wear our skin so proudly. So to us, it's most definitely a factor, and we aren't afraid of that.

KpopStarz: Can a black American soul group be taken seriously as a K-pop artist?

Jenna: Absolutely. There's responsibility to be held on both sides for this to be possible I think. We, as Americans, have to be careful to appreciate Korean cultur, and not appropriate it in our journey to becoming artists in Korea. Yes, we sing in Korean, but we're not going to start dancing around in Hanboks, bleaching our skin and claiming anything Korean as our own, absolutely not. We are simply being ourselves, bringing our culture to K-pop. At the same time, there's responsibility to be held on the K-pop industry's side. How long will they draw influences from our culture, many times incorrectly, while continuing to perpetuate stereotypes on what black Americans are and not allow us to have a voice in this?  I think this is the most important mission for CoCo Avenue. The fans who look like us deserve to be represented in the right way. We want to do that for them.

KpopStarz: Are there any K-pop artists you'd particularly like to collaborate with?

Jenna: Most definitely. I'd like to work with MFBTY. Not only is their sound and image authentic to who they are as people, it's also just really great to listen to, and that's what we want to be. I'd also like to work with ZICO, because his beats are magic, and pretty much everything he touches right now is a hit. 

Jenny: I would really like to collaborate with artists like microdot, Jay Park, Gilme, and most of all Hyorin who I look up to as a vocalist.

KpopStarz: What could you teach Hallyu artists about choreography?

Jenna: Absolutely nothing! As far as dance, I think the idols got that on lock. I would say that they should learn the origins of some of the popular American dances they do before they do them. Like I wonder if so many idols would be so quick to Hit The Dab if they knew dabbing is a term for drug use. Someone should tell them those things.

KpopStarz: Do you have any suggestions on K-pop production that someone in the field might not notice?

Jenna: I think if there was someone to consult, to tell them when they're in danger of appropriation, many times a lot of tension between international fans and Korean fans could be avoided.

KpopStarz: What sets you apart from Hallyu fans?

Jenny: I think the only thing that separated us from fans of K-pop is that we are producing our own Korean music on a professional level. We had a goal that put us beyond watching our favorite groups on television, and so we pushed for that goal. But we'll always be fans, even once we do make it to our goals. That's the thing about K-pop. Once you're a part of the fandom, there's really no escape.

KpopStarz: Do you prefer live shows or recording?

Jenna: I definitely prefer live shows. There's nothing like feeding off the energy of the crowd and getting that instant feedback when they hear our songs. Recording is fun, but the stage has always been where it's at for me.

KpopStarz: What do you think of the famously intense work ethic and training of K-pop artists?

Jenna: I think it's absolutely necessary. You don't make the strides that K-pop has made without having that work ethic. I think it's something we need to adopt if we want to see growth in our own music.

KpopStarz: When will we hear original music from CoCo Avenue?

Jenna: Soon! We've been in the studio, recording and mixing and mastering and music videos are in the planning stages. We're hoping to have our first original song in Korean out in the next couple of months, so be on the lookout,

KpopStarz: How is your GoFundMe campaign going to raise money for recording?

Jenny: It's going well. We always appreciate any help we get, especially when it's coming from people who believe in what we're doing and want to see us succeed. But we still have a lot further to go, and any bit helps.

KpopStarz: Are you excited about your trip to South Korea?

Jenna: Excited and nervous, because there are a lot of big plans for this trip. We're meeting some pretty cool people, and we're setting up some awesome things, so this is more than just a vacation to us. The motto for this trip will definitely be "Work Hard, Play Hard."

KpopStarz: What do you expect you'll be most excited to see or hear?

Jenna: I think they'll be wrapping up "Show Me the Money 5" while we're out there, so I'm hoping to see a couple of the live shows. Jenny and I are also preparing a couple of guerilla performances, so we're hoping those go well.

KpopStarz: What's next?

Jenna: Next is really introducing the world to the idea of a Black Girl Group that sings in Korean. We're really going to show them that this isn't a gimmick, that we'll have hit songs in English and Korean, and we're serious about this. We're going on tours, we're selling albums, we're here, and we don't plan on going anywhere. We just hope the world is ready.

Watch CoCo Avenue covering 4MINUTE's "Crazy"  RIGHT HERE.

Tagged :  CoCo Avenue, african-american k-pop group, interview, Exclusive, exclusive interview, K-Pop, kpop, hallyu

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