"I had to deal with a lot of negative reactions," says Jay Park, who has become one of the best-known artists on the South Korean scene, after being "kind of blacklisted by the industry" for a time.

It all started with the criticism that the then-teenager posted online: he castigated the intensive training regime of young talent, the K-pop industry and South Korea itself.

The South Korean media is lashing out at him. Forced to leave 2PM, a boy band owned by JYP Entertainment, the rapper fled the scandal and returned to Seattle, in his home state of Washington, on the US West Coast.

There, he worked in a used tire store.

But he did not give up on his musical dreams and ended up publishing a cover of "Nothin' on You", a song by B.o.B and Bruno Mars, on his YouTube channel.

"I just wanted to show my fans that I was doing well and I also wanted to show people what kind of music I like, what kind of artist I am. So I put online a cover and it grew, "says today the star of 36 years.

With more than two million views in one day, the hit catapulted him into the music industry and marked "a new beginning".

Because he took the opportunity to recalibrate his musical style and move from pop to rap, a decision that would help transform the nascent South Korean hip-hop scene.

"If I say I'm a rapper, then I can only rap. But I like to rap, I like to dance, I like to sing." The musician remains "always grateful to hip-hop culture", which helped him revive his career.

The rather unusual story of a musical success: it is rare to rebuild oneself like this after leaving one of the biggest agencies, around which the record industry is structured.

Korean-American artist Jay Park, during an interview in Seoul on March 29, 2023 © Anthony WALLACE / AFP

Of course, "it didn't happen overnight. Obviously, it took a lot of work," he said.

'Low chances of survival'

Hundreds of thousands of aspiring K-pop stars go through an exhausting training system known for its high stress and long working hours.

Only 60% of interns manage to make their debut, according to industry figures, and almost all of those who do are hired by major agencies like HYBE, BTS's agency, or its great rival SM Entertainment.

Without this support, "the chances of survival are very low," says music critic Kim Do-heon, adding that many "bands break up."

After leaving 2PM, Park found himself alone navigating this industry.

Difficult, according to him, for example to find musicians ready to appear on his first solo album.

Korean-American artist Jay Park, during an interview in Seoul on March 29, 2023 © Anthony WALLACE / AFP

But "there is a limit to what agencies can do for you and it seems that courage and determination are what can fill this gap," he insists.

Today, the circle is closed: the producer has created two of Korea's leading hip-hop labels, released a series of hits and founded a label to produce a boy band.

But he did it his way: rather than the grueling training of big agencies, his new interns will have a mentor -- it will be Park--, a formula he says he dreamed of when he started in the industry at 18.

"I'm not bitter about anything. I don't hate anyone. I don't have time for that."

"No time" to think about the past either. "I can't change the past, but what I can change is the future, and that's what I'm working on."

© 2023 AFP