Waves always break toward the shore. Depending on the vantage point, the ocean may appear like a relic of yester-year the waves retreating backward, or conversely, an envoy into the future. Kang Daniel emits the occasional laugh, couched between glass office walls. There’s a gleam in his eye when we recall his idiom of choice, “A person who ages wisely,” he declares gleefully, “thinks of the future, and a person who does not age wisely thinks of the past.” Fittingly, the musician’s artistic journey, and with it, the pursuit of discovering his true self, is marked by aging wisely—looking forward by musically confronting the emotional battles of the past.
At present, the Los Angeles sun is rising, and when Kang signs on to our interview, he’s smiling and joyous regardless of it being 10 PM in Korea. We speak in customary Korean greeting exchanges before translation segues into the conversation. Given Korea has been under strict lockdown for much of the pandemic, most Korean artists were landlocked and unable to tour. Toying with various digital performances and online fan meetings (even pioneering the realms of Virtual Reality fan meetings), the musician still found a way to engage with his global audience.
Kang Daniel, 25, grew up in the seaport city, Busan, South Korea—admittedly a coastal contrast from the bustling capital of Seoul. He fondly remembers when his seniors would teach him the how-to’s of b-boying. As a precocious middle-schooler, he performed said routines to his close-knit family. At that point, he used b-boying as a momentary escape from adolescent despair. “You know, it’s kind of a funny story,” he recalls. “ I was a little bit shy when my family wanted me to b-boy in front of them. My grandmother and grandfather said they would give me pocket money to watch my b-boying, so I had to show them sometimes (haha!)”
There’s a hint of deja vu in Kang Daniel’s eyes and voice as he realizes his Halmeoni’s (grandma’s) prophecy in viewing him as a performer came to life. “When I think about my future,” he considers, “my family is my priority. Family is always my motivation, including my team at Konnect. I think of my fans as my family too. I think there are different types of families. They motivate me to be an artist and support me in whatever I do. I look forward to a bright future with all of them!”
So how did we get here? Kang Daniel’s presence on the Korean idol competition show, Produce 101, catapulted the nation’s gaze onto his singing and dancing skills. After he worked his way through various ranks and obstacles in Produce 101, he finished first. He was at the fore of the public’s attention, literally emblazoned with the nickname ‘The Nation’s Center.’ Later, he announced that he would depart the group, Wanna One, to embark on his solo career. This newfound freedom meant that he could counsel his own creative expression. “I always think that I’m so blessed!” he exclaims. “There are a lot of things that I want to communicate through my music, not just in conversation. It’s hard sometimes, but I still think that I’m lucky to have these feelings and be able to communicate about them through music, that is so enjoyable to me.”
Kang Daniel is indeed blessed, but his hardworking spirit cannot be tainted. When asked what he might do if he lost his phone for one whole day, he chuckles and jokes, “Get a new phone.” Then he continues, “To be honest, I don’t take my cell phone so seriously,” adding that he does not identify as one who is always tethered to his phone. When it doesn’t concern work, he would rather enjoy the company of his cats and a Spider-Man film. “My favorite movie is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” he shares. “I love every series of Spider-Man but my most favorite story is with Miles Morales.” As a comic lover and animation aficionado, he adds that one of his dreams is having his own song make an appearance in a Miles Morales action sequence.
Much like the changing faces of the moon, K-pop stars champion reinvention each comeback season. Image is often reconfigured at the discretion of the act’s guiding company because fans desire a refreshing melange of visuals to complement new releases. Kang Daniel’s 2021 lead single “Antidote,” for example, put the globe under a spell with its mesmerizing choreography and lyrical references. Not only was the music video playing around TV screens in LA’s Koreatown karaoke spots, but the track picked up awards from Inkigayo and Music Bank.
Another effort, The ‘Color’ Trilogy—a series of EPs released under a triad of different colors—beautifully conveys Kang Daniel’s unsaid inner-dwellings. In a genre that is synonymous with brightness, it is difficult to
find K-pop artists sharing their honesty and vulnerability, even in the foot-notes of a song. Yet, in the brackets of a three minute title track, Kang Daniel has mastered the art of conveying somber sentiments into a song that can also play at any Itaewon club. He is currently revving up for another comeback with his latest single, “Ready to Ride.” “When I write my lyrics, I try to express myself with my words,” he says, “I had some healing moments when I received all the feedback from the fans that I love. When my true stories are being told from my lyrics, I receive the most healing.”
When someone is thrust into early stardom, it is rather hard to come out unscathed. Snide critiques are thrown from every online portal. In turn, Kang Daniel converts negativity into a writing activator. Mental battles are a topic of conversation that the singer has been candid about. Music was his own personal salve when battling depression. This is why Kang Daniel has always prioritized mental health, not only for himself but for his entire fanbase. “Honestly,” he says, “while writing the lyrics for this song, “PARANOIA,” it was a kind of secret story about myself. I was trying to include my personal hardest times, but I thought it could be unique at the same time. The choreography adds more impact to my song. I would love for people to find some hope in a difficult situation from my lyrics. I felt comforted because my fans seemed to sympathize with me.”
At a moment’s notice, Kang Daniel is always reinventing himself. This January saw him taking on the role of the lead actor in Rookie Cops, the first Korean drama from Disney+. The 16-episode series follows Kang’s Wi Seung-hyun and Go Eun-kang (Chae-Soobin) navigating their coming-of-age journey at the Korean National Police University. Though K-pop idols transitioning to acting is not rare, fans always remarked that the musician’s charisma would meld perfectly into a K-drama lead. “It was an honor and a great experience,” he says about the experience and unraveling his individuality, “By making music, I can express my feelings. By acting, I can also express my feelings. It was an honor and a great experience as an actor. I think this was an important step to help elevate my stage performances and career as an artist.”
With a backpack slouched on his left shoulder and a baseball cap shadowing his face, his airport outfits speak to the static between an off-stage/on-stage entertainer. Essentially, there is a vulnerability suited in a look without ornate embellishment. Here, Kang Daniel retreats in palpable comfort. He savors being at home in a set of slippers and penning what he truly feels cannot be mirrored in a televised appearance. “I love being at home,” he admits. “and am kind of a homebody. So sometimes I say, ‘YES!!’ It’s when I’m about to go back home.”
Kang Daniel’s characteristically can-do conviction also transcends from the musical realm to the entrepreneurial side. He has a knack for business, becoming the CEO of his own company, Konnect Entertainment. This means he is the first and last voice remarking on how his music is presented. “Every part was rewarding for me in terms of making a new album,” he shares. “My top peak of satisfaction comes one month after I release my new album,” he says, “because creating a new album isn’t just a song-by-song basis. While I was preparing, I needed a lot of support from my team members. Even though creating music is a little bit difficult, it’s all rewarding for me. They will unmistakably know that it is a Kang Daniel song.”
It is challenging to witness this same person peering forward into the future, given his introversion in his earlier chapters. Despite Kang Daniel’s candor, the edges of shyness prevail— but it all amounts to what makes Kang Daniel uniquely him. As the artist plans his own sequel, he foreshadows with positivity, “The things that I want for and wish for, and the plans that I have, are fortunately very much the same. I want to be busy writing songs and I want to do my own personal music for everyone to listen to and enjoy.”
Kang Daniel states that he is always pulled in by seaside landscapes. It is a reminder that he is alive. It is a reminder that he is doing what he loves to crowds that reflect that same fondness. It is only natural that one of his favorite sightseeing spots in California takes place by the Pacific. “I love LA so much,” he gushes, “I like Hollywood and Santa Monica the most. I like the night view of Santa Monica—it holds a great memory for me.” Looking out at the crystalline sea, it’s beyond evident that Kang Daniel’s sights are set on the shore-seeking, undulating waves of optimism.
Photographed by Leee Junkyoung
Styled by Lisa Jarvis
Set Stylist: Kim Youngjin
Hair: Kim Haebin
Makeup: Lee Anna
Written by Jasmine Rodriguez