What It’s Like Being A Black Trainee In Korea

Former trainee Kiya Boyd shares her experiences.

We previously shared what it’s like for non-Asian foreigners in Korea, this time we’ll be taking a look at the experiences of a Black former K-Pop trainee.

Kiya Boyd is a former K-Pop trainee from Detroit, Michigan who has been living in Korea on-and-off for the last four years. Despite being in the country for around four years, she shared that she only got into training a couple of years ago.

The interviewer from Asian Boss asked how she was introduced to K-Pop, and like many K-Pop fans, she was introduced to the genre when she first discovered popular boy group EXO. A friend of hers recommended that she listen to more of their music, and found herself in love with the music and the Korean language.

Kiya sang and danced from a young age, and while she did a little bit of everything in terms of performing, she shared that she had been working for the U.S. Postal Service after becoming legal working age in America. Despite having a steady, well-paying job, she woke up one morning and realized that working a 9-to-5 job wasn’t for her, so she took a leap of faith and moved to Korea.

A trainee for just about a year and a half, Kiyah revealed that she was recruited when she replied to a Craigslist ad looking for people to react to YouTube videos!

When asked about whether she had to pay for anything to become a trainee, she said that her ex-company paid for everything, while acknowledging that she was aware that wasn’t typically the case.

As most trainees pay for things out of pocket, they can end up spending thousands of dollars on their training, including acting and dance classes. She speculates that the industry survives because of this method, as there are young people who venture out to become K-Pop idols in hopes of securing fame and wealth but don’t realize the amount of sacrifice it takes to get there.

The number of trainees who actually debut as idols is slim, and even then, Kiya said that the odds of your group reaching BTS‘s level of superstardom is unlikely. Shockingly, she shared that even if you’re picked for a debut line, you may end up practicing forever and still never debut.

After giving an impromptu performance for her interviewer, Kiya moves on to describe what a typical day is like in the life of a trainee, from morning to night. In the morning, she’d wake up and have a quick breakfast before rushing over to meet with her manager, who would then have her study Korean for up to six hours!

After studying, she would have to hit the gym before practicing her singing and dancing. If there was time, she would meet up with other trainees and book a dance room to practice until late in the night before going home to work on homework assigned to her by her manager all night, often staying up until five or six in the morning.

With only a couple hours of sleep every night, the schedule would repeat again the next day.

As for the rules of being a trainee, get ready to not have a personal life anymore because your life doesn’t just belong to you anymore. Agencies are wary and hyper-aware of what their trainees do in their free time and who they’re spending time with. With that being said, it goes without saying that trainees are not allowed to date with the threat of their contract being canceled.

Although there are strict rules, some trainees find ways to have a secret boyfriend or girlfriend but they risk being asked to leave the company. Kiya estimates that 90% of trainees break the rule in some way. Kiya shared that the rules of being a trainee made her feel controlled and isolated.

Of course, it’s not just who you spend time with and talk to that the agency controls. They also manage what and how much you eat to help achieve the specific look and image they have in mind. In her case, Kiya said she was asked to eat sweet potatoes, which is considered a type of diet food, but that many girls in the industry go on liquid diets to achieve specific weight goals.

Asked whether she felt her skin color gave her an advantage or disadvantage in Korea, Kiya replied “both” before elaborating that she felt it put her at a disadvantage because she wasn’t Korean. Not looking like everyone else put her in a position to be judged on a different scale than Korean idols. But, it was also an advantage as it made her stand out and helped her catch people’s attention.

While she didn’t feel like her agency had a problem with her skin color, she said that she received a lot of backhanded comments that were intended as compliments.

‘Oh you’re the prettiest black woman,’ because blacks aren’t typically pretty. And other comments that were like, ‘Oh you’re different because you’re like skinny and you know, black people aren’t usually skinny, they’re fat, so good for you being a different black girl.’

—Kiya Boyd

While most people would be deeply perturbed and upset by that kind of microaggression, Kiya expressed that she feels it comes from a place of ignorance as Koreans aren’t really educated on different ethnicities outside of their own.

Prior to moving to Korea, she didn’t feel like there was anything about her that needed changing, however, it had been suggested to her that perhaps she should have surgery to correct her head shape as well as her nose. The unsolicited comments made her feel insecure and ugly, so she did seriously consider having work done, although she ultimately decided not to.

Contract lengths for trainees can vary. In Kiya’s case, her contract was for five years with the promise of debut within six months. Debuting was supposed to provide her opportunities to do more than just singing—she had expressed interest in acting, modeling, and TV appearances as well.

The interviewer reiterated that her contract was meant to be for five years, and asked what happened. Kiya explained that she and her former agency decided mutually to part ways, a decision she was happy about as she felt that she wasn’t going in the right direction or getting the support she needed.

Although she wanted to debut, she feels relieved to no longer be working with the company. The experience, she said, helped her learn more about what she wanted to do in the Korean entertainment industry.

I want to inspire people and I don’t mean I want to inspire them to just come to Korea and be a trainee, no. But I want to inspire a lot of people who have been asking me about the trainee life and wanting to do something in the entertainment business in Korea.

—Kiya Boyd

Despite things not working out for her the way she expected, she doesn’t want other people to feel discouraged or give up their dreams of working in the Korean entertainment industry—in fact, it’s quite the opposite, with her having a desire to inspire people to follow their hearts, just like she did when she took that leap of faith moving to Korea.

Don’t let the things that I’m saying discourage you because even though there’s some good things or some bad things there, it’s not to say it’s not going to be worth it in the end, especially if this is something that you want.

—Kiya Boyd

To watch Kiya’s interview and hear her sing (from 4:56 to 5:20), click play below to watch the video: