A closeup portrait of singer Lay Zhang in a black top, against a blue and purple backdrop.

Lay Zhang is both a dreamer and a doer

Writer Cielo Perez talks with the former member of K-pop group EXO about his new English-language album, how his Chinese culture impacts his work, and what he hopes to impart on the next generation of idols

Lay Zhang.

Courtesy of Range Media Music

Words by Cielo Perez

Lay Zhang (Chinese name 张艺兴) is straight to the point and knows what he wants. Known more casually as Lay, he chased his music dreams from teenagehood, which led to becoming a member of the widely known K-pop group EXO. These days, he’s back in China dabbling in several projects and mentoring up-and-coming artists via his own entertainment company.

Lay’s set to release an English album later this year, featuring lead singles “Run Back To You (feat. Lauv)” and “Psychic.” Lay stresses the importance of releasing an album in English because he still has the dream of having the world outside of Asia know his music. He’s trilingual, and “Psychic” is released in different languages for that reason. 

“I respect all cultures, and if you want to get worldwide recognition, you have to think about different languages and audiences, so that people can understand what I’m saying (through my music),” he says. Even in the “Psychic” music video he filmed in Dubai, the cast and crew on-set were from more than 20 countries.

Chinese culture is centered around respecting people, especially elders. Lay brings up respect as a recurring theme throughout our recent conversation. “We just respect each other. Respect the opinion or suggestion of others,” he says. “Make your own decisions because your life belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to everybody, not even your parents.” 

There's a pattern of representing Chinese culture throughout his body of work. For example, the “莲 (Lit)music video has a storytelling element of a lotus flower, starting from nothing but growing into something beautiful. The message runs deep, as Lay came from humble beginnings to where he is today in the entertainment industry. A big part of Lay’s vision is paving the way for other Chinese artists who also have the drive and desire to create  music that resonates with the world. 

His mentorship and leadership skills come into play when he trains his artists, reminding them what’s important. “I always tell them, ‘Don’t be fake. Just follow your heart. Your heart belongs to you. You are you!’” Lay says. “If you are not in love with this career or industry, you cannot last that much longer.” 

“That’s why I opened up my entertainment company,” he pauses in reference to Chromosome Entertainment group, which he formed in 2020. “I just try to give the young people who have a big dream, want to spend their efforts towards their dreams, or make their dream come true.” In response to a question if he feels fulfilled, “So fulfilled. When I do my own thing, I receive a lot of love from this industry.” 

Of course, Lay’s his own worst critic. Even when he expresses his thoughts in English, he thinks he’s bad at speaking it. In reality, he’s dedicated to connecting to people who speak other languages. “I still try to be better with my English. Be a master at it,” he chuckles.

Singer Lay Zhang, dressed in black with blond hair, sits on a car in front of two houses.

Lay Zhang is set to release an English-language album later this year.

Courtesy of Range Media Music

Lay’s role in nine-member EXO was mainly in the dance unit. His dancing experience in EXO puts him at an advantage when he appeared in the reality TV dance show Street Dance of China. From there, he displayed his krumping skills amongst other judges such as Jackson Wang and Wang Yibo. The 32-year-old says, “I want to be known as a real krumper, not just a (K-pop) idol krumper. So I want to get (and pay respect to) the underground dancing scene. That’s why I practice so hard and want recognition from this circle.” 

Initially, he started with popping in his teenage years, inspired by his love of Michael Jackson. As a fan, Lay looks up to Jackson in every aspect as an artist. “When he stands onstage, you can feel so much energy from him. Even if he didn’t do anything, you can feel his charm,” including how he was an inspiration for Lay’s “Honey” music video in 2019. 

EXO holds a special place in his heart. He recalls, “EXO, for me, is like a university. I learned a lot from my members,” giving special credit to KAI, a fellow dancer like him. “KAI is a really good dancer. To me, he’s the standard.” Both were close during their time there. Lay left SM Entertainment label in 2022 but still maintains ties with his members. 

Exciting times lie ahead for Lay, as he’s starring alongside legendary Jackie Chan in the film A Legend, scheduled for release this summer. This is the second time he’s worked with Chan, as they starred previously in Kung Fu Yoga (2017). An action movie directed by Stanley Tong, he plays the role of a military general. 

With Lay’s big heart, he thinks about his supporters. “I just don’t want to let any fans down. It’s not a matter of fact if this is for EXO-L [EXO’s fandom name]. All of the fans are precious (to me),” Lay says proudly. “I just want to thank the fans that I can put a lot of effort into my career and share the results with them.”

“Parents play a really important role in our lives. They will give us suggestions, but if you want to take their advice, you can take it. But if you have your own decision, just know the decision you make is on you.”

Before he takes on a project, he thinks twice to make sure it's meant for him. “I always ask myself, ‘Why do you want to be a part of this?’ and when I make a decision, I’m determined  because I have to keep evolving in my career,” he says. This topic is something he brings up with other people in his field of work. “Parents play a really important role in our lives. They will give us suggestions, but if you want to take their advice, you can take it. But if you have your own decision, just know the decision you make is on you.” 

He’s the definition of a workaholic. From the outside, it looks exhausting, but Lay enjoys what he does. “I want to say, I love this career,” he says. “I really love the fans for giving me love and support. So I feel very appreciated, and I don’t feel stressed.” Born in the year of the Chinese zodiac sheep, he embodies the characteristics extremely well: likable, kind, and overall a creatively minded person. 

Lay got his start in the entertainment industry as a child actor, but his constant evolution is what really has marked him as a well-known artist in China. He's been listed on Forbes China Celebrity list for several years now. Thankfully, it’s never come to a point that he feels the need to put on a facade so people will like him. “I don’t need to pretend who I am. I’m always myself.”

Published on June 4, 2024

Words by Cielo Perez

Cielo Perez grew up as a classically trained musician. She’s a firm believer in continuously learning the technical and creative aspects of music. Based out of Arizona, she's lived in three countries. Her focus in writing is amplifying the voices of Asian artists. You can find her on X @ItsCieloPerez or Instagram @cielo_perez.