Born in Senegal, raised in Belgium, and now residing in South Korea, 28-year-old rapper Fatou is the first fully African K-pop idol. Her existence in the K-pop world is unique; her group, Blackswan, which she is the leader of, also consists of three other international members—each from a different continent. After the departure of three members, Sriya, NVee and Gabi, joined the group’s lineup; and while this is a comeback for Fatou, it’s a debut for them. Black Swan released their second album THAT KARMA on May 19 with the title track “KARMA” being the first K-pop music video to have been shot in Odisha, India. In a recent Zoom interview, Fatou opened up about her new position as leader of the group, her passion for music, navigating through different cultures and cultural appropriation within K-pop.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Glow Ngwe: Tell me a bit about Blackswan.
Fatou: So Blackswan is an international group. We have different cultures and ethnicities. So we have Sriya who’s from India, our youngest. We have NVee, who’s from the U.S., and we have Gabi, who’s from Brazil, but is also from Germany. And you have me, who’s born in Senegal, but grew up in Belgium. And we’re quite different from other K-pop groups because usually they have Asian members or Korean members. But we’re all international, and I think that gives us a very nice edge because we have different flavors. We can bring different things to the table.
GN: How was it adjusting to the new members? What have you learned as the leader?
F: When I met the three new girls, to be completely honest with you, I was not really ready to reconnect again and build that deep bond and just be together in that creative space. I did it before, and I lost all of my members, and it was heartbreaking. I was heartbroken, and I was not ready to open my heart. I didn’t want to go through it again. But after a long conversation with the girls, I just, I guess without me knowing, my heart just opened again. My walls came down, and we kept talking for hours and hours, and I just noticed, “Wow, we might actually have a stronger connection this time than the last members.” We’re always together. It’s like we’re the same person in four different variations.
As for now being the leader, at first it was obviously a bit scary because having the leader title puts more weight on your shoulders. The company—not only the company but the members, the fans—are expecting me to lead them well, teach them well. And just keep everything comfortable and make sure that everything’s just running smoothly. At first I was a bit afraid of it. But as days go by, I realize it’s actually a position that I enjoy. Because I’m better at leading than following—of course I’ll follow (laughs) but I’m good at leading. You know what I’m saying! And the girls also, thank God, they’re so good at listening, and they’re so open to learn new things, learn new cultures—we’re learning each other’s cultures—and just learning how to navigate with each other, living together, how someone communicates, how someone works, but trying to mesh it all very well. So thank you to everyone to be honest, they’re making my job so much easier.
GN: Aside from being the leader, you are also the main rapper in Blackswan. What about rap intrigues you?
F: For me, since I was young, there was always rap music playing, or R&B. It was 50 Cent, Tupac, and then there was also Beyoncé—the classics. So I was always interested in rap, same with vocals. But as I was growing up more and more, I realized that I wanted to write also, and I started writing when I was about 15 years old. I associated writing more with rapping. I don’t know, I just made the connection. And then obviously I came into this group, and for me I naturally just wanted to rap because I wanted to tell my story, because I had so many stories to tell.
GN: You talked a little bit about being able to write your own stuff. Can you walk me a little bit through your writing process? How do you get your art on paper?
F: So actually last year, I released my first mixtape which was PWAPF (Psycho With A Pretty Face). That was a mistake, because instead of writing what I wanted, I was writing what I thought people would want to hear. And that was not something I usually did. This time—I’m working on a new project—I just shut out every external opinions and it’s just me, myself and I, just my story. So nowadays if I’m feeling an extreme emotion, open my notes, I write it down. If I hear one sentence and it inspires me, I also write it down, and then I usually contact the studio. My friend who is a singer and producer, I text him or tell him I want this type of beat, this style, this type of tone, this atmosphere, this color, and then he always knows what I want on a beat! He’s so amazing! He sends me the beat, and then I start writing the flow of the lyrics. And this time around, it came out so much more natural, so much more meaning, so much more easily, just so much more me. And I feel very happy, very relieved. Like, “Oh my god, I can finally talk about my stories, what I think.”
GN: I know you were a model before becoming a trainee. This passion for writing your own music and having a story to tell—was that what drove you to put modeling to the side and pursue a career as a girl group member?
F: Actually, I got into modeling by accident. (Laughs) It was not my goal at all. A friend I knew worked at a modeling agency and she was like, “Why don't you come in? I think you’d do good as a model.” I went to their company and the CEO was like, “Oh, yeah, let’s sign you” and then I started modeling. It’s fun, I still enjoy modeling. You get to tell different stories but with your eyes this time, with movements, and the moods you set. It’s different from music, but they have a little connection there.
GN: Why did you choose to be part of a girl group rather than being a solo or independent artist?
F: I always wanted to be in a group, since I was like 15 years old because of Shinee. I’ve always wanted to have that group, one-family atmosphere if I wanted to do music, but I can also do my solo stuff. So it’s like, the best of both worlds. I can do my solo stuff, tell my stories on my own. And then I can do the group stuff and tell the group’s stories. It’s like two different worlds that I enjoy so much.
GN: So you are from Senegal but moved to Belgium when you were about 12, and you started living in Korea in 2018. How was it adjusting to all those different cultures?
F: The first big shock was when I moved to Belgium. Comparing Belgium to Senegal is a different world. Senegal is very warm, relaxed, open, the culture is so deep. Music is a culture back in Senegal. We have so many things connected to music, so it runs really deep over there. And we would always get together and connect with family through music. And in Senegal, there’s also this culture of being one big family, we’re all brothers, sisters, moms, dads, aunts, uncles. Very open, you know, sometimes I would just walk down the street and the neighborhood would be like “Hey Fatou, come eat with us.” It’s very African.
But moving to Belgium, it was completely different. The people are nice, but it was not like the big family we were in Senegal. And after that, moving to Korea, more than a culture shock—it was more like being kind of alone. Like the only Black person around, that’s a weird feeling, that’s different. But also the Korean culture actually has some similarities with Senegalese culture like the one big family aspect. But growing up from Senegal then moving to Belgium, spending 12 years there and now coming to South Korea, I was meant to do this whole journey. It made me who I am right now and I wouldn’t change anything else. And jumping from culture to culture that young also taught me to stay open-minded always because people and cultures are different.
GN: When it comes to K-pop, there’s been a long-term issue of cultural insensitivity and appropriation. As a Black person within that industry, what do you think about that?
F: Obviously, K-pop has been heavily influenced by Black artists, Black music, style, fashion, you name it—heavily influenced. If you want to enjoy the culture, be sure you respect the people behind it and listen to the people behind it, the people who made it. Don’t close your eyes or ears. Just listen because culture is made to be shared, obviously, there’s a limit though. Listen to the people who made it, respect those people and enjoy the culture. Don’t cross the line though.
GN: As a role model within the Black K-pop community, what advice would you give to the Black girls who want to become K-pop idols in the future?
F: One thing I always say and always think is that Black people can do anything, literally. We can do anything if we set our minds to it. It’s not only Black people, humans in general. So don’t listen to the external, bad, negative energies. Like, “No, you can’t do that because of your skin color. No, you can’t do that because of your this or that.” No. It's music. If music is your passion, if you feel like it’s your calling, go for it. Don’t ever be afraid. Go for it 100 percent, and you can do it! Come on, we Black! (Laughs) If I can do it, anyone can do it!
Published on June 6, 2023