It’s been five years since Korean rapper Choi Seung Hyun — better known as T.O.P of music juggernaut BIGBANG — disappeared from the public eye. Now he’s back, with plenty to say about where he’s been and where he’s going.
WORDS NATHAN ERICKSON
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING ALVIN GOH
T.O.P: A Star Reborn
Among the biggest names in art across Asia, only a handful are artists; the rest are often collectors, many from positions of wealth and power — people who fill their spaces with the priciest, the rarest, the most hyped of pieces.
Choi Seung Hyun is one of the unique few who occupy the role of both artist and collector. But his medium is neither paint nor marble — Choi makes music. (He also acts.) You might know him better as T.O.P, member of the original Korean music phenom, BIGBANG.
Considered one of the biggest young collectors of contemporary art in the region, his star has risen considerably in the business during the past decade. He was invited to lend pieces to Seoul’s Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, and he also guest-curated an exhibition for Singapore’s ArtScience Museum. In Hong Kong, he co-curated an auction of Asian and Western art for Sotheby’s that raised millions, with part of the proceeds going to support emerging Asian artists.
The dual pop star and art patron is a rare breed: you could look in vain for another who can put names such as Mark Grotjahn and Piet Mondrian into the mouths of millions of young fans. Who better than a creator and a collector to speak on the future of art in Asia?
But Choi stepped away from the limelight five years ago. His absence wasn’t meant to be this long — military conscription, mandatory for males in Korea, is a two-year spell. But after completing his service, Choi all but disappeared — from fans, from interviews, from pop stardom — leaving many wondering how he was feeling, and whether he’d ever return.
When we reached out to Choi for Prestige’s annual Art Issue, he openly discussed his passion for art, which he calls his driving force. Then, just days before our interview, the news broke: BIGBANG would be making their long-awaited comeback with a new single, and T.O.P would be ending his 16-year contract with their label.
When we meet over Zoom, Choi is dressed casually, in a black baseball cap and a blue hooded sweatshirt, but it’s clear he’s been prepared for this moment for a long time. While stars of a certain calibre rarely speak publicly — especially to magazines — without a small army of publicists and management types, he’s alone, save for a translator (“My English teacher,” he says) who joins us to ensure that every word comes out just as intended. There are some important things, he tells me, that he’s looking forward to revealing for the first time today.
“This is a time to leap to the next stage of my career and life,” he says with a smile. Choi’s ambitions are bigger than ever. And this is just the beginning.
IN 2017, ONE OF the world’s biggest pop stars stood on stage and said goodbye to his fans. It wasn’t a forever kind of goodbye, but more of a “see you soon”. At least, that was the plan. It’s a simple, if cruel, fact of life for the young fans of Korean boy bands: boys become men and, by law, those men must serve in the military. And when your idols leave, they don’t always come back.
While Choi was serving in the military police, a certain drama — one involving marijuana — played out for the artist. It played out in the news, on social media, in the court of public opinion and, ultimately, in the actual courts as well. Keep in mind that this is Korea, where cannabis remains a serious subject — recreational use still carries a sentence of up to five years in prison or a fine of as much as 50 million won.
He described the incident as “the worst moment” of his life, then quietly disappeared from the public eye, leaving only rumours and speculation about what happened next.
“This is the first time I’ve spoken this publicly, but I did try to commit suicide about five years ago,” says Choi, looking away, his voice lowering. “I realised later how much hurt and painful memories I gave to the people around me, my family and fans out there.
“Actually, I was going to seriously stop making music and stop being a musician. But during the bad times, the rough times, my motivation to keep going was the music. I wrote more than 100 songs over the past five years. It’s been my motivation, like wanting to fill up a bookshelf with my work. It’s been my passion. I realised how precious it is to pay back what I’ve received,” he says. “I feel that I’m reborn.”
Choi lowers his shoulders and smiles. A weight has been lifted.
ART AND MUSIC HAVE intersected in Choi’s life from the very beginning. Raised in a family of artists — his great uncle was the pioneering Korean abstractionist Kim Whanki — he discovered a great sense of comfort from beautiful and aesthetically pleasing works. Art became a balancing force for him, a centre.
“Since I was young I’ve suffered from depression, but by looking at beautiful things, especially art, I feel relaxed, I feel relieved,” says Choi. He admits he’s always felt a strong connection with his emotions.
“I was born to be sad,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve felt extra sensitive compared to other kids since I was young. I knew it and felt it, and spent more time and more effort to get over it by spending time with art.”
As a musician and actor — he enjoys both equally — Choi is happy to be called an artist. But he prefers to leave other forms of art to the professionals: “I think that people who are best at it should actually do it,” he says. “I think I have eyes to see what is good art, but … I’m not necessarily the best at drawing or painting.”
That doesn’t mean others haven’t tried to get him there. Choi’s family encouraged him to pursue the visual arts to create more of the beautiful things he loved. He had a different plan.
“Since I was five, I started dreaming about music and being a musician. That dream never changed.”
Choi fell in love with rap, which he calls the most creative genre, and followed that path. But even while he chased his music dreams, Choi never lost his fondness for “visual beauty”. The money he began to make from music enabled him to pursue the latter, buying up and collecting all the pretty things in sight. He started with sneakers, then expanded to furniture, design, paintings and sculptures. A Mondrian homage by Tom Sachs and Concetto spaziale by Lucio Fontana hang behind him as we talk.
There are no shortcuts for Choi when it comes to studying and cultivating his art tastes. While the internet offers a never-ending stream of inspiration, he prefers to lose himself in the massive collection of art books he keeps at home; he loves the process of research and discovery. Someday, he mentions, he’d like to add the work of American abstract expressionist Barnett Newman to his collection.
Reports have claimed he spends as much as 95 percent of his income on art. He tells me it’s actually more. For Choi, art means something that can’t be seen, only felt — not a journey of self-discovery, but something deeper.
“I feel I already found myself during my twenties, as I was spending my time as a musician,” he says. “It’s more of a spiritual journey than finding myself.”
For Choi, it’s also his wellspring of creativity.
“I believe that having the most unique art in my collection will inspire me to make the most unique music,” says Choi. “Art is my breakthrough. The visual inspiration and energy received from art stimulates me and becomes the driving force that moves me in new ways.”
As music afforded him the opportunity to collect art, it’s the art that gives him the inspiration to create more music. And as music lit the way through the darkest period of his life, it’s no stretch to say that we have art to thank for Choi being with us today.
AS HE’S A PROLIFIC collector, it should be no surprise that Choi counts a number of artists as close friends and collaborators.
“I enjoy communicating with artists, not just because of collecting, but as an artist, as a musician,” he says. “I come to artists with my pure passion and it’s why I believe I have a lot of artist friends, and they open their hearts to me — even though they’re sometimes super-closed people.”
The Japanese sculptor, Kohei Nawa, is one of those artists. His surreal abstractions of familiar objects are unlike anything else out there — exactly the type of artist Choi admires.
“He’s my soul brother,” says Choi. “It seems like we can both share something interesting soon.” That something? An NFT project.
While he hasn’t bought any NFTs that currently exist on the market (“I’d rather make things that I’d like to buy”), he sees the growing trend as a good thing, simply because it means a greater variety of visual beauty in the world.
He can’t reveal anything about the NFT project yet, but he also mentioned another project with Nawa: Choi’s new wine label. The label of the wine would be an artwork by Kohei Nawa, he adds.
After art and his fans, Choi’s third great love may very well be wine. Why not find a way to combine all three? These reds and whites will be selected and produced in France.
“It started when I was going through some tough times, as a way to pay back fan support,” says Choi. “I came up with this idea that I wanted to share some good wines at a reasonable price. It doesn’t have to be only for certain people out there – I want to share with everyone.”
Choi aims to make the wine as affordable as he can, with a portion of the profits going towards supporting an art foundation. Paying it back, just as he planned.
MENTAL HEALTH IS A big topic on Choi’s mind, and it’s something he’s devoted significant time to researching in recent years. His own experience notwithstanding, he’s seen friends struggle, and he’s lost others to suicide. The statistics in his home country alone are impossible to ignore.
“Tragically, Korea is number one in suicide rates among OECD countries,” he says. “Over the past five years I’ve been studying that a bit more, and inside my studio, I’ve tried to put that mentality into my music. Through my music, I want to provide hopes and dreams to many young people who are in despair at this very moment.”
In Korea, there’s one area in particular that he feels is due for a closer examination.
“The K-pop system,” he says. “I myself am fortunate that I only spent less than a year as a trainee before I debuted — a relatively short time — but after, I saw all the trainees, the boys and girls, they’re under a very harsh system. They’re told what to do and trained just like robots. They might get popular, they might get bigger, but in their heart and in ways we can’t see, they’re being isolated, and feel lonely inside.”
The feeling is one that he can clearly relate to. His solution? A new kind of record company. “I don’t want to be a robot maker,” says Choi. “I want to make a real artist and help real artists. I’m positive about making a group that’s completely different from BIGBANG in the future.”
With some 16 years of experience in the business, it’s safe to say he knows what he’s talking about.
For Choi, it’s simply one area where he personally feels he has the ability to make positive change, while adding that mental health deserves better recognition and acknowledgement across the board, especially for young people.
“It’s not just this celebrity industry, but I want to share this message, especially with younger people. I want to start different kinds of activities that provide positive and hopeful messages to the younger generation out there,” he says.
As for what he’d tell himself at a younger age? “Be more courageous.”
IF YOU WEREN’T THERE to witness it, it’s hard to truly emphasise how big BIGBANG really was. Before Squid Game shattered streaming records, before Parasite took home the Oscar, before Blackpink was in our area, there was BIGBANG — and that “Korean Wave” is still riding the momentum of their impact.
“I think very positively of it,” says Choi of the part BIGBANG played in today’s suddenly Korea-obsessed global climate. “I think this is just the start, and it will get even bigger.”
Even the most established musicians have trouble stepping outside of their genre, yet BIGBANG somehow made it look easy. Any given album might feature elements of rap, R&B, dance, trap, rock or even disco, offering different members their moment to shine from one track to the next. They weren’t just making their home country fashionable – they were rewriting the rules of pop music, with the critical and commercial success to back it up, and fans around the globe in the palm of their hands.
For a certain kind of musician, it’s what dreams are made of. But what happens when that dream is no longer shared?
Four years removed from their previous single, “Flower Road”, it’s a question that’s been on Choi’s mind.
“From the beginning, I’ve always shared with my fans that I’m fully proud that I am T.O.P of BIGBANG, but in the last few years I was starting to think that maybe this was the end, and maybe there won’t be T.O.P of BIGBANG for a while,” he says.
“BIGBANG is an idol artist group,” he says, laughing. “But I’m too old, and everyone’s old too!”
Joking or not, he’s got a point. Boys will be boys — until they aren’t anymore. Choi adds that the upcoming comeback song with the band will include a message to his fans, as well as some messages about why he’s on a break from BIGBANG.
“Being super honest with the fans, I really don’t want to say this is my last,” he says. “But even more frankly, it might be a long while until I come back as T.O.P of BIGBANG. Over those five years, our music tastes and activities probably differed a lot, and now BIGBANG music and T.O.P’s music are quite different. I’m at the stage in my life where I want to awaken to fresh new challenges, stimuli and transition.”
He leaves open the possibility of a future reunion, adding that he loves his band, and has a personal connection with each of the members.
“I’ve been saying to my fans since my debut that I’ve been planning to come back with a solo album sometime in the future, whenever I feel ready. Now, I feel ready,” he says. “My first album will come out soon, and it will be my very first journey of sharing who I really am.”
Details of the album will remain secret, for now, but one thing he can share?
“You’ll be surprised, because I’ve been recording continuously during the hiatus, and there’ll be a lot of different genres included in the album. All the songs are from my pure heart — I spent a lot of sweat and effort to make this album possible,” he says, adding the songs on the album are drawn from those 100 that he wrote over the last five years.
Lastly, a feature film production that includes a global creative team and cast will couple with the album.
“For the first time since my debut 16 years ago, my first full album will be released, and this album will be created as a feature film.”
AFTER FIVE YEARS AWAY and battling his way back from some very dark places, Choi has returned to the light, free for the first time in his adult life, to control his own narrative. He knows not everyone will appreciate that. “I’m 34 now, so I’ve been through a lot. I learned how not to give a f***. I’m at the point where I can be responsible for the things that I’ve said.”
He goes on to clarify — future record-label boss in the making — that younger artists may not want to heed this advice just yet. “They still need to grow, they still need training,” he says. “They actually need to learn and listen and get advice and still have a long way to go, so I don’t say to the young artists, ‘Don’t give a f***,’ because that can actually give them negative results.”
As for the myriad projects, he’s putting his full heart into those. In total, they include his first solo album, a feature film, a record label, an NFT project, a wine label and, of course, continuing to grow his art collection.
For Choi, the sky’s the limit. And he’s forever dreaming up ways to pay it all back – to his loved ones, to his fans, to those who were always there for him, even when it felt as if no one else was. Through his own journey, it seems he’s found a way to be there for himself, too.
So what’s it like to be a 34-year-old, independent global superstar with his whole career ahead of him?
“I feel like I’m just a beginner right now, and I’m about to start the real thing as an artist.”
And how’s he feeling?
He smiles. “I’m just happy.”
T.O.P: A Star Reborn
Words Nathan Erickson
Creative direction and styling Alvin Goh
Photography Ji Yong Yoon
Videography Jinyoul Lim
Make-up Shin Mi Sug
Hairstyling MZW by Taehyun
Styling Kim Tae Rin, Jong Hyun Lee
Styling Assistant Hwang Mose
Lighting Assistant Wonyoung Ki
Visual Imaging Yoon Studio
Manager Kim Jae Seog
Trainer Kim Jong Jin
Translator Young Go
Coordinator Mia Hur