Driving to the artist’s hotel in Dallas with members of an intrepid team of concertgoers and K-music writers, I found myself anxious — par for the course for me, to be honest. My nerves tend to flare when I’m on my way to have a conversation with an artist whom I highly respect. Kevin Hwang, known most commonly by his stage name G2, is quite an enigmatic artist, if for no other reason than he doesn’t do many solo interviews. As a member of one of Korean hip-hop’s most prominent labels, Hi-Lite Records, his notoriety has risen over the past couple years, most notably after his stint on season five of hip-hop survival reality show Show Me the Money.
However, there’s so much more to the young man than what MNET had a hand in molding in front of millions of viewers worldwide. One thing they did manage to capture, at least in some small part, is G2’s unconscionable stage presence. The power he exudes when in his element, the fire behind his eyes when he surveys his audience… it’s absolutely captivating.
A couple hours before I get to see this passion for the second time in Dallas, I find myself in the lobby of the Omni sitting across from one of the humblest, most unassuming artists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Even his introduction speaks of a humility unpracticed from the lessons of his culture.
“Just in case there’s people who don’t know who you are, as far-fetched as that may seem–”
“Oh no,” he says, a shy smile playing across his face. He dips his head for only a moment, but he introduces himself with full confidence. “My name is G2. I was raised in Dallas, Texas, and I’m doing this interview here in Dallas, Texas. I am a member of a label called Hi-Lite Records. It’s my second time performing at the Korean Festival. It’s kind of a big deal for me every time I come back because I grew up here.”
“I’m thankful they called me back the second time around,” he admits. “If they call me next year that’ll be great too. I just don’t want to end up like a cliché,” he says with a hesitant smirk. His humility has him worry that he may begin to bore his audience if he comes back every year, but honestly his fears are unfounded. His fans adore him, and those new to his music can’t help but become entranced.
I had the pleasure of seeing him at the inaugural Korean Festival last year. Watching G2 navigate the stage was truly a pleasure. Having only seen him through my computer screen, it was interesting to watch him work his magic on the crowd, an audience of young fans from diverse backgrounds in awe of his presence. It’s this diversity that shocks him.
“What was more crazy was that when I was performing, the majority of the crowd was non-Korean. That’s what surprised me the most. I performed in other cities, too, and that’s been the case a lot of times. It’s just kind of fun to see on stage, all kinds of different people.” He pauses for only a moment to reach back for a memory, an experience at the hotel he stayed at during last year’s festival. “Right when I was checking in I was at the elevator, and there was this older white lady with two kids. She drove all the way from Austin just for the Korean Festival to see me.”
Fast forward a year later. There’s a chill in the air this night, the temperature reaching no higher than 65 degrees during the day, then petering out to a paltry 40 degrees or so by the time G2’s performance begins. Despite the chill, his show is even more enchanting this year. As the first song blares through the DJ’s mix table — track “1999” — the audience is in an uproar. As far as introductions go, it’s as humble as the performer. He doesn’t make any powerful declarations, not at first. He throws out the requisite “Yo-yo-yo,” getting the crowd invested before he even sets foot on stage. Clad in a thick jacket over his long-sleeved hoody, bespectacled, his now famous two-tone dreadlocks swaying with each step, he opens his mouth and the conviction of a veteran booms out of this young performer.
It’s this type of energy, this fearlessness that makes him a prime candidate for South by Southwest (SXSW) next year. As has quickly become a growing goal for rookies and vets alike, the mere suggestion excites him. “Oh man!” he exclaims with more than a bit of awe in his voice, “that’s one of my goals that I wanna achieve.”
That same ardor for the stage was on full display this summer when he went on tour with labelmate and friend Reddy. “It was my first tour,” he reveals. “It was amazing. It was busy. It was hard. We had no time. We were just moving.” He snaps to indicate the unrelenting pace of the short tour. “It was only a couple of cities, but it was amazing to see everybody showing up from all different cities, let alone a different country.”
He continues, “Everywhere I go, it was the same: a lot of diversity in the crowd. It was kind of crazy.” One thing that strikes me is just how easy G2 is to talk to. His candor is refreshing, and his smile is infectious when he says, “I feel like I’m a little bit better than Reddy when I’m outside the country because I can speak English and I can talk to [the audience]. That was really fun for me ’cause I can get up on stage and kind of by myself 100 percent because I can speak Korean when I want to and English when I want to. I think that was one of the most fun parts of the tour, just being on stage and being able to communicate in different languages.”
This then begs the question: does he find greater comfort in Korea or in the States? Is there much of a difference?
“It’s a lot different, actually,” he admits. “In Korea most of the audience is Korean. I don’t do a lot of solo concerts, but I do a lot of shows and festivals with other people. But whenever I come to the States, [the audience] is coming just to see me. It’s like my own concert. So the love is definitely different. Each chance I can get to do a show out here it’s all love.”
The love is certainly contagious with the crowd at this year’s Korean Festival. G2 works from one side of the stage to the next, getting as close to his audience as he possibly can, standing on the barrier to sweep each of his fans up in an absolute fervor. So dedicated to their favorite rapper, the crowd sings his lyrics back to him, almost drowning him out. The ease with which he engages his audience would have anyone unfamiliar with him thinking he’s been in the game for at least a decade. What most would be surprised to find out is that he started out his journey as a painter.
“I don’t want to say a painter….” Again, his modesty is disarming, a hint of shyness creeping back into our voice as he ducks his head for a moment. “I tried to enroll in a couple of art schools as my college plan, but it didn’t really work out. I just kind of decided to do the music thing.”
The young man did have ambition, applying to the Art Center, MICA, Parsons in LA, and CCA (even getting accepted). He admitted that perhaps his eyes were bigger than his stomach, but in all actuality his dream to be an artist wasn’t as far-fetched as he may have believed. He was quite a gifted painter. In the end, however, the cost and the time investment seemed a bit too lofty for the talented high schooler.
“If you did ever get the chance to do it again, do you think you would try?” I ask. After all, once an artist, always an artist. He readily admits that picking up the craft again is always at the back of his mind.
“I always think, if I do go back would I be able to do it? Would I be able to finish? I do think about it all the time, but right now I feel like I should be focusing on the shit that I’m doing now.”
There’s certainly a great deal of growth from his high school years, wrought with uncertainty, to the moment he walks on that stage. So caught up in the energy of his performance, there are moments when he simply closes his eyes, throws his head back, and lets the lyrics blast forward. His delivery is sharp, voice powerful and unwavering. He admits during our conversation that he was more or less “just having fun in high school.” The way he performs now suggests he’s put all childishness aside. With the guidance of childhood friend (and producer of G2’s Life) UGP, hip-hop lovers are now blessed with the artist we’re now watching in all his glory.
“I always thought music was just a hobby,” he admits. “I never once thought that I was good during those years, and I thought, ‘All right then, I’ll just go to art.’” A chance visit back to Korea, however, forever changed his outlook. “It made me just kind of want to escape the reality here. My mom and my sister were living out there, so it made me just want to kinda fall back to more of a comfort zone. It surprises me still to this day that it kinda worked out.”
G2’s honesty is what drew me to him. Every part of his album drips with a raw earnestness that knocked me off my feet the first time I listened to it. There’s a sense that something heavy weighs on his soul as he navigates through his life experiences and the intricacies of a very fickle industry. When he speaks about his life in the States, starting in Chicago and ending up in Dallas, you hear a painful longing in his voice, as if he’s working through a mean memory. When he relates the story of his discovery, you hear the hesitancy, then ultimate gratitude. There’s pain, exhaustion, triumph, all of which is heightened when he performs through Dallas’s thick chill.
Those who know him through Show Me the Money only got a fraction of who he is as an artist. He takes a moment during the performance to even ask how many are here because of the show. When a resounding bellow answers him back he replies, “Y’all need to listen to more SoundCloud and expand your horizons.” Indeed, SMTM sold a fantasy around Korean hip-hop that many people aren’t want to sift through. The whole process was hard physically and emotionally for all participants involved. G2 makes it clear he wouldn’t be up for another go on the reality program. His response is emphatic: “Oh hell no!” He expresses his gratitude for the exposure profusely, but the toll it took on his mental health was enough to deter him from another appearance. “I’m not the type of person to just be put on the spot and just kinda show up for it. It didn’t really fit the way I am. It gave me mad anxiety.”
From his earliest days in the Brainwash Unit with Keith Ape (formerly Kid Ash), he’s been trying to find himself artistically. Transitioning between sounds, experimenting with styles of delivery, G2 readily admits everything is a learning process for him. His fondness for collaborating with different artists stems from an obvious thirst for knowledge.
“Whenever I work with somebody I’m on more of the dependent side. The whole reason I’m trying to work with this person is to have his ideas painted on. I tend to gather a lot of ideas from that person. All those artists I collaborated with on G2’s Life, the biggest inspiration was UGP, my Dallas homie, and GRAY — he’s constantly looking out.”
During his performance he laments the cold weather, a far cry from the heat and humidity he’s used to in Dallas. But at that moment there’s a shift in his demeanor. I can see in his eyes the “A-ha!” A familiar beat comes through the speakers, the first notes of “Bread.” He removes his jacket, despite earlier quips about the cold, and as soon as the beat drops, he jumps in the air, dreads flying as if reaching out to entangle each member of the audience, and we get a completely different side. When his old friend ACT joins him on stage, the entire t of the show changes. G2 is in a zone.
Underneath that stage bravado rests a very introspective soul. In a mini-documentary curated by KCON.TV, G2 peeled back his layers, and we were left with just Kevin Hwang. This is the man I’m speaking to today: soft-spoken, unassuming but insightful, honest. He says in the documentary, “We are all foreigners on this planet.” Even as he jokes that he doesn’t remember why he said that, he’s quick to elaborate given a year of experiences and perspectives.
“I feel like people forget sometimes we’re all just people. We’re all equal. We’re the same people just living on earth. When I did G2’s Life, and what I try to do with my music…. I really appreciate you saying you appreciate my honesty. That’s what I try to do. Basically we’re all just kinda lost souls, just kinda searching for something. You’re never content 100 percent, so I feel like even now, to this day I’m still going through puberty, still growing up, becoming more mature, adapting to a new environment every day.”
“So what are you still searching for at this point?”
“That’s a deep ass question,” he says with a laugh. He takes a moment. It’s not every day one’s asked by strangers to reveal so much of who he is. It’s easier to do it in a studio on your own terms. It takes a brave man to do so for someone they’ve just met. After a few seconds he says, “Realistically, I’m searching for some money. You’ve gotta agree, it makes things easier. Even doing music it makes it easier.” Not a soul in the world would disagree. “Other than that… I don’t know. I’m still searching for what I’m supposed to be searching for. Just living day to day.”
As the show continues, there’s a different mood in the air. Though he’s billed as “G2.” there are certainly moments when that persona slips and all we see is Kevin Hwang, searching, existing, living. In these moments when he just lets the audience sing out his lyrics, he’s on a different plane. His eyes are pointed to the stars, he mouths the words as if in silent deference to a higher power, and he just stands there swaying to the music, music he created in order to both give reverence to where he came from and where he is, and to dispel the heavy shadows that sometimes stick to one’s mind and soul.
It’s in these moments on his album that I think to myself how very much like J. Cole he seems. He brightens at the comparison. “He’s actually one of my biggest inspirations. I could easily say he’s number one right now. So thank you.”
The comparison is apt. J. Cole has always left himself open on his albums, baring all and being completely honest no matter the subject. The same can easily be said about G2 in both music and performance. “I try. Just a couple months ago when I used to live in a shitty-ass apartment, I didn’t wanna be flexing on these mothafuckers like I’m the shit, then end up going home to a shitty-ass apartment. So I always just try to…. If I’m depressed I’m depressed. If I’m angry I’m angry.” He simply tries to… be.
It gets closer and closer to the time he’s supposed to actually ride out the music festival, and thus the end of our time together. In the spirit of letting himself just be, we have to know what’s next for him.
“I’m trying to push out something by this year hopefully, at least a single. But I don’t wanna promise any details. I do have a solid plan for my next project, I just don’t know the details yet, but I’m gonna drop it pretty soon. I feel like it’s gonna be more of a sequel to G2’s Life, just continuing on from that story to more of the present story.
“Paloalto was a little bit worried that my fans would think I’m really depressed. No. I just want to be honest. I really just want to relate to people. I wanna tell all my fans and whoever’s listening we’re all the same. I’m a rapper, you’re a student, whatever. We’re all the same. I go through the same fucking struggle, the same fucking first-world problems. Whenever I’m low on battery, I need to charge my phone like you. I want to tell the people on my next project for sure that we’re still the same human beings. I go home after hard work, just like you. Chill, have a beer. I fight with people. I argue with people. I get depressed. I get home, I eat ramen, I eat kimchi. I think that’s the most solid thing that I have prepared.”
Even in these last moments he’s open, honest, raw. His stage show will attest to that: the highs, lows, moments of joy, introspection. It’s all there in front of us. G2 lives his life on stage just as vividly as he does in his music. After the requisite thank-yous, we share a short embrace, then go our separate ways. Much in the same way, he embraces his audience during his performance. When the show’s over, he gives a short thank-you, collects his jacket and his glasses (which he discarded at some point), and walks away, leaving the stage and each and every one of us thrumming from his energy, his passion, himself.
About the Writer: Cy is a digital journalist and blog writer specializing in reviews of music and film across a broad range of genres. Wherever there’s electricity, food and a good Wi-fi connection is where she makes her home. Find her on Twitter (@mindlesscy) and Instagram (@mindless_cy).