Amidst the festive mood of Christmas shopping that marks the end of a tempestuous year, and as humankind look forward to a new year of new merriments, an equally blissful event is coming for a young man with whom many passersby in Times Square will soon be acquainted. This individual has fought his way through the tough elimination process of a well-known Chinese survival variety show, CHUANG 2021. He emerged as 11th place in the multinational boyband INTO1, which is composed of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and U.S. citizens. He had imparted joys and hopes for many during the somber 2021. The powerful positive energy which many receive from their pop idol is returning in a thousand folds. How strong is the bond that links people across the globe when people from thousands of miles away and living thousands of miles apart rejoice with a chap celebrating the birthday? Liu Zhang (surname-first name), or more amiably known as AK, is the young chap who will soon be turning 22.
Passion for Music
Like every college student who had a set career path in mind, AK was no different. Although he was distinct from most of his peers in the joint major in Mathematics and Economics at NYU, AK aspired to be a rapper. When he was given an opportunity to stand on the stage, AK’s indispensable passion for music prompted him to take a leave during his sophomore year and return to his homeland in pursuit of his dream. In 2020, AK participated in the Bilibili (the Chinese equivalent of YouTube) hosted competition reality show, “Rap for Youth.” His resilience in the show earned him the nickname “Prince of Bilibili.” This sobriquet jokingly points to the show’s playing favoritism for AK, who was frequently on the verge of elimination and yet miraculously stayed until the last round. Each mentor of the show took turns saving AK – this would make a great Shonen JUMP manga story. As the curtains fell for “Rap for Youth,” AK met people whom he could call his life-long buddies and signed on to his first label, W8VES, a Chinese rapper label promoted by Bilibili and the 88rising company. However, opportunities never cease to leave AK alone, for this show earned AK a ticket to a larger stage, CHUANG 2021.
A Boy with a Dream
AK’s hometown, Guangdong, is in the Southern region of China. He came from a modest background and loving parents. The lines in his rap speaks of his experiences instead of bucks and fame. One might ask, about what experience can young man barely 20 years of age possibly write? His songwriting started when he was 16, and the sharp edges that were etched within his songs with a tang of seasoned sentiments incited listeners to wonder about this boy’s childhood. AK was once subjected to intense bullying at school. Only those who experienced this type of ordeal understands the psychological damages that would haunt a person for life. AK never explicitly stated that he wanted to become a voice of the victim, yet he never shies away from revealing his shortcomings, namely the inferiority complex attacks that would seize him from time to time. He is only hopeful to become a beacon for someone to look to. “If I can spread warmth to people like me than this [the act of opening himself up] isn’t half bad.” This is a verse taken from his original song “Love me Love me.” It was never all sunshine and rainbows for AK, but it is apparent that he never gave up on finding the kindness inherent in humanity.
Before being duped into participating in CHUANG 2021, AK thought boyband (nan-tuan) isn’t real (or sensible). CHUANG 2021’s director guilefully convinced AK, who bit the bait, by declaring he should see actual boybands with his own eyes rather than believe the stereotypical image. The young man joined the program with a critical eye. Unlike other trainees who came onto the show with “debut” in mind, AK first saw himself as an “observer” rather than a “player” in this survival camp. Life in the camp, aside from variety show filming, was a vigorous schedule of dance and singing lessons. The reality show style of filming puts almost a hundred trainees on camera 24/7 but confiscates their gadgets so that the trainees receive zero distractions from the world outside. After spending a few months in the camp surrounded by boyband-to-be individuals, AK found his own definition of a boyband. Friendship and hardworking is the gist of a boyband, making it no different from any other dream while also having a magical allure to it. It was then that AK explicitly expressed he wanted to become a “player” in the competition. His dream of becoming a boyband member was sparked.
The Eye of a Tempest
“11th place, eh, here we go into another eye of the Tempest … what’s life without challenges? Life is filled with challenges,” said AK humbly, as it was his last interview on CHUANG 2021. AK successfully graduated from the survival camp with another achievement in his pocket. The eleventh place holds many definitions, be it the last place to make it into the boyband or a coveted position by other CHUANG 2021 trainees and their fan clubs. A fierce rally ensued after his debut. Particularly, the disagreement that arose between fan clubs has been disruptive toward their “one-pick” (favorite trainee/graduate from the show) and their lives. Applauses and attacks came hand in hand for AK, making onlookers wonder if “debut” was the right path for him.
Amidst all the rumors, his fan base the “Bullets” — a rather uncommon byname with a very earnest origin – was a steadfast troop that supported AK while himself was not allowed to respond in any form. The word “AK” in addition to being the acronym of Liu Zhang’s Japanese name, Akira, also refers to the rifle AK-47. Hence, the word “bullet” was chosen as his fan base’s nickname. However, there is an underlying meaning for this word of choice. To quote AK, “guns may sound scary, bullets too; but if used for protection, both can bring us sense of security.” This symbiotic relationship between idol and fans is quite favorable. We still see traces of the little boy who was once hidden in his thick shell from the outer world. Nevertheless, he is also slowly seeking and learning to love himself as well as the people around him. Moreover, what has drawn many eyes and ears to follow AK is his stark sincerity and determination.
To the Future and Beyond
Rumors, including malicious ones, are frequent dishes served on AK’s table. For someone in the idol industry, where the virtue of a flawless personality and appearance is maxim, AK is rather grounded. He acknowledges himself as the imperfect being, hoping his fans, the Bullets, will heed his words and refrain from mindless deification. He is aware of the thorny path lying ahead, yet retreat has never seemed to be among his options. The Bullets have witnessed AK’s constant improvement, brought about by his own stoic efforts and by the encouragement from his band members, friends, and family. This young man has embarked on his new journey while most of the world has been on hiatus. Moreover, making it to the large visual screen on Times Square on his birthday is a gift from his fans from all around the world. Dear readers, I now present you the 22-year-old Liu Zhang, who has many labels. Whether the one you know is CHUANG 2021 trainee, member of INTO1, or AK the rapper, we can all look forward to what surprises Liu Zhang might bring us in the future.