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Ali: The Knockout Artist
By Tae Hong
Ali’s first visit to Los Angeles began with a quest to find Muhammad Ali’s star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
The 29-year-old singer, whose rise to fame can be credited to both her explosive vocal chops and to her widely lauded performances on KBS’s “Immortal Songs,” named herself after the boxer because she wanted her songs to have the same impact as the champ’s punch on listeners.
She couldn’t find his star at first — that’s because he’s actually on a vertical surface on the Dolby Theatre wall — but, upon sighting the star after giving up, ran to it to take a picture.
“I really felt like I had a personal fate with him,” she says.
Ali flew into L.A. as a performer in The Korea Times’ Music Festival on the last day of April. She says she’s fallen in love with the city.
What caught her attention most was the preservation of culture in L.A., which she noticed most in the architecture of the buildings around town, some of them towering and many of them historic.
“The hotel I’m staying in now, it was built in the 1920s,” she says. “Being in a historic building like that, I can almost feel the energy of the people who were here in the twenties.”
But in the end, she notes with a laugh, it was plain old, salted Korean seaweed — gim — that acted as a night saver when she found trouble falling asleep.
“At first [when I came to L.A.], I thought, ‘Ah! I want to live here,’ but after eating the gim — ” she breaks off laughing. “I couldn’t sleep without it.”
Her ringing voice was a standout on some of hip-hop duo Leessang’s greatest hits, including “Ballerino” and “I’m Not Laughing,” but most Korean music lovers noticed Ali for the first time through “Immortal Songs,” which gave the ballad singer a platform on which she could experiment with a variety of genres.
She’s one of the show’s biggest success stories to date, a regular fan favorite with a record seven wins.
To Ali, the different sides of herself on display on the program are what makes doing it fun. Planning for the show lets her creativity come loose, and if she wants to try a musical, she can try a musical. If she wants to try pop, she can try pop.
But she knows the music market and can’t see herself releasing dance music when there are already dozens of idols who can do it much better, she says.
“I feel like good vocalists should know how to sing a ballad well,” she says. “To me, the more I sing them, the more difficult ballads are. That’s why I want to continue as a primarily ballad singer.”
Jazz is another type of music she’d like to show listeners, especially because she majored in jazz vocals while in college.
“My homework to solve from now on is how to put a jazz spin on Korean music,” she says.
Her trip to L.A., at least this time around, is very much about solidarity among Koreans through music in the wake of the sinking of the Sewol.
When she was younger, she wanted to dominate the world music industry, imagined herself as the kind of singer who would go on to top Billboard charts and win Grammy Awards. But now, she says, it’s all about going where she’s wanted.
“The happiest thing to do is going to places where people want me to come,” she says. “I want to become a singer who can give warm consolation to our people here.”
And coming back to the U.S. for another performance, maybe even a solo concert? Her eyes widen at the mere mention of it.
“That won’t be easy but it would be great,” she smiles. “If I could connect and share with not just Koreans but American fans, then I think I maybe could. Could that also be considered an American Dream?”