SB19 is the Philippines’ undeniable breakout pop group, but as their latest single and tour put them in a position for greater international attention, the band has a grander vision for themselves and their home country.
Filipino boy band SB19 features members Pablo, Josh, Stell, Ken and Justin, who mix mainstream sounds with Original Pilipino Music (known as OPM) in the country’s main languages of Tagalog and English. Since the quintet’s start in late 2018, the group have found an unprecedented amount of local attention, online interest and day-to-day exhaustion in pushing the country’s current pop renaissance to international borders. While the Philippines has yet to rank highly among the world’s largest music industries (it was the 41st largest market on the IFPI’s global music report in 2010), the staggering, social-fueled influence and interest of SB19 has helped the group and their country push boundaries even throughout the pandemic.
Billboard first highlighted SB19 in early 2020 as a mainstay on the Social 50 chart for rapidly growing online metrics across platforms (namely Twitter, but also Facebook and Wikipedia) fueled by consistent OPM singles like “What?” (with 17 million views on its official music video), “Alab (Burning)” and “Go Up” (both with 12 million views). By the 2021 Billboard Music Awards, the group earned a nomination for Top Social Artist alongside BTS, Ariana Grande, BLACKPINK and SEVENTEEN. Just as their fellow nominees have all made shrewd moves in entering the international market, SB19’s new single is their time to display the group’s global-pop vision.
Released on Sept. 2, “WYAT (Where You At)” is SB19’s shiny new disco-pop single that marks a slew of firsts for the group. Unlike their past OPM singles, “WYAT” is fully in English and plays off today’s trending disco sound that’s helped BTS, Lizzo and Harry Styles top the Billboard Hot 100. Co-written and produced by group leader Pablo, “WYAT” feels similar to BTS’ breakthrough No. 1 hit “Dynamite” for being all in English and embracing a nostalgic sound and message to uplift those affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the broader pop sound, the SB19 guys share that they have worked tirelessly and have participated with personal touches to ensure everything translates perfectly.
“Right now, everything’s a bummer,” explains Pablo, who handles most of the group’s songwriting and production, over an evening Zoom call in the Philippines. “This song is about reconnecting with people. It’s different when you go out, meet people, do interesting things — climb a mountain! I would give everything to go back to the situation before where you’re not worrying if someone coughs. The song is about going back to how it was: talking and meeting actual people, doing things together, just re-creating the feeling we had before.”
“When Pablo wrote the song, I asked him what he was imaging while he’s writing the song,” adds Justin, the youngest member who takes the lead on creative direction and group visuals. “From there, I tried to make a bigger concept out of it and, of course, I asked if the group likes it and what they can add.”
Along with its retro sound, the accompanying “WYAT (Where You At)” music video takes audiences out of a stressful 2022 and transports them back to times that can make audiences of all ages nostalgic.
“Going back to the ’50s, ’70s, and ’90s eras, we researched how to show it visually and make people feel the nostalgia of things they kind of miss,” Justin explains. “We know that most of our fans are young, but we also want to reach those who experienced those times and tell young people these are the things they did. We didn’t have computers or cell phones; they’d go roller skating, enjoy parties, and hang out in the diners and arcades. Nowadays, we are kind of disconnected because of all the digital and, of course, the pandemic. It’s not just in the music video, but we are trying to connect SB19 with everything — including our tour.”
With live concerts back and quarantine restrictions lifted for travel, SB19 see their upcoming WYAT Tour — which includes stops in Dubai, New York, Los Angeles and Singapore — as essential to spreading their message and creating opportunities for the country’s burgeoning music scene, particularly in the world’s biggest music market.
“It’s our first time going to the U.S. and we don’t know what to expect, but we are looking forward to meeting all the people, all of our fans, and of course, to find new, casual [fans] as well,” eldest member Josh adds. “We would love to promote Filipino music as well as our music.”
Pablo shares, “A lot of people here in the Philippines have relatives in the U.S. and most of the members have relatives in the U.S. so we hope that they enjoy our performance because as critical as our fans are, we’re also interested to what our relatives will say about our performances.”
Tying things back to family and their home country is a crucial focal point for SB19. The group has teamed up for local endorsement deals and recorded songs with major brands, including Pepsi, Samsung, Netflix, Dunkin’ and more but still has space to live a relatively normal life.
“The biggest thing I like about our situation right now is being able to provide for my family,” Pablo says. “I wouldn’t say we’re all celebrities like riding sports cars and all that stuff; most of us still take taxis. I ride a motorcycle. Everyone is still the same. We eat street food and people would recognize us, but they’re not overstepping our privacy. They are very respectful and we’re thankful for that.”
Yet SB19’s loose freedom as celebrities doesn’t mean the road here has been similarly relaxed.
Through forming and undergoing what the band calls “intense” training by management company ShowBT Philippines Corp, the local arm of Korean entertainment company ShowBT, and signing with Sony Music Philippines in late 2019, SB19 say they took it upon themselves to develop into pop dynamos.
“If I’m allowed to share, we didn’t have a choreographer or vocal teachers,” Pablo says of the group’s early days. “We are the ones who just made our own choreography and prepared new songs—we are the ones who have been doing that since now, and I think that’s the biggest thing that we are very proud of.”
“We didn’t have money, but now we can have money to buy food,” Stell, who leads the group in creating choreography, adds. “Maybe that’s the biggest transformation that happened to us.”
SB19 now have a larger local team including teachers and professionals focused on vocal training, performance, dance and fitness, helping them to put in the hours and physical exertion they deem necessary to reach superstardom.
“My body aches,” Ken, the quietest member with the most exacting words, says. “I want to be truthful with you: I don’t want to wake up and get out of bed. That’s the most honest thing I can say, but it’s so rewarding since we can see that we’re improving and it’s helping. Going international is not a small thing for us, but it’s the biggest opportunity that we have right now.”
That opportunity isn’t just about SB19 but representing their entire country and showing what modern-day OPM and the Pinoy pop sub-genre offer. While a surge of new boy bands and girl groups are entering the Pinoy-pop scene, like ShowBT female outfit and SB19’s “sister group” KAIA that dropped their debut single in April, Stell says these acts “define who Filipinos are—we can do a lot of things; not only by singing and dancing but also expressing who we are and where we came from.”
With its wider pop ambitions thanks to an undeniable chorus and multiple visual access points thanks to the video and styling, “Where You At (WYAT)” puts SB19 in the best position to grasp the international spotlight.
“Before I felt the pressure,” Pablo says of properly representing his country and culture. “But I love my work so much that I’m just enjoying our team, making music with them, creating choreography and performing in front of the people who love us. If I’m going to be pressured by all the things people are saying about our group, then I wouldn’t be able to focus and enjoy what I’m doing right now. Even though this is work, it’s important to enjoy ourselves and have a great time. And if you’re having a great time, of course, those people watching will enjoy it as well…I believe that what we have right now is special and if we continue like this, there are better things ahead.”
Adding to SB19’s enjoyment is the group’s undying, international support system of fans — officially known as A’TIN — who are helping spread the group’s music and message in equally unprecedented ways for Filipino artists. Earlier this year, SB19 made it into the final round of Billboard‘s 2022 Fan Army Face-Off and were narrowly beat out by K-pop band Stray Kids to land in second place among a tight competition in the fan-voted brackets. While SB19 will get a chance to repay some A’TIN in person when the WYAT Tour heads out later this month, the band see the work their fans are putting in worldwide.
“We hear that a lot of international fans always share about us with their friends, they tell good stories and promote our group in their countries like the U.S., Indonesia, in every part of the world,” Stell says, before Ken adds, “We’re looking forward to meeting our fans who have been supporting us from the very beginning of our journey. We’re thankful and can’t wait to show the things that we’re making right now and for the future to come. I hope that you guys will be there and enjoy it.”
Yet just like how SB19 say they are now able to provide for their immediate family, the guys know that A’TIN are the ones nurturing them to reach their necessary needs and expand on their global goals.
“I can say that A’TIN are not just fans or supporters; they are family to us,” Stell sums up. “Without them, SB19 would not be in a situation where we have this big opportunity to promote and show our talents to the world. We are very thankful to our fans and, of course, to all the people who are rooting for us. We are hoping for the best not only for our group, but also for the other teams here in the Philippines. Thank you for all the efforts and all the things that you’re doing for SB19.”