The new wave of Black Lives Matter protests that has swept the US in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on 25 May has generated solidarity actions all over the world, sometimes in unexpected places. One is among fans of Korean pop music (K-pop), many of whom the mainstream media have been surprised to discover stand in solidarity with the BLM movement.
Their activism caught the media’s attention after fans crashed the Dallas Police’s “snitch” app on 31 May. The app was touted as a way to share anonymously “video of illegal activity from the protests” with the Dallas police, but was brought down after a fan of the Korean superstars BTS tweeted about it, causing other fans to begin calling for direct action to keep police from identifying protesters. Soon thousands of BTS and other K-pop fans were flooding the iWatch Dallas app with “fancams” (videos of performers made by fans). Five hours later, the Dallas Police Department announced on Twitter that “due to technical difficulties iWatch Dallas app will be down temporarily”.
The following day, Korean music fans again used fancams to crash a second police “snitch” app, this time one set up by the Grand Rapids Police Department. They also hijacked the #calminkirkland hashtag started by the Kirkland Police in Washington in order to solicit information about BLM protesters, quickly rendering it unusable. Over the next few days, fans hijacked other anti-BLM and pro-white supremacist hashtags, drowning them out with fancams of their favourite artists.
On 20 June, Korean music fans were credited – along with TikTok users – with over-inflating the ticket requests for US president Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally. Prior to the rally, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale bragged that more than 800,000 people had requested tickets. But in the end, Trump failed to fill the 19,000 seat venue, and the additional overflow areas set up to cater for the expected 100,000 strong crowd were closed after only 6,200 people turned up.
While fans of many different K-pop groups have been involved in the online protests, the driving force behind many of the actions has been BTS fans, known officially by their fandom acronym of “ARMY”. With 26.8 million Twitter followers, BTS has been the most tweeted about music artist for the last three years. According to Twitter, tweets about K-pop dominated the platform in 2019, with more than 6.1 billion tweets, up 15 percent from 2018.
While Korean entertainers have historically shied away from political activism, since BTS’s debut in 2013, the band have actively addressed social and political issues in their music, including class, youth alienation, mental health, violence and authoritarianism in the education system, as well as “Hell Joseon” or the impact of neoliberalism on Korean youth.
On 4 June, BTS tweeted their support for the BLM movement, saying, “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together”. Two days later, BLM coordinators revealed the group had donated US$1 million to the cause. In response, BTS fans began an online campaign to #MatchAMillion. In less than 24 hours, more than 35,000 fans donated US$1.4 million via the donation campaign coordinated by “One In An ARMY” – a charity fanbase. One In An ARMY has previously raised money for numerous causes, including Syrian refugees and COVID-19 relief in poor, working class and vulnerable communities around the world.
While it is a common assumption, particularly by the media, that international K-pop fans are white teenage girls, this is not the reality. “[T]he stereotype is a far cry from the truth”, argues South Korean journalist Yim Hyun-su in the Washington Post in June. “The global K-pop fandom consists of people from varying age groups, of different ethnicities, from all walks of lives, many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community.”
BTS’s global fan base, for example, is predominately made up of people of colour. In the US, Black fans make up a large proportion of not only the BTS fanbase but K-pop fans in general, along with other people of colour. This is primarily because Korean pop music since the 1990s has been strongly influenced by hip-hop, rap and R&B. This influence was noted by Tiger JK, one of the founding artists in South Korea’s hip-hop scene in a solidarity post on Instagram on 1 June: “As musicians doing music and business inspired by Black culture, we need to join the BLM movement”. And while many K-pop fandoms skew younger, BTS’s fandom skews older, with the majority of international fans being in their mid-20s to 40s.
Since the time of the Beatles, female-dominated pop music fandoms have been ridiculed as foolish, shallow and hysterical, while screaming crowds of male sports fans who are equally obsessive and loyal to their favourite team are not trivialised in the same way. Such sexism, notes Yim, “has demonized the word ‘fangirl’ and other things women are passionate about, leading to bizarre stereotypes of who K-pop fans are”.
Professor Candace Epps-Robertson, an academic at the University of North Carolina researching BTS and fandom, explained in a National Public Radio interview on 1 July that such stereotypes and misrepresentations ignore the fact “people enter these fandom communities and spaces with lots of ideas and commitments, some may be political or tied to social issues. ARMY, for example, BTS fandom is a diverse group with a wide range of issues that they care about ... so speaking for myself, as a Black fan, I entered into this space with commitments to social justice that I certainly did not check at the door once I became ARMY”.
The recent online activism by Korean music fans has demonstrated that the politicisation brought about by the BLM movement has turned almost every nook and cranny of society into a site of political struggle and contestation, including in the world of K-pop. The fact that the movement has more allies than enemies in this subculture is encouraging, and shows the potential for solidarity and unity across significant social and cultural divides.