Nurul Najwa Binti Mahadzir
K-pop, as a music genre and pop culture experience has been a global phenomenon for more than a decade, now. The K-pop music industry’s influence that captured the ears (and hearts) of many around the world actually has been established since the 90s and early 2000s, with the likes of Seo Taiji & Boys, arguably the founding group that redefined K-pop as we know it today. But it was really K-pop boy band, BTS’ breakthrough in the American music scene in 2017 that really elevated the genre, transforming the boys into The Beatles-esque status.
Generally, the American music industry is really averse to non-English music. Besides, other countries’ production of movies or music usually pale in comparison to America’s output in terms of sophistication, glamour and influence (Rose, 2020). However, recent years have shown a different trend. Fans are drawn to K-pop, especially in the US where the most fans are minorities, allowing themselves to feel represented in mainstream pop culture. Upon seeing BTS mega popularity that reigns the country’s Billboard charts, the Americans have decided to bank in on the opportunity. This includes Billboard’s decision to place the members individually on their magazine covers as collectibles, collaboration with Hollywood artists such as Halsey and Steve Aoki and appearances on US late night TV shows. The fans went hysterical, TV hosts citing the phenomenon bearing resemblance to Beatlemania. All of it which has helped in boosting BTS’ presence in the US and of course, as we all know, once you made it in the US, you’ve really made it.
Phenomenon aside, the K-pop industry is no stranger to criticisms as well. K-pop group characteristics – complex choreography, aesthetics, song production and squeaky clean image of the idols (Roche, n.d. ) are almost always manufactured in a formulaic, calculative manner. Therefore, it has always been unlikely that any idol members or groups, would engage in political activism publicly, fearing it might jeopardize their image. While there are efforts by these young Korean celebrities to participate in political activism, whether intentionally or not, the gesture has always been guaranteed with impending criticism or restrictions from their own management companies. Which is why BTS’s participation in Black Lives Matter campaign is considered revolutionary.
Black Lives Matter can only be described as a social movement in response to numerous killings of unarmed African Americans (Clayton, 2018). This social movement was then embraced by many across the world, because at the core of it all, its cause transcends the African-American community. This movement represents a pivotal civil rights movement for the often oppressed African-American community in a country built by systemic racism, and for many minority groups in the country – including Korean-Americans, this is a cause for undeniable support, collectively.
BTS was reported to have donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter (Benjamin, 2020) and their management company, Big Hit Entertainment tweeted their solidarity in the fight for Black lives. While BTS was not the only Korean artists that donated for the cause – other artists such as rapper pH-1 and Jay Park also donated and pledged support, it was perhaps a peculiar, yet refreshing sight to see K-pop idol groups engaging in political activism, directly. In recent years, BTS was also chosen to deliver a speech to today’s youths at the UN General Assembly.
BTS’ political activism may be considered revolutionary, but for their fans, aptly named ARMY, their social cause for justice and civil rights may not be a surprise. Among the many factors jolting Seo Taiji & Boys rise to fame were songs that target social inequality and teenage runaways (Jin & Ryoo, 2014). BTS has always been compared to Seo Taiji & Boys as their song lyrics have supported progressive causes, touching on issues of self-love and social consciousness (Bruner, 2020).
Recently, ARMYs has been in the spotlight for interfering at Trump rallies, increasing expecting numbers to the rally without the intention of actually attending it. This savvy organizing and quick mobilization skills were lauded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even though K-pop fans, ARMYs in particular has always been able to top trending hashtags on social media platforms at the tip of their fingers.
Whether or not this political activism supported by K-pop fans are largely contributed by the K-pop industry’s new embrace to a political cause, it has certainly created a growing discourse. Fans recognized how political activism is a rarity in the K-pop industry. However, as fans continue to grow worldwide, a form of inclusion, diversity and respect towards other cultures and social causes must be included in the industry’s long-term plan, replacing the industry’s lack of cultural appropriation or engagement in political activism prior to this moment. To date, BTS contributed income to South Korea’s GDP is in the likes of the country’s conglomerates such as LG and Samsung. Therefore, if political activism is accepted and supported by fans of the industry worldwide, then maybe we can predict seeing more propagated messages that promote activism, political or not, from K-pop groups in the future.
Benjamin, J. (2020, June 6). BTS and Big Hit Entertainment Donate $1 Million to Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from Variety on 14th January 2021, https://variety.com/2020/music/news/bts-big-hit-1-million-black-lives-matter-donation-1234627049/.
Bruner, R. (2020, July 25). How K-pop Fans Actually Work as a Force for Political Activism in 2020. Retrieved from TIME on 14th January 2021, https://time.com/5866955/k-pop-political/.
Clayton, D. (2018). Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Movements in the United States. Journal of Black Studies, 49(5); 448-480.
Jin, D. Y., & Ryoo, W. (2014). Critical Interpretation of Hybrid K-Pop: The Global-Local Paradigm of English Mixing in Lyrics . Popular Music and Society, 37(2); 113-131.
Roche, A. (n.d. ). Blood Sweat & Tears: A Closer Look at the K-pop Phenomenon. Retrieved from Music Business Journal, Berklee College of Music on 14th January 2021, http://www.thembj.org/2019/11/blood-sweat-tears-a-closer-look-at-the-k-pop-phenomenon/.
Rose, S. (2020, September 12). American horror story: how the US lost its grip on pop culture . Retrieved from The Guardian on 14th January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/sep/12/american-horror-story-how-the-us-lost-its-grip-on-pop-culture.