I find myself bopping my head to the catchy beats while I walk down the stairs or brush my teeth. I am just one of over 100 million people viewing South Korean boyband BTS’ music video “Dynamite” within hours of its release, smashing the previous YouTube record.
The worldwide fanbase organized streaming sessions to make the music video go viral, demonstrating the power of K-pop solidarity. But the ardent K-pop community mobilizes not only for songs and music videos, but also politics. The fanbase has gained notoriety for expanding political consciousness and advocacy among Gen-Zers.
This summer saw many publicized instances of K-pop fans’ witty political savvy. On June 20, President Trump held a campaign rally in front of rows upon rows of empty blue seats in Tulsa, OK. While his campaign touted more than a million registrations for the event, hundreds of seats had actually been secured and inflated by K-pop stans (name for devoted superfans) who had zero intention of attending. Fans also prompted each other to flood the white supremacist hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter with fancams (focused footage of their favorite idols,) messing with Twitter’s algorithm. The platform then promoted #WLM as a circulating K-pop trend. BTS and their label, Big Hit Entertainment chimed in with anti-racist sentiments and donated one million dollars to Black Lives Matter, which quickly prompted fans to cooperate and match another million dollars for the movement. Leveraging on close-knit fan networks and proficient digital literacy, K-pop fans have emerged collectively as online activists.
While this increased political consciousness is new within the K-pop community, it is impossible to discuss its role in promoting Black Lives Matter online without acknowledging the influence Black culture has had on K-pop: Black hairstyles and dance have been frequently appropriated. In addition to activism that is a result of watching idols express anti-racist ideals and values, there is still space for K-pop stans to critically reflect on what BLM means in an industry that incorporates Black culture superficially.
Crucial conversations surrounding cultural appropriation and racism do not end after donating. An industry that draws attention to aesthetics should always consider the cultural implications. K-pop girl group BLACKPINK’s recent music video “How You Like That” featured a statue of a Hindu deity lying on the ground, devalued as a prop. It was removed from the video after criticisms appeared online, but no statement of apology acknowledging the transgression was publicized. While many K-pop musicians and fans have taken big steps in educating themselves and others on social media, they must also be alert to signs of appropriation and hold record labels accountable.
A resulting heightened awareness is integral to earning respect from the global fanbase. SM Entertainment, the oldest and one of the most recognized Korean entertainment company, issued a statement on Twitter expressing support for BLM. They mentioned that they were “new to this conversation,” but current discussions on anti-racism will be key commitments. This did not please US fans who expected actions much more substantial than an online statement from SM, a company that prides themselves on their global reach. In response, fans organized #SMBLACKOUT, a movement to call on SM Entertainment for more stakes and accountability in BLM. Admittedly, this hashtag has little impact on SM’s influence in the industry, but this instance highlights outspoken American fans’ willingness to utilize the social tools they have and press for changes they anticipate to see.
The truth is that the K-pop industry itself isn’t inherently political, and scrutiny from a global audience on sociopolitical issues is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are many ways for the industry to continue learning—one way to start is by building more diverse creative teams, featuring artists of different backgrounds who recognize the cultural references used in production and can speak on their appropriateness. Rather than just passively acknowledging fan reactions, labels should also engage in conversations with fans. In turn, when recognizing mistakes that have offended fans, labels should issue formal apologies.
K-pop stans are not passive consumers, but rather critics of the media they consume. The ideals that motivate them to push for change in the political arena branches out to the ways they challenge the entertainment industry. With the help of social media, the quick evolution of K-pop fans into online activists has brought surprises in political discourse. Social media has bridged two seemingly tenuously related topics, K-Pop and politics, and the pivot towards increased social consciousness brings a lot of hope for the future.