K-Pop & Hashtag Activism: BTS ARMY Rallies in Support of BLM

by: Tanya Cook

Earlier this summer, thousands of k-pop fans, or fans of Korean popular music, stunned the world when they matched popular group BTS’s $1 million dollar donation to Black Lives Matter in 25 hours. While this is not the first time k-pop fans have stepped up in a dramatic way, by allying themselves with Black Lives Matter, both BTS and BTS ARMY (BTS fandom) showed they are a political force to be reckoned with. In addition to this astonishing fundraising effort, k-pop fans also took over white supremacy hashtags, flooding twitter with images of their favorite idols and groups. In this post, I explore the significance of Twitter-based k-pop activism, with a focus on BTS ARMY, and what it means for understanding activism and fandom as a social movement more broadly.

BTS fans cheering and waving signs at a 2017 awards show.
BTS Fans Cheering

K-pop originated in South Korea circa 1992. With the international success of artists like PSY, and groups like BTS and BLACKPINK (among others) the popularization of k-pop has contributed to what some call an overall “Korean Wave” (also called Hallyu) in popular culture. While k-pop idols and groups top music charts and break sales records around the world, k-dramas (Korean dramatic television programs), are growing in popularity on streaming platforms like Netflix. While those less familiar with k-pop may associate it with hip hop and pop music specifically, it can actually include many different genres of music. Specific idols (k-pop individual artists) and groups may even experiment with switching genres between albums. (For more general information on k-pop check out this article).

Society tends to denigrate the fannish behavior and interests of women and girls; k-pop is no exception. While the stereotypical image of a k-pop fan is probably a 12–16 year old girl, the fan base is much broader with respect to age, nationality, and gender. This excellent graphic-based article shares some of the demographics by age and gender of BTS fans who purchased tickets for the Map of the Soul Tour. K-pop fans have always engaged in hashtag activism as well. According to an interviewee for this project, hashtag activism was started by fans of the group ATEEZ, and quickly spread to other fan groups.

One of many fashion looks in BLACKPINK’s MV for “How You Like That” shows off a modern take on traditional Korean clothing. Any video featuring not one but TWO Trojan horses is worth watching in my book.

BTS ARMY

To say BTS ARMY are a devoted fan group could arguably be the understatement of the year. BTS’s collaboration with Halsey, “Boy with Luv,” released in April of 2019 set the record for most views in 24 hours on YouTube. This year, BTS broke their previous record for most views with the music video for “Dynamite,” released on August 21st. With forays into other media platforms like television and comics, it may be more accurate to speak about BTS as a franchise rather than a music group. Production company, Big Hit Entertainment, has branded BTS Universe or BU and future plans include comics and a drama series based on a fictionalized world that connects and references BTS’s music.

BTS on SNL

BTS ARMY members number in the millions. Given the passion and organization of BTS ARMY, it was no surprise to some that they matched BTS’s pledge of $1 million dollars for Black Lives Matter so quickly. Variety announced on June 7th that BTS and Big Hit Entertainment donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter. Within hours, BTS ARMY was using twitter hashtags #MatchAMillion and #MatchTheMillion to help organize fan donations. These efforts were in part coordinated by existing BTS fan charity initiative One In An Army. One In An Army is a network of BTS fans and translators who, since 2018 and BTS’s partnership with UNICEF, has helped organize fan donations in honor of BTS to various charities with monthly campaigns.

While both the amount and speed at which ARMY was able to match BTS’s donation are impressive, also noteworthy is k-pop fans take over of white supremacist hashtags on Twitter and Instagram. Fans posted short videos of their faves performing in order to subvert the racist and hateful messages.

Tweet reacting to K-pop fans takeover of #WhiteLivesMatter earlier this summer.
Tweet reacting to K-pop fans takeover of #WhiteLivesMatter earlier this summer.
Link to tweet: https://twitter.com/YourMas78551251/status/1268130747002630147?s=20

Using social media as a social activism locale continues to challenge our understanding of what collective action is in 2020. Often disparaged for not accomplishing “real world” change, k-pop fans showed again this summer that “Hashtag Activism” is an an effective tool in the fight for social justice. Like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have demonstrated time and time again, use of social media is a new strategy that can and does result in social change.

According to an op ed piece by Euny Hong, k-pop fans also deserve credit for using social media platform TikTok to subvert plans for a Trump rally in Tulsa earlier this year. Fans famously encouraged registering for rally tickets with fake accounts in order to protest both the rally being scheduled during the pandemic and to support the ongoing fight for social and racial justice.

Earlier this summer, I spoke with two U.S. k-pop fans about the popularity of k-pop, BTS ARMY’s fundraising, and fan and artist support of Black Lives Matter. Both spoke passionately about the advocacy among k-pop idols, groups, and fandom for LGBTQIA+ rights, mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and social and racial justice, while also acknowledging the complexity of k-pop’s position as a product of advanced industrial capitalism and the intense pressure this creates for individuals.

BTS in Rainbow Colored Clothing

“They have a message of love and inclusion. And I think that that just really hit a lot of people when they needed to hear a message of those two things. For whatever reason, I mean, everybody’s got their own reasons as…for why BTS does…resonate with them at some point in their life…But, often, it’s because they find a bit of themselves that…can be healed by whatever message they hear.” — MS

“It was a really big deal when BTS came out to say that they were in support of Black Lives Matter…what I liked about the fandom…is that especially…certain groups will band together for certain causes and raise awareness to them and that’s what we’re seeing in the [support of the] Black Lives Matter movement.” — MS

“I feel like k-pop kind of lends itself to…mental health and self-love and those kinds of movements.” — SA

“There are various articles and things I saw about it written in Korean that were about Black Lives Matter and how people can help. And there’s been protests in Korea as well as donations by these South Korean artists…[also artists are] just coming online and saying, hey, I see this. I see this, and I stand with you. There’s been more of that, I think, than there’s ever been before.” — SA

[Re: her experience with k-pop fandom] “It’s been mostly positive…If you apply being a black pansexual female to it, well, that pivots everything a little bit because over especially in media around the world and stuff, you know…there is a lot of deep racism just rampant in the world…There is definitely a level of anti-blackness and things within fandoms that every fandom deals with. So it’s just part of the bigger dialogue that continues to happen around the world.” — SA

Interviewee SA also shared how she continues to call out cultural appropriation in k-pop and has been called racial slurs and has received hateful comments on her social media platforms. As she explained: “I’m not going to ignore cultural appropriation. I’m not going to ignore, you know, Black Face or that kind of stuff…but what happens is — and this is every fandom…some people are just so serious about defending [idols or celebrities] at any cost, that even if there are scenarios where someone is blatantly wrong, and you’re just trying to bring either attention to it or talk about it, people end up being, like, ‘no, you can’t talk about it. You’re not a fan. You must not be this. You must be anti,’ you know, that kind of thing. It’s just kind of, like, no, I’m just healthily critical of what I see. And that can be just really tiring because, you know, you go through that.” — SA

K-pop demonstrates fandom in all its complexity; fandom can be uplifting, inclusive, and advocate for social justice, while simultaneously being a place where toxic fandom leads to intense bullying, international politics affect who makes it and who doesn’t, and the very idols that have sparked interest in and appreciation for South Korean culture around the world are exploited.

We plan to delve more into this fandom in our forthcoming book. One thing is certain, as their support for Black Lives Matter and take over of white supremacist hashtags showed this summer, ARMY and k-pop fans are a cultural force to be reckoned with.

For more academic research on measuring the power of BTS ARMY and chronicling significant moments , check out @BTS_Research on Twitter and Medium.