This article originally appeared on VICE US.
K-pop’s influence on pop culture is undeniable, but the past week has seen its reach go beyond music and extend into social justice.
Following protests sparked by the death of George Floyd – a Black man in Minneapolis killed by a white police officer in the United States – some of the industry’s biggest names have spoken up. Celebrities like BTS, MOMOLAND, and Yeri of Red Velvet, pledged their support for the Black Lives Matter movement – a move that is uncommon for K-Pop stars, who are often mum about social issues.
Their dedicated fans are largely responsible for their idols’ response.
Even before BTS posted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, their fans took matters into their own hands.
K-pop followers took over hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter and #WhiteoutTuesday by blasting them with photos and videos of BTS, essentially burying racist tweets. They also trolled a police snitching app in Dallas by flooding it with videos of the band’s performances, causing it to crash.
All this while invading their K-Pop stars' social media accounts, tagging them in posts about Floyd, and urging them to break their silence.
Ultimately, they succeeded in convincing K-Pop stars to join them in taking a stand.
This outpouring of support for the Black community from K-Pop and its followers shows the best side of fan culture, but one that is arguably overdue.
K-pop artists have notoriously avoided commenting on current events – especially controversial issues – a practice largely enforced by their management companies. In 2016, artists like G-Dragon of Big Bang, Jokwon of 2PM, and Yubin of Wonder Girls, posted emotional tributes to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, only to take them down and replace them with vague statements.
This silence extends to domestic issues as well. In 2019, the #MeToo movement swept South Korea with the Burning Sun controversy, which involved sexual harassment allegations against K-pop stars. Apart from the artists involved, no other prominent figure from the entertainment industry took a stand.
Lee Gyu-tak, a media culture professor at George Mason University Korea, said K-pop studios choose not to make bold public statements to avoid negative reactions from fans, and risk their multi-billion business in the process. But now that K-pop is a global phenomenon, he said that expectations of Korean stars have evolved – including being vocal about global issues, just like their Western counterparts.
"K-Pop stars must speak out, especially because these very artists, in their songs, encourage their fans to do the same. It’s part of their brand," Lee told VICE.
BTS members were one of the first to adopt this mindset, openly speaking about mental health to their fans, and condemning violence against women and children at the United Nations. Following the George Floyd protests – which call for the dismantling of systemic racism against Black people in the United States – the boy band and its record label Big Hit Entertainment announced that they will donate $1 million to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
They also tweeted their support for the cause to their over 26 million followers.
Rapper Tiger JK, one of Korea’s first hip-hop artists, said that K-Pop singers owe it to the Black community to call out racism.
"As musicians doing music and business inspired by Black culture, we need to join the BLM movement," he said.
It’s a sentiment that’s widely shared among the artists in the industry. CL from the girl group 2NE1 wrote on Instagram: "Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-pop industry are all inspired by Black culture whether they acknowledge it or not. I would like to encourage all the K-pop fans to give back and show their love and support for all that we have received from Black artists."
Seattle-based music critic Kim Young-dae said that the Korean music industry adapted and localised American pop culture as early as the 60s. This includes Seo Taiji and Boys, believed to be the first K-pop band, who drew heavily from hip-hop trends in the 90s. Today, the most popular genres of K-pop are still rap, hip-hop and R&B.
"The list of how Black culture impacted K-pop is endless," Kim told VICE.
K-pop fans know this, which is one of the reasons they called on bands like BTS to speak out in the first place, and actively changed the conversation on social media.
In a series of tweets, Korean pop culture writer Yim Hyunsu said that K-pop fans are "largely progressive and politically aware," and often use their dedication and ability to organise on social media for various causes.
A recent example from September 2019, saw K-pop fans and social media influencers come together to oppose controversial laws proposed in Indonesia, including one that criminalises extra-marital sex.
This wave of activism is finally influencing the very industry these fans unite around. For an industry that relies so heavily on fans’ support, calls for K-Pop studios and artists to speak out on issues have become too loud to ignore.
"The distinctive feature of the K-Pop industry after all, is that it interacts with fans quickly and responds to them with passion," Lee said.
The world's most diehard fans, it seems, have found a way to harness their power for good.
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