On May 25th 2020, the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin. This event was the catalyst for world-wide action following the deaths of Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, and many other people of colour at the hands of the police. Black Lives Matter posts, information threads and donation links took over the internet after the video of George Floyd’s murder went viral on Twitter, leading everyone to post in solidarity with the movement against police brutality and racism. However, one seemingly unlikely group has been highly praised for their help with online activism: K-pop fans.
On June 4th, Get Out director Jordan Peele tweeted #KpopStans (“stans” meaning fans) with a heart emoji in reference to the actions of K-pop fans in response to Black Lives Matter. In terms of accomplishments, K-pop fans were applauded for crashing the Dallas Police Watcher app (which was meant to be used to detect and convict protestors from video evidence) by flooding it with “fancams”; full body videos of K-pop idols dancing on stage. Perhaps the most popular K-pop group right now – BTS – donated $1 million dollars to Black Lives Matter. Their fanbase matched this donation within 24 hours, and many other K-pop fans also encouraged their idols to speak up about the issue due to their large platform and influence and to “open their purse”. A few K-pop idols themselves did post about Black Lives Matter on social media, including Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany and Red Velvet’s Yeri.
In spite of this, many black K-pop fans feel that the praise given to K-pop fans in general regarding Black Lives Matter is misplaced. In i-D’s article about the matter, the writer points out that K-pop fans are represented to outsiders as “either Asian American or white”, when in fact many K-pop fans are black and POC. This misrepresentation is evident in Lia Savillo’s article for Vice about K-pop fans raising money for Black Lives Matter, in which the thumbnail contained only white women. This portrays young white girls as being at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter Movement within the K-pop fandom, which is not only wrong but disrespectful and discredits the work of black activists who are also part of the fandom. As well as this, the glorification of K-pop fans from recent media reports as an activist powerhouse blatantly ignores the problems that K-pop itself and its fanbase has with anti-blackness.
May 22nd saw the release of BTS Suga’s second mixtape, “D-2”. One of the songs on this album included a sample from a speech given by Jim Jones, a cult leader who, according to Wikipedia, orchestrated a mass murder-suicide of his followers in Guyana, 68% of which were black. Suga’s actions caused fans to demand an apology from him, which in turn caused conflict within the BTS fandom. Many fans felt that Suga including this speech was offensive and anti-black, whilst others would respond to this by silencing black fans who displayed anger, claiming that they were “fake fans” for criticising their idol. Many BTS fans then attacked, harassed and even “doxxed” (finding and releasing someone’s personal information) black fans over this issue in an attempt to defend Suga, who’s company later apologised.
This is not the only time in which black K-pop fans have felt silenced by their fandom. As well as posting fancams to crash the police app, many K-pop fans tweeted #WhiteLivesMatter with fancams as a means of drowning out the hate speech that would usually join the hashtag. However, #WhiteLivesMatter then trended alongside #BlackLivesMatter, taking focus away from important information, petitions and donation links that many were trying to spread with #BlackLivesMatter.
In itself, the K-pop industry is no stranger to racism, with some idols appropriating cultures, saying the N-word and even doing black and brownface. Most recently, K-pop company SM entertainment published a statement claiming that they “stand with […] black collaborators, friends and fans” against racial injustice, alongside the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. In spite of this, TVXQ’s Yunho, a member of an SM entertainment boy group, wore box braids in a livestream shortly after the statement’s release, which made fans question the authenticity of the company’s statement.
Shortly after this, ATEEZ’s Hongjoong was pictured wearing cornrows in a comeback teaser photo. Due to the frequency of cultural appropriation within K-pop, many fans have decided enough is enough and have taken to mass emailing companies expressing their frustration. This has been proven to work, however, as fans managed successfully get company YG entertainment to edit out a statue of Ganesha from Blackpink’s latest music video. With the situation regarding Hongjoong in particular, ATEEZ fans have created a change.org petition urging K-pop companies to create a diversity team to avoid future cultural appropriation and racism.
Although creating petitions, crashing police apps, and urging idols to donate and use their platforms to spread awareness are all extremely positive and progressive, the K-pop fandom as well as the industry it supports has a lot to answer for before it can be seen as a social force for good. It is undeniable that the ever-growing K-pop fandom is incomprehensibly powerful, particularly online. However, it is evident that this fandom needs to address its own bigotry and anti-blackness before it can even begin to become the digital platform for social change that the media falsely perceives it to be.
Photo courtesy of Clay Banks