K-pop’s most ardent fans, otherwise known as “stans,” have recently made headlines in U.S. news outlets for their political activism. From requesting tickets to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally to inflate attendance expectations to BTS fans raising $1 million for Black Lives Matter (BLM) groups, K-pop is now part of the American political conversation. From a U.S.-centric view, this will come as a surprise. But for K-pop, this new activism is simply an expansion of the stans’ various criticisms of the K-pop industry itself.
The K-pop industry has come under more frequent fire with its increasingly globalized presence, with original critiques from fans focused on the industry itself. Fans have repeatedly appealed for better treatment of K-pop group members, otherwise known as “idols,” some of whom endure grueling schedules, overwhelming pressure, and intense training at the hand of Korean entertainment companies. Now what was previously internally-focused criticism of the K-pop music industry has transformed into externally-targeted acts of political activism.
“K-pop stans” became a more recognized term in the American lexicon following a Trump re-election campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20. After photos of the half-empty BOK Center surfaced, K-pop stans and Tik Tok users attributed the lack of attendance to their securing tickets — thus inflating expected numbers — without any actual intent to attend.
K-pop artists and entertainment companies also became a topic of conversation in relation to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Several K-pop artists posted about their donations on Twitter, while others signalled solidarity with photos of the artists holding BLM signs. Labels also joined in, with BTS and its label, BigHit Entertainment, donating $1 million to the BLM movement. The BTS fanbase, known as ARMY, claimed to have matched this donation with an additional $1 million donated to BLM groups. In comparison, SM Entertainment, perhaps the most largely recognized Korean entertainment company after to BigHit, only expressed support for BLM on Twitter. In direct protest, U.S.-based K-pop fans organized #SMBLACKOUT, a social movement aimed to demand accountability from SM Entertainment.
The connection between BLM and K-pop may at first appear tenuous. However, the foundation of K-pop rests in a combination of pop music and hip-hop, drawing inspiration from and at times appropriating Black culture. Seo Taiji and Boys, arguably the male group responsible for kickstarting K-pop in Korea, debuted in 1992 with clear references to hip-hop culture in their street style fashion, choreography, beats, and rapping. In a 1995 live performance of “Coming Home” in Seoul, one of the group members, Lee Juno, sports a braided hairstyle similar to cornrows. It is unclear whether Lee’s skin color was naturally more tanned for this performance or his complexion was intentionally darkened through the use of make-up, but Lee’s overall look for this performance clearly evoked Black culture. One YouTuber recently asked, “Is no one going to talk about the blackface going on here?”
Other K-pop groups have committed similarly unacceptable acts in more recent memory. MAMAMOO, a female idol group, posted a parody of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” while wearing blackface. The same group was criticized for using the N-word in a cover of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.”
More subtle glorification of racist actions and tropes has also drawn criticism, albeit to greater debate. BTS member Suga released a mixtape, D-2, featuring the song, “What Do You Think?” with a sample from cult leader Jim Jones, who is known for the mass murder-suicide of hundreds of his followers, many of them Black, in 1978. When some K-pop fans called attention to the inappropriateness of the reference, other ARMY members labelled them as “antis” and asked for hashtags that highlighted the issue to be reported. This debacle highlighted that anti-Blackness not only exists within the K-pop industry, but among its fans. With this strong appropriation of Black culture and silence around anti-Blackness, K-pop entertainment companies and artists need to actively participate in BLM conversations beyond the goal of being inclusive of their international fan base.
K-pop has also been accused of cultural appropriation beyond hip-hop, and inclusion must reach farther than BLM. This month, female idol group Blackpink debuted their “How You Like That” music video, featuring a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha as a decorational prop. This is not the first time K-pop has wandered into Indian culture. BTS’ choreography to the hit song, “Idol,” features Bollywood-esque moves in combination with other international dances such as the South African gwara gwara. While BTS avoided critique for these unattributed dance moves, Blackpink fans demanded the Ganesha statue be removed from the video. Blackpink’s management later removed the deity from the video, citing it as an “unintentional mistake.” Similar racist or appropriated references to foreign cultures may have previously flown under the radar, but K-pop’s development into a global craze has introduced a necessary layer of international accountability.
While the recent involvement of K-pop stans in American politics has gained attention, it is difficult to draw a clear connection between political activism and K-pop itself. K-pop music itself is largely not politically charged, and K-pop groups do not frequently speak out on political issues. The closest a K-pop group has come to a “political” affiliation of any kind may be when BTS’ partnership with UNICEF to promote their “Love Yourself” message. Nonetheless, that partnership and the resulting campaign focused more heavily on promoting individual expression than any specific ideology.
K-pop stans, however, are a different story. As representatives of Gen Z, present K-pop stans are largely young, digitally literate, and pay more attention to politics than their predecessors. As a result, the quick evolution of K-pop fans into online activists around political issues should not be surprising; K-pop stans are known for organizing effective digital campaigns around their respective idols, intentionally and — at times unintentionally — trending topics on Twitter. By leveraging these preexisting fan networks, K-pop stans can efficiently mobilize a large number of online users. This effusive network, in combination with K-pop fans historically calling out the K-pop industry for its shortcomings, made the transition from internal to external criticism relatively easy.
This presents the classic chicken-or-the-egg dilemma when it comes to K-pop stan activism: Is K-pop stan activism the result of watching their favorite idols exude certain ideals and values, or is K-pop stan activism driving change in the industry? Are K-pop artists donating to BLM organizations because they recognize K-pop’s Black influences, or because they know they are monitored by dedicated fans who expect them to speak up? Is BigHit Entertainment donating $1 million to encourage fans or appease them?
No matter which came first, K-pop stans have made it clear that they are a force to be reckoned with and considered, both within the K-pop industry and in broader politics. When it comes to Black Lives Matter and broader cultural appropriation in the genre, K-pop has to answer to critics that double as diehard fans. The resulting heightened awareness is necessary should K-pop wish to keep its global fanbase, whose diversity and shared passion have propelled the genre into the spotlight. By the power of the fans, K-pop will continue to be celebrated; but by that same power, K-pop stans have made their conditions clear: Those in power — whether that be labels, artists, or both — must be held accountable.
The author would like to thank Spencer Hair-Elliott and Catherine Tao for their assistance with this article.