The Complicated History of K-Pop Activism

Photo: AP Images. Design: Cierra Miller/STYLECASTER.

This story appears in STYLECASTER’s Activism Issue, starring Jurnee Smollett. Click here for more.  

In June, Jiwoo, a 13-year-old K-pop fan who goes by the Twitter handle @ngelwy, found herself at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement when she called on her fellow stans to crash apps and websites for police departments that encouraged citizens to report the illegal activities of protestors in Grand Rapids, MI, and Dallas, TX. 

“you know the drill! SEND IN ALL OF YOUR FANCAMS!!! CRASH THE WEBSITE!!! MAKE THEM TAKE IT DOWN!!! PROTECT THE PROTESTERS!!!” read one of Jiwoo’s tweets, which has since been retweeted more than 40,000 times. 

Jiwoo’s tweets led to thousands of K-pop fans spamming the apps and websites with low ratings and fancams, short videos of their favorite artists, which had their intended effect: the sites crashed. “K-pop stans are really well known for dropping these videos called ‘fancams’ almost everywhere under every tweet with goals to gain views,” Jiwoo says. “With that knowledge, I decided why not put our ‘spamming’ skills for a greater use?”

As Black Lives Matter protests ignited across the world in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black Americans in 2020, the movement found an unexpected ally in K-pop stans who paused their tweets about their favorite stars to call attention to police brutality and systemic racism. However, those aware of K-pop’s decades-long activism in Korea shouldn’t be surprised to see the community become the virtual face of a social and political rebellion.

Politics and Hallyu (a term for Korean popular culture) have been intertwined since the globalization of Korean media. For years, activism and advocacy have been subtle parts of K-pop that are often overshadowed by the industry’s slick choreographies, catchy choruses and jaw-dropping visuals. However, activism is everywhere in K-pop, from the clothes worn by its idols to the songs they sing. In 1996, boy band H.O.T.’s song “Warrior Descendant” served as a critique of bullying, which paved the way for artists like Psy, BTS and Orange Caramel to do the same in their music years later. In the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2017, Girls’ Generation’s 2007 track “Into the New World” resurfaced as a political anthem for women to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. The later 2010s also saw K-pop inspire fans, especially those in younger generations, to speak up against injustice, thanks to socially charged lyrics by artists like B.A.P. and BTS

Social media is also to thank for the recent wave of K-pop activism. In June, K-pop fans used social media platforms like TikTok to discuss ways to sabotage President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa. They discussed a plan to inflate ticket numbers, which resulted in a lack of attendees, a figure political campaigns often use to gauge poll numbers. 

Activism is everywhere in K-pop, from the clothes idols wear to the songs they sing.

Dr. Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, says the process of becoming a K-pop fan––researching translations, searching for news that isn’t reported on by the mainstream media—contributes to the community’s inquisitiveness, which provided a foundation for K-pop activism. “Initially people saw social media as something alienating people from reality and human interactions, but as we see now, it can be a really important tool to create those kinds of connections or to bring people out on the street,” she says. “But what I haven’t seen is a pop culture entertainment fandom suddenly move en masse to an activist identity.”

Still, the K-pop community is not without its flaws. At the core of the K-pop community’s recent activism were Black fans who rallied together and challenged their favorite megastars to speak up about the industry’s years-long reliance on Black culture, especially for hip-hop concepts that often relied on Black hairstyles and stereotypes of Black people. From ATEEZ’s Hongjoong’s blue cornrows to (G)I-dle member Seoyeon’s description of one of their performances as “ethnic hip,” the K-pop community has a history of profiting off Blackness. This commodification of Blackness also extends behind the scenes, where many K-pop songs are written by Black songwriters. 

But there are signs of change. As a result of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, artists like CL, Crush, Jay Park and GOT7’s Mark started to speak out more about how Black artists influenced their work. “Some of the biggest inspirations for 2NE1 were DESTINY’s CHILD and TLC. These are just some of the examples of the core women who have inspired me over the years,” CL, a former member of girl group 2NE1, wrote in an Instagram post in June. “Artists, directors, writers, dancers, designers, producers, stylists in the K-pop industry are all inspired by black culture whether they acknowledge it or not.”

Many K-pop idols also donated funds to Black Live Matter organizations and shared petitions for change, which encouraged non-Black fans to follow suit. One of the most significant moments of K-pop fan activism was in June when BTS’ ARMY matched the band’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter within 24 hours. “It’s about us being against racism and violence,” BTS member Suga told our sister publication Variety in October of the band’s donation. 

Still, there are K-pop fans who warn against assuming that everyone in the K-pop community is an activist. “Everyone has their own values, beliefs, and agendas,” says Tiwa, a K-pop fan and writer who goes by the Twitter handle @QUEENTIWA. “It’s irresponsible to assume that just because someone likes Korean popular culture that they are also defenders of social justice and advocates for the vulnerable.”

Despite the K-pop community’s recent work in the Black Lives Matter movement, Tiwa also recognizes the trauma the fandom can inflict on fans, especially Black women. She knows this as a victim of intense online harassment. “We see that in the way harassment, doxing, racist attacks, stalking and so much more takes place within these online communities,” she says. “I’ve previously written about this where Black K-pop fans shared their horror stories of what it felt like being a K-pop fan and the racist backlash they constantly receive to the point where someone needed to notify the FBI about the threats they were receiving.” 

The hypocrisy of stans advocating for Black lives yet terrorizing Black lives within their fandoms shows the shortcomings of their activism.

As many Black K-pop fans know, the fandom is a hub for anti-Blackness. Many fans come from cultures that have deep connections to anti-Blackness. When K-pop acts appropriate Black culture, they do so because it’s viewed as a trend. Black culture doesn’t necessarily have the traceable, historical legacies of other cultures. It was created after African slaves were stripped of their own cultures and adapted the remains into American culture, creating something tolerable to American society yet uniquely their own. The hypocrisy of stans advocating for Black lives yet terrorizing Black lives within their fandoms shows the shortcomings of their activism. This hypocrisy is also highlighted in K-pop fans’ use of fancams to silence alt-right tweets while simultaneously trending their messages. 

However, there is still hope in stans to understand what solidarity means.

Jiwoo says her bond with K-pop became tighter in her activism and hopes stans can continue to help in future movements. As an ally to Black Lives Matter, she looks forward to supporting in more situations. 

She knows the power a small fancam can have when used properly: “Fancams itself are not what are legendary, but what they were put to use for [is].”

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