K-Pop's Digital 'Army' Musters To Meet The Moment, Baggage In Tow There's a growing narrative highlighting K-pop fans' political progressiveness. But the reality is far more complicated.

K-Pop's Digital 'Army' Musters To Meet The Moment, Baggage In Tow

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K-pop is one of South Korea's most successful exports. There are tens of millions of fans worldwide, and now many of those fans are getting political. Haeryun Kang has more from Seoul.

HAERYUN KANG: It's the music that brings the fans together...


BLACKPINK: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KANG: ...Blackpink, EXO, GWSN and, of course, the boy band BTS. And when you get 100 million people together on social media, it's really not that surprising that some of them are activists.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Turns out the Trump campaign might have been trolled by teenagers, TikTok users and Korean pop music fans.

KANG: Fox News credited K-pop fans and others for the poor turnout at President Trump's Tulsa rally. They signed up online for free tickets and never showed up.

VIVIANA DARK: I felt like it was, like, sort of a small thing that I could do, so I kind of felt, like, kind of giddy.

KANG: That's Viviana Dark, a 19-year-old K-pop fan from Wisconsin. She's asked us to use a pseudonym to prevent online harassment. She's no stranger to fighting for racial justice with her K-pop community.

DARK: A lot of it is that I'm Black before I'm a K-pop stan.

KANG: Stan refers to very devoted fans.

Here's how protest tweeting works. For example, fans tweet #whitelivesmatter, couple this with irrelevant K-pop content, like fancams. So when you click on the original hashtag, all you'd see is a sea of K-pop content instead of stuff from white supremacists.

DARK: It wasn't like we had just started this. It was just like it was recognized now.

KANG: Last month, Billboard announced a huge donation from one of K-pop's biggest fandoms.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And the BTS ARMY matches a million dollars in Black Lives Matter donations.

KANG: K-pop fans are famous for their power to organize. Some fans reportedly flooded the Dallas police's iWatch app with fancams in May to fight for Black Lives Matter. Different fans engage in political protests worldwide, fight for the environment or, more recently, donate to COVID-19 efforts.


SHINHWA: (Singing in non-English language).

KANG: Fans of the idol band Shinhwa are credited with one of the earliest examples of K-pop activism in 2007. It's called fan rice, a trend of donating thousands of kilograms of rice to charity.

Not all K-pop fans are politically progressive, and the K-pop industry itself is often accused of racism and simplistic appropriation of Black culture. Fan Viviana Dark says not all K-pop fans are open to criticizing that.

DARK: When we try to have a talk about that or have a talk about, like, serious things like internal racism or, you know, just blatant racism, like, it kind of gets pushed under the bed.

KANG: Lee Jeeheng is a cultural studies scholar and author of "BTS And ARMY Culture." She's a BTS fan herself, also known as ARMYs. She says K-pop fandoms are diverse, passionate, with no clear center, and almost everything happens online.

LEE JEEHENG: (Non-English language spoken).

KANG: She says there are so many different people in the fandoms, loosely connected like grassroots organizations.

LEE: (Non-English language spoken).

KANG: No one can say how they'll continue organizing around Black Lives Matter or even the U.S. election, but if and when they do, it won't be a surprise anymore.

For NPR News, I'm Haeryun Kang in Seoul.


EXO: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

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