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Should K-pop stars speak out about social issues?

K-pop juggernaut BTS showed its support for the
K-pop juggernaut BTS showed its support for the "Black Lives Matter (BLM)" movement on its official Twitter, June 4. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment, Capture from Twitter

By Dong Sun-hwa

K-pop singers are in a quandary.

While legions of their international followers are asking them to express their views about the "Black Lives Matter (BLM)" movement ― galvanized by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, May 25, ― numerous Korean fans advise, as usual, them to refrain from weighing in on social or political issues.

But a wave of stars including BTS, Johnny of NCT 127, Yeri from Red Velvet and GOT7's Mark have broken the silence this time to combat racial inequality, with some even donating cash. BTS and its record label Big Hit Entertainment, for instance, recently contributed 1.2 billion won ($1 million) to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc.

It is quite rare for singers to exercise their social/political voice on the K-pop scene, where they are expected to focus solely on musical activities. In fact, there is a rationale behind their silence, according to experts.

Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the school in Songdo, Incheon. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the school in Songdo, Incheon. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

"K-pop is the genre in mainstream in Korea, which means immense capital and human resources have been devoted to it," Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the school in Songdo, Incheon. "Therefore, the singers and the music labels want to avoid any risks that can negatively affect them."

He added: "If they take a side in a certain social or political issue ― whether it is national or international ― they can face a backlash from the opposition and fall prey to online trolls. This did actually happen to some Korean celebrities in bygone days."

Comedian Kim Je-dong and singer Kim Jang-hoon are often cited as examples ― they have been flooded with malicious comments for their social/political outspokenness that a considerable number of people believe to be "biased."

Jin Dal-yong, a professor at the school of communication at Simon Fraser University in Canada, pointed out that the K-pop singers were mostly in their teens or 20s and "were too young to speak up."

"Since popularity matters to them a lot, they feel even more challenges about raising their voices," he said.

Critic Jung Min-jae, who writes for music magazine IZM, told The Korea Times that even in 2016 and 2017, when Koreans held candlelit rallies to support the impeachment of then-President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal, no K-pop stars openly expressed their views about the matter.

People hold a candlelit rally at Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, to call for the removal of then-President Park Geun-hye from office, in March, 2017. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
People hold a candlelit rally at Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, to call for the removal of then-President Park Geun-hye from office, in March, 2017. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

"It was like the unwritten law for a K-pop singer to stay mum about social/political subjects," the critic said.

Knowing this context, local fans insist that followers abroad, who are not fully aware of the situation, are giving a tall order to their idols by asking them to publicly support the BLM movement. Many people in Korea ― which has long been dubbed a "single-ethnic nation" ― also think that the issues of black people are not directly linked to their life, according to Jung.

"They tend to feel distant about the matter and do not see why K-pop stars ― who do not usually comment about national issues closely tied to them ― should stand up for the movement," he said.

But international fans have their reasons, too.

"From a global perspective, K-pop is still regarded as a subculture and a genre for the minorities. Therefore, many think that the singers should speak up for the minorities, who have given them love and support," Lee said.

"K-pop also has been largely affected by black culture, particularly hip-hop and R&B. In fact, almost every idol band has a rapper and a vocalist influenced by R&B. This has given birth to a belief that the singers should show their respect to the original culture by showing solidarity with the movement, if they are truly not a part of cultural appropriation."

People raise signs after marching to the steps of a courthouse during a Black Lives Matter South Bend Chapter protest, June 5, in downtown South Bend, Indiana, calling for justice for George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. AP-Yonhap
People raise signs after marching to the steps of a courthouse during a Black Lives Matter South Bend Chapter protest, June 5, in downtown South Bend, Indiana, calling for justice for George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. AP-Yonhap

Jin elaborated on this point, saying, "Through the hybridization with African-American hip-hop, K-pop has relayed messages about resistance and social criticism in the lyrics. Hence, global fans have developed an emotional empathy with the musicians, believing their stars would be on the same page with them when it comes to issues like the BLM movement."

Jung cited the unique characteristics of K-pop fandom as another rationale.

"A K-pop singer and his/her fans are emotionally intimate and the latter tend to think the former will listen to their words, as communication and interaction have played pivotal roles in the K-pop universe," he said. "On top of that, K-pop fans also often take collective action to influence their artists."

But this time, a plethora of K-pop stars have publicly stood up for the movement, virtually marking the first time they have been vocal on a social/political issue. Most of these stars have been silent on other hot-button topics such as feminism and LGBTQ.

"K-pop singers have built a rapport with numerous black producers and composers through collaboration, so they seemingly felt the need to raise their voice for their acquaintances," Jung said. "It also appears to me that they felt able to speak this time because most of the general public in Korea do not relate themselves much to black people's issues."

With K-pop's global ascent, the artists are likely to face comparable dilemmas more frequently in the coming days. Because the stars are expected to fulfill the expectations of not only local people, but also those from other countries, there may have to be a change.

"Not all singers should make remarks about a social/political issue, but we need to create an atmosphere that allows them to freely speak up if they want to," Lee said. "Whether to speak or not should hinge on the artists, not anyone else."

Jin offered a different angle, saying the singers should play a more active role when justice was needed.

"K-pop stars including BTS have significantly affected the thoughts and behavior of young people by conveying meaningful messages about issues such as social injustice and corruption through their tracks," he said.

"If the singers interact with their followers by actively expressing their opinions, this will contribute to the further development of cultural politics."


K-pop juggernaut BTS showed its support for the
K-pop juggernaut BTS showed its support for the "Black Lives Matter (BLM)" movement on its official Twitter, June 4. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment, Capture from Twitter

By Dong Sun-hwa

K-pop singers are in a quandary.

While legions of their international followers are asking them to express their views about the "Black Lives Matter (BLM)" movement ― galvanized by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, May 25, ― numerous Korean fans advise, as usual, them to refrain from weighing in on social or political issues.

But a wave of stars including BTS, Johnny of NCT 127, Yeri from Red Velvet and GOT7's Mark have broken the silence this time to combat racial inequality, with some even donating cash. BTS and its record label Big Hit Entertainment, for instance, recently contributed 1.2 billion won ($1 million) to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc.

It is quite rare for singers to exercise their social/political voice on the K-pop scene, where they are expected to focus solely on musical activities. In fact, there is a rationale behind their silence, according to experts.

Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the school in Songdo, Incheon. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the school in Songdo, Incheon. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

"K-pop is the genre in mainstream in Korea, which means immense capital and human resources have been devoted to it," Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea, said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the school in Songdo, Incheon. "Therefore, the singers and the music labels want to avoid any risks that can negatively affect them."

He added: "If they take a side in a certain social or political issue ― whether it is national or international ― they can face a backlash from the opposition and fall prey to online trolls. This did actually happen to some Korean celebrities in bygone days."

Comedian Kim Je-dong and singer Kim Jang-hoon are often cited as examples ― they have been flooded with malicious comments for their social/political outspokenness that a considerable number of people believe to be "biased."

Jin Dal-yong, a professor at the school of communication at Simon Fraser University in Canada, pointed out that the K-pop singers were mostly in their teens or 20s and "were too young to speak up."

"Since popularity matters to them a lot, they feel even more challenges about raising their voices," he said.

Critic Jung Min-jae, who writes for music magazine IZM, told The Korea Times that even in 2016 and 2017, when Koreans held candlelit rallies to support the impeachment of then-President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal, no K-pop stars openly expressed their views about the matter.

People hold a candlelit rally at Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, to call for the removal of then-President Park Geun-hye from office, in March, 2017. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
People hold a candlelit rally at Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, to call for the removal of then-President Park Geun-hye from office, in March, 2017. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

"It was like the unwritten law for a K-pop singer to stay mum about social/political subjects," the critic said.

Knowing this context, local fans insist that followers abroad, who are not fully aware of the situation, are giving a tall order to their idols by asking them to publicly support the BLM movement. Many people in Korea ― which has long been dubbed a "single-ethnic nation" ― also think that the issues of black people are not directly linked to their life, according to Jung.

"They tend to feel distant about the matter and do not see why K-pop stars ― who do not usually comment about national issues closely tied to them ― should stand up for the movement," he said.

But international fans have their reasons, too.

"From a global perspective, K-pop is still regarded as a subculture and a genre for the minorities. Therefore, many think that the singers should speak up for the minorities, who have given them love and support," Lee said.

"K-pop also has been largely affected by black culture, particularly hip-hop and R&B. In fact, almost every idol band has a rapper and a vocalist influenced by R&B. This has given birth to a belief that the singers should show their respect to the original culture by showing solidarity with the movement, if they are truly not a part of cultural appropriation."

People raise signs after marching to the steps of a courthouse during a Black Lives Matter South Bend Chapter protest, June 5, in downtown South Bend, Indiana, calling for justice for George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. AP-Yonhap
People raise signs after marching to the steps of a courthouse during a Black Lives Matter South Bend Chapter protest, June 5, in downtown South Bend, Indiana, calling for justice for George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. AP-Yonhap

Jin elaborated on this point, saying, "Through the hybridization with African-American hip-hop, K-pop has relayed messages about resistance and social criticism in the lyrics. Hence, global fans have developed an emotional empathy with the musicians, believing their stars would be on the same page with them when it comes to issues like the BLM movement."

Jung cited the unique characteristics of K-pop fandom as another rationale.

"A K-pop singer and his/her fans are emotionally intimate and the latter tend to think the former will listen to their words, as communication and interaction have played pivotal roles in the K-pop universe," he said. "On top of that, K-pop fans also often take collective action to influence their artists."

But this time, a plethora of K-pop stars have publicly stood up for the movement, virtually marking the first time they have been vocal on a social/political issue. Most of these stars have been silent on other hot-button topics such as feminism and LGBTQ.

"K-pop singers have built a rapport with numerous black producers and composers through collaboration, so they seemingly felt the need to raise their voice for their acquaintances," Jung said. "It also appears to me that they felt able to speak this time because most of the general public in Korea do not relate themselves much to black people's issues."

With K-pop's global ascent, the artists are likely to face comparable dilemmas more frequently in the coming days. Because the stars are expected to fulfill the expectations of not only local people, but also those from other countries, there may have to be a change.

"Not all singers should make remarks about a social/political issue, but we need to create an atmosphere that allows them to freely speak up if they want to," Lee said. "Whether to speak or not should hinge on the artists, not anyone else."

Jin offered a different angle, saying the singers should play a more active role when justice was needed.

"K-pop stars including BTS have significantly affected the thoughts and behavior of young people by conveying meaningful messages about issues such as social injustice and corruption through their tracks," he said.

"If the singers interact with their followers by actively expressing their opinions, this will contribute to the further development of cultural politics."


Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr

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