Last year, Black BTS fans were buoyed by support from their favorite K-pop group, who released a statement of solidarity in light of a spate of Black murders, including the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor.
“We stand against racial discrimination,” the group tweeted. “We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter.”
The statement, especially with the use of the popular hashtag and a donation of $1 million, was the boldest statement yet made by any K-pop group, and the message struck a chord with Black fans, who have long complained of feeling left out and marginalized by non-Black K-pop fans as a whole. It’s these complaints and feelings of being shut out, plus the trauma from the amount of Black death in society, that led BTS fans Day and Leah to create The Black ARMY Coalition (BAC).
I talked to Day and Leah in February via email about their group and their magazine, which chronicles how Black ARMY (“ARMY” being the collective name for global BTS fans) interact with BTS and their songs. Day and Leah said that the group’s mission is to create a safe space for Black fans to express themselves without feeling like they have to suppress their culture to be a fan.
“The BAC was created in an effort to give Black ARMY almost a safe haven. We kind of always had this idea of starting a group for Black ARMY because, for us, it was always so rare to find them in our daily lives but we obviously knew we weren’t the only ones (especially with a fandom so huge),” they said in a joint statement. “We initially just thought of doing it as more of a local meet-up style thing but, we began seeing a lot more Black ARMY online via social media.”
Their plans changed last summer, they said, after the outbreak of Black death amid the pandemic.
“Around the time we created it, there was a lot going on in the real world and in turn it bled over into the cyber world,” they said. “We saw a lot of Black ARMY expressing their frustration, disappointment and even anger towards non-Black ARMY. The goal moved from more of a meetup group to actually giving Black ARMY a space to feel seen, celebrated, and safe; all the while coming together with the common interest of liking BTS.”
Day and Leah’s focus on investigating what BTS means to Black culture is what makes the BAC and their magazine, Black Swan, so intriguing. The magazine brings Black ARMY together to write about their viewpoints on being Black within the K-pop fanbase. The first issue, focusing on J-Hope, analyzed his lyrics, his fashion, and where J-Hope fits within global rap.
The two said that initially, The BAC started out as a team of volunteers who were split into committees in order to have what they called “a hierarchy type system.” However, they said they revamped their plans and created a system that provided more flexibility to fans who wanted to take part.
“We disbanded the team idea and instead decided to focus on projects that didn’t require extended periods of commitment, would still give Black ARMY the opportunity to be apart, and would most importantly give more individuals platforms,” they said. “We figured, what better way to hear people’s stories than to create a magazine? ARMY and BTS have released a few of their own, however there has never been one made by us or specifically geared towards us. We want to create a space that feels safe for Black ARMY, any and everywhere, to share their stories. At the same time it gives room to showcase and build many other skills that Black ARMY possess.”
Unfortunately, one of the more toxic sides of K-pop fandom involves race and discrimination, including microaggressions like having to prove a level of “real” fandom to others, macroaggressions like being harassed for calling out a K-pop idol’s problematic behavior, and everything in between. Black K-pop fans also have to field bias from Black people who aren’t into K-pop and are often unfairly categorized as not acting “Black” enough.
The BAC’s motto, “You Never Walk Alone,” comes from BTS’ second album. But the phrase embodies how the Black Army Coalition provides a place where Black fans don’t have to feel isolated in their love for BTS. Day and Leah described how it can be taxing as a Black BTS fan or Black K-pop fan to find acceptance within the community, which can often keep Black fans and their concerns on the outskirts.
“We can’t speak for any fandom specifically or even a specific fan because every Black K-pop fan may have different experiences than others for better or worse. Generally speaking however, being a Black K-Pop fan often feels exclusive; which often forces us to create our own lanes,” they said. “Sometimes it seems that we are attacked on both ends of the spectrum; from non-Black K-Pop fans and Black non-K-pop fans.”
“We are often stuck in this weird intersection. It is almost taboo for us to like ‘non-conventional’ Black things (i.e movies, music, fashion, etc). When in actuality many of us can enjoy it all at the same time,” they continued. “Sometimes we want to ‘have hella trophies and be hella thick’ and sometimes we are too busy ‘doing hot girl’ stuff. It’s not fair that we have to be expected to conform to just one and accept that as our whole identity. It is in fact multilayered and so are we. If it weren’t for social media and having an in-person friend to mutually enjoy it with, we wouldn’t know there were many of us who existed. This kind of shows the extent of representation that we don’t outwardly get.”
While Leah and Day are BTS fans, they also recognize that to love something, it’s okay to point out its shortcomings. The two share their love and criticisms of the group in the magazine, giving fans thoughtful points to consider regarding hot topics such as appropriation versus appreciation, respecting the history of Black music, and how K-pop interacts with Black culture. The two are proud to comment on where BTS gets it right.
“As we all know K-pop in large benefits from many aspects of Black culture. We can not speak for all Black ARMY however, a common sentiment that we see expressed includes the fact that BTS appear to have a genuine interest and respect for the Black culture,” they said. “BTS tends to bring a piece of nostalgia within music; this includes both pop and hip hop. They bring something that us Black ARMY haven’t seen and have been genuinely missing for so long that makes us feel connected. This was heavily shown in their early songs and still bleeds over into their solo projects (especially the rapline [comprised of members Suga, RM and J-Hope]).”
“BTS never seems to mask their inspirations and influencers. We have a series that we are actually working on that will be presented through Black Swan Magazine that talks to the many Black influences surrounding the members individually and collectively to elaborate on just how much there is,” the continued. “Although nostalgia does indeed play a key role in at least hooking us to the sound, at the end of the day, we also connect the same way that non-Black fans do. The topics that the group touch on and the messages that they convey on and off stage keep our attention. We get to see the transparency of them; not just as idols or celebrities, but as humans. This allows us to form a connection not from a simple idolization but from a genuine place of understanding.”
However, Day and Leah are also not afraid to talk about where the group can do better as well. The two explained how the group learned from their past mistakes to become a less problematic, more accepting group.
“Many of the major criticisms stem from their early years. While it may be a touchy subject to some, Black ARMY will be the first to tell you that we do in fact acknowledge the problematic actions of BTS,” they said. “We do in fact condone them and wish that they never happened however, the fact of the matter is that they did.”
“The major difference, which everyone has their right to accept or not, is that they themselves have also acknowledged these actions, ‘educated’ themselves, apologized, and shown action towards growth and change,” they continued. “From actions such as taking time to seek guidance directly from Hip Hop pioneers, changing Korean lyrics to avoid misunderstandings, paying homage and royalties to Black creators, donating towards the Black Lives Matter organization, and more. Their actions have essentially matched their words, which we believe gives Black ARMY a layer of trust in a sense.”
The two said that while they currently don’t have any outstanding gripes with the group at the moment, they do want their managing company, Big Hit Entertainment, to do more to recognize the global fanbase BTS has.
“With ARMY and BTS being worldwide, we believe there can be much more done in efforts to showcase and give representation to the many races and ethnicities, especially when Black ARMY make up quite a good chunk, but you would not know that on the outside looking in,” they said.
Apart from issues with Big Hit, Leah and Day also said they want fans within ARMY to do their part to erase the divide they see between Black and non-Black fans.
“There is a divide between Black ARMY and non-Black ARMY,” they said, adding that they can’t speak to how subgroups within ARMY treat fellow fans. “We feel like Black ARMY are often stuck in the middle.”
“On one hand, ARMY as a whole is often given this stereotype of being catty 14-year-old, white girls with unhealthy obsessions. Whenever foolishness goes down, we get blowback for it. When in reality, we Black ARMY don’t fall into that category and side-eye that type of behavior ourselves,” they continued. “On the other hand, we are often left out within the fandom itself–sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. But it happens nonetheless. When you look at ARMY-run fan projects and fanbases, you don’t often see us behind the scenes or largely in front. The first and only time Black ARMY was ever really pushed to the forefront (that we know of) was following BTS’ BLM Donation. We personally saw so many non-Black ARMY suddenly becoming social justice warriors for us–not to say that no one spoke up before and meant it, but the number did drastically surge causing a rightful side-eye.”
“We believe ARMY succeeds largely at being diverse within itself,” they said. “There is literally a community for everyone within the fandom and someone always willing to help; opening the door for more openness to cultural exchange. So with this cultural exchange, there needs to come a heightened level of cultural sensitivity. One can’t just use the fandom’s numbers and diversity for brownie points.”
Currently, The BAC is working on an upcoming project and is fielding volunteers from within the community. They feel that the magazine is only phase one of a long career of bringing Black ARMY together. Seeing how in-depth the magazine is and how committed they are to uplifting Black fans, the group has a bright future bringing light to fans that might have felt marginalized.
“We honestly started the BAC as a blank canvas. We didn’t fully know what to do with this space but once we saw the outpour of excitement for it we knew we had to do something,” they said. “We would ultimately love to be a sort of hub for all Black ARMY. Black Swan is only one of the many projects that we hope to be able to present via Black Army Coalition. Ultimately we would love to see the BAC expand over the years to possibly connect Black ARMY’s worldwide.”
“For Black Swan specifically,” they continued, “we would love for it to be able to showcase the many talents, skills, interests, hobbies and stories of Black ARMY. Just how far it goes, we can only see with time.”