Activism hits BTS fandom

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Fast track this to the current Duterte regime and the Filipino artists, in the mainstream or alternative circles, continue to fight for causes, even at the risk of being red-tagged and branded a “terrorist”. They have lent their names and influence and, whenever necessary, appeared in media or in crowds to fight for democracy and justice, very recently against the so-called Anti-Terrorism Bill which could be worse than martial law. In a way they have become idols of resistance, raising the awareness of their fans and encouraging them to fight for their own rights as citizens.

By YANNI ROXAS
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – There is more to fandoms than just screaming for idols.

Days before Korea’s megahit boy band BTS donated $1M to the Black Lives Matter movement, its followers worldwide called the ARMY already took matters into their own hands and stormed social media against police brutality and racism.

The ARMY stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth. It was organized by BTS’ agency Big Hit Entertainment in 2013 at the same time that BTS made its official debut with its first single and album. BTS is also referred to as Bangtan Boys, Beyond the Scene, Bantan Sonyeondan or Bulletproof Boy Scouts.

ARMY is not to be taken lightly. Its official membership is 26.3 million, atlhough Quora places the number at 136 million, which could be inclusive of all fans apart from ARMY. No other fandom is as big or as tight or as passionate as the ARMY today. BTS owes it success to its ARMY more than anyone else, a fact that the famous septet openly acknowledges.

The George Floyd issue has shown how this fandom can flex its muscle not just for music but for social causes. And in the sweeping turn of events their idols had followed suit. Combine the ARMY with all other fandoms of other known K-pop artists such as BlackPink, EXO, or Momoland who also expressed support for Black Lives Matter and the movement has dug a groundswell of support from strong international allies, not to mention their generosity.

Why the action?

What is it about black lives that has sparked outrage from fandoms led by the ARMY and moved them to act? Reasons could be the following.

First, most members of ARMY are people of color and black people (who call themselves Black Army). In 2017, of the top ten countries with the biggest number of BTS fans the US is the only country predominantly white. According to @btsanalytics, and surpisingly, the Philippines is ranked no.1 (21% of total) followed only by South Korea, then Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Mexico and Brazil. Racial equality is an issue close to home and dismantling the structures of racism in America and elsewhere would augur well for all races suffering from discrimination.

Second, the BTS brand of music is inspired by Black culture. So much is borrowed from it and is popularized in K-pop music like rap, hip-hop and R&B. The BTS idols loudly claim influence from Motown. The fans are grateful too and support for Black Lives Matter is a way of giving back. And so relying heavily on global fan support and encouraged by them, BTS had broken its silence, even as inside South Korea they usually distance themselves away from local or controversial issues.

Third, over the years the fans have embraced the content of BTS songs as relatable. Many swore these helped them in their dark days. Despite its swag, BTS is a socially conscious group, incorporating personal and social issues such as mental health, self-doubts, frustrations and criticisms of their own society into their music. BTS is allowed to write their own songs, as its agency believes they embody the spirit of the times. Billboard.com had run a commentary of select songs of BTS from 2013 to 2016 and delved into to tracks with underlying socio-economic and political meanings. Prior to their debut, one BTS member, Suga, had a solo track that raps about not forgetting the Gwangju uprising in South Korea. BTS also stood for ending violence especially against children and young people, partnered with Unicef and spoke before the United Nations. The consciousness where their idols stand gears and prepares the fans for solidarity action.

The real powerhouse

So how exactly did the ARMY and the rest of other K-pop fandoms unleash their power? While a hundred cities in the US were marred in street protests, they conquered social media and became frenzied keyboard warriors. Using K-pop fan accounts, they encouraged their following to train their guns against their “enemies” with a massive flood of idol videos and memes. The website Vice.com in several articles cited these incidents.
• In Texas, a police snitching app called iWatch Dallas was taken down “due to technical difficulties” when it was overwhelmed by idol videos and memes. The app was meant to report/identify protesters allegedly committing crimes.
• In Minneapolis, the place where George Floyd died in the hands of police on May 25, the website of the police department became a target of distributed denial of service attack and became inaccessible at one time.
• K-pop fan accounts shared or possibly did tweets or hacks in the name of hacktivist group Anonymous, which went viral as well. A university scholar and professor from McGill University who has studied Anonymous and other hacktivist groups had remarked that the hacks were so massive it was nothing like he had seen before.
• Popular protests and social justice hashtags were amplified. Racist hashtags such as #White Lives Matter were taken over and caused their crash, again drowning them with idol videos and memes, anti-racist posts, and nonsensical messages
While all of these were happening, ARMY was not about to leave their idols behind. They went smack into their idols’ social media accounts, tagged them in posts, and appealed to them to speak.

A message from a BTS fan (@namusnzn) exemplified this a day before BTS showed its support: “Can you please use your large platform to talk about the current black lives matter issue and donate? Here’s a link that you could tweet along with petitions, and donation sections in it.”

Unexpectedly, the link (blacklivesmatters.carrd.co) even included a section to junk the terror bill in the Philippines.

The following day, June 1, BTS and its recording label, gave $1M for Black Lives Matter.

Within hours after the announcement, ARMY self-started a fundraising campaign– #MatchaMillion– that trended internationally and reached their goal in just over 24 hours. This was led by their fundraising arm called One in an ARMY. When last heard, the fans were still calling and aiming for US$2M. Nothing in this scale has ever happened in fandom. Part of the donations went to bailing out protesters arrested during rallies.

By June 4, BTS officially tweeted their support to Black Lives Matter: “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we, all have the right to be respected. We will stand together.”

The voices of fans were too loud to ignore.

Mirroring each other

The symbiotic relationship between BTS and ARMY that was spurred by love of music has carried them beyond music to social justice. This is not unusual as from the start BTS and ARMY were meant to be the mirror image of each other.

ARMY is a fandom largely of youths in their teens and twenties which is the age group of BTS idols. BTS has successfully captured this market globally and became the world’s biggest boy band since the Beatles. Audiences could easily get glued to their upbeat music and slick choreography coupled with their youthful energy, good looks, clean image, and individual diversity. Their songs, however, are all in in Korean with just a smattering of English. ARMY goes to the rescue and translates or interprets, unpaid, the lyrics, tweets and interviews of BTS to non-Korean listeners and readers, meaning in various languages. Talk about breaking barriers.

The impact of BTS to their fandom was displayed when they came to Manila for a concert tour in 2017. The Mall of Asia Arena was instantly turned into a karaoke stadium when Filipino fans simply broke out into song after song in Korean as their idols too were singing and left BTS dumbfounded. As RM, the BTS leader, remarked: “In the Philippines we do not sing for our fans, they sing for us.”

What cuts BTS from other K-pop idols is the mastery of looking out for their fans. Direct contact with fans is deemed the strategy. They have each other’s backs. There is rapport, reciprocity and intimacy, as BTS, be as a group or as individuals, constanly interacts or engages fans on screen (the idols open a lot of themselves to fans except for romantic relationships). Both are creatures of social media and Big Hit Entertainment struck gold when it made social media the platform for launching BTS.

In return the ARMY has invested enormous time and money for BTS. Among others, membership is paid (like $30) and entitles one to first pick to contests or events, pre-reservations to BTS concerts and fan meetings, and priveleges to exclusive merchandise. Though tickets to concerts could be highly priced ($172-$700, even $8,000 for best seats) they are sold out within hours. Then there are numerous volunteer projects such as Black Lives. Also, the race for BTS to top Billboard charts successively for three years meant endless hours on the net using numerous accounts, even by families’ and friends’, to jack up votes for their idols (one hard-core fan said she did this 20,000 times!).

Closer to home the Filipino ARMY shows how it is to be part of the best and most devoted fans in the world. They sprung into several fan pages that one loses track of their names and numbers. They even organized a Philippine K-Pop Convention. Apart from Black Lives, of which they zealously called out for donations and monitored the registers like hawks, they are into other projects. This pandemic they have called out for donations for frontliners and PPEs. They also went into the protection of coral reefs. And earlier in January, during the Taal Volcano disaster, they organized relief operations for victims. Knowing this their ARMY counterparts abroad responded with support, sympathy and encouragement and BTS idols RM and V messaged their concern for the Philippines.

Spirit of advocacy

Reverting to advocacy or activism, however, is not something new to Filipino idol fans or to their local idols as well.

One recalls the phenomenal ALDUB duo in 2015 that captivated the entire nation, reaching up to overseas Filipinos in countries where they reside or work. Out of this was born the fandom ALDUB Nation which led a Twitter breaker of over 40 million hits in one day for an ALDUB event in October that year. The spike in traffic downed servers in many countries as well. In due time ALDUB Nation channeled some of its energies into charitable projects such as relief operations in the aftermath of typhoons, book donations for underprivileged children and, more strongly, support for the Lumad (indigenous people) struggle for self-determination.

Of late the fans of Kathniel (monicker for the love-team of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla) as well as Vice Ganda’s had braved threats of harm as they openly sided with their idols to protest the shutdown by government of media giant ABS-CBN and in defense of press freedom. Fans of Coco Martin, Kim Chu, Angel Locsin and other movie stars also engaged their idols’ bashers who tried to humiliate, abuse and physically threaten their idols who were standing up for freedom of expression, job security, and assistance to the needy during this pandemic.

As far back as the 70s, during the time of the Marcos dictatorship, activism had run deep among Filipino artists in film, theatre and music. More often, though, they were ahead of their fan base, possibly influencing them more than the other way around in taking up national and social issues. Luminaries like movie directors Lino Brocka and Behn Cervantes were among the first known artists to have braved arrest and imprisonment as they protested oil price hikes along with repression under Marcos. An alliance of progressive artists called the Concerned Artists of the Philippines came into being during this time and is active until today.

Fast track this to the current Duterte regime and the Filipino artists, in the mainstream or alternative circles, continue to fight for causes, even at the risk of being red-tagged and branded a “terrorist”. They have lent their names and influence and, whenever necessary, appeared in media or in crowds to fight for democracy and justice, very recently against the so-called Anti-Terrorism Bill which could be worse than martial law. In a way they have become idols of resistance, raising the awareness of their fans and encouraging them to fight for their own rights as citizens.

The list of idols, or “celebrities”, is becoming longer in the fight against the terror bill. To name a few — From the music industry: Ely Buendia, Chikoy Pura, Paolo Benjamin of Ben&Ben, IV of Spades, Unique Salonga, Dong Abay, Plagpul, Tubaw. From the film sector: Liza Soberano, Nadine Lustre, Anne Curtis, Dingdong Dantes, James Reid, Bea Alonso, Heart Evangelista, Janine Gutierrez, Enchong Dee, Angel Aquio. And from the theatre arts: Lea Salongs, Mae Paner, Bonifacio Ilagan, Jose Miguel Severo. Even Ms Universe beauty queens from the Philippines Catriona Gray and Pia Wurtzbach could not keep their views to themselves and voiced their opposition to the bill.

As idols make a stand — whether for local, national or global issues — the respect for them as artist and person is heightened, pulling their fan base to become even wider, broader, and progressive. Which is heartwarming because fandoms are redirected to something more meaningful and substantial. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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