Something’s a brewing, and something’s a bubbling in the flavour pot of world music and it comes from an unlikely source: South Korea. The K-pop/K-culture fare has spilled over into South Africa and the taste for it is swirling across the nation’s major metropolitans. The movement has been recognised with the appearance of a pop-up channel (tvN) on DStv and been given a major boost by the remarkable success of Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boy Scouts), more commonly known as BTS.
The pop group celebrated its eighth anniversary last month, with an online festival, known as BTS Festa, that connected millions of fans across the world. This week, the fans are celebrating their very own anniversary with the release of a new song titled, Permission to Dance.
K-pop, short for Korean popular music, is a loose genre classification for music originating from South Korea and South Korean culture. A unique mix of pop, hip-hop, dance and rock, K-pop has shown that it appeals not only to local, Asian fans, but far beyond the continent, subverting the archaic notion that only English-language music can have worldwide appeal.
Leading the revolution is BTS, the seven-member boy band, well-versed in music production, storytelling and dancing. BTS consists of a rap line: rappers and lyricists RM (Kim Namjoon), Suga (Min Yoongi) and J-Hope (Jung Ho-seuk), as well as a vocal line: songbirds Jin (Kim Seokjin), Jungkook (sn Jeon), V (Kim Taehyung) and Jimin (sn Park).
The group has collaborated with many music stars from the West, including Nicki Minaj, Lil Nas X, Halsey, The Chainsmokers and Jason Derulo and they have broken several Guinness World Records. They have also achieved numerous other significant musical achievements, including, becoming the first Korean pop act to be nominated for a Grammy award, and debuting four songs at the top of the Billboard charts, one of which was largely sung in Korean.
In 2018 they made headlines for addressing the United Nations and in 2020, Time magazine named them Entertainer of the Year. The band enjoys 31.4-million followers on Twitter and 45.1-million on Instagram.
There are several reasons for the band’s ever-increasing worldwide success and their very long list of achievements, but these are my top three for why they are so popular and why you should lend them your ear.
Firstly, their rich music catalogue … BTS has been releasing music consistently once to thrice a year for the past eight years. Altogether, they have released six extended plays, five full-length Korean albums, four full-length Japanese albums, and more than four compilation albums since debut. The catalogue is rich in lyrical content and diverse in terms of sound and style. In their earliest releases, BTS’s music had a strong hip-hop thrust, challenging the societal standards forced on today’s youth such as pressures to conform to the conventional ideas of success and happiness in songs like No More Dream and N.O. In their Youth trilogy, BTS incorporated a bit more pop and EDM influence, contrasting the happiness of youth with suffering and depression in songs like Run and I Need You. They followed this up with a musical masterpiece in Wings, interrogating the concept of temptation, and their more recent outputs, infused with pop and classical music, have had a strong focus on mental health, self-love and reflecting on personal experiences, in songs such as DNA, Fake Love, Boy with Luv, On and Black Swan.
In 2020, they dedicated a whole release to the experiences thrust upon us by the Covid-19 pandemic, releasing the English smash hit Dynamite. They even have a gqom-inspired tune called Idol, in which they gwara gwara much better than I ever could! The music video broke Taylor Swift’s YouTube record and was watched 45-million times in the first 24 hours after it was released.
Secondly, their heart and soul … BTS have subverted the classical idea of a celebrity, which in the past has been mysterious, glamorous and superior, but not necessarily in a Keeping up with the Kardashians manner. Instead of highlighting dramatic and excessive expenditures and daily lives, arguments and machinations, BTS share with fans their struggles, both mental and physical, their aspirations and dreams, generating a connection that is intimate, loving and reciprocal. Their souls have not been shared half-heartedly, following what’s trending or aiming to make headlines, but fully and consistently for the past eight years. The members regularly release vlogs or conduct live Q&A’s with their fans; they’ve shared meaningful experiences in shows such as Bon Voyage, and have fun with each other and their fans on variety shows such as Run! BTS.
BTS started out in a very small company, and despite exceeding all expectations, both within their own country and globally, they’ve remained humble, sensitive and thankful to their ever-growing fan community.
Which brings me to my last point, the ARMY. Short for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth, ARMY is the name of the group’s passionate, dedicated and awe-inspiring fanbase, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
In early June this year a number of Indonesian McDonald’s outlets were forced to close temporarily when their special BTS Meal “sparked frenzied buying from fans in the K-pop-mad country”.
Despite its fervour, ARMY has cultivated a loving community that is far more representative than its expected demographic. Unlike typical boy bands, the fanbase does not only consist of passionate teenage girls; ARMY come in all shapes, races, genders and ages, from young primary school children, to old, married couples.
ARMY is dedicated to supporting BTS’s musical efforts, and their philanthropic efforts as well. During the pandemic, ARMY dedicated their concert-ticket refunds to Covid-19 relief efforts in South Korea. In India, they donated 2-million rupees for Covid-19 relief in the country. In the United States, ARMY matched BTS’s $1-million donation to Black Lives Matter in a little over 24 hours. Even here in South Africa, the fans helped fund the opening of the Kim Soek-jin baby unit, in Goedgedacht farm, rural Malmesbury in the Western Cape.
In fact, ARMY is the epitome of ubuntu, churning out several philanthropic projects yearly, all over the world, and cultivating several sub-communities online which assist with social research, tutoring, mental health issues and more.
BTS is much more than just its many music hits and I hope I have piqued your interest to give them a listen! The sense of community and connectivity that follows becoming a member of the ARMY, is unlike anything you’ve experienced before — but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of BTS’s songs, 2!3!, which I think accurately describes the experience you’re in for when you take the leap: “Erase all sad memories. Hold each other’s hands and smile.”
The South African ARMY are keen and eager to welcome you into the fold. For more information on fan activity across South Africa, you can follow @btsarmyza; @bangtanmoonlightSA; @btscharts_sa; @bts_itunesza; @btssafunds and @btscometosa_ on Instagram and Twitter.