The Complicated Euphoria Of Being A Black Girl In BTS’ ARMY
Black girls in BTS' ARMY share why their experience is far from one-dimensional.
“Who’s your favorite group?”
A girl standing in line beside me was fishing around in a bag crammed with friendship bracelets. It was a steamy Saturday in July, and I had just arrived at KCON in New York, a newcomer to this annual mecca for stateside K-pop fans that started in 2012. She looked at me quizzically, her cheeks dotted with glitter.
Before I could come up with a less predictable response, she was sliding a string of purple, white, and silver beads onto my wrist that spelled out B-A-N-G-T-A-N — the name of the world’s biggest boy band, in Korean.
The truth is I’d bought a ticket to this convention precisely because of BTS. To be Black and fangirling for an Asian group so clearly influenced by Black creativity and innovation — from catalog to choreography — had made me deeply contemplative. I soon became curious about the melanated girls who proudly identified online as ARMY, the name for BTS' die-hard fanbase. Did their outward euphoria mask unspoken challenges or concerns?
At KCON, these devoted ARMYs were easy to find among the crush of K-pop fandoms: a smattering of brown faces haloed by plush headbands from BTS' line of official “BT21” merch. Their exhilaration was infectious, but when the topic turned to race, many were refreshingly candid. In the weeks that followed, I reconnected with a few who agreed to share their thoughts on the particular highs and lows of being a Black girl in the BTS ARMY.
The first thing I noticed about Dezzire (pronounced just like Desiree) Keeling was that she seemed to emit a near constant stream of giggles. The 24-year-old, who’s pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling, was trying to explain how a large poster of BTS’ V in her Maryland bedroom had completely confused her family, but she could barely get the words out.
“I recently started playing the cello, and I Skype’d with my aunt to show her,” she told me. “And she was like, ‘Dezzire! Is that a Chinese boy on your wall?’”
“I was like, ‘He’s Korean!!’”
“And then I told her who he was and that he's gonna be [her] future nephew-in-law. She just bust out laughing!”
Last year, Keeling discovered a live performance of V’s solo single “Singularity.” Mistaking him for a rising R&B star, she scurried down an internet wormhole that led to more BTS live performances, memes, and a trove of their reality shows, like the vacation-themed Bon Voyage, which she promptly binged.
As she gradually got to know each member’s quirks, she introduced her one-time college roommate and KCON companion, Desiree Watkis, to the group.
“I thought they were cute, and then I got more into the music,” said Watkis, a soft-spoken second-grade teacher.
But Keeling soon did something that speaks to the subtle tension of being a Black girl in BTS’ ARMY.
“I tried to find instances where they were interacting with Black fans to see if they appreciate them,” she said. In fact, there are entire sections of YouTube devoted to this strand of curiosity: Channels like KMusicAndBlackWomen regularly feature compilations with titles like “BTS and Black Women (They Love Us!).”
Still, Keeling’s “awkward” feeling persisted. Although the band boasts what is likely the most diverse, global fanbase in K-pop, Keeling was seeking reassurance that she was welcome in this space. Her fears were not unfounded: In spring 2018, concerned fans started the hashtags #BlackARMYsequality and #BlackARMYsMatter after a Buzzfeed report detailed racism and harassment from within the fandom. Another started the hashtag #BlackOutBTS, which finds black ARMYs posting glowy selfies alongside photos of their favorite members on the 15th of each month. The aim is to encourage support and celebration of this community.
“I don't even know how Korean people feel about Black people,” she recalled thinking. A Google search had turned up clips of Black Americans recounting the discomfort of being stared at while traveling outside the capital city of Seoul. The country’s famously rigid beauty standards, including an apparent preference for pale skin, were also unsettling, she explained.
“I tried to find instances where they were interacting with Black fans to see if they appreciate them.”
Watkis, who moved to the United States from Jamaica at the age of 6, echoed those fears, telling me she felt “self-conscious” after watching YouTube videos suggesting some Koreans might “view Black people as being dirty.” The pair of friends have been disappointed but not derailed in their fandom by these findings. Watkis explained her approach is “just being aware” and “going into situations where I need to have my eyes open so I don’t get hurt.”
Maybe it’s because she was a fan long before the band became sought-after by American late-night talk shows and entertainment outlets, but Najaah Phillip is less concerned with her place in the fandom these days. When I introduced myself to her on the convention floor, the 20-year-old was cheerful in her BT21 “Mang” headband — an indication to fellow ARMYS that the sunny rapper and former underground dancer J-Hope is her “bias” — which is how K-pop fans refer to their favorite member in a group. But when we connected again by phone, she was unflinching and direct.
“When I was younger, I felt like I was a freak sometimes because I wasn’t necessarily into every single thing my friends were into,” she said. “When my friends were into One Direction, I was still with all my K-pop groups.”
The speech therapy major from Brooklyn joined the BTS fandom a year after the group’s 2013 debut. She’d been an anime-obsessed middle-schooler, and that led her to her first K-pop group, SHINee, in the sixth grade. But BTS’ hip-hop-drenched Dark & Wild album spoke to her musical sensibilities, and the members, using Twitter accounts and vlogs, seemed like friends.
“RM — well, I call them by their [birth] names — so, Namjoon and Yoongi [aka Suga] would talk a lot about rap songs that I'd grown up with and, like, R&B and Tupac,” Phillip recalled. “Kanye, they liked a lot too, which I was really into before. And they never used it in a fetishizing way that I see other groups do, so that was really important.” (Songs like 2018’s “Outro: Her” reveal RM as an unabashed 'Pac fanboy.)
That impression seemed just as important to the band, even as their popularity began to explode internationally and invitations to American awards shows began to pour in. The septet comprised of rapper-composers Suga, RM, and J-Hope and vocalists Jin, V, Jimin, and Jungkook repeatedly invoked their rap and R&B faves in sit-downs with stateside media, even when interviewers prodded them about pop acts like One Direction and Taylor Swift.
In a 2017 press conference for their Wings Tour, Bang Shi Hyuk, the iconoclastic CEO of their record company, Big Hit, publicly attributed BTS’ distinct sound to the group having “Black music [as] the base” as they developed their unique flavor. He further explained how this direction had aided in their success: “The members like hip-hop and Black music. These two things lowered the entry barrier to Western markets. K-pop is unfamiliar to Westerners, but they are familiar with hip-hop and Black music.”
To be sure, early on, BTS' love for hip-hop, like many K-pop groups before and after them, manifested itself visually in ways that could range from cringeworthy to outright appropriation. For their televised 2013 debut, the members appear dressed in ropy gold chains, bandanas, and leather, almost a parody of a late-aughts rap video. Main rapper RM even has his newly "textured" hair fashioned into an inexplicable take on the Black man's box fade. They would eventually abandon this unfortunate styling in favor of a more authentic mix of the streetwear popularized by American rappers and the polished menswear typical of K-pop "idols," the name for stars like BTS who are trained and incubated in Korea's Motown-inspired music industry.
But for young Black female fans needing to feel seen, few things have continued to resonate like the band’s appearance in American Hustle Life. It comes up repeatedly as a source of comfort — proof that the love between band and Black fan is reciprocal.
Korean broadcaster Mnet premiered the reality show in 2014. It follows the seven men as baby-faced industry rookies, after they’re dropped off for three weeks in Los Angeles to get a firsthand education in hip-hop culture. When West Coast rap titans Coolio and Warren G. turn out to be their mentors, the boys’ affection for the genre, its heavyweights, and its history is palpable. Moreover, they don’t treat the culture as a concept to try on like neon hair for a comeback, as new releases are known in K-pop parlance.
Phillip, like Keeling, remembered the series as a revelation. (“They interacted with Black people the entire time,” Keeling laughed.) Though Phillip acknowledged the show was “kind of a sore spot” for fans who believed some of the assembled team of tutors could have been nicer to the band, she still finds its existence remarkable. (The English subtitled episodes, like much of BTS’ oeuvre, live on YouTube and appear to be required viewing for many new Black ARMYs.)
They “took time out of their day” to learn about this culture, Phillip said. “I haven't seen any other [K-pop] group do that.” Not to mention, the members are at turns hilariously flirty and adorably shy with the Black women they recruit to feature in a music video filmed for the series, a meme-worthy collection of exchanges Keeling found funny and affirming.
Being a Black girl and an ARMY is far from a one-dimensional experience, though. Amid talk of race and colliding cultures, there was also lighthearted chatter about things like Korean lessons.
Keeling and Watkis recently enrolled in a weekly class at a language institute in D.C. (They befriended another of the dozen or so students, a Black girl and ARMY, after spotting her BT21 phone case.)
“We’re planning on visiting Korea next year and teaching [English] there in a couple of years,” Watkis told me. “So learning the language, getting into the culture and the food ... a slow assimilation.”
“Any person that’s into K-pop becomes a lot more open to other cultures, whether they admit it or not,” Phillip said. “But I think, personally, as a BTS fan, it’s opened me to be a little more sympathetic and empathetic to people.”
Phillip attributed this to the far-reaching nature of the BTS fanbase: “You have a fandom full of people from every age, gender, sexuality, background, time in life, and you kind of just are aware of how everyone has their own issues — but it's nice that people can come together.”
As for me, I’d scarcely heard of BTS a year ago. A colleague eager to make K-pop converts in the office had recommended their Love Yourself: Answer compilation. But I’d dismissed it until I ended up on an emergency-room gurney one night, broken in both body and spirit as a pile of doll parts. As I waited for a hospital-administered opioid to kick in, I tapped the first song on the album: “Euphoria.” I was looking for a distraction. Instead, in the year to come, BTS’ music became my remedy. No, Jungkook’s angelic ad-libs didn’t heal my crushing pain, but the band’s sonic celebration of the magic that is Black music has ensured my loyalty in their ARMY.