This year is quickly teaching everyone that K-pop fans never miss a single beat. Not when promoting their favorite artists, or even when involving themselves in racial and political movements. Their weapon of choice is none other than the fancam: the 2020 stan’s most powerful — and potentially problematic — online tool for building K-pop’s visibility in a media landscape that often racializes and erases it.
American media has a long history of denying K-pop—and people of Asian diasporas more broadly — their place in U.S. pop culture. Articles about K-pop from the early 2010s, like John Seabrook’s “Factory Girls,” demonstrated that American media acknowledged K-pop’s existence, but diminished it as a fad of Korean absurdity instead of a legitimate musical production (only a handful of writers and outlets, including Billboard and the now-defunct MTV Iggy, gave K-pop any serious attention). It was only when BTS’ albums began topping the Billboard 200 regularly that American entertainment publications, who knew differences in the facial structures of the Kardashian sisters down to DNA, suddenly scrambled to become relevant to the growing Stateside K-pop fanbase, even mixing up K-pop idols with Instagram models in the process.
Fancams, or short clips of K-pop idols performing their songs, have appeared all over the internet in recent months, from the replies on Trump tweets to those on entertainment news publications; South Korean media conglomerates regularly release fancams now in recognition of the trend’s impact. They serve as a further embodiment of K-pop’s increasing relevance to western pop culture. To some, however, K-pop stans’ trolling is ruining the internet as we know it. The relentless posting of fancams has earned considerable backlash in the form of online rant videos entitled “F*CK K-POP STANS” and the viral #fancamsareoverparty hashtag, alongside similar tags and statements that trend every few weeks. The sudden ubiquity of fancams has even been covered and analyzed by multiple outlets, including Mashable, members of the Cardiff University community, and Distractify.
At its core, K-pop fancam spam is a political practice, a deliberate repurposing of traditional methods of spamming and trolling for the sake of questioning the boundaries of politics and racialization. By posting under Trump rants and Fox News articles, as well as Ariana Grande tweets and Pop Crave reports, K-pop fandoms mounted the argument that their favorite artists deserve visibility in pop culture. And if EW or ClevverNews won’t post enough about it, then stans will. In this way, posting a fancam is a subversive callout of the racialized marginalization of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai artists in American and western media, even if fans themselves often engage in the practice only for promotional — and not overtly political — purposes. With the fancam, ARMYs, Orbits, BLINKs, and other K-pop fans assert that the cultural products of Asian artists cannot be reduced to a fad or moment. They instead create a constant virality that, for the American onlooker, is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the fan communities that post these clips mobilize and weaponize fancams for a related but different political purpose—the obstruction of anti-Black racism and policing. When Dallas police asked citizens to upload videos and images of protestors to their iWatch Dallas app, K-pop fans deliberately flooded the app with K-pop fancams, forcing the app to go down temporarily. K-pop fans similarly flooded the #CalminKirkland hashtag, which was used by the Kirkland Police Department to identify people involved in “rioting or looting,” with fancams of artists like BTS and ITZY. Most notably, K-pop fans and TikTok users banded together to sell out tickets to Trump’s 2020 campaign rally in Tulsa, only to leave those seats embarrassingly empty. Commentary in the MIT Technology Review as well as a tweet from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have now acknowledged the political power of “K-pop allies.”
Also on KultScene: The erasure of Black K-pop fans in the wake of BLM & activism
But the fancam may not be the perfect weapon of choice in the fight for racial equity, as there are critical flaws in this narrative of justice-seeking and AfroAsian solidarity among members of the K-pop fan community. While fancam spam might have been a form of subversive justice for underrated K-pop artists, it does not resolve anti-Blackness within K-pop audiovisual cultures and fan circles, let alone anti-Blackness in America and around the world.
Black fans on Twitter and in a number of publications and forums have commented on anti-Blackness in K-pop fan communities. K-pop groups have also carried out anti-Black racist behavior, from Blackface and singing the n-word, to rampant cultural appropriation of hairstyles and dress. Fans and commentators regularly point out that much of K-pop’s musical roots can be found in past and present Black American cultural productions. The global emergence of K-pop has made clear that, while there is justice attained in achieving greater visibility for Korean and other Asian artists, anti-Blackness might actually be amplified by K-pop fandoms in some ways, in spite of the recent rally around the Black Lives Matter movement among its global fan communities.
Overwhelming hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter with fancams has been recognized and praised in some media circles, but the practice has actually been criticized by Black K-pop fans and followers. KultScene’s very own Nnehkai Agbor comments that while “co-option has been a beneficial tool for fans to gain control of or change narratives… fans who hijacked the tag did not consider the ramifications of trending the name of a dangerous group” whose name and goals are rooted in hate and anti-Blackness. Kpopcast co-host Stephanie Parker also found the practice of hijacking racist hashtags a disturbing and anti-Black rather than anti-racist. “Did you ask a single Black person if this was a good idea? No, I can answer that for you… no,” she said on an episode of the podcast titled “Listen to Black K-pop fans.” Clearly, what may feel like online activism and anti-racist collective action to non-Black K-pop fans might actually be nothing more than using moments of racial tension to promote your faves at the expense of Black fans and Black people.
A recent Reuters article brought these tensions to a front with the headline “Global K-pop fans emerge as a political force, but some in South Korea worry.” The article cites wariness from South Korean fans of popular K-pop groups, who are worried “that their favourite artists will be pulled into foreign partisan fights.” While the voices of South Korean fans should definitely be centered in narratives about K-pop and the Hallyu wave, we also need to question whether the fight against anti-Blackness is “foreign” to K-pop artists. Despite the fact that many K-pop stars come from South Korea (and often Japan, China, and Thailand among other countries as well), we must remember that K-pop artists often perform musical styles and genres that were first pioneered by Black Americans navigating the repercussions and realities of centuries of subjugation and oppression. Some K-pop stars like GOT7’s Mark Tuan and ITZY’s Lia have lived in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, which demonstrates that K-pop artists and K-pop music, at some level, may not be so “foreign” after all.
This is not to say that K-pop has no Korean roots — that would be an absurd and ignorant claim. Songs like “I Love You” by 2NE1 pull influence from trot, a genre of popular Korean music that was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s, and has connections to Korea’s own history with Japanese imperialism and colonialism. K-pop stars also regularly advertise Korean culture — products, food, tourism, sites, and history — in music videos, vlogs, and dramas. But to act as if many K-pop artists are simply unrelated to or “foreign” to the fight for Black liberation is equally ignorant of the genre’s musical roots. This is why a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter from BTS — a group whose music largely draws from and is inspired by Black productions of hip-hop and rap — is not only a reflection of BTS’ choice to engage in American movements, but also a demonstration of the considerable stakes that K-pop and its fans have in justice for Black people and communities in the U.S. and around the world.
Also on KultScene: WHY K-POP IDOLS SHOULD SUPPORT & ENGAGE WITH BLACK LIVES MATTER
These complicated racial realities and tensions inherent in K-pop’s global emergence beg the question to fellow fans: Why are you posting fancams right now?
The mobilizing capacity of global K-pop fans has the political power to center more narratives than just those of our favorite idols. Wouldn’t it be better to trend hashtags about Oluwatoyin Salau, a young Black woman and activist who was sexually assaulted and murdered in the midst of fighting for Black lives and Black trans lives? Shouldn’t K-pop stans be using our collective power to center thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who have imagined a world without police and prisons for decades and continue to inspire activism and organizing around the issues of police and prison abolition?
As BLINKs, ONCEs, ARMYs, Orbits, and fans of other K-pop acts, we have stakes in movements for Black liberation, too. We also know how to challenge online boundaries and find new avenues of representation and visibility through tweeting, spamming, and simply existing where we sometimes feel we aren’t supposed to. Let’s use this ground-shaking energy for efforts that go beyond symbols and tags—instead, let’s emphasize trending donation links, petitions, and Black-led protests and organizations that center Black people, their experiences, and their voices. Or else, we risk drowning out other voices in favor of our own, which seems a lot like what we were fighting against in the first place.
Want to support Black people and Black-led movements for justice? Donate to the TGI Justice Project, sign this petition demanding justice for Toyin Salau, and follow/donate to the African American Policy Forum (donation link here).
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