BTS and the Evolution of Freedom

An American’s Reflections on #BlackLivesMatter and Lessons Learned in 2020

[Originally published in Revolutionaries 7/29/2020]

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– The New Colossus” (excerpt), inscribed within the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, 1883.

Freedom ain’t a state like Maine or Virginia,
Freedom ain’t across some county line,
Freedom is a flame that burns within ya,
Freedom’s in the state of mind.
Freedom” (excerpt), Shenandoah, Gary Geld and Peter Udell, 1974.

We stand against racial discrimination.
We condemn violence.
You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter

– Official statement (English ver.), BTS, 2020.

What is freedom, how do you get it, and what does it feel like when you are truly free?

I asked myself this from my former home in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020, as the US National Guard fired tear gas on peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protesters so President Trump could take a photo with a Bible outside of a church. It was all happening 20 minutes’ drive away from where I was staring horrified at the TV. I was born in the USA and had lived there for nearly all thirtysomething years of my life, but suddenly I didn’t recognize my country.

America was supposed to be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The Constitution was supposed to protect the rights of citizens to express themselves through peaceable protest, and the President was supposed to be the No. 1 defender of the Constitution. The 24-karat gold-plated flame in the Statue of Liberty’s torch on Ellis Island was supposed to be a beacon of hope for all the oppressed and downtrodden people in the world.

But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police and the massive reckoning with America’s institutionalized racial injustice, Lady Liberty’s call for mercy went unheeded. While I delved deeper into the USA’s whitewashed history of anti-Black violence, I was also disturbed by jeering cries of “Corona!” and pointed coughs and sneezes in my direction as I walked around my neighborhood while Asian. The American dream of universal prosperity founded upon lofty ideals of equality and industriousness, it turns out, was hollow and tainted from the start by the hypocrisy of bigotry — much like the Statue of Liberty itself.

The USA was a place and a people, but it wasn’t freedom. We’d dropped the torch somewhere along the way, if we had ever really held it at all. I wondered if anyone out there had claimed it.

At the same time, something magical was happening on Twitter, where I was spending hours and hours a day retweeting #BlackLivesMatter and COVID-19 information. I’d certainly heard of the talented, stylish musical supergroup BTS from RM’s powerful speech at the United Nations in 2018, but at the time I was personally more interested in Korean professional video gaming than Korean music. Two years on, I started seeing anti-#BLM hashtags flood with BTS and K-pop fancams and witnessed the downfall of the Dallas Police Department’s eyewitness app targeting #BLM protesters. It was epic trolling, to be sure, but it wasn’t indiscriminate chaos. I felt a sense of righteous solidarity from a gigantic, global group of strangers who were using hilarious and digitally-savvy tactics to take on bigotry.

Emboldened, I started replying to #BLM naysayers when I saw #BTSARMY (the fan demonym) in popular Twitter threads, knowing they had my back. After years of stifling myself online as a woman of color in the video gaming industry, being advised over and over again to “grow thicker skin” and “ignore the trolls,” I felt like I could raise my voice. Then BTS unequivocally came out in support of #BlackLivesMatter and donated USD $1 million to the cause, which was matched in less than 24 hours by ARMY, and I was floored.

“We will stand together,” BTS wrote, in English and the native Korean of my parents and grandparents, and I nearly cried.

By the time ARMY helped ensure Trump’s noxious rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma was extremely under-attended — a blessing in more ways than one, given the pandemic — I was already in South Korea going through mandatory entry quarantine at a government facility. The events of June 1 combined with the US government’s fumbled approach to COVID-19 convinced me that it was time to explore opportunities elsewhere. I had seen South Korea successfully conduct national elections under COVID-19 and I had family and friends in Seoul, so it seemed like the perfect move.

I was also very curious about BTS.

The Statue of Liberty represented a version of freedom based on American borders and material prosperity, but that was from the late 1800s and I already knew there were additional nuances added since then. I learned the song “Freedom” in choir in grade school, where we didn’t have many Black or Latino students but we had big school assemblies on Martin Luther King Day, so it counted as progressive in the 1990s. In the musical Shenandoah, the song is sung by a Black character amidst a story about the horrors and complexities of the American Civil War; while the lyrics are rather rosy-eyed, they make the valid point that freedom has an internal component that may be even more important than external conditions. In this song, freedom seems more predicated on self-respect and self-worth than a parcel of land and a pile of money.

This is a decent rebuttal to “The New Colossus,” and I do think it’s true that people can feel free (or oppressed) regardless of wealth and social status, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story. You can feel free internally as an individual, but it turns out that if the larger society keeps telling you that you’re less-than and denies you the resources to achieve what you want to achieve, you can’t get very far. As the great Black American poet Langston Hughes (b. 1902–d. 1967) wrote in “Harlem”:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?

What is self-respect if you can’t pursue your dreams? What is liberty if, at seemingly every turn, you hear people say, “This opportunity exists, but only for the right candidate”? There has to be something else to bridge the gap between the promise of freedom versus actual empowerment in society.

I think BTS has the answer, and I think the answer is love.

If “love” feels corny, you can call it “empathy” or “solidarity” or any number of things. Regardless, it’s about having the strength and the vulnerability to see (yourself and) others as beautifully, fallibly human and recognize their struggles as your own. It’s not about wealth or status, and it’s not about telling people to buck up and believe in themselves and all of their problems will disappear. It’s about extending a helping hand across all of the false boundaries that we humans impose on ourselves — race, class, political party, gender, etc. —but without pity or condescension.

The freedom that BTS promises is the freedom that awakens from true partnership and the support to explore infinite possibility.

In “Filter,” the undeniably aesthetic Jimin sings, “Pick your filter … I’m your filter,” offering himself not as the ultimate boyfriend or idol, but as a flexible, empathetic, and very attractive intermediary for the audience to use to discover their own happiness. In “Magic Shop,” the whole band admits that they, too, suffer from self-doubt and bad days, and invites listeners to re-imagine an old fantasy cliche as an inner sanctuary where you can witness the “galaxy inside you” (“네 안에 있는 galaxy”) without distractions. It’s basically therapy, but reinforced in an entire universe of music, story, and global community that anyone with an internet connection can access with no paywall.

The results are tremendous, as anyone who Googles “BTS ARMY” can attest. ARMYs have worked around the clock to get BTS played on the radio and acknowledged by some of the most prestigious music awards in the USA, despite obvious racism in the music industry. Undeterred by being ignored, rebuffed, and mischaracterized again and again by American media, ARMYs recorded reaction videos of themselves screaming with joy at hearing BTS on the radio and sent them to the responsible DJs along with gift baskets (see: BTS and ARMY Culture, Jeeheng Lee).

You can’t pay for this kind of promotional work— I would know, having worked in public relations for esports at the top level of the industry. This spirit may have found its enormous scale through the capitalist machine of popular entertainment, but then grew far beyond it and now pushes its levers to pursue its own dreams. Outsiders can and do dismiss ARMY as a vapid mob, but it’s more like an autonomous, organic collective that consistently reflects upon its own shortcomings and how to wield its power for good — inspired but not commanded by its seven muses.

Digging deeper, an ARMY told me that when BTS members go on vacation and take a break from social media, ARMYs comfort those among them who see the pop group as an emotional lifeline, giving them the support they need to continue accessing their authentic selves in the band’s absence. This is self-soothing and self-validation playing out interpersonally within a body politic of millions instead of one.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need to live in a particular place or have particular characteristics to become who you want to be and do things you want to do. But humans are social creatures who are sensitive to things like love, hate, acceptance, rejection, and the nuances of consent. We are all moths drawn to flames; the question is whether the flame is a bonfire that consumes or a torch that lights the way.

In Seoul, the streets aren’t exactly paved with Samsung phones and BTS albums, but everyone wears masks and I can eat at a restaurant without fear of getting COVID-19. My Korean face and build ensure I don’t stick out, but my lack of fluency in Korean and outspoken American disposition make it difficult to fit in, especially as a woman. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a few ARMYs here about their stories, and while I don’t know if I could share the same passion for BTS’ music per se (I tend to prefer existential folk rock), I feel the echo of their message regardless. I may not have a country to call my own right now, but that doesn’t diminish me. I have a galaxy inside of me and a right to be respected, and there are at least seven men in South Korea and millions more people around the world who believe this, too.

Freedom is not a golden statue to guard, but a creative, loving flame to nurture in oneself and ignite in others, illuminating the world as we all hold our lights aloft, together.

Perhaps someday I’ll bring it back home.

Special thanks to: Julia, Nikki, Jakob, Latoya, the ARMYs I’ve interacted with on Twitter, Revolutionaries, the international competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee community (which is feeling more like BTS+ARMY every day), and, of course, BTS.