As the Genocide in Gaza Continues, Palestinian K-pop Fans Organize For Their People

K-pop fans are currently organizing boycotts in an attempt to pressure HYBE, the industry’s biggest company, into divesting from Israel.

Music Features K-Pop
As the Genocide in Gaza Continues, Palestinian K-pop Fans Organize For Their People

[Editor’s Note: The names of some Palestinian admins have been changed by request.]

Fandoms—especially the ones frequented by teen girls and women—are often dismissed as a silly distraction from the “real” world. However, online-based fandoms can be a political force to be reckoned with. Some of the most famous examples of this come from the world of K-pop.

In the last eight months, K-pop fandoms—along with many other online and IRL communities—have focused much of their attention on the ongoing humanitarian crisis and war crimes happening in Gaza, an escalation of Israel’s apartheid, occupation and genocide following the Hamas attack on October 7th, during which more than 1,200 Israelis were killed. In the months since, Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians and left many of the more than 2 million people living in Gaza without food, water, shelter or access to medical care. In December, when Palestinian journalist and activist Bisan Owda requested that people around the world strike against “all aspects of public life,” including spending money online, many K-pop fans stepped up by initiating the #StrikeAgainstthe4. (Here, “the 4” refers to the four biggest companies in K-pop: HYBE, JYP, SM and YG.)

“We were all feeling powerless watching the genocide escalate and we wanted to make use of the power this fandom holds,” says Deeja, one of three Palestinian admins who runs @Army4Palestine, a Twitter account that serves as a focus point for fans of BTS and others who are looking to better understand and support the Palestinian cause. Deeja was born in and spent a majority of her childhood in Palestine and now lives in Europe. She has been an ARMY for nine years. “ARMY is known to be very involved in fandom activism and is called ‘the most charitable fandom’ by many,” Deeja says. “We were hoping to put that empathy, advocacy, loudness, progressivity and organizing skills that we have been known for the past decade to good use.”

Deeja is one of the Palestinian K-pop fans at the center of an ongoing effort to mobilize the power of fandom to make change in the world. For Deeja and many others, organizing for Palestine within K-pop fandoms is not about organizing for a distant cause, disconnected from these communities. It is about organizing for members of these very communities. “There are so many Palestinian ARMYs, we have lost so many members of this community killed by the brutal war crimes of the occupation,” says Deeja. “So many ARMYs are in Gaza, experiencing a genocide. If we can’t take action even just for the simple reason of them being our community members and bora family, then everything this fandom has ever claimed to be is meaningless and empty.”

The @Army4Palestine Twitter handle has more than 32,000 followers and, since November, has raised about $100,000 through donation drives for food, water, e-SIMs, winter clothing, medicine and feminine hygiene kits. One of their recent campaigns raised over $10,000 to help the Municipality of Gaza reinstate essential services for the city’s water supply. “I think our initial hopes for the account were just to help our people as much as possible,” says Zuzu, a diaspora Palestinian living in the U.S. who is another @Army4Palestine admin. She has been a fan of BTS since the group’s debut in 2013. “We knew that we were part of a large fandom and realized that strength in numbers could really help with fundraisers, donation drives, other campaigns that would support our people materially, as well as be a good jumping off point for raising awareness on the genocide.” Deeja estimates she spends an average of 20-25 hours every week doing this work.

@Army4Palestine is not alone. Accounts like @Carat4Palestine, @Engene4Pal, @Flover4Palestine, @Moa4Pali and @JArmy4Palestine have been created to mobilize the fandoms for SEVENTEEN, ENHYPEN, Fromis_9, TXT and Japanese fans of BTS, respectively. “Although my people are going through the genocide, I still choose to believe in the good nature of people,” says D, a Palestininan admin for the @Carat4Palestine account. “So I really think people are willing to help. We just have to give them the opportunity to do so.” D is one of four admins for the account, which was inspired by a November speech SEVENTEEN gave at UNESCO’s Youth Forum in Paris, an event organized around the mission of ensuring that all children have access to education. In the speech, Korean-American member Vernon said: “Even a small action today can give people courage for many days to come. We will shine together.”

In addition to organizing donation drives, accounts like @Army4Palestine and @Carat4Palestine aim to raise awareness and education about Palestine. “I think, unfortunately, the majority of people only heard about the Palestinian cause after the seventh of October, even though it’s been actually happening for 75 years,” says D. “So, when we first started this account, we really tried to provide as much information as possible using threads, websites, and [other resources] to help Carats to stay up to date.” For D, education is the foundation of all other organizing efforts. “I need people to understand that we cannot fight a genocide if we are not open to educating people,” she says. “And so first things first, it’s always okay to ask questions. It’s always okay.”

The HYBE Boycott & Divestment Campaign Explained

While the “4Palestine” accounts have found support within their respective fandoms, they have also experienced some pushback—especially around a HYBE divestment campaign that calls for the parent company of some of K-pop’s most popular groups (including BTS, SEVENTEEN, TXT, Le Sserafim, ENHYPEN, and NewJeans) to “divest from Zionist companies and collaborators, including their Hybe America CEO, Scooter Braun,” according to @Army4Palestine. “Divestment from Zionism and apartheid is important because these systems deprive people of basic human rights and self-determination and support the ongoing genocide of Palestinians,” says Deeja. “By associating and working with Zionists, HYBE is funding the settler colony.”

HYBE is one of the biggest companies in Korea, but it didn’t start that way. Originally founded by Bang Si-hyuk (aka Bang PD) as Big Hit Entertainment in 2005, the company grew out of BTS’ massive global success into HYBE, a multinational entertainment and lifestyle conglomerate. The corporation officially rebranded as HYBE in 2019 and went public in 2020. When companies go public, the shift can lead to a more intense pressure to grow profits for investors and shareholders, rather than simply to cater to customers (in this case, fans). For HYBE, this has included a strong push into the U.S., the biggest music market in the world.

In 2021, HYBE acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings for $1 billion, giving the Korean company a 100% stake in the entertainment-based investment holding company and its properties, which include SB Projects and Big Machine Label Group. With the merger, Braun joined the HYBE board of directors and retained the CEO title for its American business, alongside co-CEO Lenzo Yoon. In 2023, Scooter Braun became the sole CEO of HYBE America. According to Bang, Braun played a major role in the success of BTS member Jungkook’s debut solo album Golden, which was the 10th-best selling album of 2023 in the U.S. “Scooter’s involvement was significant to the extent that if he was not involved in this project, it would have been very difficult to release this album,” Bang told Bloomberg. “I think it was a great success because we were able to show the chemical bond between HYBE America and HYBE, which was a big question that the market had.”

Braun, who made his initial mark in the industry as the manager for Justin Bieber, is a contentious figure in music fandom for his feud with Taylor Swift over the rights to six of her albums. But the “4Palestine” accounts specifically take issue with Braun’s historic and ongoing support of the state of Israel and the use of his power and influence to promote Zionist ideology. (Zionism is a political ideology that calls for the creation of a Jewish state; its historic central tenet of self-determination for the Jewish people, who have faced religious persecution repeatedly throughout history, is not inherently colonialist or violent. In its modern incarnation, however, it has been used as justification for the occupation, apartheid and genocide in Palestine.) In recent months, the music mogul has used his social media accounts to spread misinformation about what is happening in Gaza, such as questioning the civilian death toll. He has also perpetuated the propaganda that criticisms of Zionism and the state of Israel are inherently anti-semitic, using his social media to compare college students protesting for Palestine to Nazis in 1938 Germany.

Among their demands, the multi-fandom HYBE divestment campaign calls for the removal of Braun and other figures associated with the company who express Zionist ideology, a commitment not to collaborate in the future with artists or companies who have expressed support of Zionist ideology, and a general commitment to take these concerns seriously and to do thorough research before future collaborations. They have communicated these demands through tactics such as email campaigns, sending protest trucks to HYBE office in Seoul, organizing an in-person protest at the HYBE America office and calling for a boycott of HYBE products and services until the divestment demands are met.

Boycotts are one of many tools in the collective action toolkit, and they can take many forms. Often, they manifest in an organized commitment to not buy from a company as a way to communicate disapproval and/or to demand structural change. “History has proven to us that divestment and boycotting of entities that support and fund these ideologies plays a major role in dismantling apartheid and colonialism,” says Deeja, using the role boycotting played in the end of South Africa’s apartheid as an example. “This also goes for cultural boycotts.”

This cultural boycott is an act of solidarity with those who are living amidst the injustices of a regime or state who is not adhering to international law and human rights. The BDS-affiliated Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) “urges international cultural workers and cultural organizations, including unions and associations, to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions.” While a HYBE group has never performed in Israel, film projects put out by HYBE have been screened in the country. In April, when HYBE and theatrical film distribution company Trafalgar Releasing announced that D-Day: The Movie, a concert film of BTS rapper Suga’s 2023 tour, would include screenings in Israel, more than 12,000 people signed a petition asking them to reconsider. They did not.

“We’re asking HYBE to take a stand and be on the right side of history because we are their long term fans and consumers, we have been loyal to their artists for years and have helped build the empire that HYBE has become,” says Deeja. “We want to consume art knowing we’re not giving money to a company that supports genocide and apartheid. We deserve to feel safe in our fandoms. HYBE is a globally influential company and they have the responsibility to respect human rights, to be on the right side of history, and to take proper measures to do so.”

Thus far, HYBE has not commented specifically on the divestment campaign, but a February article in the Korea Times includes a general statement from the corporation on Braun’s “remarks”: “It is a personal statement that is separate from company management.” In March, HYBE announced a 10-year expansion of its deal with Universal Music Group, with Braun in an oversight position.

Some K-pop fans of HYBE groups, even those who are pro-Palestinian, seem to agree with HYBE’s official statement. “For some, the severity of this issue was enough for a full boycott, for others, it wasn’t,” says Rooh, a non-Palestinian BTS fan who organizes for the cause under the handle @btsprodsuga, where she posts infographics and explanatory threads for first-time boycotters, and answers people’s questions about the divestment campaign. “[The boycott] was the start of people voicing their boundaries on what they were or were not ‘comfortable’ with. While it was frustrating to see that people were valuing their own comfort over the greater good, it did help me realize that there could be potential even within ‘anti-boycotters,’” she says.

In March, Rooh put together a priority list for the HYBE divestment campaign that allows fans to opt in at six different levels. The first level calls for a commitment to talk about Palestine both on and offline, while the sixth level asks for no engagement with any of HYBE’s social media channels. “Up until the Priorities List, it felt like an ‘all-in’ or ‘all-out’ situation,” says Rooh. “As someone who acknowledges that nothing is ever black and white and that there are several layers of nuance and circumstance behind each and every scenario, at a certain point, it felt counterproductive, as though we were polarizing people away from engaging with any aspect of the boycott at all.”

K-pop Palestine

The HYBE Boycott Priorities List, per @btsprodsuga on X.

Three weeks ago, I put out an informal Google docs survey about HYBE boycott participation on Twitter. It has garnered more than 1,700 responses, and was mostly shared in circles actively supporting the boycott. (Those who are resistant to the boycott sometimes shared the survey, but often with a warning not to participate due to a perceived bias.) Over 82% of those who answered say they are taking part in the boycott, with just under 13% of respondents saying they are not taking part. Roughly 3% say they were taking part at an earlier point but are no longer, and around 1% say they have not in the past but plan to moving forward. Over 68% of respondents say they are primarily a fan of BTS, with 16% saying they are a big fan of more than one HYBE group and 7% saying they are primarily a fan of SEVENTEEN.

Among those who are boycotting, common reasons given include: they don’t want their money used to promote Zionist ideology, they don’t want their favorite artist being associated with Zionism, they believe in the power of collective action, Palestinian fans have asked them to and they want to create a safe space for Muslim fans, and/or they have general concerns over HYBE’s prioritization of profits over people. Among those who are not boycotting, common reasons given include: they don’t believe it is the best use of their time and energy when it comes to organizing for Palestine, they prioritize supporting their favorite artist over all else, they don’t see a connection between the Palestinian struggle and HYBE, they don’t see a connection between Scooter Braun and HYBE’s K-pop artists, they see the boycott as performative and/or hopeless, and/or they think the boycott is being used as an excuse to target BTS.

Yvette Wohn is an associate professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology who studies the characteristics and consequences of social interactions in online environments. In 2023, she published a paper on the active and passive media usage behavior of BTS ARMY. “There is this false notion that fans are a single group with a singular identity, but that is far from the truth,” Wohn says in an email interview. “Within a fandom, people have a wide range of values, and varied stances—fans don’t even have the same attitudes on how they should support BTS, let alone different political events. My research has shown that there is a wide typology of fans who have very different reasons for why they like BTS and an even broader range of ways in which they show or act on their support.”

This diversity in fandom can make organizing around political causes, for example, difficult. “If an event is organized in the name of ARMY, people outside of the fandom will associate those values with the entire fandom,” says Wohn. “ARMY-led movements can be very powerful, which also makes them vulnerable to abuse by people who have ill intentions, or people who purposefully want to give misleading representation of fans to those outside of the fandom.” From Wohn’s perspective, an acknowledgement that “beyond an interest in BTS,” other ARMY may have much or little in common, is foundational to building meaningful conversation and community in online ARMY fandom. “If you recognize that everyone is different, there can be more efforts for inclusivity,” she says. “However, when you have so many people in a group, there is bound to be conflict, and there will always be people you disagree with.”

How Conflict Manifests Within K-pop Fandom

Disagreements have sprung up. A central point of contention, at least superficially, has been the call to stop streaming and/or buying music. (Priority #3 on the HYBE boycott list calls for boycotting old/new songs that include direct Zionist involvement; Priority #5 calls for boycotting all HYBE music; and Priority #6 calls for no engagement on any HYBE channel.) Streaming and buying an artist’s music in order to get songs or albums on charts like Billboard or Hanteo as a show of fannish support is a big part of K-pop fandom. Because of the centrality of streaming and buying in K-pop fandom, a boycott has been particularly difficult for some fans to consider, perhaps especially for those whose main fannish identity is as a “streamer.” (According to a 2021 Statista poll, 71% of K-pop fans in Korea cited “music streaming/listening” as a regular fandom activity.) Temporarily stopping that activity could feel like a threat to their fan identity and sense of belonging in a fan community.

As is often the case in online discourse, antagonistic voices gain traction, with some “boycotters” and “anti-boycotters” using the divestment campaign as an excuse to impose their own hierarchy of fandom, decentering the urgent Palestinian struggle organizers are working so hard to address in the process. For “boycotters” engaging in games of fandom hierarchy, the choice not to boycott makes someone a “fake” fan because of the perception that the values of the divestment campaign are in line with the values espoused by the artist and their music. For “anti-boycotters” engaging in games of fandom hierarchy, those who are boycotting are “fake” fans because they are refusing to support their favorite artist in this specific way. The underlying supposition for both “sides” in this online game of fandom hierarchy is that, in the face of genocide, being a “fake” fan is the worst possible thing someone could be. And, at the end of the day, no one gets to decide if someone else is a fan. You can choose not to have someone in your community or on your timeline, but “fan” is an identifier we all get to choose for ourselves.

Within K-pop standoms and beyond, it is becoming increasingly difficult online to sort out who is engaging in good faith and who is not. For example, in the case of the HYBE divestment campaign, many K-pop fans who are engaging in good faith do speak about the role their ult’s music has played in their decision to boycott. The general state of online discourse, perhaps especially on context-lite Twitter, has put many netizens understandably on the defensive, hindering the productive, vulnerable conversations that are often necessary for building solidarity across demographics.

For Kate Ringland, an assistant professor in the Computational Media department at UC Santa Cruz who does research on BTS fandom, the weaponization of fan as an identity to be proven “real” or not has become cyclical on Twitter. “It seems to be a thing that comes up over and over again, and never gets resolved,” says Ringland. “Because of course, ARMY means whatever it means the person who’s claiming to be ARMY, right? It’s an identity thing. You can’t tell someone else that they’re ARMY or not, but these activities around gatekeeping, and kind of policing who’s in and who’s out, they’re activities that people have been engaging in for as long as I’ve been on Twitter.”

However effective the boycott may or may not be in getting HYBE to divest, Ringland wonders what impact BTS fans’ support or not of the boycott will have on the fan community. “Whether or not we’re actually impacting the outside world, we still are having an impact and an effect on our own community,” she says. “If Palestinian ARMY, for example, are getting on Twitter, and they are there on their BTS ARMY accounts the same as everyone else, and they’re just seeing everyone blithely supporting a Zionist CEO or blithely just streaming and buying and not seeing anyone talk about what’s happening in Palestine—or even worse, having all these people push back against creating a safe space for them, and in fact, creating a hostile space for them in the process of doing that… to me, that is super horrifying. I see the harm being caused by the community to its own community members.”

Fannishness is often treated as a superfluous identity, separate from the other kinds of belonging that shape the people we are and the choices we make. But fan communities are not separate from the real world, and they are not separate from the systemic biases, prejudices and injustices that often make it a cruel place. Events like the ongoing apartheid and genocide of the Palestinian people make that fact particularly difficult to ignore, even for those of us who have the privilege to do so should we choose. “A lot of people ask us why we talk about activism in fandom spaces,” says Deeja. “We need to be loudly anti-Zionism in every space and every aspect of our lives, because Zionism is ingrained in every aspect of our lives. It’s everywhere and must be fought everywhere. That’s part of the process of denormalization of Zionism and decolonization, especially in the music industry and art world.”

D shares that she has sometimes struggled to hold both her identity as a Palestinian and her identity as a fan at the same time. “Like any other fan, being in a group, or in a fandom, it really holds a sense of belonging,” she says. “And so this part of your life really becomes very significant. And, when you’ve lived your whole life as a Palestinian, the echoes of your identity, wherever you go, it remains. And so I carry this identity with me that’s really marked by a history of resistance and struggle everywhere, right? And so when you’re a K-pop fan, it’s like navigating two worlds. And I struggle specifically to celebrate in a culture, which is K-pop, where corporations really trivialize or overlook the struggle of my people. So it’s kind of like a tug of war between my love for music and my commitment to my Palestinian people.”

The genocide and occupation are ongoing, and corporations like HYBE—which is to say institutions that wield great cultural power—continue to prioritize profits over the lives and concerns of the Palestinian people. (To be fair, profit-making is their corporate mandate, which is what makes boycotts a necessary tool for people trying to create a more just world within capitalism.) Still, in this process, D says she has been able to find community within fan community. “I’ve been able to connect with people and other CARATs who really share my passions for both K-pop and justice as a whole. And, in a sense, you can really say it’s a very humbling experience, because it really fills me with a sense of purpose, like I’m doing something, because I love music, but I’m also doing something [for my people]. So I’m not really alone in my struggle.”

For D, these fan subcommunities that value both music and justice, and that build solidarity across diverse lived experiences and identities, are necessary for humanity’s shared future. “I really think people fail to understand how valuable a community is, especially with the accessibility of social media now,” she says. “You can reach everyone, everywhere. And I really think we need to use that to our advantage if we want liberation from any discriminatory ideology. Not just Zionism.”

Kayti Burt is a working class journalist based in New England with more than a decade of experience covering the world’s most popular stories and songs for outlets including Paste, Rolling Stone, Vulture, TIME, the LA Times, Den of Geek and Polygon. She is particularly interested in how fandom shapes modern life, and is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Freelance Solidarity Project.

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