BTS interview: the K-pop giants on Army, military service, masculinity and their early days before conquering the world

Written by ayunda · 4 min read >

This is a very serious and deep question,” says RM, the 26-year-old leader of the world’s biggest band. He pauses to think. We are talking about utopian and dystopian futures, about how the boundary-smashing, hegemony-overturning global success of his group, the wildly talented seven-member South Korean juggernaut BTS, feels like a glimpse of a new and better world, of an interconnected 21st century actually living up to its promise.
BTS’ downright magical levels of charisma, their genre-defying, sleek-but-personal music, even their casually non-toxic, skincare-intensive brand of masculinity – every bit of it feels like a visitation from some brighter, more hopeful time.
What RM is currently pondering, however, is how all of it contrasts with a darker landscape all around them, particularly the horrifying recent wave of anti-Asian violence and discrimination across a global diaspora.
“We are outliers,” says RM, “and we came into the American music market and enjoyed this incredible success.”

BTS interview: the K-pop giants on Army, military service, masculinity and their  early days before conquering the world | South China Morning Post

In 2020, seven years into their career, BTS’ first English-language single, the irresistible Dynamite, hit No 1 in the United States, an achievement so singular it prompted a congratulatory statement from South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The nation has long been deeply invested in its outsize cultural success beyond its borders, known as the Korean wave.
“Now, of course, there is no utopia,” RM continues. “There’s a light side; there’s always going to be a dark side. The way we think is that everything that we do, and our existence itself, is contributing to the hope for leaving this xenophobia, these negative things, behind.”

At the moment, RM is in an acoustically treated room at his label’s headquarters in Seoul, wearing a white medical mask to protect a translator in the room with him, a black bucket hat and a black hoodie from the Los Angeles luxury label Fear of God. As RM has had to explain too many times on US talk shows, he taught himself his English by bingeing on Friends DVDs. Still, he makes understandable use of the interpreter when the conversation gets complex.
RM is a fan of complexity. He was on a path toward an elite university education before a love of hip hop, first sparked by a Korean group, Epik High, detoured him into superstardom. Bang Si-hyuk, the cerebral, intense-yet-avuncular mogul-producer who founded BTS’ record company, Big Hit Entertainment (now Hybe), signed RM first, in 2010, and gradually formed BTS around the rapper’s talent and magnetism.

“When I first met RM,” says Bang, “I felt a sense of duty that I must help him grow to become a great artist after acknowledging his musical talents and ways of thinking.”

When BTS debuted

, in 2013, Big Hit was an under­dog start-up in a South Korean music business then dominated by three huge firms (Bang had been a producer for one of them, JYP). Big Hit reportedly once ran out of cash while filming a video. Now, thanks to BTS’ success, Hybe is a publicly traded company so large it just snapped up the American management company behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.

“We always set goals and standards that may seem ideal, and try our best to get there as close as possible,” Bang says. “It’s still the same.”

Suga and J-Hope

were the first two members to join after RM, at a point when Bang imagined a pure hip hop group. (There were other rapper trainees on board with them, all ultimately jettisoned as BTS became more of a pop hybrid.) Suga, also a fan of Epik High, as well as American rappers like T.I., was already a skilled rapper when he joined, much to his parents’ displeasure. “They didn’t understand rap music,” Suga says. “It’s natural that they were against what I was doing. I think that helped me work harder because there was something that I had to prove.”

On the intense 2016 solo track The Last (recorded under the alias Agust D), Suga revealed battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety and depression. “I’m comfortable now and feeling good,” he says. “But those sort of negative emotions come and go. For anybody, these emotions are not things that need to be hidden. They need to be discussed and expressed. Whatever emotions I may be feeling, I’m always ready to express them.”
With the group’s sunniest personality, J-Hope is beloved by his bandmates. (“I think J-Hope can run for president of the world,” says V; “There will be at least six votes from us,” RM adds.) J-Hope is a stunning dancer and a surprisingly aggressive rapper, a skill he learned in his trainee days. “When I first started training, all the members were rappers,” he says. “So when you went into the house, beats were dropping. Everyone was just rapping in freestyle. It was not easy to adapt at first.”


superstar boy band BTS has raised US$3.6 million and generated millions of tweets during four years of teaming up with the UN children’s agency to fight violence, abuse and bullying and promote self-esteem in young people, according to the agency.

The “Love Myself” campaign spread its message through means including social media hashtags, merchandise, the South Korean group’s 2018-2019 “Love Yourself” world tour and a 2019 video for Unicef urging people to “choose kindness”.
The “Love Myself” slogan was even emblazoned on dirigibles flown over the musicians’ hometowns in 2017.

Unicef had booths at BTS concerts, and the band members filmed a music video at the UN headquarters and repeatedly spoke there, most recently during the General Assembly’s annual gathering of world leaders last month.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced last year’s meeting to be held almost entirely virtually, BTS members spoke by video about how they dealt with the isolation and frustration brought on by pandemic shutdowns.

The groundbreaking way in which BTS has helped spark a positive message with its ARMY is simply unmatched and incredibly invaluable

BTS said in a statement for Unicef’s Wednesday announcement that the band launched the “Love Myself” campaign to improve other young people’s lives but strove to live by it themselves.
“We as a team and as individuals grew, as well,” the seven-member band said. “We hope that many people felt how the love received from others can become the power that allows them to love themselves.”

The campaign has helped the 76-year-old UN cultivate a more youthful image and capture eyeballs outside its usual circles – and inside BTS’ fan base, known as Army.
Permission to Dance, a BTS music video filmed at the UN headquarters and released last month, counts over 27 million views on the UN’s YouTube channel, which has about 2 million subscribers.
Unicef says the “Love Myself” initiative spurred nearly 5 million tweets and over 50 million likes, retweets, replies and comments.

“The groundbreaking way in which BTS has helped spark a positive message with its ARMY is simply unmatched and incredibly invaluable,” Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
The money raised will go toward Unicef’s work to halt violence.
BTS said it hoped to keep the campaign going, “so we can help people find happiness and love”.