BTS at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards. Photo: Tinseltown/shutterstock

BTS at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards. Photo: Tinseltown/shutterstock

For weeks after the killing of George Floyd set off world-spanning protests against racial injustice, it seemed like not a day went by without another big racial equity commitment from a major corporation or foundation. They’re still coming in, and some have involved hundreds of millions of dollars. But while commitments from Nike, Apple, OSF and others stand out for their sheer size, some of the most immediately responsive big gifts during that historic first week of June came from figures in entertainment.

As protestors packed the streets, celebrity donations to support the peaceful protests and bail out detained demonstrators were plentiful. Chrissy Teigen, The Weeknd, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga and Kanye West are just a few who gave. And Michael Jordan, as we’ve reported, has now pledged $100 million to social justice causes in partnership with Nike’s Jordan brand. But one of the most interesting early commitments came from across the pond—the Pacific, that is. 

On June 6, Variety reported that the South Korean pop band BTS had donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter earlier that week. The news made waves not only because of the gift’s origins and substantial size, but also because internet-savvy fans of Korean pop music were newly in the spotlight for acts of online protest, like drowning out racist hashtags with unrelated K-pop content or, most famously, inflating attendance expectations at President Trump’s ill-fated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

But even among K-pop fans, ARMY, the official name for BTS’ global fan base, stands out for its commitment. In the U.S. and abroad, passionate fans with a particular dedication to the boy group have propelled BTS to near Beatles-esque heights. ARMY is a formidable force on social media, where they’re known to trend BTS-related hashtags and topics globally. They’re a diverse group in terms of race, age and background, but they’ll come together in a flash to support BTS.

As it turns out, that level of dedication and organization translates to fundraising gold. This was on full display when a fan-run charity project called One In An ARMY pulled off a crowdfunding drive to match BTS’ $1 million donation. “Match a Million,” as it’s called, surpassed its initial goal in around a single day. To date, One In An ARMY’s Black Lives Matter campaign has brought in over $1.3 million from nearly 41,000 donors. 

A Stand Against Violence

BTS’ star has been on the rise stateside for some time. Over the past couple years, the septet—Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V and Jungkook—have held increasingly ambitious tours, filling arenas and then stadiums in American cities. Last year’s “Speak Yourself” extension to the band’s larger “Love Yourself” world tour saw BTS perform multiple shows at L.A.’s Rose Bowl, Chicago’s Soldier Field and New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. BTS regularly vies with top American artists on the charts, and often breaks global records for engagement on U.S.-based social media platforms like Twitter. 

Some commentators ascribe BTS’ success in the U.S. to what makes them unique in South Korea. They’re underdogs in a way, hailing from a small record label in an industry where a few big ones predominate. In contrast to many other K-pop acts, the members of BTS participate deeply in the creation of their music. Much of it deals with serious social issues like the struggle for self-love and self-realization, the challenges young people face in South Korea and abroad, and even class identity and economic inequality.

BTS are also no strangers to philanthropy. In addition to doling out gifts back home, they have served as ambassadors for UNICEF’s global campaign to protect children and teens from violence. They’ve also donated $1.4 million in album proceeds to Generation Unlimited, another U.N.-affiliated effort to boost education and training opportunities for young people. Toward the end of June, BTS donated $1 million to Live Nation’s Crew Nation campaign to support event staff put out of work by COVID-19.

The band’s Black Lives Matter donation reflects a spirit of opposition to violence that has motivated much of their prior giving. A statement posted to the BTS Twitter account on June 3 read: “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together.” According to Variety, the band’s donation went out right around the same time.

It’s impressive how quickly BTS made the commitment. After all, curfews were still in place in several cities around June 3 after an initial weekend of unrest. Rather than jumping on any bandwagon, the band was there right at the start. It’s also telling that BTS chose to support Black Lives Matter itself. That is, the band backed a grassroots movement organization founded in 2013 and often labeled “radical” in the years since, rather than one of the more mainstream racial justice charities many corporations have favored. 

Matching a Million—and Exceeding It

Even before BTS dished out the big bucks to back the protest movement, One In An ARMY had already established a fandom-oriented Black Lives Matter campaign. According to Louise Järsberg, a volunteer and spokesperson for One In An ARMY, “the fandom was already very active with spreading and engaging in the movement [for Black lives]. It was very visible within the fandom, so many were aware already.” 

On June 1, the group set up a Carrd fundraising site for fans interested in supporting BLM movement organizations. Over the next several days, the platform brought in $50,000 through a feature that let ARMY split their donations between 14 organizations. The news of BTS’ donation turbocharged the campaign, prompting fans to trend #MatchAMillion on Twitter. In the first 24 hours after BTS’ donation went public, the total amount donated stood near $817,000 and passed the $1 million threshold soon after. Out of the donations that came in through One In An ARMY’s own form, around half originated in the United States.

“We… already had something ready, our Carrd that had a fundraiser going. So it was ready right when the spark was ignited, and when you get to ride the wave right away, it’s more likely it’ll become a tidal wave. And it did,” Järsberg said.

One In An ARMY’s readiness to harness the moment was no accident. The group has been honing its fundraising chops since 2018, when fans began organizing online to support BTS’ charity projects through the U.N.. Since then, One In An ARMY has organized 27 fundraisers, often benefiting smaller nonprofits that tangibly support people in need. The group’s campaign roster includes crowdfunding drives conducted on a monthly basis, as well as broader “bonus missions” and side projects like the Black Lives Matter campaign and a COVID-19 relief effort this spring.

According to Järsberg, One In An ARMY has become quite used to vetting NGOs. “The team looked into the recommended organizations that ARMY and other outlets had put out [and did] their own research,” she said. Volunteers also drew on what they knew—many of One In An ARMY’s team live in the U.S. There’s no plan to end the fundraiser anytime soon, although the group has modified its list of BLM organizations over time “to branch out into different areas of the movement.”

While the Black Lives Matter movement—and its funding—arose in the context of systemic racism in the U.S., the George Floyd protests are showing in no uncertain terms that anger over racial injustice resonates worldwide. The BTS donations, both from the band and its diverse fans, are a kind of bid for common purpose between people too often set apart, not only by racial and cultural divides, but now, by a global pandemic. They’re also a demonstration of the power of pop culture when it inspires fans to move money together in a way that transcends national borders. 

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