BTS gave $1 million to the grassroots organization Black Lives Matter to help combat police brutality and fight for modern American civil rights. Photo credits: Big Hit Entertainment, Black Lives Matter
As someone who has followed K-pop loosely over the years, with BTS being my main area of focus, I’ve come away knowing something a lot of Black K-pop fans have to grapple with–the history of K-pop’s lack of support for its Black fans.
Routinely, Black fans have to excuse away problematic actions done by their favorite idols. Either that, or they just suppress their anger after being shot down by other fans who don’t want to hear anyone being upset at their bias. Black K-pop fans often come to the defense of each other and converse among themselves about how the industry–and even some of the idols themselves–don’t seem to care about Black lives, save for the aesthetics of Black culture. Even I was grappling with that as I dived into the K-pop culture, and oftentimes, I’d get frustrated with how even some of the musicians who did seem to have a healthy respect for Blackness and Black fans still dabbled in Black fetish, whether they were conscious of it or not.
So consider me shocked when I saw BTS had donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter.
June 4, the group tweeted in support of the protests for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others, writing in both Hangul and English, “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter.”
While that by itself is a dramatic break from other K-pop groups and talent agencies, the group and their management, Big Hit Entertainment, also quietly donated to Black Lives Matter, with the news confirmed to Variety June 6. The outlet reports that “[t]he donation was transferred earlier this week, with Black Lives Matter confirming receipt to Big Hit on Friday.”
Black Lives Matter managing director Kailee Scales thanked the group, saying to Variety, “Black people all over the world are in pain at this moment from the trauma of centuries of oppression. We are moved by the generosity of BTS and allies all over the world who stand in solidarity in the fight for Black lives.”
Inspired by the group, BTS’ fans, the ARMY, also supported an initiative to match that donation. The #MatchAMillion campaign picked up steam, and within 24 hours, fans matched BTS’ donation and then some, raising to date over $1,300,000. The fans’ donations also went toward Black Lives Matter as well as several other organizations and foundations.
In email interviews, I asked several BTS fans what they thought about BTS’ donation and support for Black Lives Matter. The consensus seems to be that they feel this could be the start of the K-pop industry leveling up via BTS’ own decision to put their activism spotlight on Black American civil rights.
But first, let’s learn more about the #MatchAMillion campaign from the fan who started it all–a Black young woman named Daezy Agbakoba.
The person behind the #MatchAMillion campaign
Agbakoba, ARMY of over 3 years, was inspired to create her hashtag after being bowled over by BTS’ surprise donation.
“I’m in a group chat with some of my ARMY friends on Twitter, and one of them sent the article that Variety wrote on them donating a million [dollars]. At first, I thought someone tweeted it as a joke, but when I clicked on the tweet they had sent, I realized that it was from their verified account, and that’s when I knew it was serious,” she wrote.
“BTS normally donate a lot of money to different charities and causes already, but if anything, I was expecting it to be a donation of tens of thousands. When I read that it was a million dollars in total, I genuinely think my heart stopped for a short moment,” she continued. “I was so shocked, but also amazed. With that donation, it was like they were telling us that they not only cared about the problems that Black people face in America, but they were gonna support Black people alongside the rest of us too. And that just really made me respect them even more.”
With #MatchAMillion being her first hashtag, she wrote she wasn’t sure what type of response to expect. But the response she did receive–of fans meeting the goal of $1 million in donations in 24 hours–was incredible for her.
“This was the first time I had ever kickstarted the trending of a hashtag before, and Rhea (@Monosplaylist on Twitter) was so kind to help me figure out a good name for the hashtag, which is how we arrived at the name of #MatchAMillion,” she wrote. “At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Our fandom is extremely good at trending things, but I didn’t know how far this idea could take us. The first hour or so was just me DMing big ARMY accounts I was mutuals with and asking them to spread the word.”
Along with working with @Monosplaylist, she wrote she also worked with fellow ARMY @triviapath to translate the project into Korean, which Agbakoba then posted to Weverse, BTS’ official fan community.
“So while I was expecting some people to be receptive, or to at least see what we were trying to do, I never expected it to take off as much as it did,” she wrote. “ARMYs did an amazing job of rallying together in such a short time.”
Agbakoba’s joy at the project reaching its goal can be heard in her thank you video, posted to Twitter.
“I was blown away by how quickly we reached the goal. I’ve always known that ARMYs were powerful, but even I underestimated how quickly we’d raise the money,” she continued. “A charity project that I expected to be completed in maybe a week literally took us just over 24 hours. And when we reached it, I was so proud. Our project had reached the eyes of so many people—even those outside the fandom were donating to help us out. So to see everyone work so hard, it made reaching the goal that much more meaningful.”
ARMY #MatchAMillion reactions: Elation, pride, hope
Several members of the fan community were just as happy with BTS and the ARMY’s commitment to Black Lives Matter. For them, it felt like a moment that truly exemplified the best of ARMY.
Stephanie Parker, a San Francisco-based BTS fan and co-host of the Kpopcast, wrote about what it was like for her, a Black fan, to see the group and fans come together to support Black lives.
“It warms my heart to see my fellow ARMYs using their collective power to support #BlackLivesMatter. $1 million dollars raised in one day is practically unheard of! That’s the power of ARMY,” she wrote.”
“I never knew the depths of my pride until I saw that headline [about the donation],” wrote Ariana Khan, NYC-based ARMY and former Kpopcast member. “I immediately burst into happy tears and called my mom (also an ARMY). It felt like a sense of relief mixed with pride to see that the boys were willing to openly make this statement, and then quietly donate more than anyone ever expected.”
Julia Zhou, a BTS fan who works in brand marketing for a popular content platform, wrote about her “complex–but positive–feelings” about the group’s announcement.
“Their June [4th] statement of support for Black Lives Matter and June 6th donation news came I believe at the right time,” she wrote. “I’ll be honest, amidst all the pain Black Americans were feeling, and the amazing actions individuals were taking to fight injustice, share resources and educate each other across the US…whether BTS spoke up was at first a low priority for me, just a nice-to-have.”
“But after K-pop stans organically grew an impressive, highly mobilized activist movement to jam police surveillance apps and flood alt-right hashtags with K-pop fancams (and [after] seeing a ton of Yoongi profiles pics and superscript-7 names among those activists), I felt BTS owed Black ARMYs to speak up about Black Lives Matter,” she continued, referencing the fancam accounts with pictures of BTS member Suga–whose real name is Min Yoongi–and the superscript 7, which is a symbol many BTS fans use to honor the seven group members, the number of years BTS has been active, and their latest album, Map of the Soul: 7.
“BTS has so many BIPOC and LGBTQ+ fans here in the States, so Black Lives Matter feels inseparable from what American ARMY are at our core. And as an Asian-American ARMY, I know K-pop is complicated for Black stans,” Zhou wrote. “So as the protests gained momentum across the country, and celebs and many major brands started making statements (some good, some vague, a few absurd), I was relieved to see BTS’ short statement of support…but their $1M donation to Black Lives Matter actually felt substantial. It matters that they put a stake in the ground for Black ARMYs, and encouraged more people to show support.”
Khan also expressed her feelings about how BTS has broken apart from the varied responses–or silence–given by other K-pop groups or solo artists.
“In the days leading up [to BTS’ donation], I saw on social media that a lot of ARMY were hoping the boys would show their support for Black Lives Matter. Some Korean musicians and K-pop artists had tweeted and donated, but often they were people who were born or lived in the West,” she wrote. “As it is pretty common for the larger K-pop community/artists to not speak about politics (especially international politics), we are almost taught to not expect any comment. So, even the tweet was such an important moment for the entire fandom.”
“All of this has been a reminder that BTS and Big Hit aren’t the norm for K-pop,” she continued. “They are always committed to doing what is right regardless of the backlash they receive from people who don’t think they should get involved.”
‘The soul of our fandom’: ARMY as social justice advocates
The ARMY’s decision to donate reflects the fandom’s commitment to social justice, according to Khan. It also reflects how the fandom wants to create a space for every fan, including Black fans.
“At our heart, we are a family. I experienced this first when I went to the Wings Tour in 2017, and I saw so many people who had never met before come together to just celebrate the boys,” she wrote. “But as the fandom has grown, it has fractured a bit into smaller groups, and there are times when some members of our family haven’t always felt as supported by the fanbase. This is mostly true for [B]lack ARMYs who have had a harder time when it comes to sharing their love on social media.”
“However, over the last few weeks, I have seen the soul of our fandom. ARMY across the world has shown so much support for the movement through activism and donations,” she continued. “It shows that our fandom is socially-conscious, open-hearted, and dedicated to equality. And we are so lucky to have One In An ARMY who leads so many of our donation drives. This was just absolute perfection, and it brought our family even closer together! Also, if anything, it just proved that the fandom is not just a bunch of random bots driving up viewership. We are large and growing every day!”
“The fanbase was doing great work before,” wrote Zhou. “Not only did ARMY drive myriad well-documented donation campaigns for various causes across the globe, such as those organized by One In An Army, but the fandom also demonstrated its commitment to activism throughout the Black Lives Matter protests.”
Indeed, the fan collective One In An Army has successfully organized many charitable campaigns. According to their website, the group describes themselves as “a fan collective of volunteers around the globe” that focus on “our shared interest in global superstars, BTS, and the idea of using our collective power for global good.” Together, the collective finds international non-profit organizations “and harness the power of ARMY into giving micro-donations over a one month period.” Their motto, “I am ONE in an ARMY,” focuses on their belief that “many people giving small amounts can create a substantial impact when we work together.”
The collective’s website features an infographic that details the amount of work they have accomplished between 2018 and 2019. Such stats include raising $46,000 in a year and three months to fund causes like providing 211 Ramadan meals for Syrian refugees as well as funds to send them medicine and medical supplies, 224 hours of dance classes for Rwandan children, six months of healing arts for hospitalized children, a year of clef lips and palate care for 28 children, a year of basic foods for LGBTQ refugees, 3.6 million grains of race on the UN World Food Programme game Freerice, 34 biosand water filters for 300 people for 25 years, and much more.
Current campaigns include the #7WithArmy donation drive for the Global Food Banking Network, Anpanvan’s Freerice Journey (“Anpanvan” being a reference to the BTS song “Anpanman”) the Find Me Challenge for charities Tab For a Cause and Search for a Cause, and more. One In An Army will also continue the Black Lives Matter fundraiser, writing via a spokesperson in a press release, “Black Lives Matter isn’t something that has a time limit. It’s a belief everyone needs to carry in their everyday lives.”
“Our current campaign [#7WithARMY] is actually something we planned for four months in collaboration with dozens of other BTS fanbases to celebrate BTS’ seven year anniversary,” wrote the spokesperson. ‘The campaign is still ongoing and supports COVID-19 relief efforts around the world. But we’re happy to help ARMY organize and support the Black Lives Matter movement. We stand in solidarity with [B]lack ARMY. They’re an important part of our family. And we stand with [B]lack people everywhere. Your voices deserve to be heard.”
One In An Army helped the #MatchAMillion donations reach various organizations. The fan collective also gave fans access to other resources, as Zhou explained.
“So much activism was already in motion before BTS announced their donation, but BTS put some premium gas in the tank when they made their $1M donation,” Zhou continued. “ARMY is extremely diverse across many axes. The fandom truly isn’t a monolith, but I like to believe BTS tends to attract net (chaotic) good folks who want to see real change in the world. And I’m glad as a fandom we’re having way more explicit discussions about racial injustice.”
Zhou also wrote that BTS’ status as “unexpected cultural behemoths” is “probably in no small part because of their genuine ability to show empathy and demonstrate personal growth.”
“They function as a therapeutic safe haven for many folks,” she continued. “I think this energy of openness and acceptance from the group, and emotional messaging they tend to use in their art, attracts interesting people.”
The actions of the ARMY put the negative catty stereotype of fandoms in stark relief. I can say personally that my interactions with BTS fans changed how I viewed the ARMY, particularly after my 2017 article in which I did address my criticisms of the group’s early years. Instead of getting dragged across Twitter, I was met with fans who appreciated what I had to say.
Likewise, most music and entertainment journalists have had nothing but nice things to say about the fans, who have sent interviewers flowers, politely bombed their twitter pages with purple hearts, and send thank you tweets or notes, letting the journalists know how they appreciated their coverage of BTS.
For fans already acquainted with how the fandom conducts itself with its philanthropy and accessibility, the #MatchAMillion campaign is just a new chapter for a group already used to giving.
“I believe two things about fandoms: 1) they are not limited [to] performers (ie, Bernie bros, fans of sports teams, etc.), and 2) a fandom is a reflection of who they are following,” wrote Khan. “This can be a negative for sure. We know that there can be a cult of personality and if that personality is dedicated to hate or negativity, the fandom will follow. However, whether a politician or a Korean boy group, if they stand for something more than themselves, the fandom can be a powerful source for good.”
“In the case of the BTS fandom, we are led by seven men who through their music and actions have taught us to stand up for what we believe in and contribute whatever we can to help others,” she continued. “So what has developed is a fandom that will consistently strive to outdo themselves whether that be in Youtube views or support for various causes around the world. And so many of these fans are motivated to carry this out further than just the fandom. They are activists and leaders within their communities, and they are truly dedicated to making the world a better place. That’s when a fandom is at it’s best, and that’s what this campaign has shown.”
“The anti-police, anti-alt-right fancam activism and #MatchAMillion were not surprising at all to me,” wrote Zhou, referencing how ARMY flooded hashtags that were against #BlackLivesMatter and the protests. “Fandoms, especially K-pop fandoms, are already committed and goal-oriented. However the context, scale, mobilization and intensity were different this time, and ‘locals’ [fandom slang for those not a part of the K-pop fandom community] and mainstream media took notice. It was a truly breathtaking moment. We can probably accomplish anything.”
Zhou also mentioned the recent failed Trump rally, where only 6,200 people showed up despite the Trump campaign expecting tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. According to Vulture and RealClearPolitics, a grandmother’s TikTok urged young people to block tickets to the rally by securing as many as possible, leading avid TikTok users and mobilized K-pop fans to do just that. The result was more empty seats than the campaign expected. Steve Schmidt, the campaign manager for the late congressman John McCain’s 2008 presidential run, said to MSNBC that the move was “a savage blow to Donald Trump’s re-election” by “fool[ing] the Trump campaign into believing that there were a million people that actually wanted to come to this spectacle, when, in fact, there were about 9,000 who risked their health and their lives, and maybe the lives of their family members, to go to see who the hell knows what [Saturday].”
“I’ve seen a lot of media coverage on TikTok users and K-pop fandom / BTS ARMY reserving slots for the Trump rally in Tulsa and disrupting the data for it, and likely contributing to its poor attendance,” she wrote. “This was yet another wonderful example of the fans’ core skills – coordinated data and algorithm manipulation, ticketing, swarming – being used for activist means. BTS ARMY is particularly large, and they’re quite adept at this.”
But, Zhou writes, its important for ARMY to look inward while making change in the world.
“[I]n addition to focusing on actions that influence society and culture, I think this is an important time for ARMY to look within the fandom and self interrogate [and] self-educate more,” she continued. “This moment raised a ton of in-fandom conversation not only about systemic racism and police violence, but also around what it means to be a Black stan engaging with Korean music, and all the joy and pain that are part of that engagement. We’re so globally connected that folks overseas are hearing about each other’s lived experiences, and that’s important.”
Possible signs of change in the K-pop fandom
The focus on self-education is something Parker also wants to see.
“I’d like to challenge (with love!) all the K-Pop fans out there to use this moment to take their #BLM support to the next level,” she wrote. “I want to see K-pop fans educating themselves and each other about race and history; and reflecting on how they might be perpetuating anti-Black racism in their daily lives.”
“What does it mean for a Korean group that grew up heavily influenced by Black culture to acknowledge and donate a substantial amount to Black Lives Matter? As an Asian American, I don’t know, I haven’t truly unpacked the significance,” wrote Zhou. But she did believe that BTS’ influence would allow for others around the world to start learning about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Where BTS’ influence I believe is most effective is using their massive online platform to normalize conversations on race, and increase awareness and visibility of racial injustice globally,” she wrote. “Mainstream media in the U.S. already was portraying the movement unfairly, and I’m certain South Korean media was even less able to capture the nuance and context. Perhaps BTS helped shift perceptions of Black Lives Matter back home.”
“Also, contrary to U.S. media reporting, BTS also does have a history of political language in their music, like talking about the uncertainty and angst young people feel, and addressing classist comments from a former South Korean official, Na Hyang-wook, in ‘Am I Wrong,'” she continued. “They of course have long tried to normalize the topic of mental health in Korea, and kicked off a UNICEF campaign to end violence against children in 2018.
“They’ve even had a well-documented history of apologizing genuinely for past mistakes on colorism, sensitive historical moments, etc.,” she said, referencing my 2017 article about BTS’ position in the Black American music/pop culture scene. “BTS functions as pillars of boundless empathy for ARMY, which is wonderful. Should BTS do more, like explicitly discuss racism and xenophobia in Korea? Show up unambiguously for Pride at home? What is their obligation as a brand, as artists, or as individuals to shape public discourse? I’m not sure, but I know I personally would love it if they continued to take more and more clear stances on important issues they genuinely care about. Because I’m confident they as individuals care about a ton, deeply.”
Khan also believes that BTS has the power to sway fans and celebrities alike to step up to support Black lives.
“I do believe that many international ARMY were already in support of the movement in some way, whether that was calling representatives or joining protests around the world. However, what BTS was able to do with this move was to open this conversation up a little closer to home,” she wrote. “There are so many fans in countries with homogeneous populations who do not understand what the saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ really means. If you just look at South Korea, this is not something that is widely spoken about.”
“Even leading up to the announcement, there was a discussion on if BTS ‘owed it’ to fans to say anything because this is ‘not an issue in Korea.’ This is why so many K-pop groups, often who work with African American songwriters still have yet to say anything about this,” she wrote.
This fact falls in line with something songwriter Tiffany Red experienced. Even though she wrote R&B songs for K-pop artists, she said she didn’t receive as much pay as she felt she was owed, writing that she’s made “less than $10,000 off of my songwriting in the K-Pop market.” She also seemed to allude to race being a factor; she wrote, “I will no longer write R&B for people who don’t look like me when I myself don’t even got a shot with a same songs as an artist. It’s painful and you’ve never cared.”
Red also called out SM Entertainment Group, the company behind groups like Super Junior and NCT, and international songwriting management and music rights company Ekko Music Rights for not speaking out on the injustices facing their African-American consumer base, even though their stars profit from the culture. SM did finally acknowledge Black Lives Matter, but Red also asked them on Instagram if they were going to acknowledge the movement “across ALL your platforms or only your twitter” and their retail Instagram. She also restated her demands for the industry to treat Black creatives better with regard to their pay and with regard to the industry’s ongoing problem with cultural appropriation.
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@smtown do you plan to acknowledge #BLACKLIVESMATTER across ALL your platforms or only your twitter and on @smglobalshop ? Also, where will you be donating? Also, what is your plan moving forward with how you treat the black creatives who create your music? Also, when will I be released from my deal with @ekkomusicrights ?Also, where’s my money? Also, are you still going to appropriate BLACK culture?
Black fans have also had trouble feeling seen and heard, even as K-pop stans become more known as online activists thanks to their fancam-bombing.
“For a lot of [B]lack fans, including myself, to see white K-pop fans get praised and credited in the media for anti-racist activism, while [B]lack fans have faced (and continue to face) anti-[B]lack harassment online for spearheading these conversations, feels like a punch in the gut–that we are being used for our social currency and then discarded,” The Learned Fangirl‘s Keidra Chaney told MIT Technology Review.
Technology Review uses an example within ARMY, in which several Black fans were getting doxxed and harassed by fans of Suga after they raised concerns about a sample on Suga’s latest mixtape. The sample is of cult leader Jim Jones, whose Jonestown compound in Guyana attracted a large population of Black Americans, many of whom became Jones’ victims during the Jonestown Masscre of 1978.
Black fans’ call for awareness went unheard by those who didn’t want to view Suga’s mixtape with a critical lens, probably because they assumed that by criticizing his work, they were somehow expressing hate for their fave. Indeed, the Black fans with valid criticisms were punished for raising their voices. Instead, the fandom could have used those criticisms as an opportunity to learn more about what affects Black ARMYs and how they can better support them and build community.
Chaney writes about the dangers of interlocking fandom with personal identity to the point of not being willing to critique faves’ work.
“My fear is that stan culture’s tendency to shout down anything that isn’t uncritical praise will push most critical discourse about music offline or to private spaces—essentially turning the role of culture writers and fans into PR mouthpieces for artists and their corporate-media backers,” she wrote in her essay, “The Empowered Stan.” “To join in the conversation on Stan Twitter, you will need to come with nothing less than slavish praise about an artist’s entire discography.”
She also acknowledged a statement I often say in various forms as a pop culture critic and pop culture fan–being critical doesn’t mean hating an artist or their work. In fact, it usually means you love their work and their journey as an artist and want to see them grow in their artistry.
“…[B]eing critical of a piece of work on a musical level doesn’t minimize the enjoyment it can bring you,” wrote Chaney. “It also doesn’t minimize an artist’s creative process, or diminish their importance on a representation level.”
Zhou also believes in the importance of interrogating the fandom’s role in the activism space.
“[W]hat I would love to dissuade mainstream media from doing is saying ARMY or K-pop fandoms are activist groups. Because they’re so diverse and global, and not at all monolithic, you can’t make that claim about them as a collective,” she wrote. “Fandoms by their nature have only allegiance to what they stan. However, many individuals within a fandom can be activists, so there can be some overlap, but it’s reductive and unproductive to make those generalizations about fandoms. A more interesting question is what activists can adopt from fandoms’ online tactics, considering how effective, efficient and clever these are.”
Clearly, the industry as a whole might have a long way to go. And even the fandom itself has some work to do when it comes to taking better care of Black fans along with figuring out their true role in the online activist space. But with the recent developments regarding BTS’ commitment to Black Lives Matter, Khan sees the overall positive effect BTS has had on its fans as something to applaud. For her, the fandom has proven they are willing to learn, and BTS leading the way by shining a light on Black Lives Matter can only accelerate that growth within the fandom.
“When BTS posted their message and the news came out about their donation, the conversation shifted for K-ARMY who began to look into the movement more and ask questions,” wrote Khan. “I think this could lead to a shift in conversations about race in places where they have long believed they were not affected. Because this is not just a U.S. problem. Racism and colorism are pervasive issues in all countries and societies. This conversation needs to happen on a global scale.”
Social justice and newfound togetherness, with a K-pop beat
With BTS’ donation made public, it would seem that the group is taking part in the global shift surrounding the plight of Black Americans. By setting an example to their international fans, they are causing those who look up to them to start investigating issues that they might not have been aware of. This new call to action led by the K-pop group could have ripple effects, from fans to fans’ families, friends and communities.
In Agbakoba’s words, the community behind #MatchAMillion shows how fandoms can be forward-thinkers when it comes to mobilization and organization in activism.
“If anything, I think it shows how quickly fandoms can mobilize with the right tools under the right conditions,” she wrote. “However, it’s important to note that even with my idea to trend a hashtag to help spread the word, none of this would have happened if ARMYs weren’t motivated to make it happen.”
“If I were to use any adjective to describe ARMYs, I would say that we are a fandom of doers,” she continued. “We know how to put things into action. ARMYs are the definition of ‘walking the walk’. So even if there was another fandom with the same number of people as us, if there aren’t enough people in the fandom who want to take the initiative to make a change, then it would be extremely difficult to replicate our results, especially within the same time frame. “
Just as important is how BTS’ statement and donation have made Black fans feel. These fans can sometimes feel at odds within the K-pop community, even alienated. But with BTS’ acknowledgement of the issues facing Black Americans, and with fans giving back and supporting their Black brothers and sisters-in-arms, Black fans might finally feel more seen and heard than they might have in the past.
One thing I personally hope for is that the new sense of togetherness ARMY might feel will open many within the group up to understanding some of the legitimate criticisms Black fans might have. Hopefully, they can use these criticisms as teachable moments to learn more about the issues and concerns that face their Black compatriots. This type of openness can also be used with any criticism any international ARMY might have with something said by BTS or one of the fans. Criticism isn’t hate; it’s a call for someone you admire to become a better, more aware, more empathetic person. It’s a call for growth, and that call should be respected, because it’s not as if all of us haven’t had to go through some growing pains.
Overall, I hope that a new day within K-pop is just around the corner. If so, the conversation about the moment K-pop woke up would be impossible to have without mentioning BTS and the ARMY.