In July this year, the Indian edition of Rolling Stone published an interview with Rap Monster from South Korean boy band BTS. That in itself wasn't particularly surprising. The current flagbearers of K-pop, BTS have spent the past two years breaking record after record as the group makes a serious bid to go from East Asian superstars to a global pop behemoth, even making it to Time Magazine's 2017 list of the 25 most influential people on the internet.
What was surprising though, was the volume and sheer insanity of the response the interview generated. Within minutes of the article being published, the Rolling Stone India website was inundated with so many visitors that its servers crashed. Thousands of Indian BTS fans took to Twitter using the hashtag #IndiaLovesBTS, which quickly reached the No. 2 spot on the global trends list. This was Indian K-pop fans' big coming out party, their own little 'breaking the internet' moment. Within a couple of months, K-pop would be everywhere.
On September 16, music channel VH1 announced the launch of K-Popp'd, India's first ever music segment dedicated to K-pop. Two days later, BTS's latest EP Love Yourself: Her debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes India chart. And earlier this month, Immortal Army – a group of boys from the north-eastern state of Mizoram – made history by becoming the first Indian act to win the best dance prize at the K-pop World Festival held in Changwon, South Korea.
But how did K-pop build such a dedicated fanbase in a country where nobody even speaks Korean? That’s a story that involves South Korean foreign policy, a local radical left-wing insurgency and the rise of social media.
Much of the world woke up to K-pop after Psy's 2012 viral hit Gangnam Style, but the genre dates back to the 1990s, when 'idol' groups started making waves in the Korean music scene.
Most people trace the genesis of the 'idol' phenomenon to the 1992 debut of Seo Taiji and Boys, a trio that melded American pop, swingbeat and rap with Korean lyrics and musical tropes. Their immense – and unexpected – popularity encouraged Korean entertainment companies to jump on this new trend, and by the mid-90s the Korean music industry was dominated by boy bands such as H.O.T and Sechs Kies, who quickly built up large, passionate and competitive fandoms.
These bands would lay down the template for generations of K-pop groups to follow – music that mixes elements of Korean pop culture with a wide cross-section of contemporary music genres from the West, a focus on over-the-top fashion, and a visual aesthetic that is fully committed to gleeful audiovisual excess.
Around the same time, the South Korean Ministry of Culture started investing heavily in the country’s entertainment and pop culture industries in an attempt to stave off the impending influx of Japanese anime, manga and music, which had been banned in the country before 1998.
Recognising the potential of culture as soft power, the government also put into place policies to promote the production and export of Korean pop culture. This was the beginning of Hallyu – the Korean Wave – in which Korean films, TV dramas and K-pop gained rapid popularity across wide swathes of China, Japan and South-East Asia, before the internet allowed it to spread its reach across all the world. And since the late 2000s, K-Pop has been at its forefront.
But India’s first brush with Hallyu had more to do with local politics than it did with soft power diplomacy. In 2000 the Manipur Revolutionary People’s Front, an armed secessionist group, issued a notice banning Hindi films and TV shows – as well as the use of Hindi – in an effort to fight the ‘Indianisation’ of the north-eastern state of Manipur. As theatres and cable operators quickly acceded to the demand, people started looking further east for entertainment. Korean TV channels like Airarang TV and KBS World started being broadcast in Manipur and other north-eastern states, and soon the region was awash with cheap pirated Korean CDs.
“The key factor that abets the popularity of Korean Wave is the cultural proximity of Korean and Manipuri societies,” says a 2008 paper, written by research scholars Dr Otojit Kshetrimayum and Ningombam Victoria Chanu, referring to ethnic and cultural links between the region and China and South-East Asia.
The fact that people from the region are rarely represented in Indian pop culture – and if they are, it's usually as an offensive racial stereotype – also made the switch to Korean culture easier. When young people from the region travelled to cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune for college, they took their love for Korean TV and K-pop with them, seeding K-pop fandoms in their hostels. But it would take until after 2012 for these seeds to start bearing fruit.
"I think Gangnam Style was what really got everyone looking up Korean music online," says Riddhi Chakraborty, a longtime K-pop fan and the Rolling Stone music journalist whose interview with Rap Monster led to the aforementioned website crash. The rise of YouTube and social media had already allowed K-pop to make inroads into the United States, Europe and India, but it was K-pop star Psy's 2012 viral hit that really turned it into a global phenomenon.
Essential to that was K-pop acts and their labels readily embracing social media. Today's top K-pop acts like BTS, Seventeen and the currently inactive Big Bang are incredibly active on social media, regularly sharing clips of themselves hanging out or practising their dance moves, engaging with fans on Twitter, and broadcasting every element of their lives through personal broadcasting app V Live. Most of the big acts also have their own apps, where fans from all over the world can chat.
"One of the reasons why once you get into K-pop it really sucks you in, is that there's just so much content to explore," says Madhu Gudi, a media marketing professional and K-pop fan who recently organised a listening party in Mumbai for the release of BTS's EP Love Yourself: Her. "There's not just the music and the live shows. You have fashion, you have merchandise you can buy, they'll make regular appearances on TV shows, a lot of them produce their own content. There's always more and more for you to explore. And you feel closer to the artists because they put so much of themselves out on social media and on YouTube."
It’s this high level of online engagement – as well as the lack of non-Bollywood boy bands or pop music in the country – that has helped K-pop acts build highly dedicated fandoms in India as well. Indian K-pop fans congregate on act-specific Facebook and Twitter pages, like Bangtan India (for BTS fans) and EXO-L India, as well as more general platforms like Destination K-pop India.
They communicate with each other online and through WhatsApp groups, meet up at fan-organised events and coordinate fan projects like a recent fan-funded BTS billboard in Pune or the Twitter song request campaign that pushed VH1 into starting K-Popp’d. They’re also heavily active on YouTube, where they upload covers and dance videos set to K-pop hits. There’s even a couple of videos of K-pop flash mobs.
Much of this traffic is one-way, but K-pop stars have recently started paying attention to India, thanks to the efforts of the fans as well as a surge in interviews by Indian music media. The growth of Indian K-pop fandom can be seen in the growing popularity of the K-pop contest, started by the Korean Cultural Centre in 2012 at a small auditorium in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, with 37 contestants and 300 attendees.
“The numbers have impressively increased for the last five years,” says Chamseul Kim, the centre’s PR and communications manager. This year’s edition held regional rounds in 11 cities, before a finale at the swanky Talkatora Indoor Stadium in front of more than 2,000 fans. “We had 424 teams taking part this year, double the number from 2016.”
The one thing still missing from the picture is K-pop acts actually coming down to India to perform for their fans. Currently, the high cost of setting up a K-pop concert (high production values, performance fees, artist hospitality) and a fanbase that is too young to have significant disposable income makes that difficult. But with the genre’s rapidly increasing profile in the country, and as more K-pop acts – and the entertainment companies behind them – look towards India as a potential future market, those are not insurmountable barriers.
“For that, India has to show that it has lots of fans, and present its K-Wave phenomenon to Korea,” says Kim. A couple of weeks ago in Changwon, Immortal Army took the first steps towards making that happen.