Anu first joined Clubhouse in November 2020, after seeing spillover conversations from the new app on Twitter. A month into using it, she wondered if there were any K-pop fans on Clubhouse. So she started her own “room” — the Clubhouse word for specific spaces dedicated to topics like cryptocurrency or productivity — to find like-minded fans, asking the question, “Who listens to K-pop?”
“A lot of the people on Clubhouse [seemed] older than me, so I didn't really know if K-pop was an interest for them,” the 22-year-old student tells Teen Vogue. “So it was just like, let's just see what will happen.”
What happened was Anu built a thriving community where K-pop fans feel safe digging into the depths of their fandom. For Black fans, who don't always have a smooth time navigating fandom online, Clubhouse is a new and more welcoming experience.
That first Clubhouse gathering ended up attracting around 50 K-pop fans, as well as some industry professionals, including an A&R rep for SuperM and producers for BLACKPINK, EXO, and NCT. After hosting several more rooms, including a memorial for SHINee’s Jonghyun, regular attendees asked her to form a club so they would get an alert every time she began a room. And so The K-Pop Kickback was born, and its sister club, the K-Dramatics Club, followed soon after, with the two clubs sharing most of their admins. Now, both groups have thousands of members, and a quick search of “K-pop” or “K-drama” on Clubhouse returns dozens of results, with clubs for a variety of fandoms and locations.
Clubhouse, the live conversation service that works like the modern equivalent to a party line, has since become a platform where K-pop and K-drama fandom can thrive. (The company also just began rolling out the app for Android users in the U.S., with more countries to come.) Fans of Korean pop culture can cluster in either general or group-specific rooms where mods recap the latest news or variety shows, host watch parties for new episodes, give introductions to underrated groups or up-and-coming actors, and discuss themes in K-pop and K-drama at large. While these communities thrive on Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram, Clubhouse’s voice format feels more intimate, and more conducive to discussion. Fans enjoy the conversations happening in these clubs, which tend to be more thoughtful than the pile-ons and trolling that are common to stan Twitter in particular. For Black fans especially, the app has provided a space for real-talk conversations about subjects that fandoms as a whole would rather sweep under the rug.
Loving K-pop can be complicated for Black fans, who navigate cultural appropriation from the groups they love right alongside racism and harassment from their fellow fans. Bianca, a writer and one of the admins of The K-Pop Kickback, discovered the club when she was first getting into K-pop in November 2020, and kept coming back because it seemed less intimidating than stan Twitter. She has seen a pattern emerge among some club members when they look back or discuss their entries into various K-pop fandoms.
“There has been a common narrative amongst some of our members,” Bianca says. “You have that moment when you get into K-pop where you absolutely love it and think it’s amazing. And then you start to interrogate all of the problematic parts of it. It definitely forces you to reckon with that part of your identity, like, can I fully involve myself in something like this when it has so many issues that can possibly conflict with my identity and who I am as a person and what I believe is right and wrong?”
Though Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms for K-pop fandom, it’s not always a welcoming place for fans looking to criticize elements of their fandom. (Twitter has also recently rolled out its own audio chat-room feature, Twitter Spaces, which The K-Pop Kickback also uses.) Add in racist criticism and doxxing, and the vocal Black fan’s experience on the platform can become very hostile. Andrea Acosta, a Ph.D candidate at UCLA, has studied digital fandom and internet aesthetics, and has an academic article forthcoming with the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies on the popular #BlackOutBTS hashtag on Twitter. While observing ARMY Twitter last summer, she saw a pattern in the reactions to Black ARMYs criticisms over Suga’s controversial use of a Jim Jones sample, which he later removed with an apology.
“I was tracking the responses to Black fans who were expressing hurt or disappointment or anger,” Acosta tells Teen Vogue. “There was this relentless censorship. While there were some fans who were supportive, most fans were policing [Black fans’] response, saying it was inappropriate, or that they could be upset, but not angry. If a fan was expressing anger, it was immediately labeled ‘anti’ and disrespectful of BTS. There were lines being drawn and it was just overwhelming watching that happen.”
While Acosta’s research focuses on BTS, many popular K-pop groups have had similar situations where their Black fans have had to check them on their appropriation of Black culture. ATEEZ dealt with a similar backlash when leader Hongjoong wore cornrows in a concept photo for ZERO: FEVER Part.1; their company, KQ Entertainment, later apologized to fans. MAMAMOO was heavily criticized after a 2017 incident where they performed a Bruno Mars song in blackface, for which they apologized as well. (G)I-DLE has had multiple instances where they’ve been accused of appropriating elements from Indian, Native American, and African cultures. In these groups’ apologies, there’s usually a mention of how the backlash from fans has educated the artist and their company about their wrong actions, which seemingly puts the burden on Black fans to educate these groups when they should be educating themselves — especially in a world where we’ve seen so many examples of appropriation and subsequent apologies.
When Black fans do post about their reckonings with the problematic parts of Korean idol music, they often face tone policing in response. And Black fans have a lot to reckon with, from the insidious racism and cultural appropriation that still shows up even as K-pop has become popular globally, to the lack of acknowledgement from idols and agencies that K-pop was built on a foundation of Black music. It’s difficult to have those conversations on Twitter, where a single critical tweet can lead to weeks of harassment and possibly come back to haunt the fan months or years later. The K-Pop Kickback admins believe in the importance of having an inclusive space where Black fans and their allies can gather and have nuanced conversations without the chance of being shut down.
“I think that cultivating a space like The Kickback, where we are allowed to have those conversations that make us think more deeply about how we can engage responsibly with K-pop, and how we can be aware of those things, is so important for young people who may never have questioned what K-pop can be to them, what it can do to them, what it can be for them,” Bianca says. “I think that that is a really good thing The Kickback does in terms of talking about Black issues, identity issues. It's a really important space.” Recent rooms have featured discussions of appropriation of Black hairstyles and idol mistreatment accusations.
Of course, Clubhouse is not a perfect platform. The app has been heavily criticized for moderation concerns; since moderation falls to the hosts of each room, instances of hate speech, doxxing, misinformation and harassment of Black women have gone unchecked by the company itself. It’s a similar situation that all social media platforms have faced, but as the newest on the block, Clubhouse execs have continued the tech industry trend of letting moderation fall to the users. There are also accessibility concerns, including a lack of live captioning (which Twitter Spaces does have) or text resizing support. (Teen Vogue has reached out to Clubhouse for comment.)
As for moderation concerns, the admins of the K-Pop Kickback and K-Dramatics clubs have their own procedures for how to handle trolling and discriminatory speech that pop up in their clubs. Both clubs only allow admins to start rooms, and members who want to host have to reach out to admins. Both clubs have had trolls, and both methods have worked for ensuring rooms stay fun and respectful. Bianca, who only moderates The K-Pop Kickback, says that their admins have become adept at moderating their rooms.
“I think that we’re all really on the ball with checking who is matching the sort of energy and the sort of space we want to create, and who’s not being particularly welcoming or inclusive,” Bianca says. “An important part of being a moderator on Clubhouse is knowing what to do when things go a bit left. That’s one thing we do pretty well.”
Many clubs also give members the chance to host their own rooms about their favorite groups and shows. Zeinab, a student who has been on stan Twitter for ten years — first as a One Direction fan, then later discovering K-dramas and K-pop — recently hosted her first club on The K-Pop Kickback. Over the course of two hours, she played through a selection of Weki Meki’s songs, from debut to their recent comeback, and introduced the room to the group’s members by uploading their pictures as her profile pic.
“The Weki Meki [room] was my first time ever hosting anything anywhere. So that was a fun experience for me, sharing something that I liked with people who might not know about them or feel the same way, and then getting reactions from people, and thoughts,” says Zeinab. “In general, I do not like public speaking, but I've had times in rooms where I was actually able to share my opinions a little more and not get scared of being ratioed on Twitter. It's easier in that sense to talk to people because you can explain what you mean, rather than when you're typing it and people can just interpret it however they want.”
Meanwhile, as Clubhouse has grown and become available globally, more and more K-pop and K-drama professionals have made their way to the app. So far clubs like The K-Pop Kickback and Inside K-Pop have hosted conversations with songwriter Danny Chung, who has worked with BLACKPINK and Somi, K-R&B singer Rakiyah, and Spire Entertainment Marketing Executive Angela Son; and K-Dramatics has hosted Itaewon Class actor Chris Lyon and Law School producer-director Christine Ko. For longtime K-pop fans like Anu, Clubhouse has given her access and insight to the industry that she hasn’t seen in nine years of stanning. One appearance on Anu’s wishlist is getting an idol to visit, since several are already on Clubhouse, including GOT7’s Mark Tuan and Jay B. If any idols are interested, Anu says, the club is open.
So far, Clubhouse has enhanced communication for people who have found solace in fandom during the pandemic. But both the admins and members of the Kickback and K-Dramatics believe that once in-person social gatherings resume, the clubs will still be going strong as spaces where a global fandom can gather.
“Our interest in K-pop is global,” Anu says. “Look at us, Bianca's in the U.K. and I'm in the United States. We have a member from Australia. The likelihood that we will see each other in real life, it's not quite slim, but do you have flight money? The app is one of the only places we can easily communicate with each other.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue