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The biggest boy band on the planet, South Korean group BTS, has just spoken at the United Nations Monday, September 24. It sounds a little strange to people who don’t know them. They are a pop group with elaborate choreography and catchy music, but what could possibly bring them to the UN?
To answer that, we have to go back to Fall 2017 when the first of three Love Yourself albums, Her, was released. BTS partnered with UNICEF to start the LOVE YOURSELF campaign and joined UNICEF’s #ENDviolence campaign. What these projects do is help to ensure young people can have safe, happy, and healthy lives without having to fear sexual or domestic violence, school bullying, or any harm being done to them. From the outset, the group pledge 500 million Korean won (about $). On top of that, three percent of the physical album sales from their Love Yourself series would go to the campaign. And of course, ARMYs would be donating to the campaign as well. As of June 2018, they’ve already donated over 1 million dollars to the campaign, and that was before the release of the most recent Love Yourself: Answer, the conclusion to the series. They received praise for their efforts from Henrietta Fore, the head of UNICEF.
All of this made it a no-brainer to invite them to be the first K-pop group to speak at the UN to launch Generation Unlimited. Gen-U is the new UN initiative to ensure education and employment opportunities become more available to every young person by the year 2030 in order to help them speak their voice in this scary and chaotic world. Many representatives spoke at the Summit, including a moving speech by Batool Alwahdani of the International Federation of Medical Students Association about finding creative solutions to problems and not letting others take away your freedoms and rights because you have just as much power and potential as everyone else. They also included eye opening speakers, such as the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim about how investing money into education provides greater growth and opportunities for a country than anything else could. South Korea’s dedication to education is what helped BTS to have their opportunities, and BTS paid it forward during their speech.
It was RM, or Kim Namjoon (I’m doing his last name first as he usually does since that is how it’s done in S. Korea) who spoke for BTS. Namjoon is the leader of the group, as he was the one they were built around. He’s also the only one who is fluent in English. He’s incredibly smart, and gifted with words in both Korean and English. He proved it with his speech, which I ended up watching on my phone while live streaming the Summit on my way to my dog walking client’s house. I had to stop and sit on the curb to listen, because it was powerful.
Namjoon started with a quick overview of his early life in Ilsan, South Korea. He was no different from any other boy with dreams and aspirations. At around nine or ten years old, he “began to worry about what other people thought of me, and started seeing myself through their eyes… I stopped daydreaming. Instead, I just tried to jam myself into the molds that other people made.” Namjoon isn’t the only child who’s experienced this. Ask anyone and they can tell you how damaging and stressful it is to feel pressured into something that doesn’t feel right. Whether it be from family or friends, there are certain societal expectations that force you into situations and molds, as Namjoon expertly puts, that just aren’t you. Namjoon describes it as forgetting his name, and being like a ghost. For someone who learned English from watching Friends, Namjoon’s metaphors and honest words hit home. I’ve been shoved into the mold of being Catholic, of being straight, of trying to “act normal” when I’m suffering from a mental illness. None of it felt right. Only when I was writing my own stories and novels, and hanging out with people who helped me find myself did I realize I didn’t have to be what was expected.
For Namjoon, what helped him break those molds was music. He mentions that music woke him up and helped him listen to himself. Joining BTS was scary, and many people thought “we were hopeless. Sometimes I just wanted to quit.” Though he talks a lot of their hardships as BTS and the stumbles they continue to make, Namjoon quickly transitions to the point of his message; listen to yourself, surround yourself with people who will support and love you, and of course, love yourself. He urges those listening to make mistakes, as long as you remember that it’s still you. Tomorrow will be you as well, and there is only one you in this world, faults and all. In his words, “These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I am, for who I was, and for who I hope to become.” For a group that skeptics consider to be ‘just another boy band,’ BTS makes sure to tell the world the value of self-esteem and valuing ones self. For young people all over the world, hearing it from such a successful and talented man is that much more important. This isn’t a privileged individual who had everything at his feet from the moment of his birth. Namjoon worked hard, going from underground rapper to worldwide idol. Often times people would look down on him, as he mentioned, and some fellow rappers would turn their backs on him for “selling out” to become a K-pop idol. Despite all that, he found his way to the United Nations in New York City, speaking in front of a global audience and telling every other kid out there that they’re worth it, and that they deserve to love themselves and listen to themselves.
Closing his speech, Namjoon made sure to call for action and demand change in the global youth population. He spoke better than I can summarize it:
“…We started hearing remarkable stories from our fans all over the world. How our message helped them overcome their hardships in life and start loving themselves…We have learned to love ourselves, so now I urge you to speak yourself…What is your name? What excites you and makes your heart beat…I want to hear your voice, and I want to hear your conviction. No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color, your gender identity, just speak yourself. Find your name and find your voice by speaking yourself.”
In a world where many youths aren’t feeling heard, or that they matter, it’s monumental to hear someone around your age tell you simply to look out for yourself. Someone is standing there in front of you and honestly telling you that it’s okay to open up and speak yourself. What matters to you, what your truth in life is, what your dreams are, Kim Namjoon wants to know. He wants you to know that you deserve that space as well. He may have had the slightest tremble in his voice from nervousness. The hand holding the paper his speech was written on was shaking just a bit. However, he didn’t falter. His six other members stood right behind him like brothers. There was a confidence and an empathetic tone in his voice that completely put you at ease, as if he were talking directly to you. The historical nature of his words cannot be stressed enough, and with the viewers BTS helped draw for the summit, it will hopefully be something to be remembered for years to come. I know it will be for me.