In the last year, South Korean boyband BTS, also known as Bulletproof Boyscouts, has achieved unparalleled success in the U.S. for a group that does not sing in English—except for a few lyrics. 2017 was huge for BTS: It became the first ever K-Pop group to win a Billboard award, hit top 10 on the American iTunes charts, performed at the American Music Awards and rung in 2018 on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
But the success came with a major drawback. The only member of the group who speaks English is the “leader,” RM, though other members memorize certain phrases for interviews. During the group’s press tours in March and November 2017, the other six members were forced to sit in nearly complete silence until RM got a second to breathe and translate the questions.
And most of the time, there was no time to translate, thus alienating the members and resulting in mass video compilations of painfully awkward silences. Not only did the members not understand a majority of what was being said, but the journalists also floundered when the members did their best to communicate and were met with blank looks or a quick diversion. Sure, this is funny in retrospect, but it wasn’t until BTS was the face of Billboard Magazine’s February issue that it became apparent how unfunny it was.
E. Alex Jung, a freelance journalist was sent to Seoul, South Korea, to interview BTS for the cover.
Though Jung points out in his Feb. 15 article that his Korean is “like a 10-year-old’s,” in the words of RM, at least Billboard had the decency to send someone who can interview a Korean group in the language its members are comfortable, no matter if he got help or not.
Jung took to Twitter shortly after the release of the interview, stating in a Feb. 15 tweet: “[A]lso, props to Billboard for hiring someone (yes, in this case me) who can speak Korean to interview a Korean group. I’ve seen way too many publications send non-Korean speaking reporters to cover K-Pop and it truly blows my mind how that’s acceptable journalistic practice.”
Props to Billboard, indeed, but Jung brings up an important point about how sending a non-Korean speaking journalist to interview BTS has become commonplace since its big wave started.
Why didn’t someone step in and say, “Let’s find a journalist who can speak Korean for the red carpet”? And that awkward Nov. 27, 2017, Ellen Degeneres interview with a translator doesn’t count because, last time I checked, Degeneres doesn’t speak any Korean.
Magazines had the same oversight when stars of long-awaited “Black Panther” graced the covers of publications such as Time, Variety and British GQ and no one thought to say, “Let’s find a black photographer.”
These big magazines could have made a point to bring in a black photographer to show that opportunity and diversity can and will happen across all professions—to give even more weight to this important moment in film history. However, according to a Feb. 14 Undefeated article, none did. How can we expect diversity in the journalism industry when we consistently shut down opportunities for journalists of color to tell stories?
Though we don’t know how the article would have fared had it not been a man who can speak Korean sent to do the job, there is something entirely special about Jung’s article, given his ability to communicate with the members about important topics such as Korean politics, social commentary and mental health. There is also something special about “Black Panther” as a film, given that it is shot by a black director and filled with important political commentary that a white director would have never been able to capture.
When the answer is sitting right in front of us—breaking box office records, dominating music charts—it doesn’t make sense why the journalism industry is still trying to formulate the question.
Correction 1/11/19: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a member of BTS was not completely fluent in English. The Chronicle regrets this error.