BTS at the United Nations: Love Myself, Love Yourself

It was the day before their speech at the 2018 UN General Assembly and the whole group was nervous. Kim Namjoon was practically shaking in his Pumas as they boarded the plane that would take them to New York City, reciting the speech in the repetition and dedication of a perfectionist. A month earlier the worldwide famous K-pop group, BTS, had held a meeting around a long office table to collectively organize their thoughts on the speech. They decided it only made sense for Namjoon, aged 24, to deliver the speech as he was both their leader and the member with the best English. Namjoon kept emphasising that they were giving the speech as a group, that he would be speaking for all of them, including their fandom, ARMY: “They are the ones that got us to the UN Assembly as their mouthpiece. We’re only speaking on their behalf.” Jung Hoseok, their lead dancer and the moodmaker of the group, nodded pensively, fingertips pressed together, while the youngest three were unusually quiet, reflecting on their gratitude to their fans for bringing them the unprecedented success they had experienced.

Fan/idol relationships in Korea are extremely devoted and loyal, attributing much of their success and happiness to each other. Idols are so indebted to their fans that it is even stated in their contracts that they are not allowed to date, their entire focus being on their fans and their art. While this may seem extreme, the underlying concept of gratitude and love between fans and idols is moving. All six BTS members agreed wholeheartedly with Namjoon’s comment, their usual joking manner turning serious over the momentous occasion. It would be a historical moment. BTS would be the first Korean singers to be invited to speak at a UN General Assembly. They were invited on account of their Love Myself campaign with UNICEF for #ENDViolence, which they launched at the start of 2017 along with their album Love Yourself: Her, the first of a three-part series of which 3% of the revenues would be donated. The Love Yourself trilogy is focused around the idea that to love anyone or anything well, you must first love yourself.

“I believe that true love first begins with loving myself. In participating with UNICEF’s End Violence program, we hope to protect children and young people all around the world from violence,” Namjoon practiced for the millionth time in the lounge the night before their flight. Subconsciously he clutched Jin’s stuffed animal to his chest. Jin, the oldest member of the group, also known as Worldwide Handsome for his stunning visuals, had grown calmer the last few days, keeping his famously terrible dad jokes for a more appropriate time. Jimin massaged Namjoon’s shoulders offering support and comfort to their leader. Jungkook, the youngest member at 21, watched inquisitively over Namjoon’s shoulder as he practiced, amazed at his proficiency in English and attempting to pick out the words he could understand.

All seven members were incredibly close, true brothers after having lived together for the past seven years. They had all been through many trials and hardships before earning success and fame, and their music and message reflect that. Min Yoongi, their lead rapper and producer of over a hundred songs, came from a very poor family who did not support his dreams of pursuing music. Yoongi suffered from social anxiety in adolescence, but luckily found music as a passion and outlet. Like several BTS members, he was self-taught, taking time out of university and work to practice music, becoming an underground rapper for a while and selling his songs on the internet, which were often stolen. Finally, he landed his audition with Big Hit Entertainment, a small, new entertainment company, and debuting with BTS four years later.

BTS have always written their own music and lyrics, the subject of which has primarily been social issues, particularly surrounding youth. Namjoon often writes about personal experience to explore these issues in their songs. ‘“My heart stopped beating when I was maybe nine or ten”’, Namjoon quotes from one of their earliest albums at the airport as they sleepily await boarding. “Looking back, I think that is when I began to worry about what other people thought of me and started seeing myself through their eyes… My heart stopped and my eyes closed shut. So, like this, I, we, all lost our names. We became like ghosts. But I had one sanctuary and that was music.” The members found solace in music when they were young, and their dream is to provide that same sense of belonging to their fans.

This is what initially made them stand out from other boy and girl groups in South Korea, whose songs were written by overseas songwriters on generic topics. It created a strong connection between fans who have only grown in numbers and support over the years, making their campaign and speech possible. Already they have raised over 1.6 billion won to Children in Need. BTS feels as though they have a duty to give back to their fans and the world that made their dreams of becoming singers, rappers, and dancers come true. “We truly have the best fans in the world.”

After the sun set and the world turned dark, the members boarded the plane. Jungkook and Taehyung, the two youngest members with far too much energy for the time of day, snatched the bests seats, giddy smiles on their faces as they settled in to play video games. However, as the plane took off, Jungkook gave up his seat for Namjoon so that he could rest before the speech. When they arrived, they were quickly whisked away to get their hair and makeup ready in a large lounge in the hotel with tall windows that let in the early September sun. The boys were now sleepy from the flight, lounging on the black couches with their eyes drooping as they got their hair blow dried by professionals. But there was a tension in the room. A kinetic energy bouncing between the seven of them built off the nerves and excitement of preparing to do something never done before. Namjoon diligently continued to practice the speech, still not quite having it memorized. “I’m sending him energy through telepathy,” Jimin said, looking down and smiling embarrassedly as a makeup artist filled in his eyebrows. “I’m doing so many different things by being in BTS. Things I never thought I would do in my life,” he continued, still amazed and humbled by the opportunity they’ve been given. “It doesn’t feel real,” Hoseok added flashing his signature sunshine smile and chuckling softly.

Finally dressed, and with hair and makeup done, the seven boys arrived at the SDG Knowledge Hub where the assembly is being held. Led by a few staff members they wandered through a sunny courtyard, a soft breeze playing with their hair as they met important officials from around the world, including Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF. They exchanged a few words in carefully practiced English, bowing politely.

“I am feeling nervous,” Jungkook confessed to Fore.

“You don’t need to be,” Fore replied kindly. “You can do whatever you want. Everything will be okay.”

“We can’t really do whatever we want,” Hoseok pointed out making everyone laugh.

The staff directed them to take a photo and as they arranged themselves they taught Fore the popular Korean finger heart symbol. Soon they were all posing with hearts raised and smiles shining for the cameras.

Eventually, they began to move into the conference room, the mood turning more serious as the actual speech drew near. Suddenly it all felt much more real. Their moment to spread their dream with the world fast approaching. “I can’t really describe it with words,” Jimin said as they entered the conference room. “But my heart is pounding and actually being here makes it seem more real. I keep feeling like I just stepped out of a TV,”

Then, before they knew it, they were up on the dais in a straight line in front of the entire assembly, Namjoon in the middle at the podium delivering the speech. The members smiled and relaxed, shoulders rolled back and attentive; some with their hands clasped behind their backs, others in front. Namjoon took his time, speaking clearly and elegantly with the voice of a practiced performer, his gaze steady and focused. He spoke of their campaign, of their love and appreciation to their fans, and the struggles BTS faced before reaching international fame. He revealed his past, poetically telling the world of his journey towards loving himself. He concluded the speech by urging us to share our love for ourselves with the rest of the world, through whatever passion we pursue in the same way that BTS attempts to do through their music.

“I’d like to ask you all, what is your name? What excites you and makes your heart beat? Tell me your story. 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. Thank you very much.”