For Black Pop Stans, the Bare Minimum Is No Longer Enough
Black superfans have been erased from the story of pop for decades. Now, in looking for visibility and change, they’ve found each other
Angela H. was marching in a Black Lives Matter protest in Hollywood on June 2nd when her friends pointed out something surprising. They’d spotted a man in black gloves, sunglasses, and a hoodie nearby in the crowd — and he looked just like Harry Styles, a pop star Angela has been stanning since 2011.
She wasn’t convinced at first. “Every part of me didn’t want to believe it for some reason,” Angela, 22, recalls. It wasn’t until she got a glimpse of one of his familiar tattoos that her mind began racing.
“I had seen figures like him at the Women’s March and protests against Trump four years ago, but this is specifically for black lives,” Angela says. “This is specifically for my life, for my community. Harry Styles is at a Black Lives Matter protest. This is something I wouldn’t have believed if someone had told me this two years ago.”
hi i just marched at a black lives matter march next to harry styles and before any of you try to fucking come for me for “praising him” and giving him too much credit lemme clarify this in a fucking thread so y’all can hear it from a black fan’s perspective:
— angela (@d0peangela) June 2, 2020
For Angela, being a black pop stan for more than a decade has been trying. Growing up half black and half Filipino, with a predominantly white community in her neighborhood and mostly white or white-passing friends, she sometimes felt like her connection to black culture wasn’t enough. As a pre-teen, she loved Justin Bieber’s music, which led her to stan Twitter — the constantly growing corner of social media where superfans build their online identity around the performers, shows, or films they love.
When she encountered another black Belieber’s quest to become the “One Less Lonely Girl” that Justin Bieber would pull on stage during every concert, she began to notice dividing lines in the fanbase. Why, she wondered, was it so rare to see him bring a black fan onstage for one of those onstage moments?
Eventually, in 2012, the owner of the “Black OLLG” account got her moment of being serenaded by Bieber. “I was like ‘Dang, somebody that looks like me and has my same skin color actually gets to be recognized in our stan culture,’” Angela recalls.
When Angela’s fandom pivoted to 1D in 2011, she began to feel overwhelmed by the online and in-person whiteness of the community surrounding her favorite group. She attended 17 One Direction concerts during the band’s tenure and often felt “unsafe,” in her words, in stadiums with few black or POC faces. At the handful of solo Styles and Niall Horan shows she has been to, she’s felt a familiar loneliness.
Online, where the identities of stans aren’t immediately legible, Angela could still sense an overbearing whiteness that allowed little space for black and POC stans. Through anonymous question sites like CuriousCat, she says, non-white Directioners would receive vile, racist remarks constantly.
“I didn’t grow up around a black community, so it was hard for me to understand how to respond to things,” she says. “I would just block it out. I genuinely didn’t know how to react.”
The group that Angela looked to for solace and a place in the world wasn’t always helpful. Young pop stars through the years have often stayed apolitical so as to not offend different factions of their fanbase, and One Direction weren’t an exception. Since going solo, Styles has remained a private pop star, with very limited social media use. When he began to pick up rainbow flags thrown on stage during his concerts, LGBTQ fans felt seen. When similar Black Lives Matter flags seemed like they were being ignored during his debut solo tour in 2017, black stans felt erased.
“I remember being angry,” Angela says, adding that Styles eventually posted an image of BLM posters that fans held up during one of his shows. “It was so bare minimum. It felt like he felt guilty.”
Angela remained on board as a fan of Styles, but as the protests seeking justice after George Floyd’s death began to spread across the country this spring, many fans like her demanded more from the stars they have supported. When Styles initially shared a petition on May 29th for the resignation and arrest of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who suffocated Floyd with his knee, Styles fans begged for more. A day later, the singer wrote a longer post about his own privilege and his desire to educate himself, promising to donate to bail funds for arrested organizers.
On that early June afternoon in Hollywood, Angela marched alongside Styles until she began to see him exit the crowd. Her friends encouraged her to say something, and one of Styles’ friends helped wave him down. When they were face to face, she told him about her experience at his and One Direction’s shows: the sea of white faces, her own developing sense of black identity, and the way she never felt certain that the inclusivity he preached was truly meant to include people who look like her. The masked Styles listened intently and gave Angela a hug before they parted ways.
“To see him out there….it was just great to feel seen,” Angela says.
Harry talking to a protestor during the BLM protest in LA – June 2 (via amymarietta) pic.twitter.com/7swriw2r0l
— HSD🍉 (@hsdaily) June 24, 2020
For black pop stans like Angela, that encounter with Styles was a rare moment of visibility in a genre with a loaded history of erasure. “Pop” has long been a restrictive term that the music industry uses to exclude the black artists who have built its base, while those same black artists’ contributions are appropriated every step of the way. For decades, the overwhelming cultural image of what a fan of pop music looks like has remained the screaming white teen girl, an image based almost entirely on the de facto segregation of the early days of rock & roll. It adds up to a limiting and untrue representation of music consumption, perpetuated in part by differences in who gets access to expensive concerts and even more expensive artist meet-and-greets.
Black pop fans have fought to be seen for decades — by the artists they love, and by the rest of their fan community. The public’s expectations for white pop stars to be politically active, let alone to speak out on racial injustice, have always been low, but their black listeners have always pushed harder for accountability and action. In the process, many have found each other, creating pockets of supportive communities those fans can turn to in order to feel seen, and sometimes to feel affirmed in their own blackness.
K-pop — one of the most rapidly growing genres and stan communities of the last decade — has proven no different, even though early black American stans helped build the online fan community into what it is today. Davonna and Stephanie, the hosts of The Melanetizen Podcast, met each other on Twitter in 2009, when the genre’s expanding Western fandom was dominated by black and Asian listeners. Davonna had begun seeking out fellow K-pop fans online a year prior, drawn in by Shinee and 2PM, two groups whose fandoms helped establish stan twitter as we know it today.
When she began listening to K-pop, black stans had less to worry about within the fandom and more to worry about when it came to their idols: Blackface was common in the genre, artists appropriated black hairstyles and said the n-word, and black American stans felt like they couldn’t speak up.
“It seemed like [artists] were being anti-black in spite of everything,” Davonna says. Within a few years of her own participation in the K-pop fan community, more bands began to tour the U.S., where their black audiences would fill up the theaters or arenas where they performed. “It felt disrespectful,” she adds.
As the genre became more mainstream and the demographics of the fandom changed, it became even harder for black K-pop stans to express how upset the anti-blackness from their idols made them. “They’re dismissive of our concerns,” Davonna continues, speaking to the newer wave of non-black K-pop stans.
Davonna soon felt unwanted in a fandom that she’d been a vocal part of for years. Idols would go back to Korea and give interviews talking about how thrilled they were to see their diverse, global reach, and yet continue to say and do things that made their black stans feel unwelcome — all while being backed by the rest of their growing, defensive base. In 2016, as the divide between black K-pop stans and the rest of the fandom widened, Davonna and Stephanie launched their podcast to start to address some of these often-ignored issues.
Like their Western counterparts, K-pop idols have largely remained silent on politics and race, though more idols have begun speaking up about more controversial political issues in Korea. Stephanie, now 26, notes that when the Black Lives Matter movement began growing after 2013, she wasn’t expecting her favorite K-pop idols to speak out, especially since their growth in U.S. markets was still at an early stage. However, the fact that much of K-pop had been inspired by black American music — new jack swing and modern hip-hop have both been huge influences on the genre’s sound and marketing — made it harder to ignore their silence.
“You’re amassing this huge global following from translating black American art and putting Korean faces on it,” Stephanie says. “What about the black Americans you’re getting your art form from?”
For both Stephanie and Davonna, the K-pop response to the George Floyd protests has felt slow and minimal. Stephanie notes that while many corporate brands capitalized on showing sympathy with black customers within the first few days of the movement’s national call for justice, it took over a week to hear from many K-pop groups that had long broken in the U.S. She sees this as not only a disservice to the black fanbase, but a bad business strategy.
“K-pop’s entire business model is ‘I want to make you feel good so you can give me your money,’” she says. “I was expecting a really blasé [statement], something inconsequential. But we didn’t even get that.”
Davonna notes that many K-pop groups are distributed through American labels that did a better job of at least acknowledging the movement: “Many of those companies were the first to say something, with #TheShowMustBePaused. I don’t even understand from a basic level why [idols] couldn’t lump their statements in with their American labels. That was confusing to me.”
More than a week after the protests had begun to spread across the U.S., statements did begin to roll in, perhaps in part due to the mounting pressure from the idols’ respective fanbases. BTS even made a donation of $1 million to Black Lives Matter on June 4th, which was quickly matched by their fans.
As the black K-pop community pushed for more, stories about K-pop activism began to make national headlines. An app launched by the Dallas Police Department to procure footage of protesters was flooded with fancams, which are edited videos of K-pop idols. White nationalist trending topics like White Lives Matter were similarly filled with fancams as a way of rendering them useless. Ahead of Trump’s Tulsa rally last month, members of the K-pop stan community along with TikTok users reserved spots, ostensibly to trick the Trump campaign into moving into a bigger, very empty venue. A narrative has emerged celebrating the K-pop stan community as fun, fearless progressive activists. Black K-pop stans beg to differ.
“The Dallas PD thing was dope,” Davonna says. “The White Lives Matter and All Lives Matter hashtags are completely counterproductive to everything we are trying to do and that they should be doing, which is to amplify black people and the Black Lives Matter movement.” For black stans, she says, giving more traction to racist trending topics is more triggering than helpful; it’s a confusing mobilization, at that.
“We’re good at trending things!” she says. “Why not trend things outside of those hateful hashtags? If they had consulted with black people, that wouldn’t have happened.”
The hosts note that there is actually a surprising conservative faction of K-pop Twitter that has supported Trump and MAGA culture. Many non-black stans have continued to use racist language and threaten to call the police on black stans, all while having “BLM” in their display name. For Davonna and Stephanie, billing the fandom as a whole as “unexpected heroes” of the movement, as has happened over the last two months, yet again erases work black stans have been doing for years with little widespread support or response.
“I’m grateful for any allyship, but black stans in K-pop have been doing this because we have to. That’s our life,” Davonna adds. “We’re black people who happen to be K-pop stans, but we’re black first.”
Nineteen-year-old Myshala has been a Taylor Swift stan for 12 years. Biracial and raised in North Carolina primarily by her black mother, she grew up on R&B acts like Mary J. Blige. One day while driving around with her white father, she heard Swift’s “Our Song” on the radio and soon grew into a huge fan of Swift and then pop music more generally, citing Normani, Ariana Grande, Niall Horan, and Styles as a few of her other favorites.
Myshala has never gotten too deep into the Swiftie fandom, and has yet to see her favorite artist live, but she is well aware of the perception of Swift’s fanbase as overwhelmingly white. Just a couple days before our conversation, she commented on a friend’s TikTok Live. The TikToker, who is black with a large audience, had offered to draw an artist of Myshala’s choosing on a jacket. When Myshala requested Taylor Swift, the rest of the viewers assumed she was white and made comments about it until Myshala corrected them.
The teenager notes that there is not any single identity for black people, nor should there be. “That’s what so many racist white people use against us as an act of oppression,” she says. “Being a fan of Taylor Swift has sometimes put me into an uncomfortable position where I have to question my blackness.”
Writer and actress Ajhée Nolen, 25, describes a similar disconnect between her blackness and her Taylor Swift fandom. Growing up in Michigan, Nolen first started listening to Swift in 2010, just before the singer released Speak Now. As a then-aspiring writer, Nolen fell in love with Swift’s lyrical storytelling as well as how down-to-earth she seemed in behind-the-scenes footage from music video sets.
“She’s just so warm and fun and didn’t act like this big star,” she says. “I just really saw myself in her.”
Growing up, gospel music had been all Ajhée knew until Disney exposed her to pop music. In her predominantly black high school, she was known as the “black white girl” because of her taste in pop culture phenomena like Twilight. She had yet to become more active online in the Swift fan community, but she enjoyed Swift’s music privately.
“I wasn’t so much disconnected from my blackness as I was very ignorant at the time, as most teens are,” she reflects. “I don’t have, like, a racist, colorist past, thank God — but I [thought], ‘I’m not like other girls.’ It was very cringe-y.”
Nolen began logging the majority of her “Taylor Swift defense hours” in 2012, soon after she started using social media. She wasn’t seeking out fellow stans, but happened to build a small community organically as she used her platforms to stand up for an artist who has meant a lot to her.
For many Swift stans, 2016 proved to be a trying year: The star was locked into a very public battle with Kanye West that left many deeming Swift the villain in the situation. When the presidential election arrived in the middle of Swift’s hiatus from public life following that feud, her silence leading up to Trump’s win was heavily scrutinized. Nolen, meanwhile, was going through her own personal shifts.
“During college, I really started to change the way I approached my own politics and what being black meant to me,” she explains. At her performing arts college, she grew to love her natural hair and understand how multi-faceted being black can be. When Kim Kardashian West leaked part of a phone call where Swift allegedly approved a lyric using her name — and Swift countered that West never told her he would use the phrase “that bitch” in reference to her — Nolen felt conflicted.
“I felt trapped,” she says. “It felt very racial, with a white woman versus a black man.” She chose to believe Swift, someone she felt like she had come to understand over the years.
“Part of me felt like I know her character,” she says. “The black part of me was like ‘This happens all the time. A black man gets accused of doing something and automatically everybody believes the white counterparts.’” Nolen’s trust would later be proven right when the full call was released, confirming that West had withheld information from Swift.
Within the fandom, Nolen noticed how often white stans’ voices were overrepresented on all things Swift. Her own personal encounter with that division occurred in 2018, when she attended the Los Angeles stop of the Reputation tour with a group of friends she had made within the fandom. The six girls attended the show in a group costume — Orange Is the New Black-themed, with each girl’s crime being a different Reputation lyric — that got the crew invited backstage for photos with Swift. Nolen’s friend Jada, the only other black girl in the group, complimented Swift on getting so “thick.” Soon after, the four other members of the group took to Twitter to claim that Jada had been “body-shaming” Swift.
“They didn’t understand that my friend was complimenting her,” Nolen says. She and Jada fought back against the claims, and the issues between all of them have since been resolved, but the incident remains a formative one for her. “There’s just always been this disconnect between black and white stans, because when we address a problem, the white stans think we’re attacking Taylor which means we’re automatically attacking them.”
After the post-concert falling out, Nolen sought out much-needed community with her chosen stan community. She established a Twitter DM group chat for black Swifties that now has around 30 people in it.
“I just wanted to see if there were other people who were tired of feeling like they couldn’t talk about the B.S. that happens in the fandom while also loving the fandom,” she says. “A lot of us in high school were the nerds and weirdos that liked Taylor. It was nice to find this community of people that looked like each other.”
Lily Meade, a 26-year-old novelist from Tacoma, is one of the black Swfities that Nolen brought into the group chat. She had been a Swift stan for years, but became more involved in the online fandom during the Reputation era. She recalls the painful events surrounding the 2016 election, when Swift’s political silence, whiteness, and country roots made some members of the public assume she secretly supported Trump. Some went even further, claiming without evidence that the singer had Nazi sympathies, and certain white supremacist corners of the internet made her their hero.
“It was really difficult for me as a black Taylor Swift fan to see people make a joke out of someone I admire, and claiming that she was plotting for my genocide in her free time,” Meade says. “I knew she would never do something like that.”
Been doing much more important things than talk about Taylor Swift lately, but: my Black Swiftie Group Chat has been suffering for days now because of what’s going on outside but also many microagressions and improper conduct within the fandom. If you’re a white Swiftie please:
— Lily 😷 selling custom masks! (@LilyMeade) June 1, 2020
In a 2019 Rolling Stone cover story, Swift denounced the racist sites that had supported her: “I didn’t even see that, but, like, if that happened, that’s just disgusting. There’s literally nothing worse than white supremacy. It’s repulsive. There should be no place for it.” This year, after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Swift further spoke out against white supremacy; called for the removal of Confederate monuments in Tennessee; and made a donation to the NAACP, encouraging her millions of followers to do the same. On Juneteenth, she shared an informational video on the holiday, adding that she would “further educate” herself on the history that is often left out of school curriculums.
The Black Swifties Group Chat, as Meade calls it, has offered its members much-needed solace through these often-traumatizing news cycles. She’s been part of discussions about the way white stans over-speak on these subjects without taking into account whether black Swifties want to hear their voices right now. “We’ve been talking about the Black Lives Matter protests,” she says. “We talk about ways we feel uncomfortable in the fandom and also ways we’ve felt uncomfortable in person.”
Overall, Meade says she has never felt more security in her own identity as a black pop fan than she has since joining the group chat last January. Growing up the biracial daughter of a single white mom, she had spent her life seeking out ways to feel connected to her blackness. Finding a community of black Swifties that could give her more than the average fandom camaraderie has been freeing.
“I really never expected that Taylor Swift would be the bridge to making me feel more empowered as a black woman,” she says with a laugh. “But because we’re able to be so honest about each other about what we want and expect from Taylor, we can also be more honest about those other things. We’re never afraid to lean on each other for support.”