Kulture Kolumn: The Philosophy of Agust D
A deeper look into Min Yoongi, SUGA and Agust D — the masks of the same man
Last week South Korean superstars BTS’ rapper and producer SUGA made his solo comeback with his alias Agust D. As expected, it was a comeback of record-shattering proportions, the success of the sophomore mixtape D-2 making him the first Korean soloist to have two number-one hits on the Worldwide iTunes Album Chart and first Korean soloist to chart number one on both Worldwide iTunes & Apple Music Albums Chart simultaneously. The video for the lead single “Daechwita” also became the fastest music video by a Korean soloist to reach four million likes on YouTube in just 11 hours, making Agust D the only Korean soloist to have four music videos with over three million likes on YouTube. That’s a lot of numbers to process–especially for a free mixtape that dropped with little to no warning–so the usual question of ‘why?’ arose pretty quickly among new audiences.
Of course if you’re familiar with BTS, you understand the group’s titanic power on social media; everything they touch pretty much turns to gold and their fandom ARMY is the most powerful of its kind on the planet. The group address various social issues in their songwriting and music videos, pushing forth a message of self-love and positivity. However Agust D hits a little different. Of course, BTS have no dearth of deep symbolism in their artistry–it’s the main reason I became a fan back in 2015–but after we got our first taste of the group’s rapper SUGA’s alter ego Agust D… my perception shifted. There’s honesty in Agust D’s work that’s hard to face because it so closely resembles our demons, but it’s that honesty that cemented him as one of my favorite songwriters of all time. Whether he is Min Yoongi, SUGA or Agust D, his work is reflective of the issues our generation struggles with and defines this time in history–to be a millennial living in the age of social media and its ups and downs, constantly exposed to viral fame and cancel culture, anonymous critique and rapid globalization.
I wanted to take a look at some of the deeper symbolism I’ve found within his artistry, especially his most recent release D-2 and its lead single “Daechwita.” Of course a lot of what’s written below are my interpretations of his work and not everyone will agree with what I have to say–but that’s the beauty of art, isn’t it? As Agust D stated about his work in a recent interview with Time, “What’s good is good, and it’s up to the listeners to judge. I just do what I want to do.”
The instant appeal of Agust D
When we first met Agust D in 2016, he sent us into a state of shock with his eponymous debut mixtape. He opened up about his innermost struggles with depression, anxiety, success, failure and poverty, and we simply hadn’t seen any K-pop star bare their soul at this level before. K-pop has always been about cultivating a controversy free, positive image of perfection, but then rose this anarchist with nothing to lose, the underdog who shattered stereotypes with his realistically foul mouth and no-nonsense attitude.
Since 2013, we have seen how harmoniously SUGA works within BTS, navigating (and eventually soaring above) the world of K-pop with practiced caution, while Agust D is the spitfire solo rap savior, the rebel against the industry. It’s interesting how he revives underground rap culture while simultaneously rejecting it in his lyricism–spitting on the face of anyone who implies his pop stardom has led him to forget his roots as an underground rapper from Daegu. He called out everyone who disrespected his grind and didn’t bother to mince his words as he pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized him for becoming a pop star, but also coveted his fame. In the lyrics for “Give It To Me” he says, “I’m still not sure about the secret to success/But I think I know the secret to failure/The secret is to play the fool just like you/And keep blabbing your mouth/But I wouldn’t live like that even if I had to die.”
Big Hit Entertainment was perceptive enough to see the appeal in the anger and arrogance in SUGA’s artistry at the time; I believe this in turn allowed him to unleash Agust D, a more vicious, honest and dangerous part of him. In other words, if SUGA is the persona Min Yoongi uses as a shield, Agust D is his machine gun. The shield isn’t built to protect only Min Yoongi–it’s the part of BTS that looks out for their fans (BTS’ logo is after all evidence to the same.) Agust D is the gun that takes down anyone who dares slander his work, his team and the ARMY.
The inevitable death of the self
In Agust D’s “The Last” the rapper says, “Min Yoongi is dead (I killed him)” which really stuck in my mind because he implies it’s a murder he had to commit to dedicate himself to his craft and to his fans as well as expel in his own head what he thought was a ‘weaker’ self. The part of him that was vulnerable and afraid to rise–perhaps overwhelmed by the attention fame brought–had to die so that a stronger persona could rise to bear the burden. With the metaphorical death of the non-celebrity Min Yoongi, we saw the rise of BTS’ SUGA and eventually the dark and unapologetic Agust D.
It’s a tremendous amount of sacrifice–a concept we see resurrected in the music video for “Daechwita.” Set in a universe that blends the historic with the modern, the video for “Daechwita” is a showdown between two Agust Ds–a king and a rebel. The music video draws inspiration from the 2012 Korean film Masquerade, in which a lowly acrobat takes the role of a double for the notoriously ruthless King Gwanghae. The king in “Daechwita” is similarly a despot, ruling with no mercy, sentencing anyone who dares rise against him to death by beheading and then collecting heads as trophies. The rebel challenges his rule and methods but is captured and like the others sentenced to death. He is saved however, by striking a deal with the executioner, who then hands him a gun with which he is finally able to assassinate the tyrant king. What’s fascinating is that according to the artist, both the king and the rebel can be seen as two different versions of Agust D–two sides of the same coin. He explains in a behind the scenes video, “Four years ago Agust D became king. Now another Agust D is confronting him.” As the king, Agust D is the picture of wealth, glamour and success–everything SUGA of BTS has gained since he last donned the mask of Agust D. As the rebel, he returns the raw and honest voice of the people, ready to shake up and transform the system–ironically the ‘new’ version of Agust D is closer to the original.
There is a glorious confidence that comes with being Agust D, but in “Daechwita” he explores the idea of confidence spilling over into conceit. There is a need for Agust D to remember where he came from, and only he can remind himself of that past. Agust D’s honest and raw take on mental health had audiences and critics crown him as the poster child of relatability in 2016–people from all walks of life understood what he was talking about and were able to empathize with his words because depression, anxiety, failure and hard work are elements of life itself. However four years later this king sits high upon on a throne of fame and fortune, the rebel leader has the backing of the people because he has become their voice– returning to the core concept that made Agust D so beloved. They side with him because he comes from the same place they did, has the same system of beliefs and doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. A major indication of this is the quote above the doorway through which the rebel emerges to meet his gang; as explained by Korean YouTube channel ‘Learn Korean’, the quote is originally from Confucius teachings and states, “The classical scholar does not value treasure,” indicating that the goal of Agust D doesn’t lie in the pursuit of material wealth, but lives in the ability to learn, evolve and deliver honest work.
It’s a sort of throwback to a moment in “The Last,” where Agust D points out a fear of becoming someone he no longer recognizes: “As time goes by, I feel like I’m turning into a monster/I’ve exchanged my youth for success,/And that monster demands for more wealth/At times it puts a collar on my neck/To ruin and swallow me with greed.” Agust D again has to ‘kill’ a past self to become stronger, to ground himself by not taking success for granted. The death of the past self opens the door for another version of the same artist, something that he believes will happen again in the future, as he points out in his interview on BTS’ YouTube channel about D-2.
Min Yoongi, SUGA, Agust D–the masks of the same man
A theory behind “Daechwita” that I particularly liked is the struggle of idol versus artist; the flashy king signifies the glittery world of idol stardom and the rebel is the artist who defies the system–it’s a little reminiscent of the themes SUGA addressed with “Interlude: Shadow” from BTS’ album Map of the Soul: 7 which dropped earlier this year. At the end of the day, SUGA and Agust D are both of these contrasting images–the superstar pop idol versus the underdog rapper. Agust D and BTS leader RM have both addressed their struggles of adapting to the idol world after their backgrounds in underground hip-hop–RM’s 2015 self-titled mixtape, Agust D and BTS’ track “Idol” all provide more context into this, I’d highly recommend listening to them all.
Of course, BTS’ Map of the Soul series saw the entire group dive deep into self-reflection with the utilization of renowned psychologist Carl Jung’s theories about the self. According to Jung, the ‘persona’ is the many masks a human being takes on as they walk through life, each mask suited to a different aspect of their existence. Each mask has a reason for existing and molds the way the rest of the world perceives us as well. In their lyrics, BTS explored the development of the psyche, ego and unconscious mind to understand the links between who they are inside versus the personas we see as an audience. The video and lyrics for SUGA’s solo track from “Interlude: Shadow” also depict a battle with the self, the struggle with evolution and fame. While RM seems to feel uncomfortable with his persona rising above to take center stage over his inner self (“Intro: Persona”), rapper j-hope’s ego seems to embrace his persona’s rise (“Outro: Ego”). SUGA seems to struggle with being able to find a balance between his shadow and ego (“Interlude: Shadow”), appreciating them both for what they brought to his life and unwilling to accept how integral his shadows or fears have been in carving a path into stardom.
The video for “Interlude: Shadow” featured British Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor‘s installation art ‘Svayambh’ — which in Sanskrit means “self-made” or “auto-generated.” An object pushes, forces itself through various doors and is reshaped by that transition and journey, leaving behind marks or ‘parts’ of itself it no longer needs. To me, it’s a metaphor of the massive journey we’re witnessing Min Yoongi, BTS’ SUGA and Agust D take together. Each layer he sheds allows him to expose a new artistic side of himself to the audience, leaving him vulnerable but also very much loved and appreciated. In “Interlude: Shadow” SUGA discusses a fear of the fall that comes from rising to the top, and Agust D’s “Daechwita” implies that perhaps the solution is to make the jump to ground yourself instead of being toppled. A lot of the time I personally see Agust D as the vessel that provides the answers that the artist SUGA needs to accept.The evolution of the self is a gruelling process since growth involves being able to come to terms with the past and eventually let go of it. The struggles of days gone by shape you, but ultimately need to be left behind. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Agust D explains that since his debut with the mixtape Agust D, he feels calmer, more mature and positively shaped by some of the most trying times of his life. “It is a documentation of myself as a 28-year-old,” he told Apple Music about D-2. “This is the output of my time in quarantine. In a way, it was a creative silver lining. It was a time during which I was able to learn, again, the meaning of the phrase ‘due to’.”
I don’t pretend to understand the person behind Agust D is in real life, because frankly none of us truly know him. Everything we have seen so far is a public persona, whether its Min Yoongi, SUGA or Agust D, and it’s a fact he made very obvious from the start. On “140503 At Dawn” Agust D states, “I always prepare two masks/Hiding my true self/Behind the defensive image/I thoroughly hide myself,/As if I’m a criminal.” It circles back to BTS’ search for identity and balance on the Map of the Soul series. Add to it the element of fame and celebrity, there’s a new depth that makes it all the more challenging for us to fully comprehend because we’re not quite in his shoes and we never will be. But maybe its simpler than we’re all making it out to be. He tells Billboard, “You could say there is and there isn’t [a difference between Min Yoongi, SUGA and Agust D]. “Me” and “Me” and “Me.” They are different and the same.”
Symbolism, imagery and history
As an avid lover of history and philosophy, I particularly enjoy the way he uses Korean history and culture in modern context. A lot of this is more obvious in “Daechwita,” as the video and track bring in historical references to King Gwanghae, the story of Prince Sado and the rice chest, and the culture of Korean ‘untouchables’ who were also known as Baekjeong–those who worked as butchers or executioners (as YouTuber Bookish Theories points out, Agust D is the voice of all people, as he dons a necklace that represents the Baekjeong.) Of course both in Agust D and D-2‘s lyrics, he refers to himself as a ‘born tiger’–a massively important symbol of power, pride and nobility in Korea’s heritage. The larger picture around this symbolism to me is a perfect example of what a millennial artist can do–bring tradition and modernity together to tell a new story, reinterpret mythology, history and folklore to immerse larger, younger audiences and educate them.
The presence of the ‘new’ Agust D in “Daechwita” is also indicative of a new era, a new period of innovative, meaningful artistry not only in the Korean music industry, but also the world. I look at it as Agust D and BTS (represented by the six other men with him) arriving to destroy the outdated concepts and perceptions the king in the video symbolizes–the industry no longer belongs to a monopoly–be it certain labels or countries–there is a seat at the table for everyone. Hell, it’s probably someone else’s turn to host, someone diverse, forward-thinking and revolutionary. In a way, it’s what BTS have already started to accomplish.
Another thing I noticed is about the themes revolving around SUGA’s visual artistry is that he always seems to ‘burn’ in his own anguish while Agust D sets other things ‘aflame’. If you look all the way back at 2015’s “I Need U” and the other videos from The Most Beautiful Moment in Life albums, SUGA sets himself on fire, languishing in the fact that it will destroy him. In his videos as Agust D, the fire is him– he stays unharmed while everything else around him burns. In the videos for “Agust D” and “Give It To Me” he seems immune, not even noticing the heat anymore while his environment spontaneously combusts. The fire makes an appearance again as he faces off against the king in “Daechwita,” lighting the way forward as he takes down yet another enemy, even if that enemy is himself.
I’ve always seen Agust D as the phoenix that rises from the ashes of the challenges BTS’ SUGA has conquered. It’s symbolic of Agust D’s attitude as well as his refusal to let anything stand in the way of his dreams. Of course he always runs the risk of burning himself, but I feel the visuals in “Daechwita” are also indicative of Agust D’s maturity and control over what he says and how he says it.
It’s always incredible to have artists who want you to find your own meaning in their work. You take what you need from it and give it a definition that your mind finds most logical. It’s a form of freedom Agust D grants his audience when he doesn’t explain each release completely. In his interview with Time he explains that his evolution as an artist over the past years made him think about what kind of message he’s putting out into the world. He states, “I just throw the question mark; it’s up to each individual to decide. In my personal opinion, it’s often better for those who have such influence on others to be wary of loudly voicing their biased views.”
The self-fulfilling prophecy
The artist’s path runs parallel to ours, as we accompany him on his journey to discover Min Yoongi, SUGA, Agust D and Agust D-2–the latest ‘version’ of him will also die someday, as will our latest versions of ourselves. It’s a pretty brilliant reminder of the impermanence of life and what makes growth such an integral part of the human experience. Because the search for a balance between being Min Yoongi, Suga and Agust D is what fuels his drive. He tells Apple Music about his personas, “I think it depends on the perspective, but is it possible to view these separately? Regardless of who I am, whether it be SUGA or Agust D, I’ll keep moving towards the essence of life.”
For me, the mixtape Agust D was about the artist understanding why he set out on the path of the idol in the first place, while D-2 is more about remembering why he unleashed Agust D. It’s a revisit within a revisit, a process of learning from the old and molding the new. Through his various interviews, Agust D seems to have found a resolution to what he was searching for. There’s a certain peace that comes from seeing the path of success he put himself on back in 2016 lead to fruits beyond his imagination. He knew he would succeed, prophesied his own success because of the faith he had in himself. Now that he has everything material within his grasp and is metaphorically a ‘king’ as a member of one of the biggest pop acts in history, its about successfully processing the position he is in and how he can proceed from there. “My previous mixtape focused more on being better at rap, better at making music, sound, mix, master and so forth,” he tells Billboard. “I’ve worked on a lot more projects since then and didn’t really try to become perfect. Perfection is an elusive term. I simply just did my best.”
D-2 focuses on lost relationships with friends, the rise to the top, corruption in society, experiencing the music industry and the fear of what comes next. “This is how I’ve lived since August 16th, 2016,” he explains. “If the previous mixtape focused on telling the past, the new one is about the present.” In the opening track “Moonlight” the lyrics say, “Being called immortal is fucking overwhelming/I started just because I liked music/But the adjectives they attach to my name feel too much sometimes.” The raw anger from Agust D has given way to a level-headed constitution born only of experience and age. As we grow older with Agust D, we find resolutions to our biggest problems and achieve our dreams with hard work like he did, the frustration boils down to a sense of calm triumph with a fear of tomorrow that sometimes flashes through the mind. He adds in an interview on BTS’ YouTube channel that D-2 is “the archive of 28-year-old Agust D”–Agust D and I are the same age, so it makes sense that a lot of his lyricism has reflected my realities and state of mind. As he points out, he isn’t the same person he was in 2016 and nor am I–we’ve both grown out of a lot of the early-twenties angst and anchored ourselves as adults. In addition to reassurance, witnessing SUGA and Agust D’s growth since 2015 has given me clarity on establishing one’s true self despite what we show others. I don’t know what the ‘true self’ means to him personally of course, but for me it’s about becoming someone who I can be proud of without losing the essence of what makes me… me. It’s an idea I felt he made clear on D-2‘s “Moonlight,” when he says, “That moonlight that shines on me at dawn/It’s still the same as then/Changes are fated to happen to everyone/Perhaps, how we change is what our undertaking is about.”