BTS may be the biggest musical act you've never heard of — unless you're already one of the Korean pop group's millions-strong fanbase. The seven-member boy band, Bangtan Sonyeondan (or BTS for short), is know for their catchy pop-rap, sharp music video choreography and candid social media presence. They've recently leveraged their popularity into blockbuster stadium tours and Billboard's prize for Top Social Artists of the year, as well as nabbing a spot on TIME's list of 25 Most Influential People on the Internet.
It's not hard to see why: a live video of two members applying face masks roped in half a million concurrent viewers. Their backstage selfies regularly rack up half a million likes. A red carpet appearance can kick off a global Twitter trend. But how did they get here?
"We’re just a normal group of boys from humble backgrounds who had a lot of passion and a dream to be famous," says singer and songwriter Kim Nam-joon, who goes by the moniker Rap Monster and, as the only English-speaking member of the group, often represents BTS in interviews. Currently on tour in Japan, Rap Monster took the time to explain BTS' rise and how the group feeds its hungry fanbase.
TIME: How did the BTS group come together?
Rap Monster: Back in 2010, I was introduced to Mr. Bang [Bang Si Hyuk], our executive producer [and CEO of BigHit Entertainment]. I was an underground rapper and only 16 years old, a freshman at high school. Bang thought I had potential as a rapper and lyricist, and we went from there. Then SUGA joined us. [Third group member] J-hope was really popular as a dancer in his hometown. We were the first three! We debuted as a collaboration between the seven of us in June 2013. We came together with a common dream to write, dance and produce music that reflects our musical backgrounds as well as our life values of acceptance, vulnerability and being successful. The seven of us have pushed each other to be the best we can be for the last four years. It has made us as close as brothers. BTS as a group sort of took off with the success of our 2015 album that had our hit single "I NEED U."
When did you first realize you were developing a global fandom?
We didn’t realize we were becoming famous until we were invited to KCONs [K-pop music festivals] in the U.S. and Europe in 2014 or 2015. Thousands of fans were calling our name at the venue, and almost everyone memorized the Korean lyrics of our songs, which was amazing and overwhelming. Who would have thought that people from across the ocean, Europe, the U.S., South America, even Tahiti, would love our songs and performances, just by watching them on YouTube? We were just grateful... and we still are.
BTS has millions of followers on every social media platform. How do you interact with your fans online? What kind of connections are you making?
We mostly interact with our Twitter messages by uploading selfies, [sharing] music recommendations and street fashion photos, etc. It’s about our daily life as a band on tour — and also as a group of silly friends who make fun of one another backstage. We don’t really get to reply to fans on a regular basis because there are just so many of them. But we do try to read all the reactions and replies. It’s also always interesting and inspiring for us to see what they create for us.
Why do you think you’ve been able to build such a massive online fanbase? How did it happen?
Everyone asks us that question. It’s a team effort taken from what happens to us in our everyday life. It’s not easy to run a social media account over a long period of time, but we love communicating with our fans every day and night. For example, I use the hashtag #RMusic to introduce or recommend a song I like, and I’ve been doing that for a long time. I love music and I truly enjoy sharing with our fans. Music transcends language. BTS communicates with our fans by staying true to ourselves and believing in music every day.
How does having this huge fandom impact your approach to music and to what you sing about?
BTS fans — the "ARMY" — tell us about their feelings, failures, passions and struggles all the time. We are often inspired by [them], because we try to write about how real young people — like the seven of us — face real-life issues. Most of our music is about how we perceive the world and how we try to persist as normal, average human beings. So our fans inspire us and give us a direction to go as musicians. And of course, their love and support keeps us going.
How is BTS different from other big K-pop groups? Is it your music, your engagement with supporters, or something else?
I can’t speak for other artists; every group has a different approach. For us, it will always be important to keep working hard, dancing better, writing better songs, touring and setting an example. A lot of people say this, but it's really true for us: we are living a dream, all seven of us, being able to pursue what we love. We strive to [put] everything into our music. Our lyrics deal with real issues that face all humans: choices in life, depression, self-esteem. And the fans know that we are there for them, and they are there for us.
What’s next? What are you most excited for?
Well, we definitely continue to have big dreams. We tour all over the world, but the shows in the U.S. really opened our eyes to so many new things in the States. And when we won the Billboard Music Award, we were so honored and got to meet so many artists that we love and admire that we can’t wait to return to the States.