RM, the leader of K-pop band BTS: ‘We work so hard in Korea because 70 years ago there was nothing’
As he promotes his first solo album, the South Korean rapper reflects on the price of success, the history of his country and collecting art
Kim Nam-joon, 28, seems genuinely surprised that a group of fans recognized him a few days ago on the streets of Bilbao, Spain. “You’d like to think that maybe in small cities, on the other side of the world, you could go unnoticed...,” says the Seoul-born rapper known as RM. He’s better known as the leader of BTS, the K-pop boy band that has broken, in 10 frenetic years, all the records in the global music industry, Bilbao included.
Last summer the group’s seven members announced a temporary break as a group to develop solo projects and do mandatory military service in Korea. Their fans (called ARMYs), of which there are 72 million on Instagram alone, eagerly await the group’s reunion, which is slated for 2025. RM confirms that he is looking forward to it, too.
He is in Spain to promote his album Indigo, which came out in December, and to visit the Guggenheim, the Thyssen, the Prado, the Picasso foundation in Barcelona... “I’ve seen tons of Goyas and I’ve been struck by El Greco, but I’m stuck on Las Meninas,” says the rapper. The first track on the amateur art collector’s album is called Yun, so named for the abstract painter Yun Hyong-keun. “They call him the Asian Rothko, but his life is what interests me: he lived through the Japanese invasion, the war, he was tortured by the government, but he never gave in. In his work, I see anger, sadness, complexity, beauty...”.
Question. Your track opens with the lines, “Fuck the trendsetter/ I’m a turn back the time/ Far to when I was nine / When things were only good or bad / I think I was more of a human.” Does K-pop’s amazing success dehumanize the artist?
Answer. You start your career very early and as part of a group. There’s not a lot of time to be an individual, but that makes K-pop shine: it’s very young people all struggling really hard together.... You generate that energy that you only have in your 20s. You fight day and night to perfect the choreography, the videos, the music, and there’s an explosion, a Big Bang. Throughout our whole 20s we invested all of our energy and time in BTS. You get success, love, influence, power, and what’s next? The root of everything remains: the music... What was the question?
Q. Is that system dehumanizing?
A. My company doesn’t like how I answer this question, because I admit that, in part, it is, and then journalists throw up their hands and say, “it’s a horrible system; it destroys young people!” But that’s partly what makes this such a special industry. And the system is getting better and better, in terms of contracts, money, education; now there are teachers, counselors, psychologists...
Q. Korean record labels, called entertainment agencies, train their artists for years. You lived with your peers from when you were 16 to 19 before you debuted in BTS in 2013. What did your parents say?
A. My mom spent two years telling me “Go back to school, you were so good at it, go your own way, go to college, make music a hobby!”.... But there was no turning back.
Q. What was the most important thing you learned during your time as a trainee?
A. Oh, I would say dancing because I couldn’t dance before.
Q. And what did you miss out on because of it?
A. I really wanted to go to college because, you know, campus life.
Q. The cult of youth, of perfection, of overachievement in K-pop… Are these Korean cultural traits?
A. In the West, people just don’t get it. Korea is a country that has been invaded, razed to the ground, torn in two. Just 70 years ago, there was nothing. We were getting aid from the IMF and the UN. But now, the whole world is looking at Korea. How is that possible? How did that happen? Well, because people try so fucking hard to better themselves. You are in France or the UK, countries that have been colonizing others for centuries, and you come to me with, “oh God, you put so much pressure on yourselves; life in Korea is so stressful!” Well, yes. That’s how you get things done. And it’s part of what makes K-pop so appealing, although, of course, there’s a dark side. Anything that happens too fast and too intensely has side effects.
Q. What is the biggest prejudice about K-pop?
A. That it’s prefabricated.
Q. What would your career have been like if you had developed it in the indie music scene or in another country?
A. I often think about the multiverse, and Doctor Strange’s lesson is always the same: your version of the universe is the best there is; don’t think about the other ones. There is nothing better than being a member of BTS.
Q. Did you imagine this version?
A. Not at all. My dream was not to be a K-pop idol. I wanted to be a rapper, and before that, a poet.
Q. You cite rappers like Nas and Eminem and groups like Radiohead and Portishead as influences, but you never mention boy bands.
A. The Beatles were also called a boy band... I’m not comparing us; they were the creators of everything. But I guess you mean NSYNC or New Kids on the Block; they’re bands whose pop music I actually liked, although I wasn’t a superfan... What got me was rap: rhythm plus poetry.
Q. You say you get jealous of those you admire. Who makes you jealous now?
A. Kendrick Lamar, always. And Pharrell Williams. He’s living history, I’d like to be that; maybe in the future. That’s why I don’t paint; being jealous of Picasso or Monet would be too much.
Q. You collect art. How do you choose the pieces?
A. I’ve only been collecting for four years, and it has changed. My focus is 20th century Korean art. But I’m not Getty or Rockefeller....
Q. You don’t do it to invest.
A. I can guarantee 100% that I do not. If I wanted to invest, I would buy Black artists, women, emerging Indonesian artists.... My goal is to open a small exhibition space in about 10 years because I think Seoul needs a place with young taste that’s also respectful of the Korean legacy, to which I would also like to bring artists like Roni Horn, Antony Gormley and Morandi.
Q. Have you always been a collector?
A. I have collected toys, like Takashi Murakami figures, then vintage clothes, then furniture, I love Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret [both Le Corbusier collaborators], but my favorite is George Nakashima.
Q. Your album has songs from a variety of different genres. Some critics describe that as inconsistency, and others call it versatility....
A. I think the word “genre” will disappear in a few decades. R&B, Hyperpop, Jersey Club, UK Drill, Chicago Drill, K-pop! They don’t mean anything. Music is just, you know, stacks of frequencies that drive people into a certain mood.
Q. Are you sick of the “K-Pop” label?
A. You can get sick of Spotify calling us all K-pop, but it works. It’s a premium label. It’s that guarantee of quality that our grandparents fought for.
Q. Your album features Anderson .Paak, Youjeen and the elusive Erykah Badu. How did you convince her to collaborate?
A. She knew BTS because her daughter is a fan, but that wasn’t enough. I had to persuade her, I sent her a text with Yun’s story, explaining why I needed her wise queen’s voice for those verses.
Q. In your songs, you mix English and Korean, sometimes in the middle of a phrase. How do you choose one or the other?
A. Words in different languages have different textures; they have the same message, but with a different brushstroke. It comes naturally to me. I don’t play instruments, I compose and create melodies with my voice, which is my instrument, and most of my songs start with words.
Q. You have also gone through several identities. As a teenage rapper, you were Runch Randa; in BTS, you were Rap Monster and now you’re RM (for Real Me). Have you thought about using your real name?
A. [laughs] We all have a past, we call it black history in Korea. Runch Randa was my nickname in a role-playing game, then I wanted to be, you know, “a rap monster!″ Then I matured... I prefer my [real] name to be known by as few people as possible. I’m not John Lennon or Paul McCartney; I can check into a hotel and they don’t care about me, and I like that.
Q. The way you dress has changed a lot too.
A. I went through a phase of wearing XXL t-shirts and baseball caps. Then I got into high-end brands... As Rap Monster, I started wearing only black and white [he rolls his eyes and shrugs]. Now, I’m into timelessness. I’m over trends; I’m looking for vintage jeans, cotton T-shirts, natural things, that don’t scream “hey, I’m here!”
Q. You were just invited to Bottega Veneta’s fashion show in Milan, and rumor has it that you are going to collaborate with the brand.
A. I would love to, although I’ve lost interest in brands, fashion weeks and the constant change in Pantone... Bottega is different; they don’t use logos, they have a history with weaving and leather, they don’t even have Instagram. They are beyond the buzz.
Q. Is it hard to have an army of fans?
A. You can’t walk around in the middle of nowhere without being recognized, and the standards you’re held to are heavy. But you have to grow up and deal with it, not be self-pitying like “oh, I just want to be normal!” Look, if you want to think that fame is a stone, it’s a fucking stone, but if you think of it as love, as power... It got me what I was looking for: as quickly as possible, I got the influence and financial freedom to make the music I want to make without worrying about the charts... I’m not there 100%, but I try to focus on the noise inside, not the noise outside.
Q. How are you facing going into your thirties?
A. I have never been through such a confusing time. For a decade, I was the leader of BTS, and it was very stable and fun; things only got better. In 2023, a lot of things have changed, professionally and personally, although I can’t tell. As I’m about to turn 30, I like myself more than I did when I was 20. Now I will spend a year and a half in military service, which is a big deal in every Korean man’s life. And after that, I am sure I will be a different human being, hopefully a better and wiser one.
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