The leader of South Korean boy band BTS has spoken out about their upcoming concert in Saudi Arabia, saying it wasn’t an easy decision to play in the kingdom which has been criticized over its human rights abuses.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy,” 25-year-old rapper RM — whose real name is Kim Nam-joon — told The Hollywood Reporter in the interview published October 2. “But we were officially invited. It’s been a while since we’ve performed in the Middle East.”
“If there’s a place where people want to see us, we’ll go there. That’s really how we feel,” added 23-year-old singer Jimin, whose real name is Park Ji-min.
In July, BTS attracted criticism after they announced an October 11 show in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Some fans pointed out the apparent contradiction between BTS’s tour message — “Love Yourself” — and Saudi Arabia’s criminalization of same-sex relationships.
BTS’s announcement came only a week after American rapper Nicki Minaj cancelled a scheduled performance in the country, saying it was important for her to support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.
Though none of BTS’s members are openly LGBTQ, the group has been seen as sympathetic towards the LGBTQ community, especially compared with other K-pop groups who tend to stay silent on such topics.
In 2013, before the group officially debuted, BTS leader RM tweeted about his appreciation for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s song “Same Love,” which celebrates same-sex relationships. BTS fans — who are known as ARMY — have also celebrated the group’s collaboration with Halsey, an openly bisexual American artist.
CNN has reached out to BTS’s label Big Hit Entertainment for comment.
The show in Riyadh will be BTS’s first performance after their five-week summer break — the first time they took an extended period of time off since their debut in 2013.
Why is Saudi Arabia inviting international pop stars?
BTS and Minaj aren’t the first stars to be invited to play in the kingdom. This year, Mariah Carey held her own concert in Saudi Arabia, despite backlash from women’s rights activists.
The kingdom is attempting to create economic activity at home and encourage citizens to spend their money within its borders.
As part of that, the Crown Prince called for greater investment in the entertainment industry, with the goal of positioning the nation among the top four entertainment destinations in Asia. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced a new scheme that allows 49 different countries to get a visa on arrival.
But the move away from petrodollars might not be easy.
There are few entertainment attractions in Saudi Arabia due to its ultraconservatism — hence, the Jeddah World Fest in July, where Minaj had been invited to play.
The crown prince and the kingdom have also been under heavy criticism concerning the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince denied any personal involvement in the killing, although he said he took full responsibility as it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.