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