Front-row fan punks BTS rapper Suga at Oakland concert (2023)


SFGATE contributor Kayti Burt witnessed the final stop on the beloved K-pop idol's US tour

Kayti Burt

Front-row fan punks BTS rapper Suga at Oakland concert (1)

There was a mid-song moment during Suga’s sold-out show in Oakland Arena last Wednesday when the 30-year-old BTS rapper approached the barricade separating the audience from the stage, grabbed a fan’s proffered flip phone, and upon holding it up for inspection, threw his head back in laughter.

To understand the joke, you have to understand its context — and most of the 19,000 fans in the arena did. At every stop on his U.S. tour,Sugafilmed a mid-performance, selfie-mode video of himself on at least one lucky fan’s phone. In New York, it was with whichever phone happened to catch his eye. In Chicago, he demanded only Samsung Galaxys, as the band has had a partnership with the Korean electronics corporation since 2020. (This led some barricade fans to dress their iPhones up as Samsungs on subsequent tour stops.) In Oakland on May 17, Suga’s final stop in America, this moment of fan-artist connection evolved into one enterprising fan finding and bringing a Samsung flip phone, circa the early 2010s. No, it didn’t have the functionality to record video. But that wasn’t the point; the point was to make the Korean superstar smile.

Suga said he would only take Samsung, no iPhone, so an army gave him this, it cannot record video but she said she just wanted to make him smile😂💜

— RedRedKittyCat (@red00000red) May 18, 2023

It’s this level of commitment, on both sides of the fan-artist relationship, that can makeBTS concerts so much fun. For Min Yoongi, who also goes by the stage names Suga and Agust D, this doesn’t just mean committing to tour-spanning “inside” jokes; it also means crafting a theatrical concert experience that could be mistaken for a Broadway show if it weren't for the thousands of screaming fans and a level of pyrotechnics that would probably be dangerous inside a cramped New York City theater.

Suga’s D-Day show (named after his recent “D-Day” album, his third solo release) followed a defined, albeit esoteric, narrative involving all three of his public identities. Before the show even began, as the mostly girls and women — some dressed as tangerines, one of Suga’s favorite fruits — shuffled excitedly to their seats with nachos and alcoholic slushies in hand, digital rain fell down the massive screen at the head of the arena. Thunder and rainfall echoed out from the speakers — a reference to the weather conditions on the day a much younger Min Yoongi got into a motorbike crash in Seoul. The crash occurred when he was working part time as a delivery person to support himself as aK-pop trainee before BTS debuted. The shoulder injury and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the crash would impact the artist long after. He outlines the resulting mental health struggles in the “D-Day” track“Amygdala,” a reference to the part of the brain that stores the visual images from traumatic experiences, one that shapes his entire show. “Amygdala” is the final pre-encore song on the set list— the cathartic climax this story is working toward.

Front-row fan punks BTS rapper Suga at Oakland concert (2)

The D-Day performance began with a loud crash and an opening sprint that included hip-hop headbangers“Haegeum,” “Daechwita” and “Agust D.” Suga stumbled across the stage as if the lyrics themselves were propelling him and his squad of backup dancers as flames and fireworks erupted from around the stage. “Slaves to capitalism, slaves to money … Slaves to YouTube, slaves to flexing,” Suga rapped (translated from Korean) in “Haegeum,” a 2023 track reflecting on the frustrations of living in the information age. “I hope we don’t get swept away by the tsunami of information.” Same, Yoongi.

When the general public thinks of BTS, they likely think of the group’s English-language bops“Dynamite” and “Butter.” But there is a notable diversity and depth to the group’s discography, which spans a decade and has been led by the values and musicality of the group’s trio of rappers. Suga specifically grew up listening to American rapper Eminem, and the influence is obvious in his D-Day tour — broadly reflected in his use of lyrical hip-hop, alter egos and devil-may-care attitude. Much of the musician’s early solo work is characterized by a cathartic fury that translates well to an arena show, especially one performed in a venue known as “TheRoaracle.” “Whether I’m a bastard, a wackor a fake — I’m the one who carves history on the ground,” he rapped during the night’s performance of the 2018 track “Agust D,” a response to the prejudices he’s faced as a K-pop idol.

If @TVaddict687 asks two hours before the Suga show in Oakland if you're want to go, you go. @kaytiburt

— Pretty Paolo Sambrano (@paolo) May 18, 2023


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Suga’sD-Day tour used a custom-designed, grid-like thrust stage that extended halfway across the arena’s floor. Over the course of the show, sections broke away and rose slowly to the venue’s ceiling. By the encore, the entire stage had been stripped away, leaving Suga to perform on the ground, with the live band at his back. During act breaks, the screen showed enigmatic noir-esque short films. In them, Min Yoongi’s various personas hunt one another down, before Yoongi burns a dollhouse that represents his past. When the artist himself emerged after the on-screen destruction for his final three songs, he was in ripped jeans and his own merch. He was no longer Suga orAgust D but rather Min Yoongi, a mere mortal like the rest of us.

During mid-concert“Snooze,” a song featuring late Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, Suga moved from his place at the piano to a standing mic at the center of the arena of lights. The song specifically speaks to young artists coming up in the notoriously demanding K-pop industry, but, more generally, it speaks to all people trying to survive in an often hostile world. “If you’re afraid of falling, I’ll gladly catch you. So don’t suffer like I did,” he rapped, in Korean, before launching into one of the song’s mantras: “It’s all going to be all right.” He repeated the lyric 16 times in a row. Later, when he came back onstage for the night’s encore, he entered with the opening exclamation of the track “D-Day”: “The future’s gonna be OK!”

Front-row fan punks BTS rapper Suga at Oakland concert (3)

When BTS debuted in 2013, it explicitly offered its music up as a shield against the oppression and discrimination endured by young people today. More than a decade later, the group’s members are continuing with this mission — both as a group and in their solo efforts. BTS’ live performances are so immersive because they are fundamentally designed as communal experiences, a kind of in-person connection that is increasingly missing today. A majority of the fans in attendance at Oakland Arena for the Suga show held a light stick, an LED device common as a concert prop in K-pop fandoms. Flashing in different hues and sequences along with the music, together they make up waves of color that envelope the entire venue. It makes each member of the audience an integral part of the show.

Suga’s final Oakland concert featured more moments, compared with previous nights on his tour, when the performer held his microphone up to the crowd so they could sing or rap instead. The fans were more than ready to take the lead, often singing in a language they don’t actually speak but have committed themselves to understand in the context of MinYoongi and/or BTS’ lyrics.

Front-row fan punks BTS rapper Suga at Oakland concert (4)

“The structure of my concert is a little bit different from when there’s seven of us,”Suga said during his ending speech, also in Korean, translated live by an interpreter. “So, when I first started my tour, I was half nervous and half excited. But you guys had 150% more fun than I thought you would. I can’t always be in my best condition, but seeing you guys cheering and looking at your happy faces really gives me the energy to keep performing.”

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