BTS leader RM, born Kim Nam-joon, turns 29 on September 12. Image Credit: Big Hit/ Instagram

In an old video that is often shared ahead of RM’s (born Kim Namjoon) birthday, he reads a series of hurtful comments attacking him and his newly formed band, BTS. The comments tell him repeatedly that he can never become a K-Pop idol. With narrowed eyes, RM tells the haters, “I’ll prove it to you.”

A decade later, a journey streaked with glowing awards, pitfalls and numerous highs and tasked with leading a global sensation, it’s probably safe to say that RM had the final say. The crown gets heavier as he often says, but as he maintains, had it not been for BTS , he might not have remained in the music industry.

His path to BTS itself, is a story on its own.A child who loved his poetry, he didn’t have any musical plans before entering adolescence. The power of words always wielded a sword over him, and he could never shake it off. At the age of 11, his tryst with music began after listening to rapper Epik High’s ‘Fly’. He discovered his interest in American rapper Eminem who was sweeping the charts by the early 2000s, and this pushed him to write his own lyrics.

By 2008, RM was rapping in local amateur circles and established himself as an underground rapper with the name ‘Runch Randa’. He grew busy, releasing tracks and collections for other rappers. Much to the chagrin of his parents, his academics were sidelined and they were far from approving of his passion for music. As he once recalled, in a bid to convince his mother to allow him to be a rapper, he asked her if “…she wanted to have a son who was a first-place rapper, or a 5000th-place student?”

He began auditioning for companies, including Big Deal records, where he famously failed the audition because he forgot all the lyrics. Pushed to audition for Big Hit, he impressed CEO Bang Si-Hyuk, and was offered a spot instantly. Without consulting his parents, he accepted the offer, and the production of the hip-hop group began, which is now BTS. He began as a trainee with Min Yoongi (now known as Suga) and dancer Jung Hoseok (Now J-Hope).

And today, he stands as the leader of a band that is often said to have revolutionised K-Pop. Despite being the fourth youngest, he commands a team that had seemingly done the unthinkable for K-Pop: Broken into the West, been nominated for all the prestigious award shows, including the American Music Awards and the Grammys.

They have spoken at the United Nations several times and even visited American President Joe Biden in 2022. The flames of fame have been burning bright for years, but somewhere it burned a little too bright for RM, who has always been transparent with the fandom, called ARMY.

The smooth, concise RM that we see in interviews or even the passionate, angry one we seen on stage, slips away, and we see a vulnerable Kim Namjoon. He doesn’t appear to mince words. During the emotional BTS 2022 Festa, their 9th anniversary, a rather tearful RM told his team members that he feared that the band had lost its way, and he didn’t know what kind of message they were sending with their recent songs, which were raging on the Billboard charts. He revealed that he felt ‘trapped’ within himself. He couldn’t shed it off, because the world wouldn’t let him. “We’ve lost our direction, and I just want to take some time to think,” he had said.

As he explained to American musician Pharrell Williams later, the past decade had been too “intense and hectic” and he wanted to just step away for a while. RM isn’t exaggerating, as he was the one always translating for members abroad in interviews and stood as the representative of the team. In fact, as documented in the memoir, Beyond The Story, a rather wearied RM recalls a day where he had to translate, and navigate through 11 interviews, to the point of fatigue and exhaustion. He also has the Herculean part of steering them through controversial waters. In one particular interview in the US, the band was asked about “the next K-Pop band” that could break into the US. As the members are about to answer, RM tells them quietly to be careful in Korean, and instantly they pick up the hint, and playfully answer, “BTS.”

It's no doubt why his members rally around him and do their best to support and help him whenever they can.

While Jungkook’s profound awe and admiration for RM is well documented, the others hold him in a place of respect and listen to him, even though he might be younger than them. They don’t take his English skills lightly, as an irritated J-Hope once signalled to the translator to do their job, as RM was too tired to find the right words in an interview. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without RM,” J-Hope and Jimin had said after their United Nations visit in 2018. “RM is the starting point of the life that I lead today,” Jungkook had once said.

There’s always love and awe surrounding RM, coming from ARMY and his members. He’s thankful as he says, among other emotions, but it’s his own song-writing and art he returns to, when he needs to center himself. RM turns into Namjoon when it comes to expressing himself in his songs.

Responsible for writing most of the hits in BTS, RM also has his own solos, where he pushes his boundaries and tests his own creativity. His songs from 2015 show his growth and exhibit his sharp wordplay, dry and scathing humour. In 2015, RM, expressed his own rage at naysayers with the song Joke, a brutal stream of consciousness, hitting back at the haters who had mocked BTS. In 2018, he rapped Ddaeng with Suga and J-Hope, where he seemed to have had the most joy.

Here, he plays around with the meaning of Ddaeng, an onomotapoeic word with multiple meanings in Korean, in different contexts, from a doorbell to a buzzer in quizzes. Quiet and scathing, his verse had more than seven meanings of Ddaeng and he changed with other phonetically sounding words such as eoltang (which means ridiculous in Korean) and thang (English, for thing). Another instance of his wordplay is in his verse, Trivia: Love. The lines read, “I’m just a person, person, you erode all my sharp edges, you make me into love, love love.” Here, he plays around with the Korean letters in the two words, Person (sa-ram) and love (sa-rang). In the Korean alphabet, ‘m’ is shown by a rectangular figure, while ‘ng’ is in a circular shape. So, if the ‘sharp edges’ of a rectangle are eroded, it becomes a circle. And so, the person, becomes love.

In 2022, he released the album Indigo, which was another raw insight into himself, as Namjoon, the person and RM the artist. He took fans into his ‘real world’, a world that was untouched by success. As he says in the song Yun, “I want to be a human before I do some art.” He also refuses to be ‘locked in a frame’, as the song Still Art says. An art connoisseur who finds peace in paintings, as he keeps sharing on social media, it’s no surprise that art found its way into his songs. On the other hand, in Wild Flower, he lays himself bare as he just begs the world to let him be himself. He just wants to escape to the fields of flowers, and hopes his loved ones find him there.

Through his songs in the past decade, RM has shown the various shades of Namjoon; the loneliness, the dreams, hopes, tackling fame, and the exhaustion of holding on to his identity.