All photos by Charles Caesar
In 2009, Soulja Boy tweeted this fact: "I'm a fan of Anime ^_^." A year later, he dropped the track "Anime," referring to the Japanese cartoons so beloved by American geeks, with lyrics like: "anime, drop pants; anime, wrist and chains; anime, and everything; anime." It's a bit jarring, the casual throwing-together of bling and nerd culture: "Pikachu diamonds, anime floskas."
Anime blogs and forums heralded the rapper's otaku-coming-out as the end of American anime fandom, usually thought of as the domain of white geeks. At the same time, diehard Soulja Boy fans were wondering when swag and anime fell into bed with one another. The critics were overcome by cognitive dissonance.
Soulja Boy, for his part, didn't acknowledge crossing any invisible boundaries. "Bitch, I look like Goku," he said, referring to the popular anime Dragonball Z's protagonist, a fair-skinned, spiky-haired fighter.
Actually, Soulja Boy doesn't look much like Goku. In fact, the only black character in Dragonball Z was a puffy-lipped slave named Mr. Popo (later recolored blue for American television). But at the height of Dragonball Z's popularity, black fans breathed life into "black Goku," using Photoshop to darken the anime character's skin and proliferating his likeness throughout the internet.
Soulja Boy isn't the only famous rap artist who acknowledges that this Japanese cartoon—and hundreds of others—blew up in the 90s black community. In his book The Tao of Wu, RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan dedicates a whole page to Goku's resonance with black Americans, noting that "Son Goku is part of an ancient race called the Saiyans, who come from a distant planet and were known as the fiercest warriors in the galaxy. So Son Goku has superpowers but doesn't realize it—a head injury destroyed his memory, robbed his knowledge of self." He added, "I even use the name Goku as a tag when I write. And when my hair is in an Afro? Word up: I'm Super Saiyan."
RZA sees a portrait of the American slave trade in Saiyan's lost history, left behind on another planet. It's fair to say that the parallel was not intended by Akira Toriyama, the show's creator. In contrast to anime's popularity among black Americans, there are fewer than a dozen depictions of black people in anime who are not thugs, criminals, or slaves. One reason could be that less than 2 percent of Japan is made up of foreigners—it's one of the most homogeneous countries in the world—so people of African descent aren't exactly commonplace. Japan also doesn't have a strong track record on racial acceptance: Miss Universe Japan 2015, a half-black ("hafu") model, faced extreme backlash from fellow Japanese because of her ethnicity.
Still, Japan's cultural exports—especially anime—have become extremely popular in America (the export of anime racked up a $2.7 billion worth in 2009 and $4.8 billion at its height in 2003). So it's no wonder that over 26,500 people showed up at Otakon, Baltimore's anime convention, late last month. Decked out in costumes of their favorite anime character, these American otaku came to celebrate this facet of Japanese culture with cosplay. Between panels on "What the @#$% Japan?!" (18+) and raucous anime porn screenings (also 18+), we caught up with some of the black attendees to talk about what anime fandom can teach us about race in America.
Chanel P., 22
VICE: How did you get into anime?
I was maybe eight or nine years old. You know when Poke'mon or Sailor Moon got big? I didn't know that was anime. I was just like, oh, cartoons! Once I got a little older and had friends in school talking about how that was anime, I looked into it more.
Were there any anime characters you identified with in
I definitely identified with Sailor Jupiter [from Sailor Moon]. I was the tallest kid in my elementary school class. People would pick fun at me. She was shy, and so was I.
What do you think about the fact that there aren't
many black anime characters? Was that a barrier to engagement?
It was at first. When I first started coming to anime conventions, I was a bit afraid, actually, to cosplay any characters. I thought, They aren't black, I can't do that . I thought you had to actually look like the character in order to dress like her. But, I mean, I saw people of my skin tone dressing like the character they wanted and thought, I can do that too . I thought, I guess it doesn't matter that there aren't black characters. But I think we do need more black characters.
What's it been like to cosplay?
The first time I cosplayed Sailor Moon was at Otakon last year. That was the first time I ever cosplayed. I got some pictures taken that were posted on the internet. I was excited, like, Hey I'm on the internet, yay! And then I read the comments. A lot of them weren't good, at all. I got, "The cosplay is good, but she shouldn't be black," and "Oh, her skin is too dark," and "Oh, her hair shouldn't be blonde." It was a lot of nasty stuff people should have kept to themselves.
How did you feel when you saw that?
I got a little angry. But then I brushed it off because these are people who are just racist and they'll be that way regardless.
Are you interested greater Japanese culture, too?
I went to Japan when I was in high school, actually. I did an ambassador's program my senior year. I got a lot of dirty looks there, walking around as a black student. A lot of shop owners didn't want to talk to me. They followed me around in the store.
Why do you think that happened?
I guess they probably know the American stereotype that black people steal. That's the problem with stuff in America—stereotypes follow you everywhere.
How did it feel for you to love Japanese culture but
be treated that way?
It upset me. It really did. I was so excited to go there, and I'd read a lot of stuff about how the Japanese are really polite. The fact that I was treated like that ruined my experience. After the fourth day, I really wanted to go home. And we were there for a week.
But you still love anime.
I'm not going to let what the people who create it do spoil the fact that I enjoy it. They're still really good stories.
In terms of anime fan culture at conventions like Otakon,
do you feel like people are accepting?
Yeah, for the most part. I do get a lot of younger black girls messaging me. One young girl really wanted to cosplay Sailor Moon herself but was scared of wearing blonde hair because of how people feel about her skin being really dark. I said, "Just do it. You wanna do the character so bad, so you're being afraid of what people say shouldn't change that." She did it, and she sent me pictures. She was really adorable.
Cerise Canzius, 36
VICE: How did you get into anime?
I've kind of always watched anime, but I didn't actually know the word anime until, like, eight or nine years ago. None of my other friends are into any of that.
So you watched it a lot yourself.
Yeah, I'd just do my own thing and I didn't have anyone to talk to about it in Chesapeake, Virginia. The majority of my friends are black, just because of the neighborhood I live in, and I went to an all-black college in Atlanta.When I got older, I met another anime fan at a car dealership. He overheard me talking about making Kagome from Inuyasha's outfit for Halloween. He told me about conventions, cosplay. We came to our first convention about four years ago. That's when I got into cosplay.
What has your experience cosplaying been like?
The first year I cosplayed, I taught myself to sew. I made these costumes. I get a lot of compliments here [at Otakon], so I posted pictures of me cosplaying on Facebook. My aunt saw them and was like, "Should people see this?" A lot of our mutual Facebook friends go to our church. I unfriended everyone from my church to make my family feel better about me cosplaying. We've been going to that church our entire lives.
Has anyone else in your church community done
something that's provoked a similar response?
Yep. I was a character from Gurren Lagann. I was wearing short shorts and a bikini. I was so proud. I got so many compliments that day. My cousin is a model and she poses in bikinis all the time. It's like, that's OK, because being a model and wearing skimpy clothes is acceptable. But wearing skimpy clothes as a cosplayer in my community is taboo.
A lot of anime characters read as white. Has anyone
discriminated against you while you're cosplaying?
I actually have never been called out for cosplaying someone who's not my color. I know a lot of people have been.
Tiffron Ronald Canzius, 25
VICE: So, how did you meet your wife, [Cerise]?
I heard her talking about Inuyasha. That's one of my favorites, too. Also, Gurren Lagann. That was one of her first cosplays.
Did you share a connection over being African-American
and liking anime?
Yes. You don't see a lot of black nerds. Or at least, you didn't used to. Now you do. I don't know if it was taboo or what. So when you saw another one, it was a big deal. Kindred spirits.
Why do you think that is?
I think it's just that, in black culture, [you're told] that it doesn't mesh well with anime—it's just completely different. But when you get into anime, you learn it's not different.
Why would it seem different?
It's something you're not exposed to. It's nothing against it. Growing up, I watched Fresh Prince and Martin. Our parents are like, what is [anime]? They don't know. Then, you find out that there are really popular rap tracks that sample beats from anime shows. I know Puff Daddy samples something from Record of Lodoss War, a 1986 anime. I was like, Whoa, why are these famous black people nerds and no one told me?
Jackson is the voice actor for the protagonist in [the anime]
And he's a huge nerd! If I could meet anyone, I'd meet him. He always has comic books on him. Not a lot of people know that.
Why do you think you weren't exposed to it?
For lack of a better term, as a community, we had other stuff going on. As a minority, you're always trying to come up. That's the focus. Growing up, my mom was like, get good grades so you can get to a better status. Her focus was always academic. When she saw me with cartoons and whatnot, she was like, what are you doing with that?
Are there any characters you identified with as a
black person growing up in America?
Afro Samurai. That plays into what I said earlier. As a minority, my mom always said you have three strikes against you: You're a man so they won't go easy on you. You're foreign (I was born in South America). And you're black. So you have to work extra hard cause you have those things going against you. As a community, you're trying to do better because stuff isn't in your favor. Afro Samurai is about how [Samuel Jackson's character] has the number-two headband and he wants to defeat the man with the number-one headband, so he can be the best. That metaphor goes so deep.
Were there any other characters you identified with?
Piccolo [the green alien from Dragonball Z] is black. He is. In the main group of the Dragonball Z fighters, there wasn't a black one, but there was a green one. He was token. You can see him being a black man instead of a green man and you wouldn't think twice about it. He has to work extra hard just to keep up with Goku. Goku is just naturally good.
He has privilege!
Piccolo has to do so much extra just to keep up with him.
Curtis White, 32
VICE: I'd love to hear about how you got into anime.
It all started with Dragonball Z . It opened my eyes to different types of animation outside of Looney Toons, outside of Garfield & Friends. It was eye-opening.
What did you like about Dragonball Z? Who was your favorite character?
Piccolo. In my opinion, Piccolo was the one who didn't get enough respect. He was always doing the dirty work. He would always halfway finish off the villain and then Goku or Vegeta would finish it off because Piccolo wasn't a main character. He was tough, though.
Someone told me Piccolo was black.
I believe that. He was tough. Now he's the king of Hell. It all works out. You put the most badass character in the most badass place.
VICE travels to Japan to meet Naoto Matsumura, the last man standing in the ghost town of Tomioka.
Is it a conflict in your identity, being black and liking anime?
Not at all. I grew up watching cartoons. Anime was just the next step. It's something I've always enjoyed. I don't think it's a conflict of interest with who I am because this is who I am. I'm 32 years old and at an anime convention. I've been doing this for six years. In terms of anime, there aren't really black characters. There isn't a black Vegeta [from Dragonball]. There isn't a black Goku. When we saw Piccolo, it was like, Hey, it's a person of color . We can identify with him. The only other one was Mr. Popo and he had blackface. It was almost insulting. With Piccolo, we could identify with him.
Even though he's an alien?
We were brought to this country, so I can identify with him.
Jelani Walton, 26
VICE: Is this your first anime convention?
I've been to six cons in seven months.
You're on a bender!
I know, right? After you get into it, you can't stop! I'm already planning the next two.
Does it matter that almost all anime characters read
It's very hard to find dark-skinned characters in anime. When you do, it gets you excited and makes you want to connect with those characters. Then you start looking for more—that made me branch out. I found a website that had all animes with black or dark-skinned characters in it. It made me want to watch more anime to see what they're like.
Some people say they don't think about the race of
anime characters since it's not live-action.
Well, once I got into it and start noticing that there aren't many dark-skinned characters, I just want to see what the representation of dark-skinned characters was like. Some of it is stereotypical. All types of yo yo yo's, saggy pants. There are other characters who are intelligent. I just wanted to know what Japan thought of us.
Were you disappointed?
No. A good representation of dark-skinned characters is really good. It makes me want to connect with their culture. I'm planning on going soon.
[In anime], I just see a chance to escape. I get tired. I pay a lot of attention to the media. It's nice to be something different. You get to observe a different culture.
What makes anime an escape?
I like how together Japanese culture seems to be. One of the terms in anime is ganbatte. It means, "Do your best." They want to make sure that everyone does their best, works together, and works hard. I like that. I like the cohesiveness. I want to be a part of that.
Aaron Taylor, 24
VICE: When did you get into Japanese culture?
The first anime I started watching back in the day was Dragonball Z on Cartoon Network. But if you had to ask, my technical soul has been Japanese my whole life. My mom will tell you, since I was one, I slept with swords. I made my own swords.
How did you get into making
I started making swords when I was 12. My dad showed me how to do that. Hand-crafted. I've made about four blades now. I have tempered steel, a dual-blade sword, I have a serrated edge which is tempered steel, a lot of iron.
To you, are there parallels
between samurai culture and African-American culture?
There's a lot of honor in both. Samurai culture and African-American culture. You put your family before everything. With Bushido [martial art], you don't go out and kill for random reasons. You use your sword to protect. You don't do random, vicious, violent crimes for yourself in African-American culture. If you do, you have to do it for your family.
Have you ever had to
defend your family's honor?
It was a while back. This one other kid beat up on my second nephew. It was in elementary school. I came to his house and I fought him in front of his whole family outside his door. It was because of how he treated my nephew. In Bushido, it's about an honor code. I honor my family above everything else. If you test that honor, you're challenging me to a dual, so to speak. We're respectable people.
There's a lot of antagonism against black people. At the end of the day, all you have is your family. It's a stronger bond than most cultures. You keep your family close to yourself. You don't badmouth family.
VICE: Is it important for you to see someone of your skin
color in something you watch?
In anime, not so much, since it's from Japan. There aren't a lot of black people there like there are here. It would hit me if we weren't included more in a cartoon here. I don't have the same expectations.
Are there any anime where you feel like black people
There was one. It's an old anime. A prison anime. I can't remember the name. It focused on black stereotypes: gangster, criminal, not educated. It was set in New York in 1980. There were stereotypes of every race—Americans were automatically stupid and goofy compared to Japanese. They were doing it as a joke, but it came off as offensive to me. I couldn't watch one episode.
Was it worse than what was on American media at the
No. In America, it's more harmful because it's closer to home. In Japan, they just don't know.
Follow Cecilia D'Anastasio on Twitter.
Topics: anime, race, blackness, black anime fans, black otaku, anime fan, Soulja Boy, Wu Tang, RZA, Dragonball Z, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, the 90s, Japan, America, racism, racism in America, anime convention