When Chicago-born Dominique Barrett, aka King Vader, sat in front of a Dragon Ball Z animation at the age of seven, he was understandably confused. “It was like a bunch of muscle-bound people screaming with this seven foot nine guy with spiky hair and big arms just hitting on people.”
His feelings weren’t wrong.
Anime isn’t the most welcoming genre. By western norms, it’s often so out-there and risky that it feels comparatively fresh in ways that fans adore.
Since 2014, the 22-year-old former Vine star Barrett has embraced that appeal by creating parody music videos of his own that place characters like Naruto and Rick Grimes in dance-off scenarios to songs such as Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” or the average theme song remix. And as of now, he’s within view of production companies like Funimation, who regularly look out for his work and make parody requests of their own. In terms of numbers, his channel amounts to 86 million views and counting; all refreshingly amassed from his focus on positivity.
In my personal celebration of POC doing positive shit, I reached out to the young creative known as King Vader to talk about his goals, motivations and why he can’t help but rock that giant smile in every video.
VICE: Normally when people think of their favourite anime, they’re not imagining Naruto doing the ‘Milly Rock.’ How did this enter your head?
Dominique Barrett: The thing is, I’m a fan of music in general. Who isn’t? And for most people, when they hear a tune, they want to move and do a number because music has that effect. You want to move. And then there’s anime which I’m a huge fan of. Like a lot of people my age, I grew up on the stuff. So once I started to delve into video creation, those two things blended, and I naturally wanted to create worlds where I could mix a great tune with the pop culture that I love, and see how far I could push it. That of course involved doing some really dope things as most people have seen and changing what people normally see in their favourite characters.
So how does a typical idea go down, let’s go with my favourite, your million plus viewed “Hood Cowboy Bebop” vid.
Man, with a video like that…it’s actually kinda crazy, because I was contacted by a company called dumbgood who works alongside the anime brand, Cowboy BeBop. And they basically hit me up. And they’re like, you know, we want to collaborate with you and make a hood styled version of Cowboy Bebop. Now at the time, I’d seen images, but I never actually sat down and viewed the whole thing. So like it normally happens, I did my research and started watching. Eventually, I’m noticing how smooth he is, and it wasn’t long before I got the jist of his style. He’s this badass bounty hunter who’s swaggy and smooth. From there, it was down to the beat. And in these cases I work with a producer who can take the a musical theme and remix it. So a couple weeks later, I had my tune. From there, it’s about listening to the beat over and over until I can envision the whole thing. I see it all in my head.
Was there a particular show/anime that got you hooked to the culture? Because I feel like it’s only in the last few years when anime started to catch urban eyes.
Yeah, that’s true. For me, the first anime I ever watched was when my big brother forced me to check out the Dragonball Z: Broly movie, and I remember being so confused about what was going on. It was like a bunch of muscle bound people screaming with this seven foot nine guy with spiky hair and big arms just hitting on people. I had no idea what was happening. And that’s just a younger me seeing it and not being able to translate what’s happening at the time. When I saw Naruto though, to this day it probably stands as one of my favourite animations because of all the uplifting messages and lessons that taught me about never giving up and believing in myself. I absolutely love that show.
When did you start to see this fun around film-making, anime and music as a viable career choice?
It definitely started with a skit I did on Vine called, When They Ask If You Have Any Skills at a Job Interview , went viral. This was a day when I was idly on instagram, and every single meme page posted my video and tagged me. It was so overwhelming because it felt like the entire world was watching me. It was amazing and it’s not something that just happens to anybody. Then I see my viral video get posted on Comedy Central, Tosh.0, the news, and it became one of those moments when I’m like yeah, this is pretty legit. This is the kid in me messing around with a dream of being on TV one day. Maybe as an extra, or acting in the background, but for my own work to be on Television? I had no doubts at that point.
And it seems like fun, but it can’t all fun. What do folks normally misunderstand about what YouTubers like yourself do?
I feel like people don’t understand the process. They can’t find a way to appreciate the process that’s placed in every video YouTubers do. To them, it’s just another video that’s uploaded. They don’t get to see the long hours upon hours of editing. They don’t see the things that can happen during a shoot, or those moments when the cops pull up. There’s so much stuff that can occur that viewers will never know about. For them, it’s a finished project that they can throw their hate comment on and say something negative without knowing the sweat of providing a piece of entertainment for them.
A lot of of times when creatives commit to this career choice, especially on YouTube, there’s a lot of discouragement. How do you personally deal with it?
Honestly, there’s always going to be that negative comment. There’s always going to be people that will tell you, you should do this more, or that. There’s always going to be people going out of their way to hate on what you’re trying to accomplish. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t please everyone. It comes down to if I’m happy with what I’m doing. That feeling lasts longer than the love or hate on both sides. If I love what I do, people will see that and love it along with me. I can’t focus on the negative people, I gotta focus on the people pushing me forward.
You also said publicly that you don’t want people telling you that you can’t fly. What do you mean by that?
I don’t like realists. And I mean that as people who can’t see past their own reality. It’s like, just because it hasn’t happened to them, they’d love to tell you that it can’t happen for you, or to people you know. They don’t like when folks have dreams that go beyond what they can see for themselves. I instead love people who shoot for the stars. I love people who want to do things that are impossible. If I want to fly, I’m going to fly and that’s just that. But a realist is going to tell me that it’s impossible. When the Wright brothers built that plane, I’m pretty damn sure they were being told that it would never work. People can’t fly, and if they gave into those words, it never would have happened. They had a self-belief and confidence that was strong enough to block out everything else. And that goal became a reality in the way that anything is possible
And it’s on your face. You always got this smile in every one of your videos. What’s the deal with that?
It can be viewed in so many different ways and so many different fashions even though it’s really just smile. Honestly, it’s just how I feel. It’s my dominant emotion. I can’t stop smiling. On another end, I believe that it inspires other people to smile more. It a smile can be infectious like that. It’s actually weird, because I was watching the anime with the constantly smiling hero, My Hero Academia, and there’s this quote where the main character (All Might) says the strongest people always have a smile on their face. I feel like that quote in itself can go really deep. That even though things are tough and can be really hard, just standing up and having a smile against the world can inspire others to do the same. It’s something that just stuck with me.
But a lot of being a YouTuber is about number chasing. What kind of pressures come with that?
I always deal with those pressure like a lot of YouTubers will tell you. A lot of my own pressure is self-made. I want to be the greatest director one day and that means having to learn new things on a constant. It also means having to master different genres and push myself out of my own element. Every YouTuber deals with this mostly, and in my case it starts with what I call “Vader Season” where I drop a number of videos in a single time frame. It’s a project I started a while back that resembles when an artist drops an album, which acts like an anticipation to the next big project. So going back to the pressure question, most of that is about me wanting to be better while still hitting my followers with those good jokes and bare special effects that will only involve more people, and more action as time goes on.
Is this all a viable income for a normal person?
It never starts out that way and at times it never stays that way, so if you’re getting into the YouTube game, do it because you love it. The rewards will come and by the time you realize it, it’ll be like, oh snap, I’m making a cheque. At first it’s about the love but then some come into it and try to stay for the reward and that’s what gets them so frustrated, desperate and eventually it an make them give up. People are getting paid hundreds upon thousands of dollars a month doing this. Just don’t make that the main reason.
So what’s the goal now?
Honestly…I want to be the greatest director of my generation. I know that’s a lot, but that’s something that I’m setting out to do, and it’s something that I’m going to accomplish. I want to also act, and be one of those directors who can perform in his own projects. Yes, it’s rare, but I want to be one of the few that can actually do it.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.