Whether you love it or hate it, anime has become firmly entrenched in our cultural mind. As well as being the inspiration for much of Western animation’s own action sequences (à la Avatar: The Last Airbender, Transformersand scooby-doo), more obvious anime references appear regularly in mainstream media. Big celebrities like Michael B. Jordan, Megan Fox, Keanu Reeves, and Ariana Grande have all declared their love for anime in one form or another, but there’s one specific category of fan that I’ve started noticing lately. : the rappers.
Megan Thee Stallion did naruto references in her song “Girls In The Hood” and Doja Cat’s “Like That” music video draw heavily on transformation sequences in Sailor Moon (and we haven’t even started talking about her e-girl aesthetic). But it’s not just them: According to a quick Google search, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, RZA, Pharrell and Lil Uzi Vert have all turned out to be anime fans, watching classics like Akira, cowboy be bop, One Piece, Narutoand Dragon Ball Z. But for someone who grew up laughing at watching anime, I was very surprised at how boldly our culture’s most popular icons have shown their love of anime. Part of my love for anime stems from my desire to be portrayed as an Asian American. For me, anime was cartoon that existed in a world centered around Asian culture. It was, in a way, one of the earliest forms of screen representation that I felt I could somehow resonate with. So why did the anime resonate with rapists and how did they find it?
The answer was much simpler than I thought. “The 1990s saw a transnational boom in the global circulation and popularity of animesays William H. Bridges IV, associate professor of Japanese at the University of Rochester. “During this period, American distributors and broadcasters literally channeled anime in American homes. (Think here, for example, of Cartoon Network’s Toonami.) After the boom of the 1990s, the worldwide and critical success of Studio Ghibli pushed anime deeper into American cultural conversations. Rappers who came of age during this period grew up with anime and its aesthetics as a common feature of their artistic diet.
It makes a lot of sense. My childhood anime experience was introduced to Ghibli movies and Sailor Moon VHS tapes by my sister, before expanding to subtitled Inuyasha episodes uploaded to LimeWire, then Dragon Ball Z episodes aired on Toonami and occasionally cowboy be bop episode on Adult Swim. The availability of anime has also increased rapidly with the invention of YouTube and other streaming services. Entire anime episodes could be posted in 4-part segments on YouTube, and websites like CrunchyRoll had some of the fastest captioning crews, reducing the time between raw Japanese show release. and when English-speaking audiences could actually watch the episode. The anime had a lot more availability than I originally anticipated, but what resonated with the rappers? According to Bridges, it is a combination of art, politics and social injustice.
At its core, anime is just another medium of artistic storytelling, like painting or music: the deepest stories have a certain universality to them and usually make some sort of commentary on what’s wrong with the world and how it should be instead. But something unique about anime as a storytelling medium is its approach. “Dating back as far as Tezuka Osamu’s anime, anime has long aspired to be ‘mukokuseki’ (‘nationless’) or to tell cosmopolitan stories with endless entry points for a vast array of audiences,” says Bridges. “In light of this history, contemporary anime tends to tell stories in a big way and in a way that resonates with viewers around the world.
But rappers don’t just resonate with all the good stories with universality that come their way. Many of them tend to quote Dragon Ball, Naruto, A playand my hero academia like their favorites: classic and popular shonen fighting anime. “Keep in mind that the generation of rappers who came of age with anime also came of age in a time when austerity politics, the unraveling of social safety nets, and disinvestment in the public good have collided with the legacy and enduring realities of racial injustice,” says Bridges. “For these rappers, anime like Akira, Dragon Ball Z, narutoand Sailor Moon not only ask the question of WEB DuBois — how does it feel to be a problem? – they also answer this question with extraordinary displays of power, bravado, courage and tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable social antagonism.
In short, underdog stories of rising from humble origins to encounter greatness. But not just elevating to achieve greatness – they talk about how one must evolve to achieve greatness with your nakama (your family found). In naruto, Naruto can’t just learn to hit harder to solve the problems in his story, he must understand the problems within the systems of the shinobi village to understand why his enemies act the way they do. But he can’t do it alone. In Sailor Moon, Usagi can’t just cry and complain until someone saves her, she has to face her fears and take responsibility for being the moon princess. But she can’t do it alone.
When contextualized into our larger story, it’s easy to see how stories about a young, frightened protagonist must grow up to rise could resonate with African Americans living in a system and society stacked against them, which feel alone and as if the world is just waiting for another reason to bring them down. In truth, it’s not necessarily that anime specifically resonates with rappers, but that rappers have the microphone to talk about anime and can help share their experience by mentioning what helps inspire their work.
“There’s an incredible amount of interaction between hip hop and anime,” says Bridges. “There are anime inspired by hip hop (like Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai). There’s anime-inspired hip hop (like Lupe Fiasco’s) Tetsuo and youth and Kanye West’s video for “Stronger”). And there is the confluence of anime and hip hop aesthetics in art media beyond Japanese anime and hip hop (like The Boondocks and the paintings of Iona Rozeal Brown). And, since 2016, there’s D’Art Shtaijio, the first American anime studio in Japan and the first black-owned anime studio (founded by twin brothers Artthell and Darnell Isom and Henry Thurlow.)” rap and anime have been intimate bedfellows, with each media influencing the other, and that certainly doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. And frankly, knowing Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat? They’re both sure to come out of music videos full of Jojo references or demon slayer inspired in 2022, and I for one can’t wait to see what comes out next.