Black anime fandom is an ever-growing part of the anime community. With the increase in popularity of Black content creators and Megan Thee Stallion’s collab with Crunchyroll, that fandom is making room for itself in the industry’s spotlight faster than ever. However, for a lot of Black anime fans, myself included, the gatekeeping walls only slowly began coming down only a few years ago.
Growing up in my hometown as a person of color, especially in the early 2000s, was not easy. It was a predominantly white neighborhood with a small-Latinx community, but in a town of over 50,000 I could think of five Black families at most – including my own mixed-race household. Racism was something experienced early in my life and left an impact where I felt uncomfortable in my skin. Because of this, I found an escape in Toonami’s afterschool programming. For any 90s and 00s babies, this should invoke memories of Dragonball and Yu Yu Hakusho tournament arcs or Sailor Moon’s bopping soundtrack and stunning visuals.
Shows like Sailor Moon and Naruto made me feel safe because they were an escape from my troubles and placed me in a world where anything was possible if I believed hard enough. Shows like Rurouni Kenshin and Dragonball Z made me feel strong because even when the odds were stacked against Kenshin and Goku, they would persevere and save those in need. In particular, Yu Yu Hakusho was an important show for me because the protagonists, Yusuke Urameshi and Kazuma Kuwabara, were people who were judged, mislabeled, and misunderstood by society. But at their cores, they always cared and did right by others (and kicked ass doing it). I wanted to be strong and do the right thing like Yusuke; I wanted to be caring and stand up for others like Kuwabara. Even today I find myself saying “what would Yusuke do?” when I am stuck in a jam.
However, as I grew older in the mid-2000s and started being more vocal about my love for the genre, I had trouble finding ways to read up on or see new shows. As this was around the time social media was rising (Facebook was released in 2004), I never knew of any anime personalities or content creators to watch other than Steve Blum as TOM from Toonami. Therefore my only context for anime being accepted was with my friends, and to most of them, the idea of a black kid liking Japanese things was more foreign than anime itself. It did not help matters that when I tried to tell my family about anime it was dismissed as something “only children watch.”
A huge shift in perspective came as hip-hop began embracing the anime genre. I first took notice when watching Afro Samurai, and realized that the RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan produced its OST in 2007. Kanye West’s nods to Akira in his video for “Stronger” in 2009 were clear signs that anime and hip-hop were becoming intertwined. These years were pivotal. 2007 through 2009 were around the time I was leaving middle school and entering high school, and those informative years being influenced by two idols in hip-hop made me begin to feel pride in being Black and loving anime.
That shift in perspective encouraged Black artists to publicly embrace the genre. Without them, the social media revolution of Black anime content creators happening now, may not have happened. Creators such as King Vader and his popular “Hood Naruto” videos may have fallen on more deaf ears without hip hop paving the way. It has even reached the mainstream of anime media, as the recent Virtual Crunchy Expo hosted a Black Girl Magic panel highlighting the amazing work Black women are doing in the industry today. Even over the years from 2007 once hip-hop embraced anime culture, I still struggled with imposter syndrome. I had trouble feeling as though I belonged. Without those Black content creators and companies such as Crunchyroll creating safe spaces for fans, I am not sure if I would have had the courage to publicly embrace the genre as well.
Growing up as a Black anime fan in the 00s was hard. It was difficult to tell if there was room at the anime table for someone who looked like me. But, it was clear that like me, many other people of color felt the same way. Without hip-hop, Toonami, and Adult Swim, the Black anime culture would not be a growing force that it is today. And because of those three institutions, I could not be happier. Going forward, my hope Black anime fandom continues to make room for itself in the space and is celebrated for being a large cultural imprint on anime fandom in the United States. With Black anime content being created, such as Cannon Busters, and Arthell-and-Darnell Isom’s studio, D’ART Shtajio, the future is in good hands.