Since the ’90s, with Toonami curating anime for TV audiences and classics like Fist of the North Star circulating on VHS, Black America has been enamored with the Japanese medium. Just as martial arts films had in the decades before, anime turned its back on the redemptive narratives American media usually peddled, captivating viewers with stories of courage and willpower in the face of existential threat and internal conflict. It was hard not to find parallels; RZA once famously declared that, “Dragon Ball Z represents the journey of the Black man in America.”
By now, two generations have been raised on the medium; their work, perspectives, interests, and character have all been shaped by the animated art form. Open Mike Eagle is a prime example. The 40-year-old Los Angeles-based rapper, comedian, and podcaster accessed a new level of vulnerability on his 2020 album, Anime, Trauma and Divorce — thanks in large part to the anime he was consuming throughout his personal trials and recording process.
Seeing characters having to deal with and push through extreme loss — when I’m writing out my feelings about what I’m going through, I’m touching on some of these themes because those are the ways in which I was helping myself to push forward.
The most intimate of his five full-length releases, the album focuses on a tumultuous two-year period where OME navigated a difficult divorce and professional failings that rearranged his priorities as an artist and a person. True to its title, it’s also packed with references to animated series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. LEVEL caught up with him to discuss his personal connection to the art form.
LEVEL: Anime, Trauma and Divorce dropped back in October, and it seems to focus on rebuilding after major personal shifts. When did you start to rebuild yourself?
Open Mike Eagle: It’s obviously such a long process. It had to be about a year and a half ago. A lot of situations came to a head in terms of how things were changing and how I had to fully accept and begin to embrace change. For me, that meant having to reevaluate my own identity. There was a time when I had dreadlocks — I had them going for 14 years. I remember when it was very much time to cut them. I used to have nightmares about my hair getting cut in my sleep.
Some weird accident happened and part of my head got shaved, and I had to cut them off. It felt like so much of my identity was wrapped up in that decision. Actually being able to go through with it was thinking that the change was about really having to ground myself and understand how silly it was to think that my identity was wrapped up in a hairstyle. In a sense, that’s a microcosm of the type of difference in thought I had to start engaging in. When I think of rebuilding myself, that’s mostly what it comes down to. It’s just changing how I think of myself, in a whole lot of ways at once.
What role did anime play in both the personal shit you were going through and in your album’s recording process?
I was watching a lot of anime and it became clear to me that I was seeking strength from strong characters — characters who I felt were going through some of the things that I was going through. There was some nutrient in feeling that relationship, getting this sense that I am not the only person who’s gone through X, Y, and Z, even though they’re fictional characters. In a lot of American entertainment, stuff is glossed over; there’s a limit to how much a character can go through. Whereas, in an anime, in the first episode, something really awful can happen to the character and the entire premise of the show is how they choose to process this horrific thing that they just went through.
I needed to watch and consume things that showed characters dealing with really, really big trauma. It wasn’t so much that what I was going through was earth-shattering. I wasn’t becoming a Tokyo Ghoul. I didn’t try to reproduce my dead mother like in Fullmetal Alchemist. The scale was different. But seeing characters having to deal with and push through extreme loss, I’m charting myself mentally, what I’m getting from these shows. When I’m writing out my feelings about what I’m going through, I’m invoking some of these characters and touching on some of these themes because those are the ways in which I was helping myself to push forward.
Regarding tremendous loss, what’s one lesson from anime that you kept revisiting?
What resonates with me a lot in anime is when a character exhibits the bravery to admit that they made a big mistake, and seeks some sort of forgiveness. That humility — and what it demonstrates about how you should act when you care about somebody — is a big thing for me. It hasn’t always been easy for me to do that, to put my own fear to the side and do the brave thing of admitting, “I fucked up.” Typically in anime, whether or not they get the forgiveness, they are shown to be a strong, brave person for having made the choice to ask for it. That’s a demonstration of love. That’s something I’ve seen in a lot of shows, and it always really affects me. When you say you love someone, that’s how you need to behave. Not [just] in a way of self-preservation.
Have you watched Hunter x Hunter?
Yeah, yeah. For sure.
What you just said reminds me of one moment where Killua is trying to save his sister from his homicidal family. She has a separate personality, another being with great power that lives within her called the Other that causes their family to hate her. Killua thinks he’s protecting her by telling her to shut the Other down, to make sure it can’t come back out. She says, “Listen, bro, this is me.”
This is who I am!
Killua slaps himself like, “I’m an idiot. I’m so sorry for thinking that I could cut you down and do exactly what our family did.” Whew!
That’s the beauty, man. That’s the beauty. There’s so much stuff that can get in the way of seeing that. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
We really don’t get that in American media.
No, we don’t. We don’t get that kind of bravery. There seems to be a limit on what those shows will put their characters through, to the scale of lessons that you can learn. They are never put into positions to risk at all, so they never lose it all. You could never see what that’s like. But that’s really what I speak to. My cautionary tales have to be high-risk.
There’s this thing that happens with you as a rapper where folks are like, “Oh, his music takes aim at masculinity.” I wanted to put it to you. How do you receive that sentiment?
When it comes to that aspect of one’s persona in their music, mine very clearly goes away from the toxic masculinity we see typically manifest in raps. But it’s not because that’s a personal mission of mine; it’s because that’s how I attempt to live my life as a person. And not that I’m some perfect angel, but I’m very aware of the effect of generational patriarchy. I try to seek out justice in all the ways: racial, sexual, and every other imbalance in terms of where institutional power lies in society.
I often find myself deeply disappointed in the state of the representations of masculinity in rap. I don’t like how often women are disrespected in rap music. I have problems with that. I have issues with the pass that a lot of rap music is given in a society that’s [become] increasingly sensitive. For some reason, rappers are allowed to say absolutely whatever. If I understood why I’d be a little less bothered by it. But I think that there might be something deeply racist about that pass. There might be something really reflective of how greater society views the Black community in that they don’t feel the need to challenge us the way they challenge themselves… Thom Yorke couldn’t say a lot of stuff that’s said in rap.
I think there’s some issues that our music is reflective of. There’s conversations that need to be had — but probably not with me. [Laughs] There are lots of people with big influence in rap music that if they chose to do things differently, it would affect a lot of things in a positive way. I’m not certain how to get those conversations to happen or what’s stopping them.
There’s a family element in Anime, Trauma and Divorce as well. Your son, Asa Eagle (Lil A$e), is featured on the album. How did the personal changes in your life affect that relationship?
It’s so unique because I’m trying to use my career outlet as an emotional outlet. I’ve traditionally kept all of that very separate on purpose because I didn’t want to really want to expose vulnerability. Me choosing to do that when I did, there were a lot of little nuanced weirdnesses, little awkwardness around that I didn’t think through completely. Having to have conversations with people in my family, like, “Hey, this is coming out.” I need people to be prepared for this because this is real life. It involves real people.
It’s not as simple as me just making that announcement and then hiding. I have to be really responsible and proactive about making sure everybody knew what was up. I had to tell people “I said this on the thing, but I didn’t say this on the thing.” I didn’t get so personal as to reveal embarrassing details about anyone else.
I don’t have personal conversations with people I work with. Part of me titling it what I did was a way to tell the world without having to have an individual conversation with each and every person, and without having to do some weird social media post. A bunch of stuff that I had hoped to avoid for myself by titling it what I did, but that was the thing that made it easier for me. It definitely made it awkward for people in my immediate family.
A song called “The Black Mirror Episode,” references an episode of the eponymous Netflix series that led to the demise of your marriage. Journalists have since asked which episode you’re referring to, but not asking the other question: “What actually happened to you and your boo!?”
[Laughs] You know what? I can’t say I necessarily did that on purpose, but you’re right. That is funny. It’s like giving myself shielding. It’s a little bit of a misdirect, and I didn’t necessarily mean it to be that way, but you’re right. When it comes to me being vulnerable, that was the thing that kept me from having to be completely vulnerable. There’s this other mystery that seems way more accessible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.