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As anime fandom has grown in the US, more and more celebrities and high profile artists have become open about their connection with the medium. Hip hop artist Open Mike Eagle has taken it a step further and made anime the central through line in his newest album. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike over a Zoom call last October about the album, the anime that it references, and the importance of taking your mental health seriously. Here’s that interview.
Content Warning: This article contains frank discussions of mental health. We have included a list of mental health resources at the end of this article. Never be afraid to ask for help. We’re all in this together.
Crunchyroll: All right, so for any of our readers on Crunchyroll News who aren’t familiar with you or your work, could you just give us a brief introduction?
Open Mike Eagle: I’m Open Mike Eagle, I’m known primarily for being a rapper in the independent sphere. Also known for being kinda comedy adjacent, had a couple shows on TV. Uh … I don’t know what else to say.
I think that’s perfect.
Okay, good! Fantastic.
I listened to Anime Trauma and Divorce. It’s really something. I wanted to ask about how it got started. Did you come up with a fully formed idea for the album first, or did it just sort of organically come together as you were writing songs?
I was originally going to make an album about the magical link between anime and Black people in America, but in the midst of that process, life kinda happened to me. A lot. So I started writing about what was going on with me and ended up using anime as a coping mechanism, in a certain sense. And while I was exploring the stuff I was going through, the album started becoming more about me and my therapy journey.
That’s super interesting because it feels so intentional all the way through, so it really does feel like a concept album. But that is an interesting point. I do think hip hop has been in conversation with anime for like, forever. I think Lupe Fiasco’s Lupin the Third line (from his verse in Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” -ed.) was the first time I had ever heard Lupin the Third mentioned outside of Adult Swim.
I knew about Lupin the Third beforehand, and I was shocked to hear that line!
What do you think it is about anime that really speaks to hip hop artists as well as marginalized people?
I think it’s a power fantasy. I think that when you’re in situations that feel dire or circumstances that feel high pressure — bleak — it can be inspiring to see characters that often come from equally negative circumstances finding the power within to overcome. And feel like that’s what people end up connecting to. ‘Cause I really don’t know, I really … I’m fascinated by the question, but I don’t quite know the answer yet.
Yeah, I mean I’m sure there’s like a degree of it’s different for each person, but I really think you’re hitting on something there with … there’s so many of these Shonen Jump protagonists who come from just broken, broken lives, but they’re able to find family and succeed. It really is empowering in a lot of ways.
I know that power fantasies are something you talk about a lot in the album, especially on “I’m a Jostar.” But so much of the album is so rooted in reality and confronting things. It’s not about escapism. What do you think the link is between like escapism and power fantasy and drawing strength in order to confront the very real things that people are going through?
I think that it’s a reflection of my coping mechanisms which are increasingly based on trying to use tools based in therapy to just be able to sit with stuff and deal with it. I come from a lifetime of dissociation, so I think there’s a place on the album where I’m sitting. I’m sitting, and I’m very uncomfortable, and I’m trying to make healthy choices, but that becomes very overwhelming for me at times, because it’s very difficult, it’s very challenging. So I find myself hungering for the sort of escape that dissociation can provide. And in a way, that is kind of a comfort to me. And I find myself at a couple of places on the record, trying to invoke that.
Totally. Very different circumstances, but I, as a trans person, also come from a lot of dissociation, and anime’s really helped me build that space between the pain and where you are right now, and it gives you enough space to exist and not feel really bad for a minute, so I totally feel that.
Yeah, exactly that. The space to just exist for a second and not feel the weight of all the things that you’re trying to push through.
I know you’ve described this album as recounting, in large part, the worst year of your life, and I imagine there must’ve been a lot of personal catharsis from writing these songs. Is there something specific or special about rap that makes it suited to addressing pain and trauma?
I do think that is inherent in the form, I think it’s underutilized that way, though. I think that the well-worn uses of it are for a kind of escapism. And in a sense, I had spent my career doing that, too, in a different way. Not in an escapism toward materialism or consumption; my escapism had always been using rap as a tool to “hold a mirror up to society” and like, you know, social commentary and that sort of thing. So I had to be reminded by my therapist that I have an outlet. A real, fully formed and developed outlet to deal with a difficult moment in my own life. That I have a vehicle. And a lot of people don’t. So she was trying to encourage me to use it, and in a sense, I found that space in hip hop to sit with it and it was new for me, too, even though I’ve always been a supporter of that kind of thing, I’ve never really done it myself.
That’s super interesting to me. I think it sometimes feels like confessional art is restricted to white, well-to-do creators. There’s this sense that the only people who are allowed the space for that are creators who are already privileged enough to afford therapists and already feel okay taking up that space publicly.
Yeah, I mean, putting out this project in the middle of a global pandemic, I’ve been challenged on that level, internally. I would think, “Is this the time to put out an album talking so directly about me and my stuff?” For me, the pressure wasn’t about feeling like I didn’t have the space — because my whole career has been about being confident that I can use a space to rap about whatever I feel like. My only boundary when it comes to the content I put out is that I never want to harm anybody else or denigrate anyone else. Beyond that, anything is permissible. It was never about feeling restricted for me, it was just about giving myself the permission to actually cross that line.
I’ve tended to not like rap music that feels too personal. When I hear someone confess something in a rap song, I have the thought, “I don’t feel like I should know about this. This sounds like something between you and this other person.” Like when songs are explicitly about someone’s dad or their ex. It feels like something I shouldn’t be able to listen in on. When I encounter that in rap music, it’s sort of off-putting to me, in that sense. But I feel like that’s just a reflection of my own level of discomfort with vulnerability. That’s something I’ve had to sit with — and I’m still sitting with — through the course of putting out this album, too.
For what it’s worth, I think there is a masterful balance between being honest and confessional and being relatable and universal. I think there are a lot of people who are going to listen to this album and see themselves through it. It seems like when creating confessional art, there are these competing needs to be honest and vulnerable but also to be meaningful to your audience.
Yeah, I totally feel that. the interesting part about that for me as a writer is that I can never allow myself to think about that too much as I’m writing. I’ve learned that you can never predict who you’re going to reach. You can never predict how people are going to interpret what you say and how it will resonate with them. You can never control it. When I’ve tried to in the past, I found it got in the way of my process because I was trying to quantify something you can never know ahead of time. I have to shut that train of thought down completely. I have to make the content that resonates with me, and it will always end up resonating with other people in ways I could never predict.
That’s such an interesting insight. I dunno, I feel like if I was creating art like this, I would get so caught up in my own head about things like, “Is this going too far? Am I not going far enough?” I think you really nailed it.
Thank you, but I experienced that too. I have a history of having that sort of internal argument over whether I’ve gone too far or not far enough. Typically, what I’ve done in the past is if I thought a song was too much, I’d take it off of my album before it came out. But since this album was serving a specific therapeutic service for me, I couldn’t do that. I had to move that line of what I felt was appropriate for public consumption. I had to pull it way closer in one direction, to the point where I felt like I was really putting everything out there. But then when I was listening to the demos, I got to one song where I realized, “Oh, this is … this isn’t even a song! This is literally just me saying that I feel bad in different ways, over and over again.” I ended up rewriting that song. I certainly had to adjust my process going into this album. I had to really think about what constituted “too much.”
Did the bones of that discarded song make it into any of the other ones that are on the album?
I’d have to go back and give it a real thorough listen. As soon as I heard it come on, I got this really bad feeling, so I just went to something else. I remember that exact day, y’know? I was glad I didn’t put it out. If you’re saying that the album has a certain kind of balance, that would’ve tipped the scale! (laughs) That song may have tipped the scales, so I’m glad it didn’t make it out into the world.
It’s really cool that things can make themselves clear like that when you’re in the revising stage.
Yeah, and what that reflects for me is my learning to trust my instincts. I’ve learned through the course of putting out multiple albums that, when I hear something back, there’s always this little voice saying, “This is really good. Keep working on it,” or, “This is not that good, try something else.” Sometimes the voice is really quiet, sometimes it’s really loud. I’ve learned to be in tune with it, even when it’s really quiet. If I ignore it, I end up with something on my album that irritates me beyond belief. At that point, the voice gets too loud about that particular thing and there’s nothing I can do about it.
That makes total sense to me. I noticed when I was looking at the album cover of Anime Trauma and Divorce there’s a little bit of kanji on the side. It says 壊れた (kowareta), or “broken.” Was that something you asked to be put on there? Because it’s perfect.
No, and I’m very afraid of messing stuff like that up. My graphic designer had to assure me that it said whatever he said it said, because that type of thing really frightens me deeply. So far I haven’t been told that it means something insane yet, so I still feel pretty okay about it.
Well, I asked a fluent Japanese speaker what it meant, and they said “Oh, it means ‘broken.’” So hopefully we’re doing good.
That is appropriate. I didn’t want it to be like, “I love doughnuts,” or something. I was just very afraid, because I have no orientation in the language at all.
I understand that fear. That’s why I’m never going to get a tattoo of anything in a language that I don’t speak. There’s just that sense of like “I don’t know …”
It happens to people, you know? People permanently get some terrible message on them.
Yeah, like I don’t want to get like “I’m a little peepee boy,” tattooed on my arm, or–
RIGHT? Cause you’re NOT a little peepee boy! Y’know?
Thank you! Neither are you!
We’re not peepee boys.
We don’t want society to give us that label. Well, I wanted to get into a few of the specific songs. I think “Headass” is really, really striking. It’s like this embrace of your own flaws, in a way. And I wanted to hear about the connection between the song’s subject matter and Shinji from Evangelion, who’s referenced.
Um, yeah man. “Headass” is about living in your head and that’s something that I have been guilty of for a lot of my life and it manifests itself in my life in different ways. I didn’t get a chance to watch Evangelion until it came out on Netflix, and he just struck me as the ultimate headass. I saw so much of myself in him and how he goes about life and yeah, I felt like he’s a great mascot for the headass.
Yeah, I’m so interested in the anime that get drawn up in this album. Because you have these things like Jojo’s, which takes place in a super heightened, crazy reality, but then you also have Evangelion which is like … that’s not escapist at all. It’s taking your dreams of being in a robot and turning them into like horrible realistic psychological trauma nightmare.
And I would say that the trauma in his life caused his own version of escapism and he kinda paints the world we see through that lens. So I think in some way I think that those are like, Evangelion on one side, Jojo’s on the other side, those are kinda the two different side of the escapist coin.
Man, I never would’ve thought of that connection. But yeah, I think Evangelion’s just sort of the perfect thing to bring up in an album about so much pain and trauma.
Absolutely. Ultimate trauma anime.
Seriously. It’s super interesting to me, too, that you brought up Shinji as someone you could relate to. I know that back in the ’90s when it first came overseas and people were watching it on VHS tapes, there were all these guys who were like, “The show would be perfect if Shinji wasn’t in it.”
[laughs] That is hilarious. I mean, well to me, I would say that’s a bunch of people who don’t get it. But also, it’s art, so people can interpret it however they see fit.
Well, I think more than a fair few of them probably saw a little bit too much of themselves in Shinji to be comfortable with. Cause I don’t know, I think Shinji’s relatable to everyone.
I do, too! I mean, to me the show is Shinji. But I was one of the people who was perfectly satisfied with the end of the original show and didn’t need the movie, because to me what that end showed was like, “Oh, Shinji’s unprocessed trauma is pretty much creating this entire world. This is how he sees things, this is how he frames everything, because of all the stuff he’s been through that he hasn’t dealt with.” So when he starts to deal with it, then suddenly we can be transported into a world where he sees these relationships in a more normal way, a more even-handed way. And to me, that’s the key to the show, so I didn’t need resolution of the fighting robots, I didn’t need that, cause to me the resolution was Shinji learning to see the world differently.
That’s exactly what it was. And I think that going back to the song, Shinji’s so perfect to bring up here because, I mean it’s that old therapy adage that you can’t start to fix all of your problems until you can love yourself, or at least be okay with yourself. And when you’re in a really dark place or you have a lot of unprocessed stuff, feeling like you need to love myself can feel like you’re being headass. But you can’t stop being headass until you learn to love yourself.
Yeah, it’s rough. I mean, you can be, when you live in your head there’s a lot of reasons not to stop doing that. There’s a lot of fear and trepidation in allowing your consciousness to inhabit your entire body. It’s easier to feel protected by staying up here and overthinking everything and not doing anything and analysis paralysis and that sort of thing.
To quote Shinji: “I wanna run away.”
Yep. ‘Cause it’s easy to do that, y’know?
So I have to talk about “Everything Ends Last Year.” It was so, so sad, but so beautiful. And it comes at sort of like the midpoint of the album and it feels like this nexus point that everything else circles around.
Sure, 100 percent.
There’s this line you say, and everyone’s been writing about it, “it’s October and I’m tired,” and I saw that you wrote that literally a YEAR ago, in 2019. And it just feels like the gravity of that line was so real in 2019 that it just echoed into this year and it’s more relevant than ever.
I mean yeah. If I thought I was tired last year, you know what I’m saying [chuckles]. I couldn’t’ve imagined the world we’d be in, a year later. Where I wrote that line, it’s very personal to me, and how I was feeling, and we’ve now entered a world where that is the most relatable and accessible line probably on the entire project.
Definitely. “Everything Ends Last Year” is so sparse compared to everything else, and I think there’s a lot that people can infer from that. But I wanted to hear from you about the choice to make that a way more low key, way more empty-sounding track.
I think for me, I don’t think about it as empty, I think about it as playing with emptiness and fullness. Because I think that it keeps starting and stopping in different ways, and to me, that’s a reflection of the content of the song. Like each verse is about things that are starting and developing, and then they kinda end suddenly, and the toll that that’s taking on me, psychologically, all these stops and starts. And so each time the arrangement kinda gets differently lush, one time its drums, another time it’s a big horn arrangement, I think there’s a bass that comes in at one point, but every time it completely ends and then starts over again.
For sure. So is it really important for you for the production, like the form of the song, to match what the content is, lyrically?
To me, that’s when things are at their strongest, but y’know you’re not always able to create that synergy. But when it’s available I love to make something that works both of those ways.
Yeah, I hadn’t considered the start and stop nature of the song, but that really does reflect the lyrics.
So, “I’m a Jostar” f–king rules. It is so celebratory and cool and like you start the song by saying … I’m trying to remember the line, it was something like “don’t take this away from me.” And then it becomes this like, you are a part of this lineage of hyper-powerful dudes, and I wanted to hear like what about the mythology of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, why did you want to choose that one for this song?
I think the mechanism in Jojo’s that each chapter has a different protagonist, that’s so different from shonen anime where it’s usually about one character getting stronger over time. And it took me a lot of getting used to when that second chapter started. I was like, “Wait, what? Now we have Joseph, who’s this little rude guy? I don’t know if I like him, I really liked Jonathan.” It threw me for a loop at first. But then over the course of the chapters of following him I was like, “Oh, what this gives me, psychologically, is the room to genuinely put myself in the show as a protagonist. Let’s say Chapter 39. THAT could be me.” you know what I’m saying? Like I could be in the story, the show can be about me in a way that you couldn’t say that about a Dragon Ball or a Bleach or a Demon Slayer, cause those are about following one character, where this is about — it’s kinda loosely about a family, but really it’s about just whatever personality type Araki wants us to root for in that season.
That is so cool. There really is this huge amount of possibility in the world of Jojo’s, it can literally just be about anyone. I also saw that you called it a “prayer song” on Twitter, and that is a pretty amazing term.
Yeah, I have a category of songs on my catalogue that are like invocations, and that’s one. It’s just trying to invite a certain sense of empowerment. And I’ve done that song on stage a few times, and it just feels like a powerful … like a power stance to take while I’m performing. So yeah, that’s like one of my incantations to try and invite power. And it’s not like a literal thing so much as an energetic thing.
For sure, yeah. I think there’s something really powerful about, in this song, in particular, aligning yourself with this lineage of amazing, strong, powerful, beautiful people. And yeah like, you do belong there. Just as much as everyone else.
Im a Joestar can sound like a shallow song but it really comes from a deep need to find an external source of strength. its one of my prayer songs like ‘celebrity reduction’ or ‘neighborhood protection’
produced by @Thefrankleone
— Open Mike Eagle (@Mike_Eagle) October 18, 2020
I know talking candidly about mental health is really tough, and you tackled that stuff super directly here. During a really tough time in my life, I listened to your episode of The Hilarious World of Depression, actually.
Ah, John Moe.
Yeah, that podcast has gotten me through a lot. But I wanted to ask how important is it for you to talk really openly about mental health stuff and what importance do you think it has?
I think it’s important to talk about … to talk about the fact that, from my opinion, this is a fact that it’s almost impossible to deal with mental health challenges on your own. I feel like a lot of us do self-soothing, self-medication, all types of potentially harmful dissociation, compartmentalization, and I’m guilty of all of those things. And those are the things that stuff bad feelings temporarily, but they don’t address core issues of anything. And I feel like that’s a lot of us trying to deal with pain but without any real tools for it. And so I think the important thing to talk about is that if one feels like they’re in a bad spot, that it’s like really, really, really important to try to get some assistance. And of course, that can be restrictive based on income, based on access to resources, based on all sorts of very real stuff, but sometimes that can be just reaching out to a friend, it could be a school counselor, it could be a relative if there’s a safe relationship there, just encouraging people not to attempt to always try to go it alone. That, to me, is the important part to say out loud. Everything else is personal and private, but that part, it’s one of the closest things to a universal fact that I can really stand on. That it’s incredibly difficult to try to go it alone.
Yeah. Thank you for saying that, I think it’s really important to get that message out to people, especially right now. So I only have like one more thing to ask — if you had one thing to say to black anime fans, marginalized anime fans, any anime fans who feel like they don’t belong, what would it be?
Man, f–k what they think. That’s what I’d say. ‘Cause I guarantee whatever it is that you are connecting with in the work, in the art, the creators want you to have that. They put it out there for everybody, not just a certain kind of person. So if it’s doing something for you, embrace it, hold on to it, claim it, and don’t let nobody tell you you can’t have it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, here is a list of resources that may help:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text “HELLO” to 741741
The Health Resources and Services Administration may be able to connect you to mental health resources.
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