Interview: Grammy Award-Winning Artist James Fauntleroy on Anime, Music, and Black Culture

Songwriter and producer James Fauntleroy is, indisputably, one of the most impressive people in the music industry. His work has spanned multiple genres from R&B, to pop, to hip-hop. Fauntleroy has written so many hits that it’s almost certain you’ve heard several of them; he’s worked with artists like Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, Terrace Martin, and so many more. But, his appreciation for art, composition, and the many moving parts of individual creativity isn’t limited to music: he’s also a massive anime fan.

Ahead of the release of his debut solo album The Warmest Winter Ever, which collates fan favorites from Soundcloud releases Warmest Winter Ever (2014) and Warmest Winter Ever II (2016), we got the chance to speak with him about his solo career, how anime has been a part of his life, and the music industry. Without question, this was one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Growing Up With Anime

To start, I wanted to get a sense of how Fauntleroy got into anime in the first place. I asked him about the first anime he watched, how he got more into the space, and when it all started.

“I started watching anime in elementary school, and I was born in 1984. So that was a long, long, long time ago for a lot of people that I’m sure are gonna be reading this. But basically, it was two things, because obviously everybody, or especially anybody around my age, your introduction is usually Dragon Ball. But my first thing—which was so funny, because when I got this tape, I didn’t realize that anime was not always for kids. And neither did my mom, obviously, for letting me get it. But the first anime I watched was Bubblegum Crisis.”

“The s—t had these giant exploding d—do bombs in it and s—t, and I was just like…it just blew my mind. And so the next thing that happened was I went to a video store […] and they had a Shonen Jump in there when I was in elementary school. And so I got a Shonen Jump and it had Yu Yu Hakusho in it. That was my first time really, really feeling connected to the imagery was when I was just looking at this one Shonen Jump, particularly Yu Yu Hakusho, and I didn’t even watch the show until I was an adult. So it was two decades later by the time I actually watched it,—I f—king love it, oh my God.”

“After that, in middle school, one of my friends, he was a first-generation American. His parents grew up in Japan and Dragon Ball was kind of starting to just pop off out here. And so I was talking to him about it and he was like, ‘man, my mom watched that s—t when she was a kid.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t realize how old it was. And it was so old to him that he just didn’t care about it and wasn’t f—king with it. So he gave me an entire encyclopedia of Dragon Ball. Hardcover, schematics and character design and drawings, and all this. And that was in the sixth grade, so that was ’96.

And that took me over the top when he gave me all of them books. Cause then I could really see. That was my first level of exposure into the depths of the world building in anime, which I feel like ended up being extremely important to me later in life. Cause that’s my job now; […] to an extent [my job] is building worlds.”

Anime and Music

Given the wide variety of writing, singing, and producing credits that James Fauntleroy has racked up over the years, I was curious to see whether or not the anime and manga he slowly got more exposed to had an effect on his music. He explained to me that anime, like the way he conceptualizes music, makes use of unique themes and approaches for different circumstances, even within the same project. To him, anime excels at this in ways that a lot of American animation, typically relegated to cartoons, hasn’t always been able to.

“Anime […], like films, will have themes for different circumstances. It’ll be a theme for a character, a theme for a situation that they can revisit and rehash throughout the story. Anime, I think as far as I can tell right now, is the only short-form medium that uses that film tactic of assigning different circumstances to different pieces of music. So again, that’s another thing that has an impact on how I’m thinking. […] People are always like, ‘How are you coming up with this s—t?’ And I’ll be like, ‘anime, bro, anime and movies’. I think that the whole way they [anime staff] think about music is super in line with how I think about it because it’s cinematic because they’re not thinking about it in terms of just a kid audience. They’re trying to hold the attention of someone who has a job and a complex life. They’re making a whole score for each kind of scene.”

Naturally, I wanted to know if he felt like the anime he’s watched with these qualities have affected his own work.

“It definitely has a big impact on my music conceptually and in terms of the attention to detail, dynamics, and trying to get a certain emotional response from the listener.”

This type of influence to musical style is unique — nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear references to anime in music, but they’re often fairly cursory. Someone may drop a few lines referencing Goku in rap lyrics, or use an anime character to illustrate a color (think Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter”). This type of influence, as well as the blend of elements from Black and East Asian cultures, is by no means new. Rap groups in the 80s and 90s especially (Wu-Tang Clan comes to mind) were affected by the cultural crossovers between Black artforms and martial arts films. A rise in Black Power-oriented nationalism, blaxploitation films, and cooperative energy between Black Americans and the broader international world lined up perfectly with action-oriented films featuring rare non-white leads. Among everything considered “nerdy,” content from (usually East) Asia was always received differently by the Black community. Fauntleroy and I spoke quite a bit about this crossover.

“I feel like even though anime kind of still has the flair of a nerd-specific niche—I’m from the hood, okay? So when I was getting my Shonen Jump, I was also learning how to fight, you know what I mean? Like those things were happening at the same time. I was also exposed to gangs and gang violence and guns and all this other stuff. And why I brought that up is because so many of my gangster friends love anime, dude. I think that that generation, these guys now [current up-and-coming rappers] are like the little brothers and the children of people my age. And so it’s just a way more accepted thing. There’s this hilarious video. I’m sure you’ve seen it—dudes that roll up on a dude and they’re like, ‘Hey, what’s up, what show you watch?’ That video captured the idea of what’s going on so perfectly because the stigma of who’s into anime is just not true. And in the Black community specifically, we have just been loving that s—t.”

RDCworld1 on YouTube

“And I think that now, while it’s cool, there’s still a lot of room for the, I’ll call it the mainstream Black community to get into going past just shonen stuff or just past the surface things. So that’s what I’m doing now is getting my ghetto homies and people to go a little bit deeper. And then not just that, like not just people in the hood or Black people, but everybody I talk to when I’m talking to them about anime, I’m like, ‘yo, there’s literally something for you.’ Like whoever you are, there’s not only something for you, there’s 10 of them and something that you didn’t know you were gonna like and 10 versions combining what you like with some other s—t. […] It’s always been such a robust genre of entertainment that really opened my mind even further and led me to dive in so much deeper into the other things that exist in anime that now I have even more things. I’m trying to expose different people when I’m having conversations. So I’ve gotten quite a few people hooked on anime at this point.”

“I think really what that is is a testament to a broader story that I’ve never heard anybody talk about this about the love affair between Black and Asian culture, period. Not only how much we love their culture but how much they love our culture. I mean, obviously, everybody loves everything Black people are doing, so much that they have a problem with it sometimes. […] If you watch anime as a musician, you can hear [the influence]. Just listening to Japanese jazz or city pop or whatever. But you can really hear that they are really listening to what we’ve been doing, really understanding it.”

“We have some kind of understanding that maybe neither one of us can explain, but it’s always been this back and forth between what they’re doing and what we’re doing. We just see each other, you know?”

Fauntleroy explained that he’s even gone so far as to weave anime storylines into his music, basically creating a music adaptation of an entire anime project that exists in his mind.

“I have music projects that are so—there’s one I have that’s somewhat popular because I’m getting hit about it every day. It’s this band I have with No ID called Cocaine 80’s. No one knows that that whole thing is an anime to me. Not only is it anime, if people could see the anime, if they knew the story, the songs actually go into the story. There are character references, and there’s all this s—t, but anime is super expensive and hard to do from America. So that’s why it never happened. I’m talking about the plot of the story in those songs and people don’t even know. And there ain’t really nowhere for them to know until the s—t comes up. It’s literally a whole fully developed world, characters, storyline, and three seasons worth, so much so that I was including plot points in the songs, and it just never happened.

As far as anime he’s watching recently, a few strong picks came to mind.

“I’ve been watching, you heard of The Ancient Magus’ Bride? Oh my God, dude, I am loving that. […] Jujutsu Kaisen I’m watching, Ranking of Kings I’m still [watching]. I’m caught up on One Piece, which feels like I graduated from a university or something. […] Oh, and I’m watching the vending machine [Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon]. And I mean, I love that.”

Looking Forward to the Warmest Winter Ever

Lastly, I wanted to ask James Fauntleroy about his upcoming debut solo album, The Warmest Winter Ever. It’s rare if not unheard of for an artist’s debut solo album to be a holiday one, but it seemed like the people around Fauntleroy weren’t too surprised at the move.

“I think the people around me are used to me doing crazy. Well, I won’t say crazy, but just non-sequitur things in general […] I don’t think anyone was surprised that I wanted to do something so unorthodox cause that’s kind of what I’m looking for in terms of what’s going to keep me motivated to continue to do this hard a—s job.”

The album contains a mixture of older songs and newer ones. In total there are 25 tracks, both because Christmas is on the 25th and to make the album long enough to play long sessions between the sheets. Much of Fauntleroy’s music over the years has blended the best parts of multiple genres until the songs surpassed the genre altogether. With this album, the goal is to bring together all different kinds of musical inspirations and create a project that can be enjoyed and used by people.

“For me, it’s about the use. You know, like I want this to be used. You feel me? When I was a kid, the Christmas music was Luther Vandross. They cut on the Luther Christmas. And it had a purpose. […] What I really want is for it to be of use to people. I want people to enjoy it. I mean, honestly, people have been hitting me for nine years telling me that they play this s—t [the existing songs from other projects] throughout the year. So I love that it also has a use beyond the holidays. But specifically, with this project and any project I’m doing, I really want it to be of service to people more than anything. I just want people to think about it as something that adds value to their lives and makes a hard human life a little less difficult.”

You can check out an animated visualizer for one of Fauntleroy’s favorite songs on The Warmest Winter Ever, “Sleigh,” below:

We’d like to thank James Fauntleroy for speaking with us about both anime and his upcoming album. It’s rare to have the opportunity for conversations where anime and music cross over so heavily; this is one we’ll never forget.

Featured Image: Gizelle Hernandez
YUYU HAKUSHO © Yoshihiro Togashi

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