Black in Tokyo is a new short documentary by Nigerian-American artist Amarachi Nwosu. It takes viewers on an expedition to Japan, where we are led by five individuals, including rapper Antarius Reynolds and black hair salon owner Lee Marshal. They each show us around their corners of Tokyo and talk about their experience of living in a largely racially homogenous country. The film is part of Melanin Unscripted, a platform Nwosu founded to expand the narratives of the global black experience.
Over email, I chatted with Nwosu on the inspiration behind Black in Tokyo, and the importance of being unapologetically yourself — no matter where you are in the world.
Towards the end of the film, Will, one of the individuals featured, touches on black representation and how “as black people, we need to do a better job of painting the picture for ourselves.” How did representation play a role in the creation of Black in Tokyo?
I moved to Tokyo because I was in love with Japanese art, culture, and design at a young age. I grew up listening to Nujabes, watching anime, wearing Bape, and learning from OGs like Pharrell and Kanye about their inspirations from Japanese culture. As a Nigerian-American woman with an interest in music, culture, and streetwear, my identity in Japan was very unique and something not many Japanese people had ever been exposed to. It was then that I realized that a lot of people there had a narrow view of what it meant to be a black woman because of the limited representation that Japanese people see about women of color.
When Will said that statement in the film, it held a lot of weight because it was one of the primary reasons why I created the project in the first place. The film was an opportunity to bring a diverse team together and promote more people to travel and be apart of telling their own story rather than waiting for the media to create that story for them.
Something that everyone in the film mentioned was how the Japanese genuinely respect and educate themselves about black culture rather than carelessly appropriating it. Why do you think this is so, especially when we compare it to a country like the U.S., in which even non-black people of color still tend to appropriate rather than appreciate black culture?
In Tokyo, they have their own take on youth subcultures that are very vivid in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, where most young people hang out. When I first arrived [in Tokyo], it was at a club in Shibuya called Harlem that I realized just how powerful music and film was in shaping narratives abroad. I saw young hip-hop dancers doing routines at parties, playing both classic funk jams and hip-hop jams that showed me the level of understanding they had for hip-hop and the genres that shaped it. These were things I rarely saw in America amongst my generation, but in Japan there was a unique energy that felt reminiscent of a Spike Lee film. That was the last thing I expected to experience out there, and it changed my view on globalization and “appropriation.”
Whether it's in the way people dress, dance or talk in context to America, African-American culture [in Tokyo] holds influence, especially in entertainment spaces. In Japan, people give credit where it’s due and even educate themselves on the classics, whereas in America people steal culture for views and clout. [In America] it's more rare to see people who do their research and study the classics for the purpose of progressing or shaping the culture — instead people would rather benefit from the culture than elevate it.
What messages do you hope Black in Tokyo will get across to its audience?
Be yourself, take risks, and be open to things outside of your comfort zone. You don't have to follow a wave that someone else has created; you can create your own and be able to shape history. I want people to be able to relate across all borders and realize through Melanin Unscripted and Black in Tokyo that they too can create visual content that can inspire and impact people. You may not be able to directly change the world, but you can inspire and educate the mind that will. If you truly want to create change in the world, be the change you seek.