Everywhere you turn there is an animated show that offers a beautiful look into the life of Black experiences. Two personal favorites of this writer are Black Dynamite and Class of 3000. But whether you’re a Netflix binge-watching stan or a premium subscriber to CrunchyRoll, the pandemic has shown how there is an increased demand for shows with an overabundance of Blackness.
Self-taught rising stars such as LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters, Yasuke) and Ian Jones-Quartey, and groundbreaking studios, such as Taylor K. Shaw’s Black Women Animate, represent the boom that is happening across pop and entertainment culture. It is a reality that shows how creative content like theirs can impact and change the trajectory of the entertainment industry, forces such as Thandiwe Mlaui and Chaz Bottoms, who are a welcomed presence on the scene and names you should add to your “rising stars” list.
Thandiwe Mlaui, the first Black woman to independently build an animation studio in South Africa, is a graduate of the New York Film Academy and recently participated in the Liz Heinlein-created pop-up event, The 20/20 Series. Driven to change the landscape and offer opportunities to those in her community, Mlaui started her company, Studio YEZI, to create a unique space for impressive storytellers. Her women-led project, Sola, is an action-adventure, coming-of-age series about a young girl whose magic awakening takes viewers on a journey full of wonder and danger.
For fellow collaborator and animator, Chaz Bottoms, his short films Hello, The Creator, and A Walk to School took him from Cleveland, Ohio to Los Angeles, California, where his 2019 Kickstarter campaign for *Battu: An Animated Musical has made him into an owner and mentor. His boutique animation studio, CBA Studios, represents “Black and Brown voices on screen and behind,” while his work has appeared under the banners of SpringHill Entertainment, John Legend, Nike SB, Adult Swim, and now, Nickelodeon.
EBONY was excited to sit down with the two collaborators and students of the game to talk about being resources to upcoming artists, how Sola and Battu can impact the Black creative community, and share thoughts on how the animation industry can be more open to fresher diverse voices.
Before going into each of your respective projects—how did you both connect despite being on other sides of the globe from one another?
Thandiwe Mlauli: Chaz [Bottoms] and I met at the Black Women Animate event in 2018, when I still lived in Los Angeles. It was the first one ever [and] I saw him in the crowd, literally walked up to him, and told him that my intuition told me to speak to him. We clicked immediately and became friends after that.
Chaz Bottoms: Thandi was finishing film school and I was starting my animation studio, CBA Studios. We each had ideas for projects—Battu for myself and Sola for Thandi—and we’re both super passionate about animation and storytelling. We were interested in figuring out how to get these projects off the ground independently. Thandi eventually moved back to South Africa, while I continue to live in Los Angeles.
For readers just getting familiar with your respective works outside of social media, can you each talk about your backgrounds, how you’ve both made an impact in the animation community, and what you both have learned about one another after working together?
TM: I am a Black South African woman, a producer, and a storyteller. I graduated from the New York Film Academy with a BFA in Producing. I have always loved animation—my thesis in college was an Afro-Anime concept—and I knew it would be work that’s necessary for the world, even when nobody around me could see the vision. I think that my work has impacted many in that I’m the first person in my community to try something like this. [Admittedly,] this is scary, because if I fail, it’s on me, too—but that is the responsibility of being a pioneer.
About Chaz, I have been able to witness his tenacity, vigor, and love for animation firsthand. I’ve watched him grow since I met him and he deserves every opportunity coming his way.
CB: Ever since I was five-years-old, I have loved animation. It was always my dream to move to Los Angeles and work in animation. Telling stories that are engaging and are filled with a lot of heart is [the work] that I strive to [create]. Growing up, I didn’t see much Black representation on- or behind-the-screen. I aim to tell stories with humor, emotion, and joy. Thandi and myself are about fostering the Black animation community and developing genuine opportunities for collaboration. She is an amazing human being who focuses on representation and storytelling in a way that greatly inspires and motivates.
From film to TV to animation, there has been a healthy rise of Black creators who have made impressive marks across the board. Talents such as Taylor K. Shaw, LeSean Thomas, and the Isom Brothers of D’ART Shtajio are kicking arse and breaking boundaries. How do you two see Battu and Studio YEZI impacting the Black creative community? What opportunities would you two like to make for other artists interested in making projects of their own?
CB: I hope Battu: An Animated Musical connects with audiences in a way that inspires them positively. It is my love letter to the city of Chicago and young Black creatives. I hope to show creators you don’t need permission to tell your stories. There’s a hunger for new original projects and I believe more and more [that] we are witnessing amazing animation projects coming from independent Black creators. Hopefully Battu can help inspire the next slate of great Black-led animated projects to hit the scene.
TM: With Sola, our flagship project, we are definitely going to impact the animation community in a different way. What I love about the projects coming out now, are that they create a reference point for us that shows that we are on our way in. LeSean is a wonderful director and his visuals are stellar. You can tell that he’s been living and working in Japan for a while—it influences the way he visualizes his stories. And, as an anime stan, I live for it.
I actually just watched Yasuke on Netflix, and it is such a unique story. It gives us cultural context with it being set in Japan, but it is also introducing audiences to this outsider who happens to be Black. If you know anything about Japan, they are homogenous and so, seeing this outsider navigate this world is interesting to watch. With Studio YEZI and Sola, I hope to add a different element, having an anime based in Africa.
It is an African story with African characters. It’ll be interesting to see how the community receives it because while I am influenced by Japanese culture and anime, this is a new blend that we are trying out.
Thandi, as you shared, you’re an NYFA alum with a BFA in Producing and the first Black woman to build an animation studio in South Africa. Share with us the greatness of making such moves and why representation is just as important in Africa/South Africa as it is in the U.S. and Europe? Also, are there any updates that you can share about Sola?
TM: Representation is super important. As Africans, we are also consumers of anime, comic books, cartoons, sci-fi, and all of that. We live for that stuff and it is nice to not have to try and fit ourselves into the narratives of white people. Being able to see ourselves, our skin, our hair—that’s really important to us. If there are stories about the future, Black people should be in it, because we exist.
Our project is moving [and] it’s actually a slow burn. That’s something you realize when you’re on the inside. The process cannot be rushed. It’s less expensive to take your time, but we have some wonderful people that have joined our cast. We can’t reveal just yet, but it is definitely exciting. We’ve been so intentional about being fresh and allowing ourselves to be limitless that we’re not going the traditional route. We’re [currently] in the visual stages of the short, while also figuring out our marketing strategy. We intend to create a path that is unique to us.
Chaz, your musical short film—Battu—combines animation and hiplet, and has led to you opening up your own studio. What tips could you offer other like-minded creatives who wish to follow a similar path to enter the industry?
CB: There are amazing artists out there and using social media is a great tool to identify that talent. It is important [that] we have our representation on screen and behind the scenes so our stories are told thoughtfully and genuinely. I think having more training and internships can help bridge the gap. If we can connect the dots, animation can hit a renaissance we’ve never seen before—one with stories for all!
Animation is a small community so I try to connect with artists who inspire and motivate me. I think it is also important to be a sponge and try to learn as much as you can. Keep the mindset of a student. I’m young and I’m learning a ton everyday from colleagues. In starting [CBA Studios], it was a way to protect IP, but also partner with other creatives and get repetitions working on projects together. We are constantly growing and learning together as artists. You never know who is looking at your art—so try to keep developing and honing your skills.
Last question for you both: In which ways can the anime/animation industry be more inclusive to Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ people?
TM: In every way [they can be more inclusive]. People in the LGBTQ+ community exist in all aspects of our lives and I believe the industry should reflect that. We should be hiring in the writer’s rooms, as well as when it comes to directors, designers, engineers—in all parts of the production pipeline. When they are in the rooms, their experiences will most likely be reflected in the stories told. It’s the same thing [with] Black creators. When we are all in the room, our stories will start to look like us—and that is something the world will respond positively to, even if they don’t know why exactly.
*Full disclosure: Kevin L. Clark donated to this Kickstarter campaign.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.