At this point, it’s a total cliché to talk about how miserable the year 2020 has been. It’s a year that’s been unkind to everyone; rapper Open Mike Eagle especially, who is still trying to pick up the pieces from his disastrous 2019. For Mike, 2019 saw the cancellation of his Comedy Central show, the dissolution of his rap collective Hellfyre Club (whose past members include alt hip-hop legends such as Milo, Busdriver, and Anderson .Paak), and a divorce from his wife of 14 years. His attempts to make sense of his newly fractured world arrive in the form of his most recent studio album Anime, Trauma and Divorce, whose themes are made clear from its title. His Twitter bio describes it as “weird to talk about”. I get it, Mike.
The record includes an exploration of cycles of trauma (“Death Parade”), the tale of how an episode of the British sci-fi show Black Mirror ruined Mike’s marriage (“The Black Mirror Episode”), and even a track in which Mike finds a kindred spirit in Shinji Ikari, the much maligned protagonist of acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, due to their shared extreme levels of head-assery (“Headass [Idiot Shinji]”). However, OME saves his best for last. Both the album’s message and momentum reach an apex on its 10th song, “I’m a Joestar (Black Power Fantasy)”. On first listen, the track could easily be dismissed as a fun but superfluous tribute to one of Mike’s favorite animes, as the lyrics find Mike inserting himself into the Joestar family lineage from the anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure—he’s essentially just creating a JoJo’s OC of himself (My stand, goddammit it, his name is Black Magic/He’s got a glow like Sho’nuff from Last Dragon). When viewed in the larger context of Anime, Trauma and Divorce, though, “I’m A Joestar” is a stunning declaration of power and self-actualization. Mike’s world has crumbled, and even though he can’t find respite in the world around him it doesn’t stop him from creating his own. “I’m A Joestar (Black Power Fantasy)” is personal, it’s powerful, and it’s the song of the year.
Anime, Trauma and Divorce is not exactly what you might call a breezy listen. It’s a 12-track, 34-minute therapy session for Mike, who actually began work on the album after a suggestion from his therapist that he should use his musical talents as an outlet for his visceral emotions. The result is akin to a rap version of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me, a record in which the intensely personal experiences of the creator are put on full musical display, without enough time for them to be sorted out or processed. There are no answers to be found on Anime, Trauma and Divorce, and as a result the album feels raw, honest, and important. One of the record’s most poignant moments appears on “Everything Ends Last Year”, a quiet and stark track in which Mike details every painful event that’s occurred in his life over the past 365 days. After the first verse, Mike pauses for a moment, and just when you think he’s going to launch into a chorus, he instead plainly remarks “It’s October and I’m tired”. It’s brutally sincere and one of the most cathartic statements in music this year.
The album’s not afraid to get dark, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its bright moments — Mike’s wit and sardonic humor lend itself to plenty of hilarious spots throughout the album, such as his critique of threadbare self-care advice on “WTF is Self Care” (For obstacles that you struggle past/The key is taking bubble baths) or when he refuses to rhyme “shrinkage” with “Peter Dinklage” because he thinks it would probably offend him, even though “there’s no way he’s ever gonna hear this”. Consistently, though, the shining light in Mike’s life is his young son, Asa. Asa actually appears on the album twice, leading a euphoric chant on the chorus of “Asa’s Bop” and lending an adorable freestyle rap to the album’s closer, “Fifteen Twenty Feet Ocean Nah” (This ocean is the emotion that you can go with/It’s crazy like sharks in the park, that’s crazy like Jon Stark… bars). AT&D is bleak, but through these glimmers of hope you get the sense that Mike’s trying to leave the past in the past and refocus on the blessings in his life, even though inside he’s still struggling. That is, until he miraculously finds an source of internal strength on “I’m A Joestar (Black Power Fantasy)”.
Anime, Trauma and Divorce has a deliberate lack of answers, so it’s all the more powerful when Mike finally decides to create one of his own. After 9 tracks of exhuming traumas and soul-searching, something miraculous occurs on “I’m A Joestar”. It’s like the clouds have parted, and even Mike knows that this moment could disappear at any time; he begins the song by begging, “Stop trying to take this away from me!” Over a whimsical, bouncy instrumental— easily one of the best on the album — Mike begins writing his JoJo’s fanfiction, using the first verse to establish himself within the Joestar lineage (Shoulder blades strong in the Joestar family/I know ’cause I belong to the Joestar family). It initially can come off bizarre, leaning so heavily into niche fantasy that it’s almost hard to take seriously, but the total dive into escapism is strangely heartwarming. You get the sense that Mike needs to belong to the legendary Joestar family. He needs to be as strong, powerful, and righteous as protagonist Joseph Joestar. As the subtitle of the song suggests, it’s Mike’s black power fantasy, one that arises not out of a desire to flex but out of necessity.
On the track’s second verse, Mike reaches self-actualization. He’s tired of letting shit happen to him. He’s forcing himself into the JoJo’s narrative because he desperately needs to be there. It doesn’t even make sense for Mike to be a Joestar; as of now, there are no black members of the family. But he just doesn’t care — he’s declaring himself to be a Joestar, and so he is.
I don’t give a fuck if I’m a brother, I’m a Joestar
Either from my father or my mother, I’m a Joestar
I ain’t British, I ain’t Japanese, I’m a Joestar
Tap into my power when I breathe, I’m a Joestar
It reads like Mike’s repeating an affirmation to himself, like maybe if he simply proclaims that he’s a Joestar enough times he might actually become one. Mike reaches a fever pitch as he continues his declarations, spitting out the most impactful lines of the whole album: “I’ve been waiting for four years and five seasons/Well, goddamnit, it’s MY turn, it’s MY season!” It’s the sound of being put down for so long that you won’t accept any more. For a moment, all the things weighing Mike down — his divorce, his professional failings, his monetary struggles — are gone. It may be brief, and it may only be a fantasy, but for a moment he’s nothing but strength. He’s in control. It’s his turn. It’s his season.
In this chapter JoJo is African
And it’s me, Mike Eagle, I’m the protagonist
And it’s set in south-central Los Angeles
’Cause goddammit it, it’s my turn, it’s my saga
It’s a special edition of Open Mike’s manga
So draw me in a Fiesta or a White Honda (Relatable!)
Mike goes on to re-frame JoJo’s in his own black image, changing protagonists Joseph Joestar and REO Speedwagon into “Joe M.E. and Arsenio Speedwagon”. The whole track is an indulgence, but an essential one. After a year of getting emotionally, personally, and professionally beaten up, Mike’s able to create a place all for himself. To Mike, JoJo’s does what the best media can do to all of us — not only make us feel safe, but make us feel strong. It’s why we re-watch our favorite TV shows and movies over and over, even though the plot and the characters have nothing left to reveal to us. It morphs into a comfort, an alternate world in which we know every word to say and every choice to be made. It becomes a world that can uplift and inspire in our darkest times and it can be a respite when we don’t know how to deal with anything else.
I can’t explain why “I’m A Joestar” comes off as affecting as it does to me. I’m not even really a JoJo’s fan — I’ve watched the first season but I’m not particularly invested in the anime. I think I just connect with Mike’s need for escapism, the need for a source of strength when all your other sources have given way. Everyone needs somewhere to go searching for answers when the real world seems to be devoid of them. Mike’s connection with JoJo’s, although it may seem goofy, is intensely relatable. It’s not uncommon to hyper-fixate on a specific piece of media to bring you solace when it seems like your world is falling apart. I know I certainly have. “I’m A Joestar” taps into the very core of the human need for connection with something, the need to give ourselves meaning and purpose. The song showcases Mike’s search for meaning, and in searching for meaning he’s able to fashion one all his own. It’s the most important song of 2020.
I implore you to give Anime, Trauma and Divorce a listen. Open Mike Eagle takes the story of one man’s very painful year and makes it universal. It’s honest, heartfelt, admittedly nerdy, and it’s one of my favorite albums of the year. Just like I am — Mike’s not sure how to pick up the pieces, but he’s trying. He still can’t understand self-care (I think I get it, finally/It’s like going to wineries/I think I kinda get it/Nah mean-But, like, what is it?), he’s still avoiding facing life’s harsh realities (My eyes glazed over like “Mike, what you thinkin’ bout?”/I really don’t wanna log in to my bank account), and it’s still hard for him to see the value of his work (All I got left is hunger and thirst/Really can’t say what none of it’s worth). He’s looked for a silver lining for so long only to find that one doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop him from creating one for himself.
Earlier this year, a fan tweeted at Mike. He showed that he had downloaded “I’m A Joestar” to his phone and had listened to it at least 30 times. The tweet read:
This is cheesy but one of the main songs I’m able to listen to right now as I fight cancer is @Mike_Eagle ‘s “I’m a Joestar”. Gives me nerdy hope that I’ll come out strong as my favorite heroes.
Mike acknowledged the tweet and responded, “We all need a power fantasy sometimes”. In 2020 — after a year of breakdowns, therapy sessions, and sleepless nights, it was something I needed more than ever.
*Featured Image: Autoreverse Music.