Laranzo Dacres thinks it’s fascinating how many people across Japan — and all of Asia, for that matter — have never met a black person in real life before.
“I interviewed this lady, a woman in her 70s, and I was the first black man she met,” he tells The Japan Times. “That was crazy.
“What they see instead is through (Japanese) media, and the message portrayed is largely negative, unfortunately. That changes the way they view us, that’s a problem.”
Current events only underscore his point — we speak a day after NHK shared a swiftly condemned animated clip attempting to explain the anti-discrimination protests and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
The Black Experience Japan, a YouTube channel Dacres (who is better known as Ranzo online) launched in 2017, highlights actual voices from the modern African diaspora to counter these inaccurate and often harmful portrayals in mainstream media. The backbone of his videos are interviews with black people living in Japan, including architects, restaurateurs and bodybuilders among many others. In recent years, Dacres has expanded the channel’s geographic focus to include all of Asia.
“I wanted to share the person — that was the drive behind how I did things at the beginning, and is still the core of what I do,” he says. “I want people to meet this individual, so you aren’t just judging some abstraction.”
Dacres grew up in Jamaica and developed an interest in Japan early on in life.
“It might sound a bit cliche, but I keep telling people I need to speak my truth,” he says with a laugh. “For me, the draw (to Japan) was anime.”
He was a creative kid, frequently sketching and painting, and describes his first encounter with the cartoon “Dragon Ball Z” as “love at first sight.” His interest in Japan reached a point where he studied the language for a year, with classmates constantly asking him when he’d finally make the trip. “I guess I just spoke about it so much,” he says.
Before coming here, though, Dacres spent six years working at The Gleaner, a newspaper based in Kingston that covers Jamaica and the greater region. He says the experience helped him develop his interviewing skills in particular. After relocating to Toronto and launching his own business, Dacres moved to Japan in 2016 when his wife received an offer to teach.
“I was doing YouTube before (The Black Experience Japan), and I was doing vlogs. Vlogs like everyone else,” Dacres says. Uploads to his “Ranzo” channel mirrored what you’d see on most J-vlogger channels by the mid-2010s — a mix of personal adventures through the country alongside introductions to tourist-friendly spots and activities.
“Then I started getting these questions,” he says. “People were asking me on my social media platforms what it was like being black in Japan. That was coupled with people saying very derogatory things as well. There was a misconception about who black people really were — and especially black people in Japan.”
The Black Experience Japan’s first upload was a documentary tackling that frequent question that found Dacres interviewing people about their life in Japan.
“My sub-editor at The Gleaner, he told me that whenever you do a story, it’s not good to get one perspective,” he says. “I felt that just having one person’s experience, even if it was my own, would not be sufficient. There are so many things that play into someone’s experience. I felt like I needed a sort of mosaic to speak more accurately about the black experience in Japan or elsewhere.”
That method guided Dacres who initially reached out to people he knew but eventually expanded to include a wide range of people from around the country. He filmed and edited everything on a smartphone at the start.
“Listen, it is painstaking, tedious, just the most annoying thing on the face of the Earth,” he says with a laugh. “Back then, 500 views was a good day — 500 people are watching! It wasn’t the views themselves but that 500 people were in some way being impacted. That the story was doing something, and that what I was doing was making a difference.”
In more recent times, he has switched to using cameras and computers to create his clips: “I wanted it to look more professional, and I wanted it to get better.”
Today, The Black Experience Japan has more than 200,000 subscribers on YouTube, while many uploads have managed hundreds of thousands of views, if not over a million.
“People were reaching out to me from all over the place, from different countries, about the channel,” he says. “They like what I’m doing. I thought, after that, it would be cool to go to other countries to get their take. More of a global perspective.”
This nudged Dacres to interview black people living in other Asian countries, building the mosaic out even more.
In 2020, there are many books, podcasts, social media accounts and YouTube channels that offer the black perspective on life in Japan. The Black Experience Japan, however, manages something that the country’s English-language YouTube community rarely achieves — a journalistic approach to life in the country in which the creator of the video isn’t the central figure. Dacres appears to share his thoughts and opinions at times, but he’s mainly the one behind the camera letting others speak. He gets out of the way — in one clip he follows a black salaryman around for one day — or he connects trends that pop up in his interviews to illustrate larger points.
“I always had a view that this is something that is extremely important, and that it needs to be done,” he says.
Following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States and the waves of demonstrations in its wake, The Black Experience Japan has shifted its focus to reactions in Asia, featuring interviews with Sierra Todd, the organizer of the Black Lives Matter march in Tokyo, and participants in a Korean virtual demonstration. Dacres has also held livestreams where people can call in to talk, and streamed the Tokyo demonstration held on June 14.
While 2020 initially had Dacres prepping for trips across Asia to interview even more people, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced those chats to go online. The overall mission, though, remains the same.
“We’re trying to inspire black people globally, and lambast negative stereotypes,” he says. “We want to put forth videos of real people and show that, hey, it’s a person just like me.”
For more information and links to videos, visit www.blackexjp.com.