This quarantine has been kicking my wide ass for quite some time now. Not seeing my family and friends without fear of spreading COVID has taken a toll on my mental health. Being someone who was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and ADHD in my mid-twenties, it’s very easy for the doom and gloom of the world outside to trigger one of those demons who always chooses to wake up the other two, turning my mind into a maze with no finish line under a gray raincloud. But one talent of mine I rediscovered while at home scrolling through my Facebook feed was my voice. Not just my voice as a Black queer Liberian-American, but my actual voice. I saw an ad for a virtual voice acting seminar, and something in me screamed, “BRUH IF YOU DON’T CLICK THAT LINK!”
I attended a seminar, and the instructor told me I had real potential. I’d always thought about being the voice of my favourite cartoon characters. I used to watch behind-the-scenes footage of actors recording their parts for the shows and picturing myself in those same rooms, talking to interviewers about my preparation and how I got into the mindset of whatever character I was bringing to life. Finally, after years of random people I’ve talked to from work, home, school, the club line (jk gays don’t wait in line), a professional voice actor told me that I had what takes to make a career out of using my voice. The same cheerful baritone I use to keep customers from leaving my section when I mess their order up could be used for radio, TV, audiobooks, and so much more.
That was four months ago. I’m deep into my voice acting career journey now, with some professional demos under my belt and my Focusrite mic serving as my audio Mjolnir, I’m ready to starting virtually knocking on doors to show off my skills. I even use the mic I got from my voiceover class to record my podcast, Big Boy Brunch. But whenever I get discouraged, whenever I start hating the sound of my voice, I just look to the voice actors I’ve been following since before puberty gave me these golden pipes – specifically the Black ones.
He’s the one you call to body a monologue. Keith David’s got a gruff, militant voice that could inspire any army to go into battle for him. His voice broke concrete as Goliath from Gargoyles and struck fear in the hearts of wrongdoers as Spawn in the 90’s animated show. David was also the voice of Black Panther in his very first animated debut in season 2 of the 1994 Fantastic 4 series. Keith David has never been afraid to tap into his dark side, and that’s what I love about him.
Jon Stewart. Virgil Hawkins. Samurai Jack. Phil LaMarr has been rocking television with his heroic voice for decades. As the only Black hero in the original Justice League and as the lead Black hero of Static Shock, Phil LaMarr’s versatility allowed him to jump from the voice of Green Lantern, an intergalactic hero with a military background, to a youthful teenager burdened with cleaning up his crime-ridden town. He also played Wilt in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends.
I’ll never forget the first time Susie Carmichael walked into The Rugrats and proceeded to read Angelica Pickles for absolute filth. I didn’t know she was voiced by Cree Summer until I saw her segment in the Rugrats 10th Anniversary Special, but since then, she’s always held a special place in my heart. Her signature raspy tone mixed with her ability to switch from wise to pubescent to downright sinister makes her one of the greatest voice actors of all time. Male or female, it makes no difference. Numbah 5 is always Numbah 1 in my book.
Kevin Michael Richardson
I wanna be Kevin Michael Richardson when I grow up. Large and in charge, he’s got the voice of the fun uncle that lets you curse around him as long as you agree to go to church on Sunday. I love the fact that American Dad allows him to play a whacked-out version of himself as Principal Lewis; we rarely get to see middle-aged Black characters be straight up unpredictable, and he does it so damn well. He definitely gagged me when I found out he voiced Lester, the white redneck on The Cleveland Show. Knowing him as the big black voice in every cartoon I watched, it was cool to see him flip his voice into something completely different. Speaking of different, he will always be my favourite version of The Joker.
James Earl Jones
Darth Vader, King Mufasa himself, James Earl Jones, is the granddaddy of Black voice actors. He’s got a base in his voice that commands attention whether he’s checking the loyalty of his subordinates on the Death Star or teaching Simba that the very antelope they hunt for food will feast upon them when they die. I was shocked to learn that James Earl Jones didn’t receive credit for his vocal work as Darth Vader in the first two Star Wars movies. He explained in a 2008 interview that he saw himself as part of the special effects because it’s a different person in the actual suit.
However, he gained so much notoriety for the gravitas he brought to the role in his voice alone; he let them credit him in the third film. But there’s one part of his story that inspires me the most: how he overcame his stutter. My personal story runs almost parallel to his; having a very bad stutter at a young age, his English teacher encouraged him to write poetry to get him to open up and overcome it. I still suffer to this day with speaking my mind without tripping over my words, but I always look to people like James Earl Jones to keep me on track.
Black voices are needed now more than ever. As I strive to make my vocal mark on this world, I honour the greats that came before me. I highlighted many of the Black characters that they portrayed, but what also makes them great is that they’ve excelled in all roles imaginable. I don’t mean to make a colorblind “it doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white or magenta” statement, I’m just saying that the work they did in the 90s and the work they do to this day gives young Black creatives like me hope for the future. I’ve spent countless hours watching cartoons, wondering if there was anything I was truly passionate about. It took until my late 20’s to realize my craft was staring me right in the face, and my teachers have been with me since my childhood, telling me that my voice, no matter how much I hesitated, no matter how much I stuttered, was always strong enough to stand on its own.