Dennis Walton Jr., a 29-year-old local musician who goes by Azazus, began watching anime in middle school to escape the tribulations of his low-income upbringing in Alabama. The underdog archetype commonly portrayed in anime inspired him to power through his struggles.
After he relocated to Gainesville to study business at Santa Fe College in 2013, Azazus eagerly looked for a sense of community in a new city. He found it in Gainesville Nerds United (GNU), a local Facebook group of Black cosplayers and anime fans who participate in anime-related activities together. He immediately joined the group and attended his first anime convention, Omni Fandom Expo in Orlando, within a year.
“I had no idea it was that huge of a community,” he said. “That was my first time seeing a whole community of people becoming these characters that a lot of us look up to.”
Gainesville anime convention, SwampCon, has decreased in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic, so Azazus is thankful to have a group of people to travel to conventions or watch anime with, he said.
With recent anime conventions like Anime Festival Orlando 2022 and Metrocon 2022 happening across Florida, groups like GNU attempt to get a piece of the action. The collective often attends these conventions to participate in panel discussions and cosplay — where people dress in costumes depicting characters from anime, video games, television shows and film.
In 2013, a group of broke, anime-obsessed Santa Fe College students banded together to find a way to attend anime conventions for free. They also found a family.
Devon “Verglas Prince” Chambers, a 30-year-old cosplayer and GNU co-founder, started the group when he and his friends discovered they could receive free tickets to anime conventions through hosting group panel discussions. He is thrilled that the group has blossomed into so much more.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Chambers said.
The Gainesville native began watching anime during his childhood and has cosplayed his favorite anime and television characters for roughly eight years. He also hosts panel discussions and judges cosplay competitions at conventions.
Chambers participated in several cosplay events around the state and the world, including Clara Cow’s Cosplay Cup, a cosplay competition in the Netherlands. Along with his best friend and fellow cosplayer and co-founder of GNU Porsha “Fudgie” Stiglich, the pair cosplayed as characters Esmeralda and Frollo from Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” They were the competition’s first contestants from the United States.
The timeline for creating cosplay costumes varies from a few days to months. Chambers learned to sew and build props through Youtube videos and Stiglich’s mentorship.
Although he polished his skills over time, Chambers remembers anxiously throwing together costumes on the day of conventions.
“You are frantically making costumes, styling wigs, making props and making sure you have everything,” he said. “You can go through a couple of sleepless nights.”
As a Black, plus-size individual, Chambers prioritizes highlighting the discrimination of marginalized communities in anime culture. He tries to host panels on body positivity in fashion and racism within anime culture at every convention he attends to spread awareness and enact change. He recently hosted both panel discussions at Tallahassee’s FreeCon, which took place March 26-27.
“If I can instill just a little bit of confidence into somebody and have them be whatever character they love,” he said, “That's pretty much all that I'm trying to do.”
Original GNU member Deon Durr, 28, like his brother Chambers, also recognizes the racism and fatphobia within anime culture.
Scrutiny of Black cosplayers for portraying non-Black characters and Blackface among non-Black cosplayers are common issues in the community, Durr said. He is thankful for the support system GNU provides him when tackling these concerns, he said.
“I feel like that’s what Gainesville Nerds United was — a platform for Black voices in the nerd culture cosplay community,” Durr said.
Durr does not cosplay, but he loves hosting panels on different debatable topics in anime culture, like the “anime big three,” which describes the debate about the current three best anime shows. He also enjoys spending quality time with his GNU friends and engaging with other anime fans throughout the country.
Although many of GNU’s original members have left Gainesville, the group continues to grow and welcome all talents and backgrounds. Durr credits many of his happiest memories to the friendships he fostered through GNU.
“We have grown from friends to family,” he said. “It's been a wonderful ride.”
Azazus credits like-minded creatives in GNU and at the conventions with motivating him to fuse his passion for urban culture and hip-hop with anime to create anime rap: a genre of hip-hop inspired by anime characters and storylines. Many members of the central Florida anime rap community credit him for popularizing the genre, he said.
Over the last year, Azazus shifted from visiting anime conventions to performing his anime rap on stage as a featured artist. He drew an almost 40-person crowd at Anime Festival Orlando, which took place June 24-26.
“These shows are made for everybody,” he said. “It’s ok to be Black … and nerd out.”