Black Materia: A Perfect Love Letter

I was at a loss this year trying to figure out how to publicly celebrate Black History Month. I planned to share music as I usually do but that seemed too shallow. Then I wanted to talk about a specific album, but there are so many to choose from and none of them stuck out as being particularly striking for the occasion. My goal is always to try and celebrate Black joy as much as I can, but to focus on only that would trivialize the message of some of the art I would like to discuss. Then I stumbled upon Black Materia: The Remake by Rapper Mega Ran and producer Gamechops, a Final Fantasy 7 -themed concept album that recontextualizes childhood nostalgia into a compelling Hip-Hop record. This album brought up a lot of feelings and memories and inspired me to finally talk about the important cultural connection between Black culture and nerd culture. So it may be a little selfish, but allow me to indulge in geekdom for a bit, as I whisk you away to a world of mercenaries, ecoterrorism, and escapism.

For those who don’t know, Final Fantasy 7 (FF7) is a turn-based roleplaying game released in 1997 for the original Playstation. It arguably set a new gold standard for what a video game could be, both with its riveting narrative and presentation and the millions of copies it sold within its first couple days on the market. The story takes place on a fictional planet where an energy source called the lifestream is naturally found running through the earth. This lifestream gives life to new people as they are born and collects that energy again once they die, thus being the literal blood that keeps the planet alive. This changes when the Shinra Electric Company decides to harness the power of the lifestream to convert it into electricity, thus fueling mass industrialization but killing the planet in the process. Shinra’s practices also lead to economic disparity, as areas near the plants that harvest energy are called slums and used as Shinra’s dumping ground. You take control of one of those residents of the slums, Cloud Strife, a former member of Shinra’s private military division known as SOLDIER who now fights to topple Shinra before they suck the planet dry. Along the way you meet now iconic characters of the eco-terrorist group Avalanche who join your team to fight alongside you, explore a beautiful world on the brink of collapse, and discover more about the planet’s origins.

If that description sounds compelling to you now, imagine this being described to you as a child in the late 90s/early 00s, before large-scale stories were more common in the video game medium. For an entire generation of young kids growing up, this game became their introduction to nuanced storytelling, and became a formative part of countless childhoods. Enter Mega Ran, A Philadelphia rapper who has made a career out of merging video game chiptune sounds and Hip-Hop, creating albums dripping with nostalgia and appreciation. FF7 meant a lot to Mega Ran, so in 2011 he released Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII, a career-defining record which he later re-vamped into Black Materia: The Remake, to celebrate the modern-day remake of Final Fantasy 7 that was released in 2020. Both albums follow the same structure, being concept albums that retell certain parts of the FF7 story over instrumentals that sample the game’s legendary soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu. For this write-up though, I will be focusing on the latter release, as it perfects the formula attempted by the first and ends up taking on a life of its own.

All great albums start with a great opening, and Black Materia is no exception. It begins with a dual part grand entrance — ‘The Opening’ introduces the setting of the world of FF7, backed by the same instrumental that plays when you first start the story of the game in question, before shifting to ‘Cloud Strife’ which starts the character-driven approach of the album. Here Mega Ran (posing as Cloud) elaborates further on the state of this world, wherein children like him leave home to join the military to escape the fate of the slums. Indeed, this album is more structurally like a musical than most Hip-Hop records, with just about every song embodying a character from the story and showing events from first-person perspectives. I think this ends up being the album’s biggest strength for two reasons. First, the narration ends up making the story bits easier to digest for anyone listening who isn’t familiar with the story of the game, as plot details are condensed or simplified to make songs flow better. The second is that by roleplaying in verses, Mega Ran and the plethora of guest artists who voice the cast can build songs around subtext and flesh out these characters in new ways. For example, in ‘Avalanche’ we are introduced to the character of Barret Wallace, who leads the rebel group opposing Shinra. Over the course of the game, you learn about his reasons for wanting to stop Shinra’s plans, a mixture of guilt over past indecision and a desire to leave the planet a better place for his daughter, which are captured beautifully in this one song. In this sense the character themes have the advantage of being removed from time. The album more or less follows the sequences of the game chronologically, but verses often reference events from various different points in the narrative, giving listeners solid insight into a character’s complexity without having needed to play the game.

If it’s not apparent by this point, Final Fantasy 7 was a more mature game that I’m sure many children playing it in its heyday understood, but the benefit of this album is that it comes after a lifetime of Mega Ran and company thinking about the game. Subtle moments of character struggle and grief in the game are expressed candidly in the album, perfectly utilizing the medium of music to reflect the story’s emotional weight. The world of FF7 is bleak, with every main character having gone through some tragedy that inspires them to dismantle Shinra, and these reasons only become more relatable the older you get. The game touches on grief after losing loved ones, military states abusing their power over citizens, companies putting profit over the longevity of the planet, and the existential dread of not knowing who you want to be as a person. While the game may have resonated with people in their youth for its colorful cast and grandiose story, its cultural staying power lies how those pieces tie in with its aforementioned themes. Black Materia then is the marriage between the two sides of FF7, fusing that sense of scale and wonder with the depth underneath to create a heartfelt love letter to the game proper. This album is by no means the definitive way to experience the story of FF7, but it does a masterful job shining a light on the parts that truly make the game special, all while bringing in its own sense of style to the mix. My favorite example of this might be ‘Red XIII’, which graciously rides the line of being a hard-hitting banger without shying away the trauma surrounding the character. You find Red XIII in a secret laboratory, trapped in a test tube, and physically scarred by experiments done on him. Upon freeing him and visiting his hometown, Red XIII joins your team after learning that his father was killed similarly trying to save the planet like Cloud and the gang. Red XIII sees himself as a monster prior being saved, and the simple notion of Avalanche inviting him to join their team allows Red to accept himself too.

For an entire generation, FF7 came out during the 90’s boom of Japanese media coming to the west. Waves like Pokemon, Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy flooded the public consciousness, and became many a Black kid’s introduction to escapism through art. Personally, while it took me many years to actually sit down and finish FF7 proper, its world and characters have been circling around my brain since childhood. Getting introduced to these types of stories at a young age and having to physically interact with them (via the nature of video games) cemented my desire to keep searching for these kinds of experiences. Often, I think Black geekdom is demonized particularly because it doesn’t mesh with the societal expectation of what Black people “should” be. It is less a problem with the kinds of media you consume, and more that you are consuming it at all. Growing up, it always felt like the narrative of Blackness was consistently being limited by certain peers, who didn’t understand that anything a Black person does inherently contributes to their Blackness. The fictional media we engage in shapes us, regardless of our racial identity, and can only serve to add onto our understanding of ourselves and the world. The idea that we could be limited to enjoying a certain type of story has always been preposterous, and finding games like FF7 helped people like Mega Ran and I understand that. For many these games were their first glimpse into the concept of a world being unjust, and that’s a powerful message to see as a kid, even if the depth of that was not understood until much later.

Culture is not meant to be a static existence; as people within a group start engaging with new forms of art and expression, it is only natural for that art to feedback into the people who seek it. The wealth of artists now who were influenced by cartoons/movies/anime/videogames from their childhood and are actively using these experiences to tell their own stories is proof of that. When Mega Ran released the original cut of Black Materia a decade ago, it drew in such a strong cult following because it unabashedly showered FF7 with love and referenced the source material with care and reverence. Now in 2021, Black Materia: The Remake takes that same reverence and ties it back into back the rapper’s own life and personal growth. Towards the end of the album, in the song ‘Lifestream’, Mega Ran speaks on wanting to save our own planet, having been inspired by the tales of Cloud and crew to think more about what we humans are doing to our home. It’s a bittersweet note to end on, reflecting on how a game changed him but also acknowledging how many of these “fictional” conflicts he encountered in real life after the game was finished. This album has a complex identity, splitting the middle ground between the faithful representation of a story and a lifelong fan’s interpretation of it, but the result is an excellent piece of art. Personally, it was validating to see someone whose thoughts have been so consumed by a fictional property that they had to get those feelings out in some way, and inspired me to do the same thing. As cathartic as it has been to see my fellow people of color embrace whatever media they stan in the past few years, I want to continue breaking the stigma of what we are “allowed” to like, as all formative art experiences are valid and should never be used as a form of shame.