For many Black kids growing up in America, finding out our roots has been an arduous task. Even with an annual Black History Month, we’re normally given the same stories on the same amazing Black figures in history. Without doing our own research, we may never learn about the likes of James Baldwin or Ruby Bridges...that is unless Ettore Ewen—better known as WWE Superstar Big E—and the Black History-celebrating animated series Our Heroes Rock! that he’s been working on has something to do with it.
The 35-year-old Tampa, Florida native is the current Intercontinental Champion, running Friday nights on the WWE’s Smackdown brand. E is also one-third of The New Day, a faction that features former WWE Champion Kofi Kingston and a unit that has had 11 different tag team championship reigns in its almost seven-year existence. They have been able to highlight nerd culture and their Blackness, putting a unique spin on what it means to be a WWE Superstar, wearing their influences on the gear they perform in. Discussions about highlighting Black history makers in their ring gear with The New Day’s gear designer Jonathan Davenport and journalist Andreas Hale turned into Our Heroes Rock!, a 3D animated series created by Big E, Davenport, and Hale that feels part Schoolhouse Rock, part hip-hop, and as fun as it is educational. It’s set to feature Our Heroes Rock! already beat its initial $75,000 Kickstarter goal, as well as the first of multiple stretch goals before it’s over in 20-plus days.
Ahead of his WWE Intercontinental Championship defense against Apollo Crews at the WWE’s Fastlane event, streaming live on Peacock this Sunday, we caught up with Big E to mark one year of the WWE performing in quarantine, to break down the creation of Our Heroes Rock!, representation in the squared circle, and what—if any—surprises he might have in store for WrestleMania 37, which will be happening in Big E’s backyard.
Before we get into Our Heroes Rock!, I realized that 3:16 Day 2021 marks one year of the WWE without a crowd. Have you given thought to the fact that you guys have been without a crowd for this long?
It’s hard to fathom. I remember having conversations with some of my friends where I thought, “All right, we’ll shut down for two weeks.”
I even thought, “Hey, two weeks and then we’ll get it back together. Everything will be cool.” But this pandemic has really been hard on a lot of people. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to still entertain people, still have my job, to still get to do what I love doing.
It’s kind of wild to imagine that we’re a year in. Thankfully, now with the vaccines being more prominent and the rollout seemingly getting a little bit better across the nation, it seems like we’re getting closer. WrestleMania in my hometown, in my backyard [this year], WrestleMania 37 [is] at Raymond James Stadium.
I still remember the empty arena, Stone Cold and Byron Saxton. It’s hard to believe that was a year ago.
Have you spent time this year working on Our Heroes Rock!?
Yeah. I will say, it feels almost gross to say this, but the pandemic in many ways has been a blessing in disguise for me. It allowed me to really sit. I didn’t have many distractions. I was home every day and I had a lot of time to think about what direction I wanted to go with my life and how to use the platform I have. It was very eye-opening. And thankfully, because I’m home so often, I have the ability to sit down with my team. Every single day, Jonathan Davenport and Andreas Hale, my partners, I keep telling everyone this is as much my project as it is Jonathan’s and Andreas’s. We really are a team, and I love those guys. Not only are they extremely talented, but they’re my friends as well. And their vision for this is the same as mine.
It’s really been so spiritually rejuvenating for me. I really just fundamentally believe in the mission of what we’re trying to do. And it’s big. We want education to not feel heavy and pedantic; that’s big for us. And if you deliver it in an appealing package, you can engage young people and adults.
One of the metaphors I keep using is, think of it when you were a kid and your parents would have the applesauce. If you had medicine or vitamins, they would crush up that medicine or vitamins, and they were put in your applesauce and mixed in there. You really had no idea that you were getting the medicine that you needed. It was palatable, it was enjoyable. That’s what we want with this project too, is to have that same effect—you really just sit down and [get] entertained. And when you see the animation, when you see these lively characters, when you hear Rapsody, a two-time Grammy nominee, one of the best rappers on the face of the Earth. We just announced that we have Erick the Architect from Flatbush Zombies, who to me is one of the best producers in hip-hop [on production]. If you’re not familiar with his work, get familiar because the dude was incredible on the boards. When you have the very best of all those elements, I think that really draws you in. Even if it’s something you’re not necessarily that engaged with, if you didn’t show up because you truly love the story of Ruby Bridges or want to find out more, our intent is really just to have a [product] that is so engaging and colorful and entertaining. You walk away, whether you wanted to or not, with this knowledge of this girl who was six years old in 1960, born the same year as Brown versus Board of Education, and was the first Black girl to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. You walk away learning these lessons.
You’ve been rocking Schoolhouse Rock-influenced gear in the WWE for a minute. When was the genesis of this project?
It really goes back to the murder of George Floyd. That was this watershed moment for me. Once again, I had no distractions. It wasn’t like, “Oh man, this is horrible, this is tragic, but I have to get on a plane.” I had—like so many of us who were stuck at home—this time to sit and think about this. Think about police brutality. To think about what kind of country that we want to leave for our children, for generations after us. It was the first death that really affected me. That really touched me in a way where I was just couldn’t get it off my mind of someone who I’d never met who I’d never known. I felt helpless. How am I to topple systemic racism and police brutality and inequities in housing and employment because systemic racism is just that, it’s a whole system. There are so many things to tackle. I felt like I have a voice, I can do something. I’m blessed enough to have a platform. I have this great career with WWE and I felt like I needed to do something. For a while, I was going on walks and these were these meditative moments for me to get out of the house [and] be away from people and just kind of think and clear my head. And I thought, “What if we did something akin to Schoolhouse Rock for important Black people?”
One of the things that I’ve loved is we’ve been able to work with Jonathon Davenport for The New Day’s gear since 2015. We’ve used our wrestling gear to express our love for nerd culture. You see Jonathan Davenport, he’s the one who designed the crazy ring gear that Kofi and [Xavier] Woods wore, the Mortal Kombat stuff. That’s what I love with gear; you can really express the things that you love and that you’re into. But I thought, “If we can take the time to express being Black nerds, why can’t we also use that time to express our empathy?” My really good buddy Andreas Hale reached out to me and said, “This should be much more than just wrestling gear,” so the three of us put our heads together and eventually decided on making a short film, and that’s kind of where it went. [Then] we realized that this is a very, very expensive endeavor. The beautiful part with Kickstarter is you’re able to show that there’s an audience for this.
You worked on Lazor Wulf a couple of years ago. Did that work help inform you on the possibilities of turning this project into an animated series?
Yeah. I think in many ways, probably subconsciously it did. What I loved is that it’s a show with just a ton of really dope Black voices. It’s Vince Staples, who I’m a big fan of. Quinta Brunson, who’s incredible. Reginald Veljohnson, JD Witherspoon, there are so many just really dope Black voices. It’s just an unapologetically Black show, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with its Blackness as well. It’s really like this Afro-futuristic weird kind of off-the-wall show that has a really dope voice to me. I think too often I have been a person who’s not brimming with self-confidence and believing like, “I can do all these things. I can be a filmmaker.” I’m really fortunate to have just really been surrounded by so many really talented and creative people who have helped to show me like, “We can all be a part of this movement and getting these voices and messages out there.”
As WWE Intercontinental Champion, it’s great to see you as a Black man who is unapologetically himself. It’s been important to see Apollo getting to show his roots. We’ve also got the Street Profits, Hurt Business, Sasha Banks, Bianca Belair. Naomi’s back. It’s been very important to see. How do you feel about just being able to not just be a certain place on the carpet, being a champion within this current time?
We definitely talk about that, and it’s beautiful to see. If you look at the roster from SmackDown to RAW to NXT, it’s really beautiful to see how vibrant it is. One of the things that you haven’t mentioned is the amount of Japanese talent we have. When you look at Io Shirai, or Nakamura. Asuka, to me, when you say one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world, you don’t need to qualify, [she’s] one of the best wrestlers in the world, period.
Sometimes I wonder about the word “diverse”; it can be a weighty term. It’s one thing to be diverse in, “hey, we have a lot of Black, Latino, and Asian talent.” But are they in positions of prominence? Are they being represented the right way? I think is we’re really moving in the right direction. There’s always more work to do, but I do really believe [that] representation really does matter.
You look at Bianca, you look at Sasha, they’re undeniable. They’re clearly there because of the merits, not because of their skin color. And that’s what we all strive for. I never wanted an opportunity simply because I was Black. I wanted it because I was the best at what I did. And I think that that goes for every facet of every occupation and career: we want these opportunities that we have been denied in the past, but don’t give it to me simply because of my skin color. Give it to me because I’m the best at what I do.
Have you thought about your WrestleMania 37 entrance yet?
Well, fortunately, I also have one of the best rappers in the world who raps me out. Nothing of course is set in stone, but I would love to have Wale come out with me and play me out. That’s the dream. I was a big Wale fan before anyone even knew my name or cared to know my name. That’s the man, to me. He’s still putting out quality music, man, incredible music. It’s been cool to call him a friend, so that to me would be incredible.
Raymond James, WrestleMania 37 [is] in my backyard, man. It’s incredible. I tell everyone who’ll listen that this is the same stadium I had my high school all-star game when I was 17. This is where I played a whole game in college. I also joked in the podcast that I helped build Raymond James, because when I was a kid there was a tax and the tax went towards Raymond James when they moved from Old Sombrero. But I’m born and raised here. This is my town, so it’ll be really cool to have WrestleMania here. Hopefully, we do it up big. And don’t forget about Fastlane this Sunday.