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Afrofuturism and Black Identity in Art, Culture and Politics

October 17, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

For those who adopt the Afrofuturist paradigm, the ideas can take you light-years away from the place you call home, only to return knowing you had had everything you needed from the start. Readers, our future is now.[1]

This is how Ytasha Womack introduces Afrofuturism to her audiences, in the beginning of a book of the same name. If you scratch beneath the surface and start exploring what the term means, you’ll find that it is branched into several paths, shaped by a similar ideology. As we will have seen, it might sound that what Womack alludes to in her introduction applies to Afro Surrealism, which some tend to observe as an independent category. Rather than separating one from another, we will try to look at all the aspects of Afrofuturism and how its layers are intertwined, reclaiming racial identity in a unique, inspiring manner.

Parliament - Mothership Connection
Parliament – Mothership Connection

Afrofuturism – How The Term Came To Be

As it usually happens with ideas that emerge spontaneously, Afrofuturism didn’t have a name for a long time. Many of its considered proponents were Afrofuturists without even knowing – years, even decades before the term was coined in 1994 by the writer Mark Dery, who used it in his essay Black to the Future in order to identify a phenomenon he had observed. Namely, Dery discerned a certain trend among young African Americans that was based on science fiction and technology, at the same time being connected to black people and searching for their role in a constructed narrative. The black college students that the author describes were passionate about their vision of popular culture and fiction, presuming that these are the media with an unprecedented power to affect social change. One of the then-students and a prominent Afrofuturist to be, Alondra Nelson, mentions the Internet as a predominant factor in bringing all the people together, discerning the beginning of a new era in black history.[2]

Afrofuturism through different media
Krista Franklin – SEED (The Book of Eve) for Octavia E. Butler, Artist Book Wild Seeds

Defining Afrofuturism

So what is Afrofuturism? Womack quotes the curator Ingrid LaFleur who defines it as “a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens”.[3] To this concise definition, Womack adds her own personal touch, making the terms future and liberation come together. The context that this correlation provides might be one of the most important aspects of the movement – although the term movement should be used with precaution, given that its pacifist, non-intrusive spirit is contradictory to what revolutionary movements may imply today. In fact, the beauty of Afrofuturism lies in its potential to make a change without interfering with anyone else’s reality. In that sense, Afrofuturism is a methodology rather than a movement.

Fantasy work across the media
Grace Jones

Afrofuturism In Music

During the nineties, the possibility of Afrofuturism as an actual “thing” was considered from various angles, and thus many of its proclaimed pioneers were found among the figures from our collective history. Traces of Afrofuturism exist in music, visual arts, books and popular culture, all of them contributing to a genesis of Afrofuturist aesthetics. As a figure with one of the most distinct styles, both in visual terms and in terms of sound, the avant-garde musician Sun Ra is considered to be the main pioneer of Afrofuturism. Then, there is the funk legend George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic; Jimi Hendrix and his otherworldly guitar playing; a list of musicians and DJs from our time, producing electronic music or hip hop jams that include surreal elements, participating in the establishment of a new, mythical black experience. In terms of their appearances and the themes of their songs, we could also consider the iconic Erykah Badu and Grace Jones as two great Afrofuturist women in the music industry. Apart from them, one of the most notable Afrofuturist musicians of our time is certainly Janelle Monáe. Some argue that even the Knowles sisters, Beyonce and Solange, bring the motive of black women into the “future is now” context within pop culture.

Ra and his Artkestra
Sun Ra and his Artkestra

Sun Ra

Sun Ra is not merely a pioneer, but also a symbol of Afrofuturism in his own respect. His music was a form of meditation on the African heritage, but also innately progressive, inasmuch as the artist himself was a gifted and intelligent individual, which was apparent from his early beginnings. Performing for many years with his band Arkestra (which continues to perform to this day), his costumes and stage designs were suggestive of science fiction and cyber reality. At the same time, through their aesthetic appeal and gestures, the musicians reflected on ancient Egypt and other motives from the precolonial Africa. But one of the main reasons why we can safely say that this artist is the original Afrofuturists lies in the way that he re-invented himself as a person and a performer, having denied his given name Herman Blount, and turning his entire life story into a myth. At some point – and the actual date remains unknown – Ra claimed to have had an epiphany, which he described as a journey to Saturn (or at least to what he had thought was Saturn). The journey supposedly turned Ra’s body into “something else“, and made him see through himself.[4] In addition, the “aliens” also made him see that he should drop college (which he did). The musician was persistent in his endeavor to make this story his personal life experience, so much that you would eventually stop questioning it. He even succeeded in keeping his date of birth secret. In a way, Ra’s iconic existence was a personification of Afrofuturism.

Zion in the Matrix
Zion in the Matrix

Science Fiction and Its Relationship with Black Culture

Although we can find lots of Afrofuturist motives in music, it is almost certain that one of its main mediums is a sci fi narrative, transfigured into a book, a comic or a film (just like it usually happens with science fiction). In the process of fantasy reading, we often find our own traits portrayed in one of the universal identities, usually taken from the idealized character that we encounter in these stories – the main hero, the anti hero, sometimes even a really cool villain. Furthermore, seeing that character on screen could have an even greater effect on people. However, in the period between 1950s and 1990s, there had been almost no black cosmonauts, magical beings, heroes or space travelers in the majority of the world’s favorite sci fi scripts. In case they do appear, such as in the original Planet of the Apes or Night of the Living Dead, they usually do not last long enough to see the end of the story.

PUMZI from Awali Entertainment on Vimeo.

A New Sci Fi World

This pattern was abandoned in the 90s, partly thanks to some of the ground-breaking movies from this period, such as The Matrix and Blade. The former is known for its multietnic visionary depictions, including the mythical city of Zion, appropriated from the famous William Gibson novel Neuromancer. The latter had its plot line revolve around a black vampire, introducing this type of fictional character to the broader audiences for the first time. Apart from the mainstream movies (Ytasha Womack also mentions Will Smith and his constant reappearance as the leading black sci fi hero), there is an increasing number of books written on the subject of reassessing black history through some of the most miraculous stories. One of them is William Hayashi’s Darkside Trilogy that envisions black population living on the dark side of the Moon even before Neil Armstrong was sent off.[5] But this continues to be a very popular topic today – such as Ayesha Hameed’s story of the Black Atlantis, inspired by the music of an Afrofuturist electronic duo Drexciya. In her story, former slaves adapt to living underwater and coexist with the rest of the Atlantic inhabitants (the show will be on view in London on November 5th).

fantasy work for Afro Surrealism
Kehinde Wiley – The Death of Chatterton (2014)

Afrofuturism and Afro Surrealism – Is There A Cultural Difference Between the Two?

There were some words about Afro Surrealism earlier and how it stems from the same root, but ends up being somewhat different from Afrofuturism. This type of surrealism is ontologically opposed to European Surrealism, being that it considers real life and the present moment as a platform for the creation of the “surreal”. In their manifesto, written by D. Scot Miller, the author claims that Afro Surrealism is “Ambiguous as Prince, black as Fanon, literary as Reed, dandy as André Leon Tallysees“.[6] It is inter-sexed, inclusive, cross-boundary, silly and profound (his exact words), and in that sense, in the context of the present, it is surreal. The manifesto mentions the name of Kehinde Wiley and his observation that “There is no objective image. And there is no way to objectively view the image itself“. Interestingly, the term was invented in 1988 (before Afrofuturism), by Amiri Baraka, the famous writer associated with the Black Arts Movement. He used it to describe a particular style of writing that he recognized in Henry Dumas’ work, based on the ancient mysteries that are ambiguously relevant both to the past and the present.

Kanye West - Runaway, video still
Kanye West – Runaway, video still

The Motive Of Alienation and the Non-Human

Alondra Nelson mentioned the significance of the Internet in the development of Afrofuturism referring to an online discussion poll that she had launched in the late nineties. It helped bring all of the thinkers, students and scholars together, and generating a community. The members of this group talked about a phenomenon of “cultural abduction”, and apart from the examples that we have already mentioned in this article, this also applied to the systematic ignorance of black scientists whose names were not put in history books. Ytasha Womack goes one step further in analyzing the black experience and the injustice that the African Americans were subject to, in particular. She reminds the readers of the first version of the US Constitution, according to which African people were not considered people at all. Just like the Native Americans and women, Africans were considered not entirely human (three-fifths human, to be precise). However unimaginable this concept may sound to a person living in the 21st century, it is this “dehumanization” of black people (and of anyone who wasn’t a white male) that was maliciously used in laws, in order to reinforce the white privilege. In addition, the USA is not the only example of this brutal behavior, nor are the African Americans the only ones who suffered the consequences of such system.

Ytasha Womack uses this example, and inspired by Mark Dery‘s writings, she compares black people to alien abductees. After examining the plot line of Blade Runner, Dery found relations between slavery and alien abduction, finding a semantic bond between the “alien” and the “other”. This metaphor has been recognized as a powerful form of criticism by an Afrofuturist professor Reynaldo Anderson, who speaks about the Africans as the “first alien abductees, kidnapped by strange people who take us over by ships and conduct scientific experiments on us. They bred us. They came up with a taxonomy of the people they bred: mulato, octoroon, quadroon.[7]

George Clinton and Funkadelic
George Clinton and Funkadelic

People of African Descent – Writing Other Histories, Modeling the Future and Living in the “Now”

Let us reflect, once again, on Sun Ra and his idiosyncratic character. While he may be an extreme example, his mystical, futuristic life story is a perfect illustration of how Afrofuturism can operate. Our history has been shaped by the white civilization, which is something we rarely question, assuming all of the facts to be true – and assuming there’s nothing to add to the truth told by the white people. Being that science fiction is one of the main premises of Afrofuturism, we can rely on its curiosity, its imaginative potential and its borderline altruistic nature to help us re-think the past, and re-imagine the possible futures. In that sense, Womack’s beautifully put introduction states correctly that the future is now. Creatives, writers and musicians of African descent unite in telling their stories through an afrofuturist perspective, constructing new worlds and realities that anticipate possible futures, coinciding with the present, and at times, reclaiming the past. Being very similar, ideologically, to the Black Arts Movement, Afrofuturism is Afro-centric and affirmative. It offers another channel, another perspective on what has been given. It stems from the idea that the world and the Anthropocene need not be arranged according to the ideals and the stories of a white male figure (at least not any more). It is about assessing and reassessing race, cultural differences, but also some less obviously related phenomena – philosophy, science and historical events. It is a way of seeing, or as Womack (whose amazing book I’ve quoted many times) says herself, a prism for evolution.

References:

  1. Womack Y., (2013), Afrofuturism : the world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture. Lawrence Hill Books
  2. Rambsy II, H., (2012), A Notebook on Afrofuturism. Cultural Front
  3. LaFleur, I., Visual Aesthetics of Afrofuturism, TEDx Fort Greene Salon, YouTube, September 25, 2011 [October 14, 2016]
  4. Szwed, J. F., (1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press
  5. Hayashi, W., The Dark Side Trilogy, [October 16, 2016]
  6. Scot Miller, D., AfroSurreal Manifesto. Black Is The New Black – A 21st Century Manifesto, http://dscotmiller.blogspot.co.uk/ [October 16, 2016]
  7. Anderson, R., (2012). Critical Afrofuturism: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric, Sequential Art, and Post-Apocalyptic Black Identity.

Featured images: Sun Ra; Drexciya – Mantaray, video still. All images used for illustrative purposes only.