- Afrofuturism is nothing! Which is emphatically not to say that it does not exist. What I would like to get at with such a statement is that Afrofuturism has no rigid boundaries. Attempts to define are as difficult as trying to define something like “race” or “Africa” or, more difficult yet, “culture.” That being said, we’ll continue the list.
- Sun Ra is still the man (and I use “man” aware of its negative connotations). Music like Space is the Place is all about… well… a place. Afrofuturism uses the future almost like a canvas; it’s a place to put ideas, ambitions, desires, song, etc.. Space is open, uncolonized, free, and in it (despite US’s space programs) it is possible to imagine freedom.
- Afrofuturism isn’t really about the future, and it isn’t about the past, and it can’t really be said to be about the present; to quote Sun Ra again, “time is officially ended.” Recently, during our studios pursuit of righteous knowledge, we at Voyages “came across” an article by Jean Comaroff called “Missionaries and Mechanical Clocks.” If colonization was spearheaded by exporting coo-coo clocks to small African villages, then perhaps the sound of decolonizing is Sun Ra’s piano.
- Afrofuturism is by no means a “new” phenomenon, ask the Dogons, who believed that they were descended from an amphibious people who lived in the Sirius star system (but I bet my diploma they didn’t call it that). They believed that that species was the failed precursor of humans. Don’t ask Nathaniel Mackey about this though, he’ll insist that we are the failed precursors of the human race. Anyone ready for deep-space travel?
- Speaking of Nathaniel Mackey, since Afrofuturism is all about opening up space, I might refer you to an essay by Brent Hayes Edwards called “Notes on Poetics in regard to Mackey’s ‘Song,’” in which he explores how Jazz (and Mackey’s poetry) uses repetition to “open up” space for dialog. And Edwards teaches at Columbia so you know this is the good s___.
- Goodnight everyone, and remember to draw your circles counterclockwise (and out)...
Our time at Voyages is coming to end, after six months of constant, in-depth, and beautifully written posts it’s a bit hard to believe. It’s been a ride, and I am sure that all you loyal (one) readers out there will miss us every bit as we’re gonna miss you. Here at HQ though, we have one last question: what the heck is afrofuturism? To answer, we threw together a few ideas, coupled with a few references, and arranged them into a list.
In the halls of my school I see Che Guevara t-shirts, people sporting some random-ass MLK quote, and listening to Eminem. Perhaps everyone moves through life desiring some grand revolution that will never come. But I think that Gil Scott-Heron is getting at something a bit deeper than those punk materials or self-righteous slogans, all his talk about what a revolution is not is begging me the question, what is a revolution?
Forgive my slight romantic flair, but I’ve been thinking about the revolution - that is, a revolution that means something - as a bouncy ball hitting a mirror. That we live - lives which we have not already always seen on television - in fits and starts. But who am I to say this - I’m white?
That’s this thing too though, our language is cut off by our racial, economic, sexual, etc. etc. roles. We are bracketed by these things, they are in our minds, placed into our heads by TV screens: our desires are created by commercials and our sight mediated by the institutionalized camera. What TV station would broadcast this “revolution?” How could they profit off of it? There are none, it would destroy them.
It is a cold fact that what appears on a screen is dead, we have seen it a hundred times before. There is a huge disconnect between what our reality is supposed to be, this glowing image which dances before our eyes, and what we/he/she/they are. What exactly does it mean that “whitey’s on the moon” when compared to the teeth of the rat? It means nothing but taunt, the dissonance between what cold-war era America wants the future to be, and the reality of its present.
It is a cold fact that what appears on a screen is dead. What does this mean for Heron’s music, as it appears on your computer screen? This, too, is dead. What’s more, it insists that you are dead. You have already heard the complaints registered against these screens. A complaint has been filed, we are committed to your happiness, please be patient as we process this request. These songs are safe on the screen, sound coming from behind that veil is even comforting.
What is the future? What is this revolution? “Whitey” is out there colonizing the future- stabbing the American flag into the moon. There he is on the screen, dead before we see him. He is sanctioned by the television, producing one more part of that white capitol dome which floats across the street.
The revolution is a bouncy ball hitting a mirror. The revolution is a bouncy ball hitting a mirror. What will our future be if we stab the moon in the same way we stab the Earth/stab ourselves?
I repeat, the revolution is a bouncy ball hitting a mirror. It hits over and over again: the mirror vibrates. We are already dead, in listening to Heron. These words, too, are dead, even as they are said. The future? It is a bouncy ball hitting a mirror, knowing that it is this percussive factor which gives me life.
The future is not a colony, it is the drums; it is the realization that despite all the sodas and resort hotels we’ve all heard so much about, we are alive: self-realization. For a moment we have contact, for a moment we can make something which hasn’t already been appropriated, not because it’s new and fresh, but because it’s getting at something Whitey on the moon doesn’t control, a past/a self which is just out of whitey-on-the-moon’s line-of-sight. Then we get swallowed again, by those images. We are mortal, but the revolution is kept alive by fits and starts. The drums are nots, those revolutionary knotted nots recreate the future.
Or maybe not, I don’t know.
listen here and here
We are taught that time is indisputably linear, that it unfolds itself like a sidewalk: square by square, one section immediately after the next. Most importantly, time travel does not exist-- this is a one-way street, and once created no part of this timeline can be erased, edited, or revisited.
Kindred challenges the fundamentals of this belief by presenting time as a circular concept. In the narrative, which is itself told in a non-linear manner, time is folded into and upon itself in a way that disrupts the “order” we come to seek in it. Dana’s world is inextricably linked to that of her ancestors, and a mutual dependency is formed between Dana and her white ancestor from generations ago, Rufus. Neither person can exist in his or her respective time period without the help of the other, just as the past, present, and future exist not as separate entities but as three parts of a single unit.
This temporal relationship is reflected in the social relationships that develop as a result of the time travel, most notably that between Dana and Rufus. As the spoiled only son of a white plantation owner in the antebellum South, Rufus immediately categorizes Dana as a lesser being, in accordance to everything he was raised to believe in the environment he exists in. Dana, a determined black female author from 1976, does not quietly accept the enslaved role that this time travel has ordained her to play (and in many ways never does), challenging Rufus at the risk of her life. Despite this, Rufus and Dana form an odd sort of friendship in which each does care for the other, though perhaps in a misguided sort of way. Transcending, challenging, and subverting this “friendship” is the literal life-and-death mutual dependency that Rufus and Dana have with each other. Here it is not only implied but literally presented that each would die without the other, a link that speaks to the undeniable relationship between black and white histories in this country.
While it is true that Kindred deals in time travel, and delivers its message through the implications and nuances unique to this theme, it separates itself from the world of science fiction by focusing not on the time travel itself, but rather the relationship that reveals itself as a result of the time travel. Upon realizing that she has been forced through time to the antebellum South, Dana does not fixate upon the mechanism by which her body has ruptured science as we know it. Rather, after establishing the causal relationship between Rufus’s life and her travels, as well as the blood relationship between Rufus and herself, Dana accepts the time travel as an inevitability. In her sojourns in 1976, she becomes obsessed with the past, her ability to survive in the past, and the imminent threat of returning to the past- she reads every slave narrative she can get her hands onto, teaches herself how to follow the north star to freedom, and literally ties herself to an anchor of survival necessities to keep her healthy, both mentally and physically, in her stays in the past. By bringing the past into the forefront of Dana’s consciousness even when her body is in the present, Butler speaks to the need for us to not only acknowledge but actively engage the narratives offered by the past in order to effectively confront the present.
Perhaps we can introduce this week’s theme on vodoun aesthetics by way of Jay Gatsby’s perfect blue car. Which, when hitting Myrtle Wilson, provided a vital spark, and forced upon an unwilling white audience the horror of the American Machine. By Machine I do not only mean cold metal gears, plastic covers and motherboards, I also mean to point out that America consumes, appropriates, and (ultimately) throws away the people and cultures it contacts. The collision in The Great Gatsby, is not a source of horror because something has gone horribly wrong, it is horrific because we suddenly realize that the American Machine is working perfectly. The car does not simply kill Myrtle, it drains her vital energy and uses it as fuel. It leaves behind the empty carcass, symbol of the waste product of this machine, and it is only when George Wilson shoots Jay Gatsby that the Machine begins to collapse.(1)
Vodoun aesthetics is interested in the waste-product of the first-world machine, whether that be in Long Island, New York or Port Au Prince, Haiti. This school of thought/philosophical venture/artistic movement (whatever you want to call it) is interested in what happens to the waste of the first-world when it ends up (inevitably) on the shores of the third-world. This is to say, what happens to the Myrtle Wilson who ends up on Haitian shores? Can she be resurrected?(2)
“Nothing is ever totally discarded in Haiti… Whatever defies disintegration becomes another state of being,” says LeGrace Benson in “Ge’de’ on Grand Rue…” Like many places with a strong history of transatlantic slavery, in Haiti, death, particularly when related to social death, is emphatically not an end, it is an important part of life. The post-apocalyptic image of Myrtle Wilson lying dead in the street, an image where the meaning begins to seep out of reality, is, to vodoo, another part of life. The third world, the black third world in particular, is constantly in a state of refuse, its cultural and environmental resources used up by a greedy first world, leaving a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Vodoun aesthetics, though, works through understanding that time does not end, that the present is ever-present and that the refuse of the first-word can become the substance of a different world when “imbued with meaning, power, history, and life force.”(3) This is not ignore the real material needs of the third-world, in fact, this provides the third-world with method of self-creation and, in turn, a truer, deeper voice to argue against a wasteful third-world machine.
What form does this voice take and, moreover, how does the refuse of the first-world become the substance of the third-world? Through artistic self creation and a mode of art which dances the line between the life and death. The form I am referring to here is that of the Fon-Yoruba, Legba, the trickster god of crossroads who “walks with a limp because his legs are of unequal lengths, one of them anchored in the world of humans and the other in that of the gods.”(4) Perhaps more than any other, this god made the middle passage in the belly of slave ships. Their limp is no deformity, rather it is the vital site of cultural and spiritual heterogeneity. With this limp Legba walks the line between life and death, waste and self-creation, humanity and divinity. If it is the role of a god to create reality, then the artist who embodies the form of Legba, which is to say, breakbeat poets, jazz musicians, vodoun artists, etc., have the power to remake themselves and others as divine. They have the power to empower the ostensible trash and recreate the world from a heterogeneous third-world perspective. Vodoun aesthetics flips the world inside out by putting the power of creation into the hands of third-world.
Music is no more a bundle of vibrations in the air than our bodies are bundles of flesh and blood. Music is alive, it reaches out from one person to another and communicates life, suffering, happiness and community. Frankenstein's monster, I have always thought, should have been musician, his singular desire for love and a truer body is the tortured spark of true creativity. Frankenstein’s monster is the child of a hundred bodies, to understand (and overstand) that body requires music from a hundred people, experiences and fears. As the monster is, so too is this modern diaspora- the site of the world’s greatest ever oppression and greatest ever musical movements. Perhaps the greatest figure of this diasporic charge, a person charged with making the music of the (afro)future, is Saul Williams, who recently released his new album “Martyr Loser King.”
I believe that “Martyr Loser King” proposes a new kind of body- one which is distinctly Afrofuturistic. Music has always been the connection to other worlds, to different and better realities, and has extended the body beyond the crude, physical self. Williams, though, allows his limbs to hyperlink into other worlds, he becomes, not a body, but a dissenting supercomputer. His insistence is that the the cyborg has already arrived. That to wear earbuds and wield an iphone doesn’t merely change what you're doing, but where and who you are. Those people walking the street plugged into earbuds and with a vacant look in their eyes. Is that stare the face of laziness and stupidity? Or are they seeing double? The cyborg is the site of oppression, developing countries mine the metals, Chinese factories put them together, rich kids use them to reinforce their white privilege, and the climate pays the price for the addiction. But Williams sees that the cyborg is also a site of dissent, and that the more logic circuits we put in ourselves, the more we desire a bug in the system.
This cyborg, far from making reparations for the past, has only served to create alternative forms of dissent. This schizophrenic new world is not the digital Shangri La of science fiction novels. Middle fingers are still raised and Burundi is still impoverished. This album does not claim perfection, rather Williams has ignited a new digital superhero, whose power is doubled vision and whose motto is #blacklivesmatter.
Janelle Monáe steals her syncopated seconds between the day-to-day daze. Her music is brave, powerful, and balanced* between mainstream and appropriation, and between sublime rhythm and horrifying dissonance. She sounds out an obstinate appeal to a “shangri la” between the cracks in discord and the senselessness. “Many Moons” ends in a radial motion up from inarticulacy to perfect serenity, before descending back down into the dissolute, “shang, shang, shang, shangri la, na na na na na na na na na.” Like a computer boot-strapping itself, each rhythm sets-the-stage for the next. Monáe explores the cracks in reality, the inherent fractures in a cultural timeline, and, within them, she finds a rhythmic shangri la. The music she develops is a refuge, is the twenty-first century style, sporting ear buds and a distant look in the eyes. This look which so many of our “lost generation” possess, is, I think she contends, not the result of stupidity or symptomatic of a lack of ambition, rather, it is the sign of a second sight, one provided by rhythm, bolstered by technology, and in defiance of our status-quo identities. This is the new religion of hip-hop and the internet age. Basquiat, with his crown, is our king, and Monáe is our ArchAndroid. She is the permeable mediator, the broken threshold between the technological and the human. And in her music we see the indistinction between technology and humanity; technology has a vitality of its own, which escapes our attempts to control it, “I hear the sirens go dudu, dudu, dudu, dudu,” as does the music and culture of the less-visible American network.
*It’s worth noting that she does not always maintain this balance, for example, her song “Electric Lady” features product placement and a sorority party. This is troubling, but not reason to dismiss her entire work.
Reading Lemon Anderson’s poem “The Future” is like finding yourself at the center of a shattered window-pane, still clinging to the frame. Stretching out in all directions are references to the wider, cacophonous world of black music and culture; they’re not the convoluted references of T. S. Elliot but ones which go out to the beating hearts of America. This is a poem which demands relevance to pop culture and evokes the displaced and oppressed. In short, Lemon Anderson’s future is one in which Black Lives Matter. They matter because the way we speak matters, one day “slang will evoke change.” Because hung, hooked, and hip hopped language does more than contain ideas, it communicates what language ordinarily misses: the value of black lives. The fact is that black lives don’t matter on the mainstream radio stations and that your car’s GPS doesn’t serve up the land, which is why one day “car navigation will use/ top to bottom graf walls/ to get you through traffic” and “they will paint the Brooklyn bridge/ Red Black and Green/ to commemorate Spike Lee.” If we change what a place looks like and how we see it, does it change us? And if we were changed, what would we see? If we had our English Majors reading “Big Ls rhyme books” and if we had “hip hop high school[s],” then what kind of future would we have?
We would have a future which bridges the past, present, and future. #BlackLivesMatter not to demean white people, #BlackLivesMatter to remind us that America’s history of racism and oppression continues, that we are, right now, a part of that history. I say that “The Future” is like a shattered window-pane because it's only when the glass shatters that you see the window- you see your perspective. “The Future” is a list of white privilege, suddenly transforming a comfortable white reality into the conspicuous lack-of “It Was A Good Day” children’s books and breakbeat elevator music. The future is evoked to show what the present is missing: a better, realer look at racist history, and the possibility of change. But it doesn’t stop with white privilege, it imagines what black culture could be if free of hypersexuality and formless riches. One day “rappers will replace/ video hos with their wives and kids,” “MC Lyte will be our new Oprah” and “we will respect/ our gold chains/ our diamonds/ and replace them with Steve Biko/ name plate quotes.” “The Future” is not a distant sci-fi fantasy, it's a new kind of window onto reality, one which sees phantoms, hears the lowest frequencies, and speaks proudly with the shards of shattered language.
Let it top the billboard charts
years a thousand fold
till everyone realizes
the truth will go pop,
the honest and upright
will be bang in the club,
lying will only list you
with the sucker MCs
Grammys will be overrated
ghost writing will win PUlitzer
slang will evoke change,
breakbeats will become elevator music
car navigation will use
top to bottom graf walls
to get you through traffic
grandmothers will still
be making music with their mouth Biz,
thugs will finally come out
and tell the world
that they are the real
hip hop masons
wearing baggy jeans
under your ass
will come back permanently
tattoos will be earned
dreads will be licensed
only to the nappy
the party people will strike
against DJs using MP3s
studios will be strapped
with lie detectors
rappers will replace
video hos with their wives and kids
MC Lyte will be our new Oprah
the Oscar will go to Lupe Fiasco
for playing Rakim
we will wake up every morning
and pray south to the Bronx
we will have a hip hop high school
for the ignorant but blissful
where they will teach
master classes on beat boxing
field trips to old train yards
on who can grow the best kush,
Big Ls rhyme books
will be the basis
for all English majors
we will live in a world ruled
by the iron fist of the 808,
It Was a Good Day by Ice Cube
will be illustrated into a children's book,
they will paint the Brooklyn bridge
Red Black and Green
to commemorate Spike Lee,
there will finally
be some honor amongst us
see America's Most Wanted
will run an hour special
on who killed Jam Master Jay
Holywood will move to Atlanta
L.A. will celebrate their independence
from the entertainment industry
we will respect
our gold chains
and replace them with Steve Biko
name plate quotes
democracy will fall into the hands
of an OG'd out government
where Dead Prez
will be in charge
of the people's army of the United States,
Latifah will be the first lady
And what do you know
Eric B. will be President.
Lee "Scratch" Perry was one of the first reggae artists to adopt dub techniques, reimagining the genre in a big way.
In an effort to more fully understand and appreciate the unique perspectives of Perry, it is important to consider the influences he had growing up.
Perry is Jamaican, born in a rural town called Kendal. This was a farming town, despite a largely unpleasant environment for it, and had been the home of slaves just a couple generations before Perry. His family attended church, but more important aspects of his spirituality likely came from West and Central African influences, remnants of the earlier slave period. Ettu dancing and ceremonies emphasized a connection with ancient spirits; other aspects of spirituality included the belief in influential benign and malevolent spirits.
Another important point to consider is the very language with which Perry communicates; though the words he uses are English, his English, the English from the small town in Jamaica where he grew up, is not the same English we know. The true subtleties of language come from a place not easily explained by grammar and syntax, and given the jarringly different nature of what Perry says -
" You understand? You overstand! You cannot understand. My little children why should we understand when we should be be overstand. I wish the government to understand. I wish the council churches, the popes, will understand. And I wish the American goverment understand that I overstand in the jungle. From Jamaica we put down the fire. A-hoo. We make people happy."
- one cannot help but think that, at the very least, Perry's perspective of language is different from most of us. He comes from a different headspace, which one cannot help but imagine is influenced by the way he knows words.
More to the point of Afrofuturism, Perry's view of spirituality seems to have come from the past. Afrofuturism, then, is proven not to be an invention set groundlessly in the future but a depiction of the future in terms of the past. The future is necessarily a product of past beliefs and experiences, and afrofuturistic works are no different.
Perry's song "Panic in Babylon" is a good example of this; the dub influences are prominent, but even the name itself alludes to an ancient city - listen here.
What is more futuristic than flying cars and holograms? Climate Change.
It seems that a warmer Earth is a far, far more likely future for the entire world than a bourgeois fantasy of equanimous technological serenity, or even of dystopian surveillance states. And who will bear the brunt of this pollution catastrophe? The poor and vulnerable nations of Earth. This is not to say that developed nations will never feel the effects of climate change, they will, and they will feel them strongly, but only much, much later than other countries. This is why, over the past two weeks, 147 world leaders have gathered in Paris, France to debate the use of fossil fuels and what can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is the largest gathering of world leaders ever, and so far, it seems largely futile.
While there are a huge number of countries attending this conference, there are only a few who really matter. They are, of course, not the ones most affected by rising sea levels, or who will experience the most devastating temperature changes (excepting Saudi Arabia), they are the countries which control most of the world’s capital, they are the countries which are deepest under the covers with Oil Companies, and they are, primarily, the United States. What they’re trying to do is both raise the level of “safe” warming which the world can sustain, make complying with these regulations voluntary, and avoid providing funds to developing countries which are dealing with the effects of climate change. This amounts to, as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace put it, “subliminal racism.” The climate deal which a US backed coalition is pushing for, a deal which allows for warming of 3-4༠C, effectively means that billions of lives and livelihoods all around the world in poor and developing nations do not matter. In 2009, in the last major Climate Conference, when world leaders agreed the global temperature rise of more than 2༠C was “dangerous,” African delegates marched through the halls and demanded that 2༠C was tantamount to a death warrant for thousands of people in Saharan Nations. Now, it seems, that the world’s capital powers cannot meet even that meager goal.
The United States is not alone in its deadly addiction to fossil fuels though. Joining it is Saudi Arabia, a country whose economy is almost entirely reliant on exporting oil, but which will become nearly “unlivable” in the next century due to extreme heat from Climate Change. It is helping the United States back plans which will make these extreme conditions a reality. And this, perhaps, is the strangest and most important things happening in Paris right now. It reveals (or confirms) that the economic system of capitalism fails, utterly, to see beyond its own limits. A system based on the acquisition of capital does not miraculously become a perfect system of living. What becomes exceedingly clear, not only from this deal, but from decades of climate inaction, is that the survival of billions of people, in Africa and around the globe, and ultimately the survival of humans as a species, is based on immediate and radical re-imagination of economic systems. How to do this? That may well be the great (though probably futile) task of Afrofuturism. But, surely no system has any hope of being re-imagined unless it hears the voices of the injustice it produces, the goal of any committed environmental movement cannot stand in a vacuum from other social movements. Environmentalism, Feminism, and Black Lives Matter are independent movements, but in order to halt irreparable damage, all of their most eloquent voices must be heard together. Unless the shadows of capitalism become a tangible force, there can be no true justice.
Science fiction presents a reality fraught with impossibility, set in a foreign, hostile landscape.
The African experience is grounded entirely on this Earth, its people being not merely humans, but the first humans as we know them to exist.
Where do these two concepts intersect? It seems that the ideas would be at odds with each other, but science fiction can and has been used to present an alternative way to present the story of Africa, its people, and the African experience.
Across science fiction, aliens and extraterrestrial life are a prominent theme. Protagonists may venture across the "final frontier," encountering the savage inhabitants of planets in the neighboring galaxies. These beings are often depicted as grotesque, uniquely lacking in the traits that define humanity.
Extracting the essence of this alien trope can reveal a disturbing similarity to aspects of the African story throughout history. The alienation, or "othering," of the African people by outsiders (particularly European colonists) is epidemic to this day; by defining "alien" as anything opposed to the European ideal, African people were made into outsiders.
Afrofuturist works model this intersection of science fiction and African reality with depictions of space, the unknown, and dystopian futures. Mediums include art, music, and literature spanning decades, even before the ideas supporting "afrofuturism" had been christened as such.
Jean-Michel Basquiat's work, "Molasses," features a derelict-looking robot resigned at the foot of a uniformed human figure driving a vehicle with bars, a jail on wheels. "Molasses" is a likely reference to the slave trade, which produced sugar (and molasses as a marketable byproduct). Slaves, considered property rather than human beings, are made analogous to the robot, suffering at the hands of an authoritative "higher" being. In this way, Basquiat reinvents events of the past through a lens from the future, exemplifying a core tenet of afrofuturism.