Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology. It was coined by Mark Dery in 1994 and explored in the late 1990s through conversations led by Alondra Nelson. Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African diaspora through technoculture and science fiction, encompassing a range of media and artists with a shared interest in envisioning black futures that stem from Afrodiasporic experiences. Seminal Afrofuturistic works include the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Angelbert Metoyer, and the photography of Renée Cox; the explicitly extraterrestrial mythoi of Parliament-Funkadelic, the Jonzun Crew, Warp 9, Deltron 3030, and Sun Ra; and the Marvel Comics superhero Black Panther.
Mid-late 20th century development
Despite Afrofuturism being coined in 1993, scholars tend to agree that Afrofuturistic music, art and text became more common and widespread in the late 1950s. The Afrofuturist approach to music was first propounded by Sun Ra. Born in Alabama, Sun Ra's music coalesced in Chicago in the mid-1950s, when with the Arkestra he began recording music that drew from hard bop and modal sources, creating a new synthesis that used Afrocentric and space-themed titles to reflect Ra's linkage of ancient African culture, specifically Egypt, and the cutting edge of the Space Age. For many years, Ra and his bandmates lived, worked and performed in Philadelphia while touring festivals worldwide. Ra's film Space Is the Place shows The Arkestra in Oakland in the mid-1970s in full space regalia, replete with science-fiction imagery as well as other comedic and musical material. As of 2018, the band was still composing and performing, under the leadership of Marshall Allen.
Afrofuturist ideas were taken up in 1975 by George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic with his magnum opus Mothership Connection and the subsequent The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, P-Funk Earth Tour, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, and Motor Booty Affair. In the thematic underpinnings to P-Funk mythology ("pure cloned funk"), Clinton in his alter ego Starchild spoke of "certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies".
Other musicians typically regarded as working in or greatly influenced by the Afrofuturist tradition include reggae producers Lee "Scratch" Perry and Scientist, hip-hop artists Afrika Bambaataa and Tricky, electronic musicians Larry Heard, A Guy Called Gerald, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Newcleus and Lotti Golden & Richard Scher, electro hip hop producer/writers of Warp 9's "Light Years Away", a sci-fi tale of ancient alien visitation, described as a "cornerstone of early 80's beatbox afrofuturism".
Cultural Criticism in the 1990s
In the early 1990s, a number of cultural critics, notably Mark Dery in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future", began to write about the features they saw as common in African-American science fiction, music, and art. Dery dubbed this phenomenon "Afrofuturism".According to cultural critic Kodwo Eshun, British journalist Mark Sinker was theorizing a form of Afrofuturism in the pages of The Wire, a British music magazine, as early as 1992.
Afrofuturist ideas have further been expanded by scholars like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose, Kodwo Eshun, and others. In an interview, Alondra Nelson explained Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the subject position of black people which covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a utopic future. The idea of "alien" or "other" is a theme often explored. Additionally, Nelson notes that discussions around race, access, and technology often bolster uncritical claims about a so-called "digital divide". The digital divide overemphasizes the association of racial and economic inequality with limited access to technology. This association then begins to construct blackness "as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress". As a critique of the neo-critical argument that the future's history-less identities will end burdensome stigma, Afrofuturism holds that history should remain a part of identity, particularly in terms of race.
A new generation of recording artists have embraced Afrofuturism into their music and fashion, including Solange, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. This tradition continues from artists such as Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe, who incorporated cyborg themes and metallics into their style. Other 21st century musicians who have been characterized as Afrofuturist include singer FKA Twigs, musical duo Ibeyi, and DJ/producer Ras G.
In more recent years, artists such as Rihanna and Beyoncé have often been interpreted by the public as having some non-human elements about them, exhibited in both their performances, and in their day to day interactions. Because the tabloids have so much control over the way that information is digested, the public receives images of these women that are distant and controlled solely by the media, and thus, these women are often painted as angry or unfeeling. Scholars such as Robin James have interrogated and expanded upon the work of Kodwo Eshun, and coined the idea of the "robo-diva". These scholars both argue that the Black experience has always been more alien than it has been human, and James connects the mechanics of the middle passage to alien abduction through concepts of kidnapping, isolation, and bowing down to an unknown power. Kodwo Eshun also posits that perhaps the categorization of "human" has no use in the Black community, and that instead, the category of "robot" is not only more powerful, but more accurately representative of the positioning in the social hierarchy in which Black people exist in the present day. Because musical artists (Rihanna, Beyoncé) exhibit such non-human qualities, they are often ostracized for being "cold" or "mechanical". The white patriarchy both fears and admires such artists due to their unapologetic displays of female sexuality and its interactions with technology. These fears then propel the virgin/whore dichotomy that stems from the trope of the Jezebel, and serves to further the racialized projections of stereotypes onto Black females in the music industry.
Janelle Monáe has made a conscious effort to restore Afrofuturist cosmology to the forefront of urban contemporary music. Her notable works include the music videos "Prime Time" and "Many Moons", which explore the realms of slavery and freedom through the world of cyborgs and the fashion industry. She is credited with proliferating Afrofuturist funk into a new Neo-Afrofuturism by use of her Metropolis-inspired alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, who incites a rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society, in order to liberate citizens who have fallen under their oppression. This ArchAndroid role reflects earlier Afrofuturistic figures Sun Ra and George Clinton, who created their own visuals as extraterrestrial beings rescuing African-Americans from the oppressive natures of Earth. Her influences include Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Star Wars. The all Black Wondaland Arts Collective Society, of which Monáe is a founder of, stated "We believe songs are spaceships. We believe music is the weapon of the future. We believe books are the stars." Other musical artists to emerge since the turn of the millennium regarded as Afrofuturist include dBridge, SBTRKT, Shabazz Palaces, Heavyweight Dub Champion, and "techno pioneers" Drexciya (with Gerald Donald).
Chicago is home to a vibrant community of artists exploring Afrofuturism. Nick Cave, known for his Soundsuits project, has helped develop younger talent as the director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other artists include visual artists Hebru Brantley as well as contemporary artist Rashid Johnson, a Chicago native currently based in New York. In 2013, Chicago resident Ytasha L. Womack wrote the study Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy, and William Hayashi has published all three volumes of his Darkside Trilogy which tells the story of what happens in America when the country discovers African Americans secretly living on the backside of the moon since before the arrival of Neil Armstrong, an extreme vision of segregation imposed by technologically advanced Blacks. Krista Franklin, a member of University of Chicago's Arts Incubator, is currently exploring the relation between Afrofuturism and the grotesque through her visual and written work with weaves and collected hair. Recently, she also created an audio narrative in collaboration with another Afrofuturist, Perpetual Rebel, called The Two Thousand and Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, which explores the ideas of identity and transformation within the context of hair and African-American culture.
The movement has grown globally in the arts. Afrofuturist Society was founded by curator Gia Hamilton in New Orleans. Artists like Demetrius Oliver from New York, Cyrus Kabiru from Nairobi, Lina Iris Viktor from Liberia, famed Nigerian American solar muralist, Shala.,and Wanuri Kahiu of Kenya have all steeped their work in the cosmos or sci-fi.
Ostensibly, Afrofuturism has to do with reclaiming the lost identities or lost perspectives that have been subverted or overlooked. When Mark Dery first coined the term, he says Afrofuturism as "giving rise to a troubling antinomy". This means that the seeming contradiction of a past being snuffed out and the writing of a future sees its possibilities in Afrofuturism. Furthermore, this Afrofuturism kind of story telling is not regulated to one aspect of communication. It is in novels and essays, academic writings and in music, but by its creation, it is ultimately reclaiming some type of autonomy over one's story that has historically been restricted.
Therefore, when Afrofuturism manifests itself in the music of the 80's and beyond, it is under the Afrofuturist's sensibility. It is in this way that, as Mark Dery says, "African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart". Because the ancestors of African Americans were forcibly removed from their history, any culture that has found its way into the Black lexicon is at its roots an Afrofuturist notion. It is at its heart reclaiming a past erased and creating a future based on that reimagined past.
Afrofuturism 2.0 was coined during an exchange between Alondra Nelson and Reynaldo Anderson at the Alien Bodies conference in 2013; where Anderson noted that the previous definition was insufficient due to the rise of social media and new technology. Following the publication of the co-edited volume Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness, in the late 2010s, the Black Speculative Arts Movement, a traveling art, comic, and film convention, released a manifesto called Afrofuturism 2.0 and the Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto. The manifesto was written by Reynaldo Anderson at Harris-Stowe State University as an attempt to redefine and refit Afrofuturism for the 21st century. The 2.0 volume and the manifesto defines Afrofuturism 2.0 as "The early twenty-first century technogenesis of Black identity reflecting counter histories, hacking and or appropriating the influence of network software, database logic, cultural analytics, deep remixability, neurosciences, enhancement and augmentation, gender fluidity, posthuman possibility, the speculative sphere with transdisciplinary applications and has grown into an important Diasporic techno-cultural Pan African movement". Afrofuturism 2.0 is characterized by five dimensions to include metaphysics, aesthetics, theoretical and applied science, social sciences and programmatic spaces; and in the twenty-first century is no longer bound to its original definition, as a term once dealing with cultural aesthetics and the digital divide, but has been broaden to be known also as a philosophy of science, metaphysics and geopolitics.
In this manifesto, Anderson acknowledges and accounts for the changes in technology, social movements, and even philosophical changes in modern society while also speculating as to how the Afrofuturist narrative will be changed because of it. This is particularly in regards to the rise and boom of social media platforms. In conjunction with this, Los Angeles-based artist Martine Syms penned an online article in 2013 called The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto that is composed of a list of tenets that, supposedly, all Mundane Afrofuturists recognize. Though the article is in part parodic and sarcastic, it aims to identify and make light of overused tropes within Afrofuturist works like "magical Negroes" or "references to Sun Ra". Through this identification of "overused tropes" and a later definition of rules to actually subvert these tropes entitled "The Mundane Afrofuturist promise", Syms requests a new, updated vision for Afrofuturist works, which falls in line with the framework of Afrofuturism 2.0.
Black Radical Imagination -- “The notion of the Black Radical Imagination stemmed from a series of discussions around the boundaries and limitations that are historically given to people of color in the realm of the cinematic.
Black Radical Imagination is a touring program of visual shorts that delve into the worlds of new media, video art, and experimental narrative. Focusing on new stories within the diaspora, each artist contributes their own vision about post-modern society through the state of current black culture. Black Radical Imagination focuses on the aesthetics of Afro-futurism, Afro-surrealism, and the magnificent through the context of cinema. Curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.”
Parable of the Sower -- Octavia Butler -- Parable of the Sower is a dystopian classic of terror and hope-the story of an African American teenage girl trying to survive in an all-too-real future-from the "grand dame" of science fiction, Octavia E. Butler. When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death, Lauren Olamina, an empath and the daughter of a minister, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny...and the birth of a new faith, as Lauren becomes a prophet carrying the hope of a new world and a revoltionary idea christened "Earthseed".
Parable of the Talents -- Octavia Butler -- (The sequel to Parable of the Sower) “Lauren Olamina's love is divided among her young daughter, her community, and the revelation that led Lauren to found a new faith that teaches "God Is Change". But in the wake of environmental and economic chaos, the U.S. government turns a blind eye to violent bigots who consider the mere existence of a black female leader a threat. And soon Lauren must either sacrifice her child and her followers -- or forsake the religion that can transform human destiny.”
(from the book jackets)