Afrofuturism: The Use of Ancestral Elements To Create future worlds
Note from BW of Brazil: Can you remember the first time you were exposed to Afro-Futurism and what form it appeared in? Of course, the usage of the term in modern times is relatively new, but the concept clearly isn’t. No, when I look back into my memory archives, I hadn’t put a name on this movement but I knew it when I felt it. I think my first exposure to the concept would have been listening to 1970s Parliament/Funkadelic albums, particularly those of the mid-70s. Albums such as Mothership Connection (1975), Hardcore Jollies (1976) and Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome (1977) had a futuristic sound that seemed to be several years ahead of what was going on in the R&B/Funk world at the time.
When the classic jam “Flashlight” hit the airwaves, there was nothing else like it at the time. The heavy bass keyboard line, the snare clap, chicken scratch guitar and the airy, violin sounding keyboards along with the voice effect that created the Sir Nose character’s voice almost gave you the feeling that some aliens have come to earth to show you how to funk. I still remember the first time I heard that joint. I was like, “who/what is THAT?” And then to go along with the futuristic sound, there was George Clinton’s catchy phrases and the imaginative P-Funk album cover art and comics, which were stories in themselves.
Many years after P-Funk’s heyday had passed on, I remember a friend of mine being so excited after having found and bought a bootleg edition of the Parliament’s historic 1977 P-Funk Earth Tour. At the time, the mid-90s, I didn’t know why it was such a big deal….that is until I saw a documentary about that tour. By 1977, black music fans had never seen such a spectacle that was the P-Funk Earth Tour. The lighting, the wild costumes and, of course, the enormous mock spaceship that landed on the stage were all elements of the show that you would really have to see to believe. A kind of Close Encounters put to music.
I look back now and see that THAT was Afro-Futurism. A new perspective of what black people were capable of beyond the “we shall overcome” narrative that was based on how mistreated African descendants had been treated as a people. When George Clinton spoke of Richard Pryor being the Minister of Education, Stevie Wonder the Secretary of Fine Arts and Aretha Franklin being the First Lady, he was encouraging us to imagine a whole different space and time.
I would get another taste of a futuristic black sound in the early 80s when Minneapolis wizkid Prince went into the lab and cooked up guitar-driven songs, with synthesizer-lead fill lines backed by a futuristic Linn drum machine and, once again, black radio was taken several years into future, to the year 1999 to be exact because that was the name of the stunning two-record set. Even without any music videos which were growing in popularity at the time, you could close your eyes and listen to tracks like “1999”, “Automatic”, “Something in the Water” and really imagine that someone “was dreaming when they wrote” that. And Prince must have been dreaming of the future when he wrote, arranged and produced that classic album. Again, like mid-70s P-Funk, there wasn’t quite anything else like it on black radio at the time.
Another album that carried that same futuristic feel was the debut album of Prince’s childhood friend and former bass player, André Cymone, whose sound and album cover Livin’ in the New Wave was every bit as futuristic as 1999, but it fell into the category of hidden gems because it didn’t sell very well. Cymone carried on his “black to the future” theme again in his follow up album Survivin’ in the 80s. I could go on and on about my introduction to Afro-Futurism, such as the 1969 Miles Davis album In a Silent Way, followed by 1970’s Bitches Brew and where the trumpet player was leading the Jazz world with his experimental fusions with Rock.
But those are my experiences. For some people, Afro-Futurism may come through literature, fashion, art or still other genres. Last week, a new release by black pop diva Beyoncé Knowles (Carter) had everybody talking about Afro-Futurism again, and let me tell, black Brazilians had a lot to say, particularly after a leading white scholar published her critique of Bey’s new joint in Brazil’s top newspaper. Let’s just say, Afro-Brazilians formed a beehive and said scholar got stung. More on that in a future piece but, for now, a few voices of Afro-Brazil discuss Beyoncé and Afro-Futurism, or afrofuturismo as it’s called in Brazil. Check it out…
Afrofuturism, the movement that inspired Beyoncé in “Black is King”
Researcher Morena Mariah and writer Ale Santos explain how the movement connects African ancestry with futuristic elements
By Maria Clara Serpa
Last Friday (31), Beyoncé released the visual album Black is King which, although not yet available in Brazil, raised important discussions, as is usual in the artist’s creations. For 85 minutes, the film recounts the story of the Lion King repositioning black people as protagonists of the story and using Africa as a backdrop.
Through the album, Beyoncé presents elements of African ancestral culture and the trajectory told by her own descendants, remembering that it’s not just about slavery, suffering and misery, as it is portrayed in most entertainment works. By dedicating production to her ancestry, the artist immerses herself in afrofuturism (afrofuturismo in Brazil), a movement that has been gaining strength with pop culture, but which has been known since the 1960s.
Morena Mariah, a scholar of the movement and creator of the Instagram profile Afrofuturo, explains that Afrofuturism acts as a forceful response to forgetting and emptying the history of black people. “There is an erasure of African history from pre-colonial times. This is an arm of racism, because the colonizers really wanted this to be completely ignored. Afrofuturism emerges as a rescue of this ancestry and, from there, manages to create an idea of the future for this group,” she explains.
Basically, as they have little perspective of the present – due to the violence of the diaspora to the current racism – it’s difficult for the black population to have a perspective of the future. The movement, which is multifaceted, comes to break this paradigm and value African culture with the use of ancestral elements to create advanced future worlds. It’s from this projection of the future that we will actually be able to realize it, so Afrofuturism is also a way of seeking new ways of living, in addition to being a way of rethinking and criticizing the present.
How did it come about?
According to Morena, Afrofuturism has existed since African culture exists. However, the term itself was only used for the first time in the 1990s, in the text “Black to the Future”, by scholar Mark Dery – a white man. Think about it: how many protagonists in famous science fiction films and works are black? This was the question that made Mark start his study to understand why the genre is so whitened.
What he discovered, through interviews and conversations with black people in the industry, is that there is a process of erasing the past of these peoples, which leads to a lack of an image of the future, because the blacks themselves were not allowed to know each other. The situation becomes even more critical because the industry, which is racist like the rest of society, does not strive to change the situation and, on the rare occasions when it decides to portray a black person, it does so as a bandit or someone with less importance in the plot.
After that conclusion, Mark Dery goes in search of works by black authors and realizes that, in them, there are characteristics in common that are, precisely, this resumption of the identity of the past to create the idea of the future. Thus, he uses the term Afrofuturism for the first time.
American musician Sun Rá was one of the precursors of the movement and considered the father of futuristic aesthetics linked to blackness. In literature, one of the big names is Octavia Butler, the “first lady of science fiction”, who has black protagonists in all of her 15 published books. The most famous of them, Kindred, tells the story of a black writer who is transported from Los Angeles in the 1970s to a slave farm in the southern United States in the 19th century.
Names like Afrika Bambaataa, Janelle Monáe and, in Brazil, Xênia França and Natály Neri are other exponents of the contemporary movement. In Metropolis (2007), her first solo work, Janelle tells the story of her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, a woman from the year 2719 and who lives in a futuristic dystopian reality. In literature, the movement is not yet as strong, but through the support of pop culture, with films like Black Panther – one of the greatest examples of Afrofuturism in cinema – and Beyoncé’s own creation, it gains more and more space.
In her studies, the doctor in communication and the main researcher on the subject in Brazil, Kênia Freitas, explains that Afrofuturism is a space of exclusively black authorship. For her, within the logic of historical and personal rescue of the movement, it doesn’t make sense that there are proposals executed or thought by white people.
What’s the importance?
For Ale Santos, author of the book Rastros de resistência: Histórias de luta e liberdade do povo negro (Trails of Resistance: Stories of struggle and freedom of the black people), the importance of the movement is mainly in representativeness. By connecting African ancestry with the future, creating Afrocentric futuristic utopias, black people can imagine themselves in the future.
“Virtually all science fiction creations are made with an ego ideal [a concept created by Freud that basically deals with the representation of oneself that seeks to access idealized representations] of white people, that is, we imagine a future with only white people. As Neusa Santos Souza said in the book Tornar-se Negro (Becoming Black), people of African descent don’t have these ego ideals, because they are always represented as the alien or the villain. With Afrofuturism, we were able to create that ego in black people, which is extremely important,” explains Ale.
In addition, in fighting against the emptying and forgetting of African history, the movement also helps the black population to feel proud of their roots, to destroy the idea that their past is composed only of bad things and, with that, it also makes a strong tool in the fight against racism and discrimination.
Where the movement is in our culture
It’s not just Beyoncé and Black Panther. “Despite not being overtly Afrofuturist, Michael Jackson, for example, was clearly influenced by the movement in some of his songs. In the most expensive video for “Scream”, he and his sister Janet Jackson are on a spaceship wandering through space. This can be considered an Afro-Futuristic production,”says Ale.
In addition to being increasingly present in pop culture, Afrofuturism is also very present in the so-called subculture. “It appears as an underground movement, it’s not on television or in movie theaters, not least because they are counter-cultural discussions, which go against what is hegemonic. It is much more present in a layer of smaller artists, small publishers,” explains Morena Mariah.
How to include Afrofuturism in everyday life
Although theoretical discussions and reflections are extremely important for structural changes in society, the debate needs to migrate to the field of action. Therefore, it is necessary to think about how we can include Afrofuturist ideals and thoughts in everyday life. Morena says that she was never able to study her ancestry in educational institutions, simply because the subjects were not addressed and, therefore, she went through a process of self-education to learn about her own ancestry.
“With this background, I try to visualize the future based on what we live in the present. I always wonder what I’m doing so that we have a different future. In my view, the most important thing is to question whether what we do is forceful and that what we are leaving is legacy and positive, like what has been left to us so far,” she explains.
Quilombola thinker Nêgo Bispo says that we are “beginning, middle and beginning” and not “beginning, middle and end”. Morena takes this into her life. “This means that we have to think about what we left as a starting point for the next generation. We are architects of the future and we must use it as a tool of thought and a way of seeing life, experiencing the present,” she concludes.