ESSAY Afrofuturism Now! (EN)
From 14 to 18 October, WORM, the institute for avant-garde recreation in Rotterdam, will dedicate itself to contemporary Afrofuturism. Florian Cramer introduces us to this movement, which formed at the intersection of avant-garde music, science fiction, futurism and the black diaspora. Words: Florian Cramer. Photographs: D1L0 DeMiLLe.
Read the original Dutch version here.
A future book on the history of 21st century music might note the date November 9, 2013. This was the day on which a new avant-garde of the post-colonial black diaspora met the classical European avant-garde. One hundred years after the publication of Italian futurist Antonio Russolo’s manifesto, L’arte dei rumori (which called for a music based on industrial-mechanical noise) the deejay, producer and curator King Britt organised a concert evening called “Bring the Noise: Afrofuturism x Russolo” at the fourth experimental music festival at <fidget>, in Philadelphia.
King Britt was joined by the black avant-garde DJs and musicians Hank Shocklee, HPrizm, Computer Jay and Marlo Reynolds; all of whom remixed and sampled Russolo’s early noise music (originally made with self-built mechanical intonarumori devices). Also on stage that night was Ytasha Womack, author of ‘Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture’. This book, published in 2013, is still the most accessible introduction to the background, history and recent developments in Afrofuturism. And yet, if you read this title now in 2015 – barely two years later – it feels nearly outdated. You could compare it to a book written in 1977 about punk and new wave; a culture that had already changed significantly by 1979.
Since 2013 an ever-richer global network has grown; consisting of Afrofuturist blogs and podcasts; festivals; zines and self-published books; underground and electroacoustic music; workshops and films (from experimental videos on Vimeo to new African science fiction films); art; fashion; radio plays; and parades and events. (White) European critics such as Mark Fisher, who only see retro, nostalgia and hauntology in contemporary culture, can most certainly learn something.
Avant-garde music, and science fiction/fantasy culture; how do these two disciplines work together? In fact, this combination was at the very origin of Afrofuturism, a name coined in the 1990s to describe a culture dating back at least to the 1960s. The fusion of avant-garde and science fiction is particularly evident in the work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Sun Ra not only considered his music as interplanetary music but, with 1974 “Space Is the Place”, actually made a science fiction movie. In this, Sun Ra lands with a UFO in California, and sets about freeing black youth living in the ghettos; taking them to outer space. The ‘ark’ of the Arkestra literally materialises in this film.
The film played with themes that are also central to modern Afrofuturism. The most striking was the point that the diaspora created by colonialism and slavery has led many black people to feel as if they were – literally – aliens. Afrofuturism gives that status a utopian meaning.
In his podcast “Cosmic Culture: A Sonic Journey into AfroFuturism” King Britt confirms this observation: “We tend to look at other worlds, science fiction and comic books […] as a way of escape[…]. I remember that as a kid growing up in Southwest Philly, and then going to suburban schools […] with a few African-American kids there.”
King Britt is one of several polymath intellectuals in today’s Afrofuturism. Alongside his work as a pop and dance producer he creates experimental electronic music, for example in his projects Fhloston Paradigm and (together with the Afrofuturist video and media artist Rucyl) Saturn Never Sleeps. His “Cosmic Culture mix includes (among others) Don Cherry and Herbie Hancock, King Tubby, Afrika Bambaataa, Ras G and Shabazz Palaces. Alongside Sun Ra, Britt cites George Clinton, and black American intellectual science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, as important references.
Accordingly, Afrofuturist Rasheedah Phillips sees Afrofuturism as a utopian tradition that has deep roots, and a long history in the global black culture. Phillips is the founder of the busy Afrofuturist initiative and blog, “The Afrofuturist Affair”. Like King Britt she lives and works in Philadelphia, and and is an intellectual with an encyclopaedic vision on Afrofuturism: “Many of us were Afrofuturists long before it had a name. Whether you call it mythology, ghost stories, cosmology, parable, folktale, sci-fi, religious tale, or fantasy, people of color have always contemplated their origins in the same breath that they anticipated the fate of humankind.”
Early European futurism also had a strong science-fiction element, especially Russian futurism. This is best seen in the science-fiction opera “Victory Over the Sun” in from 1913. This work was written by avant-garde poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenych, with the score composed by Mikhail Matyushin, and sets and costumes designed by Kasimir Malevich. The libretto was written in the artificial futuristic ‘Zaum’ language, which Khlebnikov and Kruchenych proposed as the “trans-rational language of the stars”. A notable difference between European and Afrofuturism is that Sun Ra saw himself as the ambassador of, not as a victor over the sun, and that all Afrofuturist currents from Sun Ra to today do not break with history.
Marinetti and Russolo wanted to destroy the cultural past; for example the Nike of Samothrace and bourgeois culture. With this way of thinking, they still conformed to an essentially linear concept of time, space and historical processes. Afrofuturism is characterised by a circular concept of time in which the past, the present and the future always mix. A good example is the musician and deejay Ras G, and his Afrofuturist project, the African Space Program. Ras G, a 21st century Sun Ra, mixes electroacoustic music, hip hop, house and spoken word into his experimental sets. Like in King Britt’s mixes, music here operates as a time machine; transporting listeners simultaneously to the future and to the past.
Some Afrofuturists connect this concept of time speculative science. A good example is Black Quantum Futurism, a project created by Rasheedah Philipps, and the musician and writer Camae Defstar / Moor Mother Goddess (whose album, ASUNRA SUNYA SIFR is a tribute to Sun Ra). This project originally began as a musical collaboration, and later resulted in an anthology called “Black Futurism Quantum Theory & Practice”. In this book, Afrofuturist artists and writers described Black Quantum Futurism as a “new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future”. In addition, Phillips produced the mini zine “Do-It-Yourself Time Travel” that devotes four pages summarising what this artist and activist also teaches at workshops; time travel through “everyday tools such as memory, imagination, manipulation of language and perception, music, and crystals”.
Phillips began Afrofuturist Affair in 2011 with open mic readings, and very soon afterwards, Afrofuturist costumed balls. Later, she forged an alliance with the queer-oriented Metropolarity collective from Philadelphia. Metropolarity is a context in which both black Afrofuturists and white punks work together, publishing zines and books. Its members also contribute to a series of radio plays entitled “Octavia City,” a tribute to Octavia Butler produced by The Afrofuturist Affair for the radio programme, “Black Tribbles”. Many of Butler’s stories are based on the idea of travelling through time and space, such as her novel “Kindred” (1979), in which the protagonist, a black woman, travels back to confront her black and white ancestors in the time of slavery.
Reading works such as Butler’s, it not only becomes clear that Afrofuturism has a different view of time, space and tradition than early 20th century European avant-garde art futurism. Afrofuturism also presents an alternative vision to what is commonly referred to as futurism in American popular culture: the futuristic visions of popular scientists and bestselling authors such as Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler (“Future Shock” from 1970, a title used by Herbie Hancock for his album from 1983) and, more recently, artificial intelligence and Singularity guru Ray Kurzweil. Afrofuturists also refer to this discourse, but subvert this almost exclusively white, techno-religious and linear forward-looking ideology towards a vision that is more universal, playful, experimental and of a different cultural-political colour.
There is a certain precariousness to a black futurism in a time where the black minority in both the United States and the Netherlands is, again and again, being violently pushed back into the present and into an even worse past – as seen with the deaths of Michael Brown Ferguson and Freddy Gray in Baltimore and Mitch Henriquez in The Hague. But science-fiction culture as “escapism,” as King Britt calls it, also presents the logical resistance to ethnic stereotyping and denigration (a good example being Zwarte Piet in Dutch society) – a denigration that is so insidious because it preemptively destroys any public image of black people as thinkers.
The term Afrofuturism was invented at a time which has many parallels to the present. The white American essayist Mark Dery, who also wrote on cyber culture, hacking and culture jamming, coined the word in 1994, two years after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. His essay “Black to the Future” referred to Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Rammellzee, and also included interviews with Samuel Delany, the musician and writer Greg Tate, and professor of Africana Studies, Tricia Rose. Some of Dery’s characterisations, and his status as an outsider makes him still controversial within the Afrofuturist scene; this is one reason why the term Afrofuturism itself still provokes regular discussions.
In the later 1990s, the British cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun – who is also part of The Otolith Group – gave musical Afrofuturism a deeper theoretical basis with his book, “More Brilliant than the Sun” (1998). In it he also wrote about then-younger artists, like Drexciya and Jeff Mills. Mills is also depicted as an avant-garde artist and Afrofuturist in the recently published experimental documentary “Man from Tomorrow” by French filmmaker Jacqueline Caux (who also made the film “Presque Rien” about Luc Ferrari).
In 1996 the film “The Last Angel of History” (by John Akomfrah and Edward George, both members of the British Black Audio Film Collective) presented a documentary and experimental story about Afrofuturism. The film features well-known witnesses like George Clinton, Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun, as well as Goldie and DJ Spooky. “The Last Angel of History” depicted Afrofuturism as a general term for the black avant-garde; although at that time the focus was still directed towards musicians and writers from the classic creative industries. Afrofuturism as a broad, bottom-up DIY culture was not yet addressed.
Afrofuturism’s presence in the visual arts, film, technology and hacker culture had not however, gained much attention at that time. That has since changed dramatically. In 2013/2014 the Studio Museum Harlem (New York), presented the exhibition “The Shadows Took Shape” which showed ‘contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics’. The exhibition included the work of the American Laylah Ali, whose comics, often without text, or any storyline, used so-called ‘greenhead figures’ in which ethnicity is blurred; and that of Kenyan artist and experimental filmmaker Wangechi Mutu, who presented speculations round the borders of male/female human bodies, plant, and animal lifeforms. Mutu also contributed to the exhibition, ‘Interstellar Low Wave’ in 2006, which showed art inspired by Sun Ra. ‘The Shadows Took Shape’ also showed a sculptural installation by Dutch artist and Afrofuturist, Charl Landvreugd. His video work ‘Atlantic Transformerz’ which he started in 2010, is a cycle about four continents; using the African diaspora in the Bijlmer district of Amsterdam as its point of departure.
Amsterdam is also the hometown of the young photographer, video and fashion maker AiRich (Fana Richters). She describes her work as ‘safely in the category of Afrofuturism’. In her photography we only see “Black models whom in the first instance are not the ideal beauty image requirements in western photography”. This is “always an expression of the culture, myth and reality of the Black people’s truth.”
With the work of Landvreugd and AiRich, it is clear that Afrofuturism is no longer a predominantly American-British affair. Also, it is no longer only a concept for, and from, the African diaspora. An important part of contemporary Afrofuturism comes from the African continent itself. The Kenyan science fiction film “Pumzi”, by the filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, was a sensation at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, and is already seen as a classic of contemporary Afrofuturism. The film tells, in impressive visuals, of a totalitarian, post-apocalyptic society that can only survive in a sealed, artificial environment; and of a woman who escapes its closed system.
In an interview Kahiu calls herself an Afrofuturist, but also claims – like Rasheedah Philipps – that the term is nothing new. “I think that science fiction has been a genre in Africa that has been used a lot for a long period of time”, especially “the use of science or something that is fictitious science or speculative fiction within a story […] because we’ve used botany, we’ve used entomology, the idea of the study of animals to tell stories”. That is, according to her and others, also visible in the boom of the hacker and maker culture in various African countries, for example in the futuristic glasses made from electronic waste by the Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru (waste that comes mainly from Western countries and shipped to Africa). According to music experts such as the Rotterdam-based curator Sascha Roth, the currently most advanced music is produced on the African continent, where musicians “leave their Western colleagues for dead”.
Wanuri Kahiu sees the boom in Afrofuturism as an opportunity as well as risk. “We have to be very careful about being part of a trend for the sake of being part of a trend”. According to her black artists do not have the privilege of being able to separate their work from their ethnicity, but will always see their work analysed as the expression of a black person. Kahiu also sees Afrofuturism as a “box”, or tag which she, as a black science fiction maker cannot escape. But perhaps therein lies a dialectical opportunity: namely, that it exposes Western arts as, conversely, nothing more than a “box”. It is quite possible that postcolonial creative movements like Afrofuturism will define the 21st century. Then “art” might just become a thing of white nostalgia.
“Afrofuturism Now!” at WORM, Rotterdam
The “Afrofuturism Now!” festival takes place at WORM from Wednesday 14th to Sunday 18th October. The festival will showcase a comprehensive programme of contemporary Afrofuturist musicians, artists, writers, zine makers, fashion designers, film and video makers and speculative thinkers. Many of those mentioned in this article will take part, often for the first time in the Netherlands and Europe. The focus of “Afrofuturism Now!” is round underground and DIY culture. The artists who will turn WORM into an Afrofuturist lab for a week are (amongst others):
Rasheedah Phillips: The Afrofuturist Affair
Moor Mother Goddess / Camae Defstar: musician and writer
Ras. Mashramani: zine maker, graphic designer and radio play maker, member of the Metropolarity collective
Marlo Reynolds: musician
Nyfolt: sound / performance project
Morgan Craft: musician
Mutamassik: musician and artist
King Britt: DJ, musician and curator
During the festival there is an Afrofuturist audiobar that will broadcast a non-stop array of radio plays and music. Afrofuturist short films will be also played non-stop throughout. And Afrofuturist zine workshops, workshops round Afrofuturist time travel, and lectures and readings of Afrofuturist science fiction will be part of the mix. The WORM’s own Klangendum studio with its vintage analog synthesizers will be pressed into the service of Afrofuturism, and the Underbelly shop will offer a range of Afrofuturist books, LPs, CDs, zines and badges.
A festival programme guide is published in collaboration with the collage artist Dada Soulface (Danial Bryan Joseph).
Detailed information about the festival can be found at www.worm.org.