I learned that myth is very important in the struggle to maintain a sense of self and to move forward into the future.
– Julie Dash
I was into afrofuturism before the term had been coined, most likely dating back to the first time I heard Hendrix talk about arrows from Jupiter’s sulfer mines, though when I was a little kid I had the unique opportunity of not just seeing Sun-Ra and his Arkrestra perform, but also naively walking amongst their ranks backstage. Samuel Delany helped to shape my pre-college perceptions of the world. By that time I was floating on the periphery of the young black writers movement, in which black sci-fi was attempting a resurgence (or was it a surgence).
Afrofuturism has been an underlying modality of my own mythos for quite some time. The very notion of AvantUrb as the post-urban paradigm comes from an afrofuturist perspective. Of late though I’ve been questioning the existence/relevance of contemporary afrofuturism, and trying to figure out what it is that is making me even raise the question. It’s been a thought process for me since checking out the excellent mix King Britt curated for the Pew Center for The Arts and Heritage earlier this year. What really pushed me to start writing these thoughts however, was Michael Gonzalez’s recent Ebony piece on the subject “[BLACK ALT] What Is Afrofuturism?”
Gonzalez ends his piece with the phrase “the future is now” which is one half of the reasoning for my ongoing question. In 2013 the future is quite obviously now, which begs the question, does the future, as a thing which will follow these present moments, exist the same as they did in the past? The other half of my questioning, perhaps even the more difficult part, is centered around what it means to afro in this now as the future.
It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?
– Sun Ra
Sun Ra has been a figurehead for Afrofuturism since before the term was coined by Mark Dery in 1994, yet upon investigation many of his ideas seem to be at odds with it. In his 1974 film “Space is the Place” he clearly states “time is officially ended”. How can there be a future without time? In the film itself Sun Ra isn’t a time traveller, but a traveller of the cosmos. The only direct future inference which can be drawn from the film is his notion of the “Altered Destiny” and it’s cultural significance for people of African decent. But Sun Ra’s mission isn’t about mythologizing the future, rather it’s about mythologizing the present so that Black people become the determinants of their future. Myth as the the means by which black folk could embrace their own future outside of the construct offered within the western social organism.
From this point of departure (though not necessarily the beginning of the concept), it’s easy to see the afrofuturists who would follow as embodying its spirit by creating works in their present that actively projected people of African decent into futuristic situations. But today more than ever the idea of the future has become mundane. Things have progressed so rapidly in the decades since Sun Ra, most of what we can imagine today as futuristic, be it technology , scientific discovery or social circumstance, could just as likely come to pass tomorrow. We’ve reached a technological peak which has rendered most of the common signifiers of the science-fiction future cliché. It struck me while watching the most recent Star Trek film, how absurd it was that their communicators didn’t have cameras. 3D printed guns are more interesting than lasers (who doesn’t have a laser), and both are reflections of the right here and now.
As it relates to music in particular, the sounds which signified the future three or four decades ago litter the annual NOW! series of pop music’s greatest hits. Music which is tagged ‘future’ today almost inevitably sounds like someones past vision of it, or put another way is quite clearly music of today. The future has become such a mainstreamed concept it is no longer uniquely different from the present. Science fiction writer William Gibson, considered a staple of the cyberpunk sub genre, today laughs at the irrelevance of so many of his previous predictions, and has taken to writing about the present for almost a decade now. The reality of the now has stripped science-fiction of futuristic speculation.
The Future Ain’t The Same As It Used To Be
– Neon Fusion & New Sector Movements
The future is now, and lo and behold people of African decent are still not just a part but an integral part of it. Going back to Star Trek, the classic Uhuru and Kirk kiss of the original series would be so uneventful today they had to give the romantic male role to the half vulcan to even make it interesting (and it was still a non factor). Despite its box office failure, one of this years most anticipated sci-fi movies, After Earth, starred almost exclusively black characters (though that clearly wasn’t the reason it failed; it probably could have used some lasers).
The normalcy of these representations come as no surprise today when not only is the President of the United States of African decent, but so is one of the world’s leading astro-physicists. Where decades ago our cultural representation in the projected future was at risk, living today in that future, our presence goes without saying. So it begs the question what is the role of the afrofuturist today?
As much as people of African decent are in this future as the now, it isn’t exactly the altered destiny which Sun Ra has imagined. Instead, en masse we seem to have chosen the manifested western destiny, which has made envisioning an alternate future for ourselves unnecessary; further, holding on to the alternate is practically a hinderance to our ability to progress within the existent construct. There is no longer a future for us to project ourselves into, only a present in which we clearly exist. From this it would be easy to conclude that afrofuturism is dead.
Or not. Perhaps its merely a semantical conundrum. Only where afrofuturism clings onto this notion of a future does its relevance wane. If we look at it through Sun Ra’s eyes, afrofuturism isn’t about directing the future but rather the active direction of the present. It’s the myth telling in the present which pushes forward, not living for imagined futures. It is in this present that we have become normalized members of society, but with any normalization in a social organism, there are bound to be things that are lost. Much of what Sun Ra put forward was about holding on to our history, evidenced by his affinity for egyptology. By envisioning our past into contemporary myths he strived to keep them alive for the future. His projections into the cosmos often served as mirrors reflecting the society of its time, and challenging it with unadulterated blackness. Perhaps it is that unadulterated blackness, an afropresence, which is needed the most today.
Despite the high visibility of the African presence in society today, the racial issues of yesteryears have not magically disappeared. Identity is still so firmly shaped by the western manifested destiny. There reminders of this with what have become regular race wake up calls, be they off the cuff remarks from high profile public figures or ritual shootings of unarmed black youth. But more often than not, little is done to actually deal with the issues beyond the headlines and as such the made for TV images of blackness remain as signifiers. Within this context it would seem the role of the afrofuturist in this present is to create the mythologies of presence which ensure the unadulterated black image persists. But what does that look like?
Something like Romare’s “I Wanna (Go Back)” has all the makings of what could be called afropresence with its future is now production and afrocentric samples. He takes his name from the black collagist Romare Bearden and his debut EP on the Black Acre label, was entitled “Meditations on Afrocentrism.” But he is not of African decent. I wouldn’t rush to call Romare appropriatory because in every step of the release of the EP he sought to give credit to the cultural origins, but at the same time I would not consider it the work of an afropresent artist.
If you listen to Shaolin Afronauts “Winds Across Gayanamede” without watching the video, you’d quickly get the afro beat influence, and while maybe noting the lack of a certain umph which would place it firmly within the tradition, you could probably still appreciate it as a solid effort. Then you’d look at the video and realize there were 18 white musicians on stage with black paint on their face. Even considering they are from Australia wouldn’t be able to detract from that fact.
This summer both Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake, white musicians who happen to be the biggest male R&B acts of the year, had singles which blatantly wore their influences (Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson respectively) to the point where the former had to preemptively sue for his right to appropriate. It was only a few years ago that the biggest reggae artist worldwide was a hasidic jew. Last year’s controversy over the Harlem Shake meme is this year’s twerk meme being coopted by Miley Cyrus. And while the appropriation of blackness into mainstream culture is running rampant, you see artists like the ones who brought us this unadulturated blackness a decade ago, making this for primetime checks.
Point being, with the identity lines of blackness being so blurred in the present, it makes the need for an afropresence that much more relevant. Fortunately where it does exist, it is quite strong.
Taking it back to the original influence for this King Britt’s recent Fhloston Paradigm alias is a bold afropresence. Heavily steeped in both historic and modern electronic forms while maintaining the signifying blue note. The video treatment for Chasing Rainbows pushing that aspect visually with something which in the past may have been considered futurist but is clearly of this now.
Was it not for us to claim, win the game. Rivaled adversary weight, give and take
– Flying Lotus featuring Niki Randa
The audio visual combination for the short film by Khalil Joseph for Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes album last year is a prime example of the type of afropresent mythologizing which would seem to fall perfectly in the afrofuturist tradition. The production is so clearly of the future is now, complete with laser firing sound effects to punctuate. The resurrected body of a black male killed by gun violence dancing in a modality which at once looks otherworldly and historically African.
There are somethings I just can’t tell you about.
– Matana Roberts
I’ve been listening to Matana Roberts latest chapter of her Coin Coin saga which through her breed of avant-jazz mythologizes African-American heritage. As steeped as it is in history, it is also like an echo which by her continuing to perform and tell it, reverberates into the future is now, so that the screams of being born into slavery and sold at the auction block don’t get reduced to a few sentences in history books.
Explain to me the price of a free soul.
– Saul Williams
Saul Williams has been about unadulterated blackness for over a decade now. The epic Niggy Tardust from 2008 was a prime example of afropresence come alive. And even on the brighter follow up Volcanic Sunlight he manages to use his poetry to dissect and reconstruct notions of blackness. At his strongest he serves not so much as a reflection for the world to see, but for us to reflect on so that we can adjust or own perceptions of self within this now.
I been left in the dust like a thing from the past
-Willis Earl Beal
Essentially a modern blues artist, Willis Earl Beal’s sound at first maybe shocking to the older listener with its deconstructionist form. Some might even deny it is blues at all. But with a contemporary poigancy which isn’t afraid of history, it makes a statement which pushes that historical line into the present even if there are some turns and bends along the way.
These robots grant us internet, program racist sequences
– Shabazz Palaces
Ish (formally of Diggable Planets), has three projects with his group Shabazz Palaces the most recent of which “Black Up” was released a couple of years ago. Production wise the group is a far cry from the jazzy soul of DP’s; Shabazz Palaces has a sound that is very much of the future now, while the lyricism like the album title is clear unadulterated blackness bent on holding its definition close to us in this now.
Mythological characters, men and women as parody.
– Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill released two songs this year, “Neurotic Society” ahead of doing time in jail for tax evasion, and “Consumerism” on the eve of her being released. Both are a far cry from the Lauryn Hill that was once at the top of the music industry and have been criticized for it. But there’s something very afropresent about them. She abandons the soulful hip-hop production which propelled her into fame for more electronic sounding future is now type of backdrop. She also abandons singing all together and instead lets loose barrages of social criticisms through a rapid fire rapping delivery that’s almost unsettling. They clearly come from a position of unadulterated blackness even if they lack they traditional afro signifiers.
Are we the lost generation of our people, add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
– Janelle Monaé
Janelle Monaé is an interesting one in the afropresent spectrum. By most accounts she’s the current torch holder of afrofuturism having created a mythology for herself that stretches all the way to the 28th century. Upon close inspection though the character’s she’s created seem to be following Sun Ra’s direction and operating ‘on the other side of time’. Critical in it is her decision to embody these characters in her public appearance now. She lives her public life as an android spirit trapped in a human body. By never breaking out of this character she’s managed to subvert the very notion of what a black female artist is supposed to be in this present and thusly projected into the future.
We’re wide awake, while the people sleep.
– Ebony Bones
Another female singer wrapped in her own mythos, Ebony Bones’ most recent album Behold the Pale Horse is like a soundtrack for social rebellion which blends the type of performance rock that came out of the prog era with modern electronic production, as she tries to open the listeners eyes to their present conditioning. While not steeped with unadultrated blackness, her presence as a strong voiced, big afro wearing black brit of carribean parentage, proclaiming her status as a ‘W.A.R.R.I.O.R’ is undeniably a reflection of presence in the diaspora.
Ima take that bitch to college, Ima give that bitch some knowledge
– Zebra Katz
A sleeper hit from last year, the minimalist production of Zebra Katz with a dancefloor bass drum as the only accompaniment was the perfect backdrop for his play on words. The video treatment at once plays with the popular notions of blackness and subverts it. According to Katz the song was born as a mantra during his college years and later made in homage to the voguing scene Paris is Burning, pushing his take on unadulterated blackness all the way to fashion runways.
I will never be what you want, and that’s alright
High off the success of her first single “Green Garden”, with its nostalgic warmness, Laura Mvula’s video for “That’s Alright” shakes the homely image and puts her blackness in the exaggerated forefront. It poses as high fashion affair while presenting a heavy handed critique of the image boxes placed around beauty that of course go back centuries historically, but are still just as prevalent today.
Our ears don’t full from ya words, our stomach still empty
– Seun Kuti
Even the toned down and tightened up production aesthetics of Brian Eno couldn’t tame the firey rawness that still runs in the Kuti family. And where the Shaolin Afronauts may have managed to capture the technical sound of afro-beat, Seun and his brother Femi still hold onto the spirit of their father who was the epitome of unadulterated blackness. Their continuation of that legacy is without a doubt a true embodiment of the purpose of this afropresence.