Cadillactica_STANDARD thumbnail

I Am Not A Human Being: Afrofuturism in Pop Culture

From a different solar system many many galaxies far far away
We are the force of another creation
A new musical revelation
And we’re on this musical message to help the others listen

~ Afrika Bambataa and the Soul Sonic Force “Renegades of Funk” (1983)


 

What does it mean to be Black in America?

As an artist, I’ve always found ways to express this through realistic and imaginary lenses, often taking into consideration personal knowledge and experiences while also considering concepts in a broader sense. Ideally, I’ve always aimed at using themes from the past, present, and future to depict the Black experience, which encompasses both struggles and triumphs.

The rich legacy of the African Diaspora can be heavily attributed to artistic expression. Whether it was music, dance, or visual arts; artistic expression has always played a pivotal role in African culture, which began to be translated in an American context once the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began. Often times being “alienated” from the rights of citizens in America and the Caribbean, the search for an identity and efforts of remembrance were seized with every opportunity. As a result, expressions such as the Negro Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, Funk, Hip-Hop, and countless others, emerged and eventually became a part of popular culture.


 

Afrofuturism: The Origins

In 1993, Mark Dery, author of Black to the Future, developed a term known as Afrofuturism. According to Mark Dery, Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past (wikipedia). Initially, Dery coined the term as a response to literature from authors, such as Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany; however, it quickly referred to musicians who also represented this aesthetic.

 

African-American voices have other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come.

Mark Dery

 

For instance, Sun Ra, a jazz musician who used Ancient Egyptian and space images to reflect his artistry, can be considered one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. Albums such as, Space is the Place (1972) and The Heliocentric Words of Sun Ra (1965), incorporated conceptualized images and sounds based on his “cosmic philosophies”, which coherently also made connections between the past, present and future. The past being Ancient Egypt; the present was in the form of avant-garde jazz with the use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments; and the future being in the form of cosmic connotations that encouraged others to look beyond our earthly existence.

sunraposter

In an essay found on the Sun Ra Arkestra website by Stefany Anne Goldberg, she sites, “I didn’t find being black in America to be a very pleasant experience,” said Sun Ra, “but I had to have something, and that something was creating something that nobody owned but us.” She also mentions, “African-Americans had always been a secret society within greater American society, with their own music, their own language, their own rituals. This secret history could be an asset for African-Americans in the Space Age to come. African-Americans could re-invent their past and create a futurist Utopia, perhaps on a planet other than Earth, which seemed to Sun Ra unbearably steeped in chaos and confusion.”


 

 

funk lab

By the 1970s, a new wave of music emerged. Referred to as the “Funk”, George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic used characters, themes, and ideas that would mirror the consciousness of the Black community. They put out a series of albums and shows that sent political and sociological messages. In the article, “Turn This Mutha Out” by Robert Hicks, Clinton explains, “We had put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House. I figured another place you wouldn’t think black people would be was in outer space. I was a big fan of Star Trek, so we did a thing with a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac, and we did all these James Brown-type grooves, but with street talk and ghetto slang. Make my funk the P-Funk”.

Parliament-Mothership-Connection

Clinton is referring to the concept behind the album cover of the Mothership Connection (1975) in which a character by the name of Starchild appears. He is a divine alien being who came to Earth from a spaceship to bring the Funk, the cause of creation and source of energy for all life, to humanity. According to The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976), Starchild worked with an intergalactic master of outer space Funk, known as Dr. Funkenstein, whose “predecessors had encoded the secrets of Funk in the Pyramids because humanity wasn’t ready for its existence until the modern era” (P-Funk Mythology). In essence, Starchild was like a messiah who descended upon the earth to provide a cure for the ills of society.


 

 

Afrofuturism in Hip-Hop: Past and Present

In 1982, a song called “Planet Rock” was released by Afrika Bambataa and the Soul Sonic Force. As a DJ, Bambataa utilized a mixture of different genres in his artistry. As a former gang member of the Black Spades in New York City, he became a prominent figure in the early developmental stages of Hip-Hop and was the founder of the Universal Zulu Nation (1973), which recognized Hip-Hop as a culture that included a wide range of legitimate art forms. Heavily influenced by his predecessors, Afrika Bambataa would often practice his artistic autonomy through Afrocentric ideas and futuristic sounds. His main focus was to bring about social awareness through “peach, love, unity and having fun.”

planet rock

Other artists have followed suit as Afrofuturists, often times utilizing album covers, song titles, lyrics, and clothing to represent this genre.

 

Some of today’s most innovative artists have been inspired by Afrofuturist culture. One such artist is Big K.R.I.T, when mentioning the title of the album in XXL, he states, “It’s just one of those things that I was thinking about, ’cause in my first [album] cover Live From The Underground, it’s a Cadillac that has crash landed on planet earth. Just the whole storyline of being able to take you in reverse of where the Cadillac comes from. It’s creating this planet called Cadillactica where the soul and the funk comes from and being able to transcend my music with that idea.”

Cadillactica_STANDARD

 

While Big K.R.I.T. utilized the principle of movement, Janelle Monáe’s album cover for “The ArchAndroid” uses emphasis by juxtaposing a crown on her head that reminds us of a futuristic city. Monáe is considered to be in the forefront of artists who are continuing to use Afrofuturism as an aesthetic by releasing a series of conceptual albums inspired by Fritz Lang’s science fiction classic film, Metropolis (1927).

janellemonae_metropolis

Her themes usually highlight feminism, love, artistic freedom and disputes preconceived notions of beauty. In the article, “Janelle Monáe turns rhythm and blues into science fiction“, she states, “I feel like I have a responsibility to my community and other young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman.” As an example, her newest video, “Yoga“with Jidenna, demonstrates yoga as a form of dance, challenging the popularity of twerking in mainstream media.

Today, we have artists such as Erykah Badu, Lil Wayne, DJ Spooky, Flying Lotus and countless others who have chosen to use this aesthetic to represent the Black experience. And this artistic movement is not limited to just music. It can also be found in fashion (See, “Constructing Future Forms: Afro-Futurism and Fashion in Chicago, Part II”), visual art (See, “8 Afrofuturists You Need To Follow Right Now”), and film (See, “Afrofuturism on film: five of the best”).

As Mark Dery states, “African-American voices have other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come.”

microsoft hololens thumbnail

The Future is Here Pt. 2 of 3: Augmented Reality, Gimmick or Game Changer?

Released in 1999, a scene in David Fincher’s movie Fight Club features the narrator walking through his apartment visualizing products from the IKEA catalog popping up along his walls. The items pop up paired with information about them from the catalog – adding depth to the viewable reality. Today, IKEA has made that brief minute of fiction an actual reality. You can now use an IKEA catalog and your smartphone to visualize how their products would actually fit in your home or office.

IKEA cataloge with a smartphone showing a AR chair.

This new technology is referred to as Augmented Reality or simply AR. It has existed in movies like Robocop, Terminator, Minority Report and Iron Man, for years, but it has only recently found its way into our modern life, with smart devices.

The advance in mobile-device technology has given the world a new digital window to look at our surroundings. Augmented Reality is used in a lot of new advertising, as well as, with translating, construction tools, medical training, military training… the list is endless. Some Augmented Reality uses QR codes, others printed text and still others use real objects like the buildings of a city as a trigger, or marker, for AR objects.

WordLensDemo5Feb2012.jpg

Augmented Reality augments our viewable realities by adding information, images and depth. Microsoft has developed, what they’re calling, the first untethered augmented reality or holographic computer. They’re looking for innovative people to try out their new technology and come up with new ways to communicate, invent, explore and solve the world’s problems.

hololens 3d

AR is a rapidly expanding technology.  Where is your place in it? Do you currently use it? Is AR surrounding you more than you realize? Do you want to try your hand at creating some of your own AR objects? Explore the limits of AR in this lesson and see what all of the buzz is about!

meaning-of-vault-boy-thumbs-up.0.0 thumbnail

Breaking Fallout: And Other Ways to Play Video Games Outside the Box

 

Let’s Players, or LP’ers, are video game players who stream their games on Youtube who often try extreme feats to stand out from the pack. One LPer, Kyle “The Weirdist” Hinckley, recently performed an impressive feat: completing Fallout 4 without killing a single person, animal, or robot.

This surprised even the game’s lead designer, who actually did not previously believe that he had made a game that could be beaten entirely without violence. Fallout 4 relies heavily on violence both as a mechanic and a storytelling element.

Mechanically, violence is the most interesting, complicated, and well-developed part of the game, and almost all skills and items improve your character’s ability to kill. From a storytelling point of view, the story relies on violence to enforce the themes of post-apocalyptic social collapse, desperation, and self-interest. The story, about the disappearance of the main character’s son, assumes that the character will kill to get the son back. As a result, many characters in the game must be killed for the story to advance. So how did Hinckley do it?

Turns out, while certain characters must die, the game system makes it possible to manipulatively cause their deaths, without directly killing them. Hinckley used a whole range of strategies to keep killing off his character’s record, making the story about a squeamish master manipulator rather than a post-apocalyptic fighter. This brings up one of the most fascinating differences between written fiction and video games.

The Unique Storytelling of Video Games

In written fiction, the reader experiences only the plot created by the author. In video games, players can experience both the intended narrative, controlled by the game designers, and unintended experiences, controlled by the player. Video game players also exercise creativity, using the game as a tool to create their own new art. How you personally “break” a video game is a good indication of how much your creative mind is suited for making games of your own. In this lesson, students will consider how to break video games in ways that create new experiences. But first, let’s look at the elements of the videogame experience.

Video Game Appreciation 101

Video games have three elements:

  1. Aesthetics: the computer generated graphics, art and music
  2. Narrative: the scripted story elements of the game
  3. Ludology: the mechanics and options available to the player

gamediagram

Aesthetics and narrative are entirely controlled by the design team, but ludology is not. Designers cannot predict all player actions, only some.

Being Unpredictable

Video game designers tend to envision specific audiences. RPGs like Fallout are sold to an audience of 17-35 year olds that has, statistically, roughly equal numbers of men and women, and that shows a preference for less complicated, high-reward gameplay. RPG players are most motivated by quick candy-like rewards, also known in brain science as Incremental Goal Progress. That little rush when you loot an enemy for a reward is the core of the RPG. When designing the game, therefore, designers try to encourage players to experience the plot by putting more rewards on the plot-heavy paths. For example, in Fallout 4, the designers encourage the player to kill enemies by making killing the easiest way to gain wealth and experience points. The designers can therefore assume most players will be violent, making it easier to cluster the best art and story along the violent path that they know players will take. Hinckley’s experience was so different because he was not playing like a typical RPG player.

Let’s look at some other examples. Racing games all assume that their players want to win, every time. This means they often do not test what happens if players go completely offroad or backwards. By exploring offroad, players not only create their own experiences, but also tend to find a ton of unplanned glitches. Minecraft is designed as a cooperative crafting game; the designer did not predict people would build into the game an elaborate shooter. Most first-person shooters can be turned into ridiculous physics puzzles, as long as the player isn’t interested in a fair and balanced shoot-out.

In the games you play, think about what the designers think you will do. Is it possible to do something different? Can you create an entirely new game by breaking an existing one?

 

microsoft hololens thumbnail

The Future is Here Pt. 2 of 3: Augmented Reality, Gimmick or Game Changer?

Released in 1999, a scene in David Fincher’s movie Fight Club features the narrator walking through his apartment visualizing products from the IKEA catalog popping up along his walls. The items pop up paired with information about them from the catalog – adding depth to the viewable reality. Today, IKEA has made that brief minute of fiction an actual reality. You can now use an IKEA catalog and your smartphone to visualize how their products would actually fit in your home or office.

IKEA cataloge with a smartphone showing a AR chair.

This new technology is referred to as Augmented Reality or simply AR. It has existed in movies like Robocop, Terminator, Minority Report and Iron Man, for years, but it has only recently found its way into our modern life, with smart devices.

The advance in mobile-device technology has given the world a new digital window to look at our surroundings. Augmented Reality is used in a lot of new advertising, as well as, with translating, construction tools, medical training, military training… the list is endless. Some Augmented Reality uses QR codes, others printed text and still others use real objects like the buildings of a city as a trigger, or marker, for AR objects.

WordLensDemo5Feb2012.jpg

Augmented Reality augments our viewable realities by adding information, images and depth. Microsoft has developed, what they’re calling, the first untethered augmented reality or holographic computer. They’re looking for innovative people to try out their new technology and come up with new ways to communicate, invent, explore and solve the world’s problems.

hololens 3d

AR is a rapidly expanding technology.  Where is your place in it? Do you currently use it? Is AR surrounding you more than you realize? Do you want to try your hand at creating some of your own AR objects? Explore the limits of AR in this lesson and see what all of the buzz is about!