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.
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.”
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”.
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.”
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.”
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).
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.”