Afrofuturism: “Black to the Future” and Beyond

Erykah Badu

Bored out of my mind, I refreshed my Twitter timeline for the millionth time. There was the usual lonely girl in her feelings, a variety of song lyrics, an abundance of melanin, the word YASSS about 62 times, and afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism? The word was foreign to me.

Upon doing some research, I discovered there a wide array of afrofuturism definitions floating around on the ever-connected world wide web. The genre seemed almost impossible to qualify. After hours of research, I remained fuzzy on the concept.

Aliens, graffiti, superheroes, time travel, and… Erykah Badu? How do they fit together? Why were they together at all?

That’s what is so intriguing about the concept. It can’t be limited. Afrofuturism draws in elements from all aspects of culture.

It was coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future,” in which he defines it as, “Speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth century technoculture– and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”

Over two decades later, Dery’s definition seems way too restrictive for today’s wave of afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism explores the future in a black context, incorporating technology and fantasy to provide an escape from the oppressive past and ailments of the present through music, visual art, and literature. According to author Ytasha Womack, “Afrofuturism bridges so many aspects of our culture, from African mythology, art and hip-hop to politics, comic books and science.” Afrofuturism is everywhere.

Among the first Afrofuturists was pioneer Sun Ra, whose name derived from the Egyptian sun god, Ra. In his 1973 film, “Space is the Place,” Sun Ra assumed a persona that incorporated the science of cosmogony with Egyptian mythology. Just as Africans came over on slave ships alien to America, Sun Ra related and captured this analogy. He made himself extraterrestrial, as well as a god to combat this condition and create an escape, writing his own ideal future.This exemplifies the basis of afrofuturism, as Sun Ra contemplated the black condition and created a fantasy-based solution.

Sun Ra’s work was not limited to film. He was also a pioneer in music. The early sounds of afrofuturism consisted of free jazz and funk. The psychedelic sounds of Parliament in “Chocolate City,” painted a picture of a nation ruled by African Americans, with a tinge of black nationalism, the perfect prelude to the current black presidency.

Modern afrofuturistic music includes the neo-soul music of Erykah Badu. In her studio album New Amerykah, she creates a society of her own to address the ailments of the current conditions in black America.

 

In Outkast’s music video for the song “Prototype,” the group tells a cosmic love story, featuring spaceships and aliens. Even more recent is artist Janelle Monae. The cover art of her debut album, Archandroid, features Monae in a robot suit. Afrofuturism allows artists to express humanistic contemplation in new and different ways in a context that is both comforting and relatable to African Americans.

This alternate reality exists not only in music and film but literature, comics, and visual art also. Many young children look up to the superheroes Batman and Superman, but few know about African American superheroes. Afrofuturist superhero, Icon, ponders slavery, incorporates hip hop culture, and features a female sidekick from the projects who happens to be an avid Toni Morrison fan.

Icon comes to Earth as an extraterrestrial designed to adapt to the first form he came in contact with, which happened to be a slave woman, much resembling the biblical story of Moses. Aside from his superhero ventures, Icon took the persona of Augustus Freeman, an attorney and the only African American living in the rich Prospect Hills neighborhood. He speaks on the welfare state and other social issues. Freeman is a man way ahead of his time and the progressivity of this series is a huge step in the right direction for African Americans.

Another afrofuturist pioneer, Rammellzee, a graffiti artist who often dabbled in other art forms, put himself into his art, literally. Along with other pieces, he created bricolage-style suits and sculptures featuring rocket launchers, spacecrafts, and pretty much any other futuristic item you could think of.

Just as Rammellzee jumbled trinkets together to create his masterpieces, afrofuturism is a melting pot of all things futuristic. The list could go on and on as the genre is constantly expanding. Through adventures in space, cyberspace, and all places in between, extraterrestrials, androids, and humans ponder societal afflictions throughout the black community.

In a society where the futures of African American youth are projected to be bleak, afrofuturism provides a way of escape. Imaginations soar against the odds of institutionalization, racism, police brutality and oppression and onto cosmic heights.

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