Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African/African-American culture with technology. It combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique the present-day dilemmas of black people and to interrogate and re-examine historical events. It was explored in the late 1990s through conversations led by Alondra Nelson. Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African diaspora through a technoculture and science fiction lens, encompassing a range of media and artists with a shared interest in envisioning black futures that stem from Afrodiasporic experiences. Seminal Afrofuturistic works include the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Angelbert Metoyer, and the photography of Renée Cox; the explicitly extraterrestrial mythoi of Parliament-Funkadelic, the Jonzun Crew, Warp 9, Deltron 3030, and Sun Ra; and the Marvel Comics superhero Black Panther.
Despite Afrofuturism being coined in 1993, scholars tend to agree that Afrofuturistic music, art and text became more common and widespread in the late 1950s. The Afrofuturist approach to music was first propounded by Sun Ra. Born in Alabama, Sun Ra’s music coalesced in Chicago in the mid-1950s, when with the Arkestra he began recording music that drew from hard bop and modal sources, creating a new synthesis that used Afrocentric and space-themed titles to reflect Ra’s linkage of ancient African culture, specifically Egypt, and the cutting edge of the Space Age. For many years, Ra and his bandmates lived, worked and performed in Philadelphia while touring festivals worldwide. Ra’s film Space Is the Place shows The Arkestra in Oakland in the mid-1970s in full space regalia, replete with science-fiction imagery as well as other comedic and musical material. As of 2018, the band was still composing and performing, under the leadership of Marshall Allen.
Afrofuturist ideas were taken up in 1975 by George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic with his magnum opus Mothership Connection and the subsequent The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, P-Funk Earth Tour, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, and Motor Booty Affair. In the thematic underpinnings to P-Funk mythology (“pure cloned funk”), Clinton in his alter ego Starchild spoke of “certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies”.
Other musicians typically regarded as working in or greatly influenced by the Afrofuturist tradition include reggae producers Lee “Scratch” Perry and Scientist, hip-hop artists Afrika Bambaataa and Tricky, electronic musicians Larry Heard, A Guy Called Gerald, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Newcleus and Lotti Golden & Richard Scher, electro hip hop producer/writers of Warp 9’s “Light Years Away”, a sci-fi tale of ancient alien visitation, described as a “cornerstone of early 80’s beatbox afrofuturism”.
In the early 1990s, a number of cultural critics, notably Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future”, began to write about the features they saw as common in African-American science fiction, music, and art. Dery dubbed this phenomenon “Afrofuturism”. According to cultural critic Kodwo Eshun, British journalist Mark Sinker was theorizing a form of Afrofuturism in the pages of The Wire, a British music magazine, as early as 1992.
Afrofuturist ideas have further been expanded by scholars like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose, Kodwo Eshun, and others. In an interview, Alondra Nelson explained Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the subject position of black people which covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a utopic future. The idea of “alien” or “other” is a theme often explored. Additionally, Nelson notes that discussions around race, access, and technology often bolster uncritical claims about a so-called “digital divide”. The digital divide overemphasizes the association of racial and economic inequality with limited access to technology. This association then begins to construct blackness “as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress”. As a critique of the neo-critical argument that the future’s history-less identities will end burdensome stigma, Afrofuturism holds that history should remain a part of identity, particularly in terms of race.
A new generation of recording artists have embraced Afrofuturism into their music and fashion, including Solange Knowles, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. This tradition continues from artists such as Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe, who incorporated cyborg themes and metallics into their style. Other 21st century musicians who have been characterized as Afrofuturist include singer FKA Twigs, musical duo Ibeyi, and DJ/producer Ras G.
Janelle Monáe has made a conscious effort to restore Afrofuturist cosmology to the forefront of urban contemporary music. Her notable works include the music videos “Prime Time” and “Many Moons”, which explore the realms of slavery and freedom through the world of cyborgs and the fashion industry. She is accredited with proliferating Afrofuturist funk into a new Neo-Afrofuturism by use of her Metropolis-inspired alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, who incites a rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society, in order to liberate citizens who have fallen under their oppression. This ArchAndroid role reflects earlier Afrofuturistic figures Sun Ra and George Clinton, who created their own visuals as extraterrestrial beings rescuing African-Americans from the oppressive natures of Earth. Her influences include Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Star Wars. The all Black Wondaland Arts Collective Society, of which Monáe is a founder of, stated “We believe songs are spaceships. We believe music is the weapon of the future. We believe books are the stars.” Other musical artists to emerge since the turn of the millennium regarded as Afrofuturist include dBridge, SBTRKT, Shabazz Palaces, Heavyweight Dub Champion, and “techno pioneers” Drexciya (with Gerald Donald).
Chicago is home to a vibrant community of artists exploring Afrofuturism. Nick Cave, known for his Soundsuits project, has helped develop younger talent as the director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other artists include visual artists Hebru Brantley as well as contemporary artist Rashid Johnson, a Chicago native currently based in New York. In 2013, Chicago resident Ytasha L. Womack wrote the study Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy, and William Hayashi has published all three volumes of his Darkside Trilogy which tells the story of what happens in America when the country discovers African Americans secretly living on the backside of the moon since before the arrival of Neil Armstrong, an extreme vision of segregation imposed by technologically advanced Blacks.[self-published source] Krista Franklin, a member of University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator, is currently exploring the relation between Afrofuturism and the grotesque through her visual and written work with weaves and collected hair. Recently, she also created an audio narrative in collaboration with another Afrofuturist, Perpetual Rebel, called The Two Thousand and Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, which explores the ideas of identity and transformation within the context of hair and African-American culture.
The movement has grown globally in the arts. Afrofuturist Society was founded by curator Gia Hamilton in New Orleans. Artists like Demetrius Oliver from New York, Cyrus Kabiru from Nairobi, Lina Iris Viktor from Liberia and Wanuri Kahiu of Kenya have all steeped their work in the cosmos or sci-fi.
The creation of the term Afrofuturism in the 1990s was often primarily used to categorize “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture,” but was soon expanded to include artistic, scientific, and spiritual practices throughout the African diaspora. Contemporary practice retroactively identifies and documents historical instances of Afrofuturist practice and integrates them into the canon. For example, the Dark Matter anthologies feature contemporary Black science fiction, but also include older works by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles W. Chesnutt, and George S. Schuyler.
Lisa Yazsek argues that Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, should be thought of as a predecessor to Afrofuturist literature. Yaszek illustrates that Ellison draws upon Afrofuturist ideas that were not yet prevalent in African-American literature. Ellison critiques the traditional visions of black people’s future in the United States, but does not provide readers a different future to imagine. Yaszek believes that Ellison does not offer any other futures so that the next generation of authors can. Invisible Man may not be Afrofuturist in the sense that it does not provide a better – or even any – future for black people in the United States, but it can be thought of as a call for people to start thinking and creating art with an Afrofuturist mindset. In this sense, Yaszek concludes that Ellison’s novel is a canon in Afrofuturistic literature by serving as call for “this kind of future-historical art” to those who succeed him.
A number of contemporary Black science fiction and speculative fiction authors have also been characterized as Afrofuturist or as employing Afrofuturist themes. Nnedi Okorafor has been labeled this way, both for her Hugo Award-winning Binti novella series, and for her novel Who Fears Death. Steven Barnes has been called an Afrofuturist author for his alternate-history novels Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart. N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Colson Whitehead have also been referred to as Afrofuturist authors. Octavia Butler’s novels are often associated with Afrofuturism; this association has been somewhat controversial, since Butler incorporates multi-ethnic and multi-species communities that insist on “hybridity beyond the point of discomfort.” However, the fourth book of the science fiction Patternist series, Wild Seed, particularly fits ideas of Afrofuturist thematic concerns, as the narrative of two immortal Africans Doro and Anyanwu features science fiction technologies and an alternate anti-colonialist history of seventeenth century America.
Museum and gallery exhibitions
In recent years, there have been many museum exhibitions displaying art with Afrofuturist themes.
The Studio Museum in Harlem held a major exhibit exploring Afrofuturistic aesthetics from November 14, 2013 to March 9, 2014. The exhibit, called The Shadows Took Shape, displayed more than sixty works of art that looked at recurring themes such as identity in relation to technology, time, and space within African-American communities. Artists featured in the exhibit included Derrick Adams, Laylah Ali and Khaled Hafez.
As a part of the MOMA’s PS1 festival, King Britt curated Moondance: A Night in the Afro Future in 2014. From noon to six p.m. on April 13, people could attend Moondance and listen to lectures, live music or watch dance performances in celebration of Afrofuturism in contemporary culture.
In April 2016, Niama Safia Sandy curated an exhibit entitled “Black Magic: AfroPasts / Afrofutures” at the Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The multidisciplinary art exhibit looks at the relationship between magical realism and afrofuturism through the Black diaspora. In a description of the collection, Sandy stated: “There’s a lot of looking back and looking forward happening in this work…. [and there’s a lot of] celebrating those journeys whether they are intentional or forced journeys.”
Jared Richardson’s Attack of the Boogeywoman: Visualizing Black Women’s Grotesquerie in Afrofuturism assesses how the aesthetic functions as a space for black women to engage with the intersection of topics such as race, gender, and sexuality. The representation and treatment of black female bodies is deconstructed by Afrofuturist contemporaries and amplified to alien and gruesome dimensions by artists such as Wangechi Mutu and Shoshanna Weinberger.
Beyoncé’s 2016 short film Lemonade included feminist afrofuturism in its concept. The film featured Ibeyi, Laolu Senbanjo, Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, YouTube singing stars Chloe x Halle, Zendaya, 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Serena Williams, and the sophisticated womanist poetry of Somali-British writer Warsan Shire. The through-line is the empowerment of black women referencing both marital relationships and the historical trauma from the enslavement of African-Americans from 1619-1865,[not in citation given] through Reconstruction and Jim Crow (1870–1965). The mothers of Trayvon Martin (Sybrina Fulton), Michael Brown (Lesley McFadden), Eric Garner (Gwen Carr) are featured holding pictures of their deceased sons in homage to the importance of their lives. The novel Kindred by Octavia Butler also explores the empowerment of women though the story of her protagonist Dana. The book explores the idea of autonomy and having control over one’s life/destiny. Through the exploration of women’s power in the time of slavery to the more current time, Butler is able to demonstrate the endurance of women through the harsh social factors.
In the Afro-Surreal Manifesto, Afro-Surrealism is juxtaposed with European surrealism, with European surrealism being empirical. It is consistent with the New Black Aesthetic in that the art seeks to disturb. It samples from old art pieces updating them with current images. This technique calls to the forefront those past images and the sentiments, memories, or ideas around them and combines them with new images in a way that those of the current generation can still identify. Both seek to disturb, but there is more of a “mutant” psychology that is going on. Afro-Futuristic artists seek to propose a deviant beauty, a beauty in which disembodiment is both inhumane, yet distinct; Afro-Futuristic artists speculate on the future, where Afro-Surrealism is about the present.
Afrofuturism takes representations of the lived realities of black people in the past and present, and reexamines the narratives to attempt to build new truths outside of the dominant cultural narrative. By analyzing the ways in which alienation has occurred, Afrofuturism works to connect the African diaspora with its histories and knowledge of racialized bodies. Space and aliens function as key products of the science fiction elements; black people are envisioned to have been the first aliens by way of the Middle Passage. Their alien status connotes being in a foreign land with no history, but as also being disconnected from the past via the traditions of slavery where slaves were made to renounce their ties to Africa in service of their slave master.
Kodwo Eshun locates the first alienation within the context of the Middle Passage. He writes that Afrofuturist texts work to reimagine slavery and alienation by using “extraterrestriality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectivities”. This location of dystopian futures and present realities places science fiction and novels built around dystopian societies directly in the tradition of black realities.
In Afrofuturism, water in many different works symbolizes both erasure and the existence of black life. These dual meanings while seemingly contradictory actually play off and inform each other. For instance, the middle passage can be considered where the first erasure happened of African- American history. There are no stories that survived that passage. As Ruth Mayer states, in the United States, “black history is both there and not there, evident in countless traces, scars, and memories, yet largely submerged when it comes to written accounts and first person documentations of the past from the viewpoint of the victims.” Yet, it is through this erasure that Afrofuturism is able to craft histories. These histories live both in fact and in fiction, as the true history was lost in the waters of the Atlantic. Water erased the history, but it also allowed for the creation of a new history.
This is where Afrofuturism comes into play. To have a future, one’s past must be defined. However, for African Americans, though their “history” has been drowned, Afrofuturism resuscitates this history. By its creation, it creates new possibilities for the future. In Carrie Mae Weems’ triptych Untitled (Ebo Landing), the Afrofuturism piece crafts a space with two pictures that could be both African and America with its depiction of lush greenery. In this way, the piece highlights how the original space of water has given way in which Afrofuturism can imagine a past or future that lives in the space of truth and fiction, the Schrödinger’s cat of African American past.
Another example of an Afrofuturist work that deals specifically with the theme of water is 2009 film Pumzi, which depicts an enclosed society in which water is utterly scarce and totally conserved. The film’s ambiguous ending leaves viewers wondering whether there was a neighboring society with access to water the whole time, or if the main character has died a heroine by planting a tree that will eventually bloom into a whole forest.
Ostensibly, Afrofuturism has to do with reclaiming the lost identities or lost perspectives that have been subverted or overlooked. When Mark Dery first coined the term, he says Afrofuturism as “giving rise to a troubling antinomy”. This means that the seeming contradiction of a past being snuffed out and the writing of a future sees its possibilities in Afrofuturism. Furthermore, this Afrofuturism kind of story telling is not regulated to one aspect of communication. It is in novels and essays, academic writings and in music, but by its creation, it is ultimately reclaiming some type of autonomy over one’s story that has historically been restricted.
Therefore, when Afrofuturism manifests itself in the music of the 80’s and beyond, it is under the Afrofuturist’s sensibility. It is in this way that, as Mark Dery says, “African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart”. Because the ancestors of African Americans were forcibly removed from their history, any culture that has found its way into the Black lexicon is at its roots an Afrofuturist notion. It is at its heart reclaiming a past erased and creating a future based on that reimagined past.
Afrofuturism 2.0 was coined during an exchange between Alondra Nelson and Reynaldo Anderson at the Alien Bodies conference in 2013; where Anderson noted that the previous definition was insufficient due to the rise of social media and new technology. Following the publication of the co-edited volume Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness, in the late 2010s, the Black Speculative Arts Movement, a traveling art, comic, and film convention, released a manifesto called Afrofuturism 2.0 and the Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a Manifesto. The manifesto was written by Reynaldo Anderson at Harris-Stowe State University as an attempt to redefine and refit Afrofuturism for the 21st century. The 2.0 volume and the manifesto defines Afrofuturism 2.0 as “The early twenty-first century technogenesis of Black identity reflecting counter histories, hacking and or appropriating the influence of network software, database logic, cultural analytics, deep remixability, neurosciences, enhancement and augmentation, gender fluidity, posthuman possibility, the speculative sphere with transdisciplinary applications and has grown into an important Diasporic techno-cultural Pan African movement”. Afrofuturism 2.0 is characterized by five dimensions to include metaphysics, aesthetics, theoretical and applied science, social sciences and programmatic spaces; and in the twenty-first century is no longer bound to its original definition, as a term once dealing with cultural aesthetics and the digital divide, but has been broaden to be known also as a philosophy of science, metaphysics and geopolitics.
In this manifesto, Anderson acknowledges and accounts for the changes in technology, social movements, and even philosophical changes in modern society while also speculating as to how the Afrofuturist narrative will be changed because of it. This is particularly in regards to the rise and boom of social media platforms.
In conjunction with this, Los Angeles-based artist Martine Syms penned an online article in 2013 called The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto that is composed of a list of tenets that, supposedly, all Mundane Afrofuturists recognize. Though the article is in part parodic and sarcastic, it aims to identify and make light of overused tropes within Afrofuturist works like “magical Negroes” or “references to Sun Ra”. Through this identification of “overused tropes” and a later definition of rules to actually subvert these tropes entitled “The Mundane Afrofuturist promise”, Syms requests a new, updated vision for Afrofuturist works, which falls in line with the framework of Afrofuturism 2.0.