(Photo credit: Leeroy Jason)
Although Afro-futurism doesn't have one clear-cut definition, for the purpose of this article we'll go with the one that defines it as a study of science-fiction themes with particular emphasis on the way advances in technology will affect the Black - that is African diasporic - experience. Afro-futurism is a response to any imagined future that excludes Black people, perspectives from Black culture, as well as African history, artists and writers, and those invested in Afro-futurism are attempting to include and represent Black people in the future as they imagine it.
The first person to use the term was apparently Mark Dery, who defined Afro-futurism as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced – might, for want of a better term, be called 'Afro-futurism'." Afro-futuristic fashion, literature and music boomed especially in the 70s and 80s, envisioning a brighter future for oppressed people.
Nonetheless, Afro-futurism is still an emerging genre, so there isn't that much information about the subject out there, and what there is is scattered all over the place. Most of the discussions on the subject posit Afro-futurism as solely relating to the African-American experience. However, with the growing interest in the place of science fiction in Africa, and in the way Africans imagine themselves in the future, Afro-futurism is slowly being looked at from the African perspective as well.
Spoek Mathambo @ Lincoln Hall, Chicago 7/18/12 (Photo credit: Victoria Holt)
Afro-futuristic sounds and the African connection
The legendary Sun Ra, whose album Space is the Place (1973) ranks number 18 in this compilation of 100 albums every science fiction and fantasy fan should listen to, was a jazz composer as well as a pioneer of Afro-futurism. He presented himself as being part of the Angel Race that came from Saturn, and he incorporated themes of space travel into his music, which was geared as much towards entertainment as it was to the spiritually uplifting African-Americans and connecting them to African history.
South African sonic explorer Spoek Mathambo cites Sun Ra as one of his greatest influences. Sun Ra created a whole universe and thus started an alternative narrative, and Spoek is one of the few African musicians to have openly claimed the term Afro-futurism. In this interview with Afripop Mag, he describes Afro-futurism as a “cultural lineage” with writers on one end and musicians on the other.
One of Afro-futurism's main concerns is history, the history of African peoples as well as their cultures. By creating alternate histories, Afro-futurists challenge colonial narratives of African histories and cultures and seek to awaken the pride and self-confidence of African peoples. It should thus come as no surprise that African musicians who dabble with Afro-futurist themes incorporate commentary on culture and society, and the African future and history, which makes their efforts run deeper than just copying themes from a Western music video.
What do African musicians see when they imagine the future using 20th century technologies as their context?
“Connecting to the God entity”
My initial introduction to Afro-futurist themes as tackled by African musicians was through another South African singer, Simphiwe Dana, through her music video for Ndiredi, which I saw for the first time five or six years ago.
I still don't know the meaning of the Xhosa words Simphiwe croons on this track, but I have my personal understanding of Ndiredi. I see the song, through the video, as being about connecting. Connecting not only with the cosmos - as the alignment of the stars is mentioned in the video - but also with the past, which is represented by the three elegantly dressed women sitting around the well. In this interview, Simphiwe Dana talks about connecting to the God entity, and I feel this very much in Ndiredi. However, don't take my word for it; apparently, Ndiredi shows “a sketch of a future Africa in which the West never had a hand...looking at utopian ideas based on African philosophy” and “African futurism based on traditional African principles”.
The video itself is visually stunning. Starting in a metropolis, Ndiredi reveals an African future with the usual Western tropes: flying cars, isolation, doors that open by palm scan, television screens and videos reminiscent of Big Brother. However, the African archetype remains. As the video progresses we see an abundance of nature, first in the verdant forest and then in the ochre desert. A thread of spirituality runs through Simphiwe Dana's albums, in particular Zandisile and The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street, both of which also possess incredibly soothing sounds. Afro-futurist themes pervade these albums, even though Simphiwe Dana has yet to release a video on the same level as Ndiredi.
Just A Band
“I'll sit on my piano and play something spacey”
The super talented, super nerdy, Nairobi based group Just A Band - they are artists, musicians, producers, filmmakers, DJs - has had consistent Afro-futurist themes in their lyrics and music videos. The video for Usinibore shows a dystopian African police state where a group of dancers with painted faces and young people face off against the police, while the lyrics state fiercely “don't tell me what I can or can't do, I can change the world” and “just because I am an African with Black skin, it doesn't mean that I won't win if I try”. Lyrics like these, which aim to instil pride and confidence, are part and parcel of Afro-futurism.
Meanwhile, in Huff + Puff they sing about having been to the moon and back. The video features one of their members wearing a kaftan and mask reminiscent of ancient Egypt, itself a leitmotif of Afro-futurism. While watching the video with a friend, he pointed out the steampunk aesthetics also incorporated in Huff + Puff: the goggles, overalls, bow ties and top hats.
Looking at another Just A Band video, Kichwateli, an “Afro sci-fi music-mentary” written by Bobb Muchiri and performed by the band, it seems the group is on the same page as Jonathan Doste, who says that “Africa is science fiction...Africa is cyberpunk”. By drawing on the landmarks and themes of today, they create something entirely new and very thought-provoking.
I hope more Africans play with Afro-futurism in the future. I would love to see more videos and listen to more music that takes on 20th century technologies and ideas from the West, while continuing in the path of African traditions that speak of aliens and space travel.