Afrofuturism: An invitation to dance, or a provocation to insurgency?

by Emma Dabiri

I put all things about Ancient Egypt out of my head since they failed. I’m thinking about the future of Black Egypt, which is outside the realm of history. So what I’m talking about is the myth, and nothing that has ever been, is part of what I’m talking about. Black folks need a mythocracy not a democracy. History has been very unkind to black people. They not gonna make it in history. His Story is not gonna help black folks at all….

Thus spoke Professor Sun-Ra, in his 1971 Berkley lecture The Black Man in the Cosmos, segments of which narrate the following mixtape.

Join me in an exploration of Afrofuturism, and as we examine the ideas of the aesthetic – as set out by Sun Ra – a startling irony emerges.

sun-ra-3One can draw parallels between the Afrofuturistic orientation articulated by Ra, and attempts by radical European scholars to engage time and imagine a world beyond the confines of the Cartesian binaries that so circumscribe the conditions of contemporary existence.

In her analysis of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche feminist scholar Elisabeth Grosz outlines an understanding of approaches to the past as well as the function of history:

A being largely dominated by memory and the past is one for whom the present, and its possibilities of action are curtailed. To be mired in the past is to be unable to think and act the future; conversely, to be unanchored in the past, to have no connections to, or resonances with, the past, is also to have no way to see or make a future, it is to have no place from which a future can be made that is different to the present. Well-being requires a judicious mix of the historical and the ahistorical, the timely and the untimely, the past and the future (Grosz, 2004:116).

Such a position remains controversial in a European context. However, it reflects a more fluid, African centered understanding of time, and the ways in which the purpose and functions of both history and the past might be imagined from a more African perspective, encapsulated beautifully above in Sun-Ra’s conceptualization of mythocracy.

Sun-Ra continues:

Honesty is not what I’m talking about. You’re not in a place where the truth is gonna do you any good. Truth has been abolished. Any truth you say is not permissible in here….the truth is not permissible for me to use because I’m not righteous or holy. I’m evil. That’s because I’m Black and I’m not ascribed any righteousness. I’m using their dictionary.

Again strong parallels with Nietzschean thought emerge.

Nietzsche was not concerned with historical accuracy or so-called ‘facts’, but rather with the potentialities of the past for the transformation of the future. Such a conception of history seeks to problematize the prevailing views on which the study of the past (from a western perspective, I hasten to add) has previously been based, such as the belief that the past is an objective reality that can be more or less accessed and reconstructed in the present through material artefacts and texts retained or gleaned from the past (Grosz 2004: 114).

The significance of these similarities must not be overlooked. Consider the decimation of African epistemologies, dismissed as primitive, and the wholesale destruction of vast corpuses of knowledge that existed in oral genres.

These ways of knowing were disavowed in favour of the rigidity of written forms of knowledge, deemed superior by our European superiors. One cannot help a wry smile at the irony, when those considered some of the greatest minds in Western thought only end up at what we knew millennia ago. Reinventing the wheel. But it’s all good. We know better. The future is prescient of the past, and both influence the present. Chronology remains as much a myth as the minotaur.

Certain attempts to address “race” or “blackness” such as the reprehensible “Exhibit B” exhibition (banned – after public pressure – from the Barbican earlier this year) demonstrate the way many non-black liberals, artists, and/or activists approach race work, often centralising narratives of racism, slavery, and oppression, reducing blackness to little more then the “tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects and slave-ships” identified by Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks (1986: 112).

Meanwhile black artists, while never forgetting the centrality of these experiences to contemporary articulations of blackness (how could we? for it is us, and us alone, that live (and die) according to our blackness), are increasingly seeking to reimagine ontologies of blackness in ways that attend to more African centered philosophies, and which might liberate us, imaginatively at least, from the strictures imposed upon us by others.

2101712-music-aliens-Missy-Elliott-Shes-A-Bitch.jpg.custom1200x675x20.dimgAfrofuturism carves out a space for black people to write ourselves into speculative pasts and futures, to reimagine our identities beyond and before human history and form.

The necessity of such philosophical work, in the face of what might be considered more pressing, material demands, should not be underestimated. Martin Luther King urged us to realize that nobody else could provide us with liberty or freedom, reminding us that:

No document can do this for us…no emancipation proclamation… no civil rights bill can do this for us….nobody else can do this for us…if the negro is to be free he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign with the pen and ink of self asserted manhood his own emancipation proclamation.

What more effective way to facilitate accessing the soul then through the alchemy of music, which exists primarily in indigenous African cultures for such purposes. Throughout Africa, music, song and dance, have never been reducible to entertainment alone. These art forms were devised in order to bridge the gap between temporal planes; the present and the eternal worlds. From the mbira of the Shona, to the kora of the Mande, the bata of the Yoruba, and the ngoma drumming found throughout eastern, central and Southern Africa, music has always been a tool for societal transformation.

Whether used to petition ancestral spirits, to document histories of rebellion and resistance, as narratives of intergenerational memory, to promote psychosocial healing, or a combination of all, music has remained central to African civilizations. The reason that music of African origin provides the foundation for almost all contemporary popular music is because of this ability to channel the divine, providing a depth, a soul so often missing in this neo-liberal moment.

As such Black music has long been a rich site for analysis of what political scientist James C. Scott calls the “hidden transcript”:

Every subordinate group creates, out of its ordeal, a “hidden transcript”, that represents a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant (1996, xii).

Probably one of my favourite tracks on the mix-tape which follows is Strafe’s (1983) ‘Set it Off’, which demonstrates this concept of the hidden transcript;

Y’all want this party started, right? Y’all want this party started quickly, right? Set it off on the left y’all, set it off the right y’all, set it off…

What is happening here? An invitation to dance, or a provocation to insurgency? The multilayered ambiguity of this track always hits me right in the gut, located as it is in a long genealogy of black resistance. From the music of the Zimbabwean Chimurenga, to the origins of house in Chicago, Black music has long attended multiple objectives. To the uninitiated it might just be party music – albeit particularly infectious party music with an essence often imitated but rarely replicated – while the insider might recognize it as a call to arms, expertly disguised in the guise of a banging tune.

This mixtape deviates somewhat from the standard Afrofuturistic fare. While major label artists such as Missy are featured, they are not those that consciously promote themselves as Afrofuturistic, but are rather artists that nonetheless embody the musical innovation that drives the concept.

Afrofuturism is largely articulated as African American but we wanted to draw upon the broader Diaspora, including not just the West African regions from which many African Americans originate, but also the broader African context, reaching to South Africa, as well as incorporating the often overlooked contributions of Black British cultural production.

We have avoided as much as possible the major label backed, self aware, Afrofuturist aesthetic championed by artists such as Janelle Monae. In our opinion much of this music remains somewhat bland, employing Afrofuturist imagery – at worst cynically, at best superficially – whilst remaining devoid of the sonic creativity and other worldly orientation of genuinely futurist artists such as Shabazz Palaces, Freddie Hubbard, Tyree, or Jimi Hendrix.

Like these others Hendrix did not employ the term Afrofuturistic in relation to himself, but his output is quintessentially that. His A merman I should turn to be is not only sonically transcendental, but its lyrical content references Yoruba mythology, evoking images of the orisha Olokun, who is associated with the deep sea, and who is understood as heralding the way for spirits that are passing into ancestorship:

So my love, Catherina and me,

decide to take our last walk through the noise to the sea

Not to die but to reborn,

away from a land so battered and torn

Forever, forever….

These lines remain suggestive of the cyclical nature of time in African cosmologies, wherein sharp delineations between the worlds of the unborn, the living, and the ancestors are dissolved. Did Hendrix explicitly know about the beliefs of the Yoruba spiritual system? Or was it something communicated to him through time, and across geographical space, overcoming the ruptures engendered through the centuries long trans-Atlantic trade in black flesh? This shared consciousness, emergent throughout the Black Atlantic world is the essence of Afrofuturism.

Come on we’re many

With all that we feel, the time is ideal to

Set it off I suggest y’all

Set it off….

References:

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely (2004) Duke University Press
Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

Playlist – by Ian McQuaid

The tape opens with a prelude; Sun Ra as narrator, as storyteller, scene setter, fireside sitter, trickster and friend. His words are spliced with Hendrix’s alien feedback, with distorted renderings of Actress’s celestial techno, with half heard fragments of that most iconic moment – the birth of Kunte Kinte.

The story proper begins. The narrative unfolds over 3 movements. The first songs offered are the soundtrack to the dancing steps of the Earthbound. These are club songs, dance tracks that have the future nagging in their blood. A Number of Names open with their soothsaying proto techno, recorded half a decade before the world caught up. Dirty Paraffin follow, delighting in the rap syncretic, splicing hip hop aesthetics with Durban’s Kwaito pulse, before the tape cuts sharply into Missy Elliott’s lock-limbed robot rhythms. In this first movement the lyrics stay loose, partying, raving, turnt up. All the while, the music, the secret whisper of the heart, reaches to the stars.

The second movement opens with a clear switch. A speech culled from UK dystopian sci-fi show Black Mirror signals the dawning of a realization that on Earth, in this history, in this time line, the odds are stacked. The lyrics take a turn. Strafe’s rabble rousing Set It Off kicks in, the party is still going – but now it has a sharp focus. Laura Mvula follows, interrogating levels of power on a cosmological scale: “who made you the centre of the universe?” As the mournful horns of Freddie Hubbard’s high concept jazz blow sorrow through dust, Richard Pryor imagines himself at the cold mercy of HAL3000. Shabazz Palaces invoke the ancestors. TV On The Radio “don’t wanna march peacefully” – they’ve “nothing inside … but an angry heart beat.” Tension builds. Reality tightens the screws.

It’s down to Hendrix to call it.

The machine that we built
Would never save us that’s what they say
That’s why they ain’t comin’ with us today
And they also said it’s impossible
For a man to live and breathe underwater
Forever was a main complaint
Yeah and they also threw this in my face they said
Anyway you know good and well
It would be beyond the will of god
And the grace of the king

The third movement starts. Now the Earthbound begin the search for other spaces, riffling through time, myth and parallel worlds. With the blessing of the Orisha ringing in our ears, we head into the sea to spend time in James Stinson’s fabled Drexciya. We pass into Egyptian Lovers retro futurist version of Egypt. Finally we blast into the cosmos itself, carried on Nigga Fox’s riot of Angolan beats – a genre so modern it still defies the cage of a name – entering an infinite dance, a whirl through 11 dimensions, a place where bodies are fluid; genders, names, brains interchangable; paradigms shuffled; Chronos befuddled. From the wild machine music of Chicago acid techno, into the staccato hits of Azealia Banks’ teasing vogue, into the kinetic spring shuffle of DJ Cndo. Tempos slow and Le1f deconstructs time. His fractured hip hop science melts into crunk philosopher Supanova Slom, and Slom’s bars-

328550495876-azealia-banks-yung-rapunxel_music_video_ov“Ain’t no body shining like Im shining// Im shining // with a body full of stars… “

are looped into a chant, a tuning fork vibration thrumming with the energy of all that has come before. LTJ Bukem’s Atlantis clatters underneath, gathering the mantra on wings of rattling snares and ethereal melody (a melody Bukem sampled from Detroit producer Real By Real’s obscure, beautiful homage to technology, Surkit). A whirling circle of science, myth and cosmology builds to a maelstrom crescendo.

And falls away.

Void.

The curtains fall.

The audience remains rooted to their seats.

Scattered amongst them, members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra begin to sing. Quiet at first, then louder, their song swells. Around them people rise. The lines ring out.

If you find Earth boring

Just the same old same thing

Come and join us at Outerspaceways Incorporated… ‘My Body Full Of Stars – An Afrofuturism Mixtape – by Oyinboy

Richard_Pryor_frowning

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Emma Dabiri is an Irish Nigerian writer and commenter. She is currently undertaking her PhD in sociology. Her doctoral research explores the multiple ways being ‘mixed-race’ has come to be gendered. Her major passions include African and African Diasporian performative and literary cultures, critical race studies, feminism and folklore. She is regularly invited to contribute to discussions on diverse issues ranging from performance to race and feminism at various settings including the Africa Writes festival, Film Africa, UK Feminista, WOW Southbank Festival and BBC Radio 4. She blogs as The Diaspora Diva. Follow her on Twitter @TheDiasporaDiva

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4 replies

  1. While I fully support Afro-Futurism, let’s also not forget that a tree without its roots will never stand the test of time.

    We need Africa to get in touch with its roots (the past), in tune with its stem(the present) and where it aspires, visualises, aims, and more importantly…has an action plan to go.

    In a country like South Africa for instance, we have the reinforcement of the Anglo-Boer Wars, the fall of Shaka, Apartheid and Colonial Slavery.

    How are people meant to stand tall, and with pride if all they ever percieve themselves as, are the under-dogs?
    As recently as 2014, a 30-something year old African woman said the below words:
    “I cannot trust in a race that is constantly paining me, a race whose behaviour is less than desirable, where everyone thinks they know it all and people have no listening skills’

    This was a woman relating to her self as the darker, inferior, enslaved, poor person that history has, over 500 years taught her to be. To reverse that, part of the remedy, in my role as the socio-political woman, was to first dig up Africa’s past because when dealig with such folk, there is NO WAY they’re even going to understand the notion of Afro-futurism.
    Such topics as AfroFuturism, and intellecual debates, are ironically, as put by William Du Bois, a great part of ‘the talented tenth’.
    That is my experience as an African woman living in South Africa.
    The vast majority of our people, aren’t even thinking @ this level.
    The so-called black elite, who, were so ousted in 2009, in exchange for the more approachable, less intellectual version remain preferences.

    As we all continue to discuss and engage and blog and put issues out there, it is great to have feedback sessions, reflection and stats feeding back so that we know which issues strike a global cord, and which ones are meant for a select few @ the pinnacle of social hierachies.
    Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom – let your email find you!

    Liked by 1 person

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