Inside Afrofuturism: a sonic companion

From Sun Ra and Public Enemy to Flying Lotus and Janelle Monáe, black musicians have adapted the themes and iconography of science fiction to imagine alternative black realities. Take a trip through the weird and wonderful world of Afrofuturism with our musical guide.

Ashley Clark

The cover of Parliament's 1975 album Mothership Connection

The cover of Parliament's 1975 album Mothership Connection

How to describe the term ‘Afrofuturism’?

Well, here’s a brief attempt: it represents a flexible artistic aesthetic, and a framework for critical theory applicable to multimedia work concerned with imagined and alternative black experiences. Author Ytasha Womack writes: “Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-western beliefs.”

Inside Afrofuturism, the four-day film programme I’ve curated at BFI Southbank, spotlights a number of key cinematic works that have engaged with, or been inspired by this ever-evolving stylistic and intellectual cornucopia. Though the term itself was coined by American cultural theoretician Mark Dery in his influential 1994 essay ‘Black to the Future’, the ideas behind the concept have long permeated black culture, particularly in the arena of music. What follows is an annotated playlist – or a sonic companion, if you will – to help you navigate the wonderful, wide, weird world of Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism’s key man is Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount in the Jim Crow hot-spot, Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, Ra maintained he was not of this planet, and painstakingly crafted an intangible, mythical persona that fused sci-fi ideas and aesthetics with Egyptian mysticism – this infused the music he made until his death in 1993.

John Coney’s bizarre, unclassifiable film Space Is the Place (1974), features Ra playing a version of himself as a seer whose mission is to get the disenfranchised black youth of the day to relocate to the utopian haven of space. Along with his band, the Arkestra, he also gets to crank out some major tunes, including the incantatory title track. Earlier works, like the skronky ‘Astro Black’, effortlessly fused cosmological thought with unsettling, bottomless grooves.

The second crucial figure of musical Afrofuturism is the one and only George Clinton, whose outfits Funkadelic and Parliament explored sci-fi and space mythology in colourful, innovative ways. His big ideas were always indivisible from the music, which he described as “P-Funk” (pure, uncut funk). As Clinton comments in John Akomfrah’s brilliant Afrofuturism documentary The Last Angel of History (1996), he wanted to go where we “had not yet perceived black people to be” – ie outer space. His music envisions a space-age era in which black characters are the primary protagonists and cultural arbiters of the future. Parliament’s legendary stadium shows of the 1970s were known to be visited by a giant, glittering UFO that emerged from the ceiling amidst billowing smoke and pyrotechnics.

Parliament’s pivotal album Mothership Connection (1975) – where Clinton’s ‘Star Child’ made his bow – is the place to start, but his entire back catalogue is rife with cosmic ideas and arresting alter-egos, like Dr Funkenstein, “The disco fiend with the monster sound / The cool ghoul with the bump transplant.”

The Last Angel of History cites the influential Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry as the third pillar of musical Afrofuturism. If Ra had his Arkestra and Clinton had his Mothership, then Perry has his Black Ark, the legendary studios where he continues to produce his echoey space-reggae. Of Perry’s music, Dery has commented, “at its eeriest it sounds like it were made of dark matter and recorded in the crushing gravity field of a black hole”. A case in point is Perry’s ‘Disco Devil’, a super-dub remix of Max Romeo’s ’70s classic ‘Chase the Devil’.

Kodwo Eshun, the cultural critic and author of Afrofuturist music urtext More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998) has commented on the through-line which connects the music of these three great black artists: “[They] have nothing in common with the common idea of black music which is that it belongs to the ‘street’ or the stage – it’s not live or out in the urban. It’s impossible, imaginary music.” ‘Impossible’, ‘imaginary’ – these are key words when considering ideas of the Afrofuture.

Other prolific reggae artists like the Jamaican King Tubby – a sound engineer and electronic specialist – and, later, Guyanese dub kingpin Mad Professor, have crafted oceanically deep grooves which reverberate with the fear and wonder of pure otherworldliness.

Avant-garde jazz musicians in the 1960s and 1970s reached for higher planes with their experimental, densely textured sonic compositions and hallucinatory Afrocentric cover art – the likes of which are a clear inspiration for the colourful animation in Terence Nance’s romantic drama An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012). 

At the vanguard was saxophonist Ornette Coleman who, as Shirley Clarke’s brilliant documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985) reveals, was approached by NASA to compose music for their space program. Hardly a surprise: Coleman’s wiggy, piercing jams always seem to be operating on some subliminal, higher level, and in 1972 he even released an LP simply called Science Fiction.

Other great jazz artists like Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Miles Davis pushed musical boundaries (including pioneering experiments with electronics) while engaging frequently with complex ideas of spirituality, cosmology and alternative realities.

You can’t talk about Afrofuturism without mentioning hip-hop pioneer, father of electro-funk, and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation: DJ Afrika Bambaataa (who comes to the BFI on Monday 1 December). The rise of electronic music and the gradual collapse of boundaries between man and machine, opened new avenues for engagement with scientific and sociocultural themes.

As cultural theorist Tricia Rose astutely observed in ‘Black to the Future’: “[What acts] like Afrika Bambaataa saw in Kraftwerk’s use of the robot was an understanding of themselves as already having been robots. Adopting ‘the robot’ reflected a response to an existing condition: namely, that they were labour for capitalism, that they had very little value as people in this society.”

If that sounds like heavy stuff, then shake it off to Bam’s anthemic 1982 stormer, ‘Planet Rock’, which sampled the chilly refrain from Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’.

The great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock was another of the first artists to meld electronic musical experiments with a visual dimension. His 1983 album Future Shock is a certified electro-funk masterpiece, while the iconic video for the single ‘Rockit’, directed by ex-10CC man Kevin Godley, featured robots dancing around to the beat of the music and the turntable scratching.

Down the years critics, including Dery, have pondered the paucity of black science fiction writers – a curiosity given the genre’s common subtexts of social struggle, alienation and forced transportation (specifically slavery, which many critics have compared to a sci-fi experience). Yet the critic Julian Jonker argues “few of these debates operate at the interface of science and aesthetics which is the required starting point of contemporary black cultural expression”.

To talk about black science fiction, he concludes, “it might be better to abandon the literary and look at what … Kodwo Eshun has called ‘sonic fictions’; the gamut of black futurist sounds which have charted the course of pre-and post-rave electronica”. We’ve already discussed Afrika Bambaataa, but his inheritors, the Belleville Three – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – created a musical firestorm, namely techno, in Detroit in the late 1980s. With a mechanised sound both futuristic and extraterrestrial, (the ‘otherness’ central to Afrofuturist ideas), these techno pioneers established an influential scene of club dance.

The Last Angel of History (1996)

The Last Angel of History (1996)

May once humorously described Detroit techno music as being a “complete mistake … like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company”. Atkins, meanwhile, a self-confessed sci-fi nut, speaks in The Last Angel of History about wanting to perpetuate the technological revolution through music. “Synthesizers”, he says, “represent the ability to make space sounds. I want to land a UFO on top of the track.”

Later, the mysterious Drexciya, also Detroit-based, blended a secretive, underground, anti-mainstream media stance – kind of like a music version of today’s Anonymous – with mythological arcana in order to heighten the dramatic effect of their doomy, layered music. Their name, for example, referred to a mythical underwater country populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown from slave ships; these children had adapted to breathe underwater.

Washington DC-born polymath DJ Spooky (born Paul Miller), meanwhile, began his artistic career writing sci-fi, before transitioning into music performance and production, and ultimately cutting-edge digital art. He’s perhaps most famed for his innovative Rebirth of a Nation (2005), a chopped, stretched, jump-cut mash-up of D.W. Griffith’s racist classic, which President Woodrow Wilson described in 1915 as “like writing history with lightning.”

Spooky’s response? “I wonder what he would have said of Grand Master Flash’s 1981 classic ‘Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’?”

As The Last Angel of History shows, the idea of making electro-musical hay from the collapsing of boundaries between man and machine, as honed in Detroit, also permeated UK dance music culture. Mancunian A Guy Called Gerald became a maestro of crisp, driving beats and eerie soundscapes in the late 80s, while in the 90s, drum‘n’bass and jungle were genres rife with cosmology and sci-fi imagery. Artists like Bristol’s Goldie operated in the Afrofuturist tradition by crafting spacey, digital soundscapes which commented – sometimes obliquely, sometimes explicitly – on contemporary urban life. London duo 4hero, in albums like 1995’s Parallel Universe and 1998’s Two Pages, skilfully interwove jazz and breakbeats with imagery and themes of spiritualism, UFOs and astrology.

Afrofuturistic ideas would also find a ready, willing home in hip-hop, where the creation of colourful, controversial alter-egos and poetically heightened tales of street life have long been recurring traits. Also, as the author Greg Tate notes, “sampling is a way of collapsing all eras of music onto a chip – a digitised race memory”. The digital collapsing and cross-referencing of culture is a highly Afrofuturistic idea.

The great Public Enemy, led by Chuck D, titled their classic 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet, lending a hard sci-fi edge to a fiercely contemporary critique of contemporary American race relations. Others, like Kool Keith’s alter-ego Dr Octagon, would use music to investigate where science fiction ended and the black American existence began. Octagon’s doomy song ‘Earth People’ (1996) is the hallucinatory first person account of an alien from Jupiter – a time-travelling gynaecologist, to be precise – landing on earth to survey urban life. Our lyrical, fiercely eloquent narrator thankfully has a lot more to say than the mute figure who crash lands in Harlem in John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984).

Down south, extravagant hip-hop showmen OutKast cribbed liberally from George Clinton and P-Funk for elements of their look and sound, and went the whole sci-fi hog on their classic second album, 1996’s ATLiens (a portmanteau of their home state, Atlanta, and the word aliens.) Academic Mark Bould suggests that the title symbolises the group’s “estrangement from American society … the inner city of their formative years, and its hostile conditions, is out of this world”.

Afrofuturistic ideas and aesthetics have made a storming comeback in the last few years, and the artist at the forefront is Kansas City’s Janelle Monáe, who burst onto the scene in 2007 with high-concept ideas and a ready-made alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. To explain, over to Janelle: “Cindi is an android and I love speaking about the android because they are the new ‘other’. People are afraid of the other and I believe we’re going to live in a world with androids because of technology and the way it advances.”

If you’ll indulge in a little more theory, the academic Marlo D. David, echoing Tricia Rose, has put forth that “[i]n the era of slavery, people of African descent were human enough to live and love and have culture, but were nonhuman to the extent that they were ‘machines’, labour for capitalism”. She argues that Monáe and other Afrofuturists manipulate these symbolic references of past and future, resulting in a third entity, “a cyborg identity, in resistance to that involuntary binary”.

In addition to Monáe, plenty of other cutting edge artists have continued to pursue science-fictive ideas and imagery. LA’s Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, has mined inspiration from myriad sources, including the cosmic music made by his great-aunt Alice Coltrane, ’70s funk and soul, science fiction and even video game music.

King Britt, who curated this year’s MOONDANCE Afrofuturism event at New York’s MoMA PS1, is a musician and DJ in his own right, while experimental Seattle hip-hoppers Shabazz Palaces boast some of the most striking cosmological sounds and imagery in the contemporary firmament. Then there’s Ras G, who has been described as the new Sun Ra. When you hear his dense, layered sonic confections and tune in to his penchant for outer-space imagery, you’ll understand why.

Finally, while it would be hard to argue that the Red Krayola’s hyperventilating slice of post-punk ‘Born in Flames’ is Afrofuturistic music in any conventional sense, it is the irresistible – and frankly quite stressful – title song for one of the great Afrofuturism-inflected films: Lizzie Borden’s dystopian feminist headtrip from 1983.

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