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Afrofuturism and Empowerment

Sunday, July 20th, 2014 | Posted by Elwin Cotman

DETCON1This weekend, I have the pleasure of attending the DETCON1 in Detroit, the North American Science Fiction Convention. I have never been to a NASFIC, but it rose on my list of cons after seeing how sincere the organizers were in having a diverse body of panels and panelists. Not just from a standpoint of age and background, but the mediums that are represented too. I will be doing four panels, two of them on Afrofuturism.

Pretty cool. Still, I feel trepidation. When you go on a vacation (and that’s what con-going is), the real world does not stop. And in the real world, the host city Detroit is in dire straits. With property so cheap, gentrification is at an extreme level. Corporations are buying up whole blocks. Citizens who can’t pay their water bills are getting the utility shut off.

It is nice that the city can attract events like NASFIC or the recent Allied Media Conference. But I hope that we aren’t so busy celebrating spec-fic to at least acknowledge that we’re in a city where the poorest people don’t have water.

I don’t know why anybody reads The Hunger Games. You want dystopia, just read Reuters.

But that’s the irony of dystopia. Writers make novels about the types of issues that marginalized communities face every day, and pass it off as something that could only happen in the future.

I live in the San Francisco Bay. This morning, I woke up to shotgun-toting cops outside my house, the whole street blocked off, a helicopter circling the sky. I don’t need to read about a fictional police state.

Pumzi theatrical poster-smallSince “dystopia” became a YA buzzword, books about oppressive states have flooded the market. As with anything, some are better than others.  And the best dystopian writers are aware of the fact that they’re not writing about the future at all.

For instance, when I think of Detroit, I think of the 2010 Kenyan short film Pumzi. In this excellent film, nature is gone. Humans live in underground bunkers where they reuse all water and self-generate energy. It is not a dying Earth, but a dead Earth. We killed it. Now we live inside the corpse.

The protagonist, Asha, runs a virtual museum of the flora and fauna that used to exist. At one point, she forgets to take her “dream suppresent” pills and envisions a real live tree on the surface. Pumzi is both a dystopia and a quest story; Asha’s rebellion against society takes her to the surface to find the tree.

The film’s final sequence is gorgeous. In the middle of the desert, Asha plants a bud that she has carried the whole way. She empties her tiny water bottle over it. She then wipes the sweat off her body to nourish the plant. As a final act, she lies asleep next to it. She will die in the desert, and feed it with her decomposed body.

There is a theme of collectivism here that is wonderful. The evil bureaucrats she encounters are not corporate bigwigs, but a council of women who deny her permission to visit the surface. Their matriarchal society is built on the good of everyone. One could even argue it is ideal, given their desperate situation. However, Asha sacrifices herself for a perceived greater good. The collectivism of these different characters is culturally Kenyan.

I wish there was more discussion on the ethnicity in different genre literature. It seems to only come up when discussing the work of black or brown authors. But all writing is ethnic. Instead of pretending high fantasy is the default human mythscape, acknowledge it is a product of privileged white men.

Storytelling-wise, Lord of the Rings is universal; culturally, it is niche. Less privileged white men than Tolkien created sword and sorcery, whose gritty heroes and settings reflect blue-collar life.

Swamplandia-smallMagical realism could have come from nowhere but Latin America. The new “literary fantasy” of Swamplandia! and The Tiger’s Wife reflects the worldview of western, Caucasian women.

And the “Afro” in Afrofuturism connects it to the black diaspora. As coined by Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future,” Afrofuturism uses the trappings of the fantastic to explore the black experience.

I’ve never much liked the term, as the “future” part implies science fiction. And while the most famous writers classified as Afrofuturist are SF (Butler, Okorafor, Delaney), plenty of others write fantasy and horror. Right now, Afrofuturism is used as a catch-all term for speculative work from the diaspora. And it does not have to be literature.

Like hip-hop extends beyond rap, Afrofuturism goes beyond the printed page. Its major voices have been musicians. Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Afrika Bambataa, the list goes on. As influenced by 50’s B-movies as they were by black history, they adopted the persona of gods, aliens, superheroes, and cyborgs.

Bambataa looked like a cross between Geordi LaForge and a minotaur. George Clinton… I can’t even really describe what he looked like. P-Funk were star lords come down to deliver a universal message of peace. While the costumes could be futuristic, they also reflected African design, in line with the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the time.

It was a message of empowerment. In a country where the achievements of African-Americans is ghettotized as “black history,” there was something extraordinary when a jazz musician took the name Sun Ra. He was asserting his connection to the great empire of Egypt, while also claiming divinity. He made himself into more than a musician, and the empowerment of post-humanism was infectious. Look at black musicians from the 1970s. Eight out of ten times they dress like Flash Gordon extras.

Zahrah the WindseekerIf I could pin down recurrent themes in Afrofuturism, one would be empowerment through becoming more than human. Another would be empowerment through the African. Take Zahrah’s dadalocks in Zahrah the Windseeker. Her magical, vine-growing hair is something that makes her ostracized, but of course becomes handy in her quest. The magic that enables her to control the wind is part of her heritage.

In music, we have Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid concept album; the singer fashions herself after Maria in Metropolis, telling the story of an artificial woman come from the future to break class barriers. There is reason that, of all the mythology from west Africa, trickster tales were so popular among slaves — the black experience is one of hope against overwhelming odds.

Another theme would be universal good and utopianism. George Clinton has said the original Star Trek was an influence on him. I sort of see P-Funk as the 1970s sequel to Star Trek: TOS. Roddenberry’s vision was of a post-colonial, even anti-colonial utopia where the people of Earth live in harmony, traveling the universe to share that harmony. A far cry from the straight up nihilism I see in science fiction nowadays.

So when P-Funk descended to the stage in their mothership, it was basically a delegation of Vulcans coming to wish us well. With funk. It is the same message of cooperation that runs through Octavia Butler’s work (minus the funk).

Not so ironically, in pretending to be from the future, these 70s and 80s artists made the future of music. Born in 1914, Sun Ra was one of the first jazz musicians to use electronic keyboards, specifically because it sounded artificial. By sampling Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambataa paved the way for electronic music. Funk artists of that period strove to sound like science fiction robots, creating a world where studio effects hold as much weight as live performance.

Now, electronic music rules the pop charts. Everybody uses beats. Everybody uses autotune. We live in a world of virtual pop idols, a futuristic concept if there ever was one.

Afro Samurai-smallWhat I find so interesting about Afrofuturism is its newness as a literary genre. While there are many Afrofuturist musicians, there is not so much spec-fic published about the black diaspora. Afrofuturist literature was basically born alongside Afrofuturist film and music. Not only does it exist across mediums, but across cultures.

One of my favorite works in the genre is the manga Afro Samurai. It is a traditional western about a black ronin on a quest to avenge his father, and takes place in a futuristic version of feudal Japan.

The manga is filled with references to hiphop culture. The anime features a soundtrack by the RZA, who delved into Afrofuturism himself with his Bobby Digital persona.

And it has something to say about being black. We have a fantasy world filled with rappers, DJs, breakdancers, sunglass-wearing ninja, and jive-talkin’ karate masters. Like our world, black culture dominates popular culture.

But there’s pretty much one black character. And everybody’s trying to kill him. It is telling of the universality of hiphop that a Japanese mangaka would grasp that.

In the Afrofuture, anyone can become a hero. Provided they embrace being a god. And with the greater visibility, Afrofuturists (or whatever the genre will be renamed) will continue to do what the best of spec-fic does: not provide escape from the world, but tackle it head-on.


  1. I wish there was more discussion on the ethnicity in different genre literature. It seems to only come up when discussing the work of black or brown authors. But all writing is ethnic.

    True enough. A broader recognition of this may ultimately aid in breaking up the absurdity that is the modern “multicultural” state. At the very least, it might perhaps reduce the incidence of such incongruities as Idris Elba playing a Norse god.

    Instead of pretending high fantasy is the default human mythscape, acknowledge it is a product of privileged white men.

    As is literature in general, for the most part (with some significant contributions from privileged white women). At some point, it must be acknowledged that we are all working with the borrowed tools of our social betters.

    Storytelling-wise, Lord of the Rings is universal; culturally, it is niche. Less privileged white men than Tolkien created sword and sorcery, whose gritty heroes and settings reflect blue-collar life.

    This, I think, sells Tolkien rather short. He may have come from a more comfortable background than Howard and the like, but nonetheless faced numerous struggles, privations and personal losses of his own: Howard apparently killed himself upon learning that his mother had entered a terminal coma, but Tolkien’s died when he was 12. Howard was jaded by the ugly side of life in Texas boomtowns, but Tolkien saw the hell of the Great War at first hand, as it killed off all but one of his closest friends.

    The juxtaposition interests me for other reasons. Like Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee, I’m a common, working-class sort of fellow by ancestry, but it’s Tolkien’s works that speak to me, not Howard’s. Conan and his ilk have never come before me as anything but potential threats to the things that I cherish.

    Comment by Hospitaller - July 20, 2014 11:59 pm

  2. […] *"Afrofuturism and Empowerment" on Black Gate. […]

    Pingback by Moving on the Wires: Recent News and Posts | Aker: Futuristically Ancient - July 21, 2014 8:06 pm

  3. Regarding the glory of George Clinton:

    An old grad school friend teaches in the Writing Program at Juilliard. When he was interviewing for the job, it was clear the faculty really wanted him, but the student advisory committee wasn’t so sure. So when the students got to vet him, they asked, “What was the last classical music performance you went to?” And my friend replied, without irony, “Parliament Funkadelic.” The students blinked in unison. “No, really, what was the last classical…” And my friend insisted, “Yes, really, Parliament Funkadelic.”

    Hospitaller, you put it beautifully when you said:

    Conan and his ilk have never come before me as anything but potential threats to the things that I cherish.

    I like imagining what Conan would have to say to the book-loving REH fans who can quote the stories about him, chapter and verse. As much fun to read as that paragraph is in which Conan is tried for homicide after a bar brawl, and he ends up killing pretty much everybody in the courtroom, who would want to live under Conan’s idea of the rule of law?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - July 22, 2014 10:03 am

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