As a kid obsessed with fantasy, I often traveled to different dimensions. Whether transported through the pages of a Marvel comic book, the glowing glass teat in the living room that projected images of Star Trek, or the silver screen while staring at Logan’s Run, the future always seemed much more interesting than the drabness of the present.
Yet, as a young Black boy enthralled by various speculative fictions textual or visual, there were very few representations of folks like myself in these imagined landscapes. Logan’s Run featured no Black folks and, with the exception of Star Trek’s commutations expert Nyota Uhura (actress Nichelle Nichols), there were very few folks of color either as characters or as creators.
A few years later, when a funk-obsessed cousin introduced me to the cosmic soul of George Clinton’s crazed bands of musical misfits Parliament and Funkadelic, the concept of brothers and sisters in space traveling to different planets on the Mothership Connection became a realistic fantasy.
In addition to the aural sci-fi P-Funk was putting down, Clinton and company were also imagining a future with an African-American president, way back in 1975 on “Chocolate City.” Years before Barack Obama became a two-term president, the P-Funkers were already contemplating splashing black paint on the White House.
While Clinton’s cosmic adventures and alternate histories didn’t have a name back then, nowadays they’d be considered part of the Afrofuturism canon. Named by writer Mark Dery in his influential 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” the term Afrofuturism has become a cultural catchphrase to describe the world of tomorrow today in music, art, theater, politics and academics. Yet depending on whom you talk too, the definition of Afrofuturism often differs from person to person.
“That’s because people are trying to draw hard lines around what can be somewhat fuzzy stuff,” says esteemed cultural critic Greg Tate. As one of the early definers of Afrofuturism a decade before it was properly named, Tate’s essays on Black science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany (Tate’s essay “Ghetto in the Sky”), George Clinton (“Beyond the Zone of the Zero Funkativity”) and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson (“Dread or Alive”) were groundbreaking texts that served as a map towards discovering pathways of Black thought towards future-shock ideas.
In Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Culture, author Ytasha L. Womack cites Tate and Dery’s pioneering writing while simultaneously building on and extending the journey. Incorporating autobiography, academic study and information about numerous Afrofutursist practitioners (including Sun Ra, Octavia E. Butler, Janelle Monáe and W. E. B. Dubois), the writer brings us in on “the cosmic ground floor” and proceeds to propel the reader into the stratosphere.
“Afrofuturism bridges so many aspects of our culture, from African mythology, art and hip-hop to politics, comic books and science,” Womack says. “The name serves as an anchor from which we can build ideas and expanding our minds.”
Artist John Jennings, who supplied Afrofuturism’s stunning cover, met Womack through a mutual friend and bonded over shared ideas of aesthetic. “Afrofuturism is not just science fiction based, but also about imagining different spaces of creative thought that doesn’t put you identity in a box,” says Jennings.
A tenured arts professor in the visual studies department at SUNY Buffalo, he’s currently adapting Octavia E. Butler’s seminal Kindred into a 230-page graphic novel. “Much of Afrofuturism borrows from the past to define the future. It’s the perfect portal to explore spirituality, technology and building new worlds.”
In addition to his numerous gigs, the prolific Jennings is also the co-creator (with Stacey Robinson) of Black Kirby. Paying tribute to the co-creator of superheroes like the Fantastic Four, Captain America and Thor, the traveling art show re-imagines the dynamic work of comic book artist Jack Kirby through a Black lens. Several images from the series appear as interior illustrations in Afrofuturism.
Beginning in November, the Studio Museum in Harlem will present a major Afrofuturistic art exhibit dubbed The Shadows Took Shape. With a name like a Lee “Scratch” Perry song, the show features the work of Wangechi Mutu, Laylah Ali, Sanford Biggers and Derrick Adams. Curators Naima J. Keith and Zoë Whitley commissioned 29 artists working in a wide variety of media, including photography, video, painting, drawing, sculpture and multimedia installation.
New York City-based artist Derrick Adams, who’s been into science fiction since watching Dr. Who and Star Wars as a kid, is recreating the giant metallic head of Richard Pryor’s title character in The Wiz as his contribution to the upcoming Studio show. For Adams, the 1978 film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson serves as the perfect Afrofuturist touchstone and inspiration.
“From the way the elements of time-travel to the blues and jazz infused in the soundtrack to the way the characters speak, The Wiz uses escapism and fantasy to discuss bigger issues,” says Adams. “The same is true for the concepts of Afrofuturism.”
The late artist Rammellzee, who died in 2010 at the age of 49, was Afrofuturistic before his time. Beginning his career as a New York graffiti kid in the 1970s, he also rapped on the 1983 hip-hop classic “Beat Bop,” and was close friends with artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quiñones.
Ramm also created infamous otherworldly costumes, mind-boggling manifestos and wild-styled paintings that are highly sought and collected.
“It was like he stepped into one of his graffiti pieces and emerged with a different kind of knowledge,” says Oakland writer D. Scott Miller, the scribe behind the Afro-Surrealist Manifesto. “For him, graffiti served as a device for interdimensional travel, and those are the ideas reflected in his work.”
A fan of poet Henry Dumas and singer/songwriter Nina Simone (two artists he believes monumental in the Afro-Surrealistic movement), Miller’s ideas are also presented in the pages of Afrofuturism.
While much of Afrofuturism might sound highbrow, writer/musician Greg Tate, who currently teaches an Afrofuturism class at Brown University, is quick to point out that the disciple isn’t just regulated to the ivory towers and art-houses. “There is also a street element to Afrofuturism that should not be forgotten,” Tate states. “From RZA to Kool Keith to Grandmaster Flash shopping at Radio Shack, to drug dealers in the ’80s walking around with beepers, all of that is also a segment of Afrofuturism.”
Although the ideas and theories of Afrofuturism are still growing wild as weeds, steadily morphing with each new creation, Ytasha Womack says, “I totally believe Afrofuturism can be used as a tool of empowerment to embrace our culture as we push past limitations.” Indeed, as the Afrofuturist movement continues to flourish, the future is now.
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