A Brief Explainer of Afrofuturism

First: the basis of any good philosophical understanding is that humans made everything up. We made up names, titles, language, etiquette, hierarchies – it’s all a majority-enforced figment of our collective imagination. It’s the matrix! But less aesthetically cohesive.

Second: A critique of philosophy is that it often fails to consider social realities. That above basis of good philosophic understanding really fails to take into account that the people with power make all the rules. And historically speaking, the people with power have been white men. So all those rules we collectively buy into –  names, titles, language, etiquette, hierarchies – white guys on the whole established that foundation, and enforced them by way of access to education, power, and money. He who makes the rules benefits from them too. It is really difficult to express yourself, see yourself, and establish yourself in a world that excluded you from the planning process. Think about it: white men wrote all the language rules too. Not because they were smart or the best person for the job, but because they were in charge. That means we’re all speaking a language (author’s note, I’m specifically referring to English here) that best describes and relates to the experience of white men. But… we’re not all white men. As a result, there’s a basic rupture in the language we have available to communicate our experience and our actual experience. Ever felt like you don’t have the words? If you’re not a white guy, that’s literally happening.

So what are those who aren't white males to do? How do they create space for their own identities using unfamiliar tools? There are as many strategies as there are groups and subgroups (see: billions). Due to the recent racial climate – first with the Black Lives Matter movement, later with the horrific rise of the Alt Right – Afrofuturism has seen a rise in popularity as a way for black people to imagine a future that doesn’t just include them, but that they get to build themselves.

Coined in 1993 by culture writer Mark Dery, the term Afrofuturism covers a lot of ground. In simplest terms, Afrofuturism offers a way of looking at a future through a black cultural lens. Afrofuturism is art, music, and media created around the idea of a future with black people at the center of it. Where do you go when you don’t have a past? To the future.

Of course, nothing is simple about the cultural experience of systemic racism. In his essay, Black to the Future, Dery asks “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of history, imagine possible futures?” Dery asks his audience to consider how exhausting the search for self-actualization is in a world that fundamentally undermines a black person’s right to exist. When the present includes people of color being murdered by police, the latest rise of white supremacy, and make-up in an inclusive shade range considered “remarkable”, how can a black person reasonably imagine a future where they aren’t just represented, but get to thrive? That painful reality informs a lot of the more mystical elements of Afrofuturism. A lot of imaginings see it in space. Partly because it’s cool, mostly because earth hasn’t been a great place for black people. Historically, black people have not been treated as humans: reimagining the black narrative as an “alien” one offers a truer representation of the black experience. The point of reimagining one's’ circumstance is to let go of the constraints of humanity, and aliens are above, beyond, and outside of the earthly experience. Free of earthly baggage, what could the black experience be? Ytasha Womack, author of “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture,” describes this imagining process as creating agency. In her talk at the recent Sonic Acts festival, Womack described the process of imagining as “[pushing] us beyond our conventions, but in doing so it helps us further connect with ourselves.”

Art and music have been central to the growth of Afrofuturism. Sun Ra and his cosmic “Arkestra” innovated with free-jazz experimentation, space-age/egyptian costume, and celestial poetry. He was the first black artist to adopt the sci-fi costume, mixing it with Egyptian symbols (“Ra” is the Egyptian sun god) to evoke the “eon-ruling race of beautiful and technologically-advanced African aristocracy.” Writers Ishmael Reed and Octavia Butler have penned stories of black futures since 1967. Janelle Monae’s commercial success has put Afrofuturistic ideas in a more central place of discussion. With 2010s The ArchAndroid release, Monae invoked Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film The Metropolis – widely regarded as the first-ever science fiction film. A concept album, Monae describes the “protagonist” of the work as Cindi Mayweather: an indentured android who falls in love with a human. Marked for disassembly, Cindi goes on the run and during her travels through the futuristic city, becomes The Electric Lady – the being fated to unite the ruling and the android classes. The story’s narrative follows one that we’re familiar with: an indentured servant (a slave) transcends a class boundary. To maintain order and hierarchy, the insubordinate must be destroyed. But in this narrative, Cindi Mayweather has the power to evade, grow powerful, and mend the divide that keeps her brethren imprisoned. Monae is using science fiction to comment on current political issues, while imagining a better future for the “android” race. The Other.