The Afrofuturist movement has steadily built a critical mass for half a dozen years. Art galleries across the country, following the 2018 success of Disney’s Black Panther, are featuring visions of alternate futures filtered through the kaleidoscopic prism of the African diaspora. From the Illinois Wesleyan University galleries to the new Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, instances of the blending of technology and African culture are multiplying. But why? What is Afrofuturism all about?
The beginnings of Afrofuturism are in Black speculative fiction. The term Afrofuturism was first coined by Mark Dery in his groundbreaking 1993 literary essay “Black to the Future,” in the South Atlantic Quarterly. In his words, Afrofuturism was “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” But looking back further, it is multiple Hugo and Nebula award recipient, Octavia Butler, that is the literary avatar of the Black speculative fiction space. Butler, a Sci-Fi writer with an Afrofuturist bent, began her career in reaction to the cult classic “Devil Girl From Mars.” After watching the ill-conceived 1954 film, her response was, “’geez, I can write a better story than that.” And she did, many times over.
Octavia Butler connected the diasporic love of freedom that all exiled people in an oppressive land have, to Science Fiction. The novel Wild Seed, published by Butler in 1980, is the story of two immortal Africans named Doro and Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shape-shifter and Doro can inhabit other people’s bodies. Amazon Prime Video is presently developing a series based on the novel, produced by JuVee Productions, a Los Angeles company led by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon. And after years of slowly gaining in popularity as an author, last year the Library of America finally published Octavia Butler’s first volume of collected works.
However, Afrofuturism is more than just literary. Stacey Abrams’s cameo on Star Trek Discovery as President of United Earth last month is pop and politics. Carnegie Hall’s two month city-wide music and spoken word festival that run from February to March 2022, reconsidering black science fiction and technoculture, also shows how far these ideas have actually penetrated into our cultural DNA. And of course, at the center of it all there is Black Panther, which in 2018, became the highest-grossing superhero film ever after surpassing The Avengers. Even LEGO Ideas has an Afrofuturist contest. And if all of these examples are not enough evidence of a resounding zeitgeist, the nascent crypto NFT art space is brimming with works of Afrofuturist excellence. Afrofuturism is taking its rightful place of honor in the Metaverse.
Disney’s Black Panther was a definite inflection point, and that through which all future Afrofuturism must be viewed. High-tech, hyper-stylized Wakanda – the Afrofuturist Motherland – still represents the ideal fictionalized African civilization. “Overnight the blockbuster epic about superpowered Africans battling for the soul of a modern monarchy/matriarchy on humanity’s Mother Continent — a culture more technologically and militarily advanced than the U.S. — became Afrofuturism’s thumbnail sketch and readymade Pictionary graphic,” wrote Greg Tate in Hyperalergic. Other Afrofuturist milestones in film are Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz, The Blade Trilogy, A Wrinkle in Time and the cult classic short Robots of Brixton.
We cannot forget that Afrofuturism was respected in the visual arts community even before Black Panther or even NFTs. In painting, Alma Thomas is the godmother of the Afrofuturistic movement. Thomas was the first student to graduate from the Howard University art department. During the span of her eighty-six years, her life spanned horse drawn buggies to cars to aircraft and the Apollo 10, Apollo 11, and Mariner 9 missions. Alma Thomas was acutely interested in technological change. “She watched images retrieved from NASA’s Apollo mission on her color television and imagined herself in outer space with the astronauts,” writes art critic Elizabeth Hamilton in Harper’s Bazaar. “Her paintings were not just her interpretations of celestial bodies and spaces but also her transformative space to imagine herself in a galactic elsewhere free of white supremacy.” Graffiti, also, falls under the category of Afrofuturism visual art forms. We cannot fail to note Rammellzee, whose graffiti went from the A train line in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston of today. And an honorable mention here goes to “Man From Mars” Fab Five Freddy.
Of late, the most fully articulated examples of Afrofuturism in music have been executed by women. There are the futuristic aesthetics of Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, which are perhaps the best recent examples of the genre in music. Cybertronic Punk, off the Arch Android studio album, is a perfect work of Afrofuturism, brimming with cyber virtuosity. In the brief and hauntingly operatic track, Cindi — Monáe– longs for her human lover despite the fact that she is limited in society on the basis of her being an android. Ultimately this consciousness of her limited status compels her to flee from Droid Control precipitating an android revolution. All the themes of the genre – the quest for freedom, technoculture in a highly stylized setting and all so often revolution – are present; further, the quest for freedom here involves feminism. Doja Cat’s Planet Her is another superlative example of feminist Afrofuturist music as is Beyonce’s magisterial Lemonade. All three works merge feminism with the liberation aspect of Afrofuturism.
The earlier pantheon of Afrofuturist musicians includes Prince and the Miles Davis – jazz’s Ambassador from the crab nebula. However, none of this earlier pantheon of Afrofuturists presented black diasporic stories told through technoculture as did Sun Ra, another legend that is undergoing a renaissance of his own. Sun Ra, who pioneered an Afrocentric ideology with space age references back in the 1960s, is about to get a new documentary on his legacy by Attica documentarian Stanley Nelson. If not for Sun Ra, we would not have had Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Afrofuturist cover art by German painter Abdul Mati Klarwein or even maverick producer and vocalist George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Sun Ra is the through-line of early stage Afrofuturistic music just as Prince, Janelle Monae and Beyonce have taken the baton and carried the genre further out into the exosphere. What is in the future for Afrofuturism? Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is being directed once again by Ryan Coogler and is slated to become the 30th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is scheduled to drop on November 11, 2022, in time for holiday and awards season. Afrofuturist NFTs, like the Afrodroids, are proliferating rapidly. And according to a recent report by KuCoin, the number of crypto transactions has increased by 2,500% in some African countries. “The imagination of the futurist is an amazing blueprint of a wish to finally depart from the history and memories that have been experienced and inherited, and to finally be a part of an equally inclusive world,” reads a post from the Portion Drops blog. If the standard definition of Afrofuturism is to reimagine the history of the African diaspora in such a way as to invoke a technologically-advanced and hopeful future in which Black people not just survive, but thrive, then the Afrofuturist revolution is is just getting started.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair