The Future Is Afro: A Journey Through Afrofuturism

by Melchi Anyinsah-Bondzie

When I was younger my uncle was afraid of the O2 Arena, which back then was known as the Millennium Dome.

“Don’t go in there, Melchi. It looks like an alien mothership and Africans don’t mess with no aliens.”

How wrong my uncle was. Growing up, there was always this idea that anything that was technology or science fiction was ‘un-African’, too far removed from our traditional and ancestral background. However, the idea of African sci-fi and technological advances wasn’t so far-fetched and now it has a name: Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic. It draws upon the influences of science fiction, the future and technology, merging them with blackness and black people living in Africa and elsewhere due to the African diaspora. In short, it would be fitting to describe Afrofuturism as a movement. It is there to obstruct, ask questions and combat the often-brutal past of black people.

Its roots stretch as far back as the late 1950s, with American jazz musician Sun Ra and his ensemble “The Arkestra”, and even further in the 1920s with sci-fi literature written by American authors W. E. B. Du Bois and George S. Schuyler. The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined in 1993 by American cultural critic Mark Dery in his essay Black to the Future.

Sun Ra was creating music that was not only futurist in sound, but also in look. His aesthetic was a fusion of space and ancient Egyptian iconography. This would become very popular with musicians in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the like of Jonzun Crew, Afrika Bambaataa and The Zulu Nation and Parliament Funkadelic: all adopting the ‘space-age’ look mixed with traditional African elements.

Afrofuturism can be found in all aspects of black creative spectrums. It explores the ideas of blackness and black life from an extraordinary angle and moves away from the tropes of slavery, baby mother/daddy dramas, crime and other black stereotypes; placing black people in narratives from which we’ve always been left out.

But Afrofuturism isn’t just black science fiction: it’s about ancient African traditions, ideals and belief systems that are placed in a context that allows them to exist in the future.

For American artist and academic John Jennings, his introduction to Afrofuturism was accidental.

“I created these images about stereotypes, and I came up with the idea of black cyborgs and the constructive identity being metallic. A friend of mine saw these and said, ‘oh these look afrofuturist’ so I looked it up and realised that they were that.”

Jennings has been involved with the movement ever since 2008 and has had an integral role in the new wave of Afrofuturism over the past decade.

“I am very proud to be a part of this new form of what is known as Afrofuturism,” he says.

One of Jennings’ most notable works is an illustration of the graphic novel adaptation of
Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, in which an African-American woman married to a white man time travels against her will back to slavery. Jennings described the experience as being “very difficult, but very rewarding and proud to have been a part of.”

AfroFuturism - Columbus by John Ira Jennings
Columbus by John Jennings

When looking at music in Afrofuturism, a lot of it has its roots in genres that are widely accepted as ‘black’: hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, jazz and funk have been the domineering sounds of the movement. But it would be silly not to suggest the pioneering of house music, especially techno, as afrofuturist.

Berlin-based American DJ and cartoonist Alan Oldham got his start in techno after being asked by childhood friend and pioneering techno producer Derrick May to create illustrations for his label Transmat.

“It kinda introduced me into the world of Detroit techno… Back then it was magical, it was really a thing,” he says.

Hip-hop in its early stages resembled early house music. This unique sound and this notion of house and techno as ‘black music’ have been lost now.

Oldham says: “Black people are defined now by hip-hop… We are limited to these kinds of boxes. With a lot of these younger generations discarding these art forms, the former gets picked up by others.”

There is this idea that black people are culturally monolithic, which is most certainly not true. Oldham recalls the time he was at a family gathering where he met one of his younger cousins for the first time.

“I was introduced to my cousin, and my other relative introduced me as a ‘famous techno DJ’ to which she replied: ‘Isn’t that what all those white folks listen to?’ A lot of people don’t get it, though it’s no fault of their own. It’s kinda tough.”

Oldham is confident, however, that we will move towards an Afrofuturism that will inspire more experimental techno music.

It is because of Afrofuturism that artists like Janelle Monáe, Kelela, FKA Twigs and films like Black Panther have been allowed to prosper.

With Black Panther, we are shown a narrative that places an African country at the forefront of technological innovation: untouched by colonisation and other negative outside influences. The fictional county of Wakanda is the dream of the ancestors.

For decades, black scholars and artists alike had imagined a life where blackness wasn’t seen as a bad thing and where black people could flourish in areas they couldn’t in “real life”.

Black Panther in a sense echoes the writings of authors like Colson Whitehead, who imagined places where black nations had unbounded wealth and a sense of real community untouched by racism and systemic oppressions.

Although Black Panther is fictional, both Jennings and Oldham recount the sentiments of unity the film had inspired.

“The emotional and cultural gains are far reaching because it means so much for people to see someone who looks like them or like someone they know represented in a superhero film. It’s empowering,” Jennings says.

Although African-American in its origin, Afrofuturism has found its way back to the continent of Africa and other places in the diaspora. For Jennings this is an exciting prospect.

“Our brothers and sisters from the diaspora, they want in! They’re like ‘hey! I got dreams too, what are we going to do together,” he says. He knows that there is some sort of push back against that but says that: “this is the beauty of these things”.

“We don’t have to agree all the time. But it is beautiful to see people from Africa interested in this work and engaging with it.”

AfroFuturism - Vectra Cover by Alan Oldham
Cover of  Vectra – Black Girl From The Future by Alan Oldham

The likes of Kenyan artist Osborne Macharia, Burkina Faso architect Diébédo Francis Kéré and Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane are all influential figures of Afrofuturism in Africa and they are all respected.

There is a distinct story that Afrofuturism sets out to tell. There’s an idea of reclaiming an identity, one that was so brutally and forcibly erased from black people, and using this newly found identity alongside ideas of technology to create something new.

What Afrofuturism allows is for those who engage with it to ask questions, try to reconcile themselves with the past and to move forward in positive ways that would ultimately bring about some sort of accord among black African nations and their descendants.

The future is black; the future is Afro.

Featured Image: Artwork by Alan Oldham

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