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Afrofuturism in Music: Dissent and Decolonisation

I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos..and the white man, however intelligent he may be, is incapable of understanding Louis Armstrong or songs from the Congo. I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.”

  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Can the colonized possess enough collective faculties to envisage the future? The limits of a dehumanized collective conscious often reach so far as to repeat the cycle of encroached surplus. The idea that enslaved minds can stare at the evening horizon and create myths of liberation is the perfect rebellion for the colonial panopticon. Such is the force of Afrofuturism - a cultural aesthetic and philosophy that often borders on the what-if’s - of an existential African-American with a colonial past. Afrofuturist thought often manifests in science fiction and ingenious technology as a liberator of current ideology and the creator of new social paradigms. It must be clear that this is not technological determinism.

Jean Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans (1983), Whitney Museum of American Art/Image Credits: Whitney Museum of American Art

This essay shall briefly present profound instances in Afrofuturist thought in contemporary American music and visual media. While the brevity of this essay constrains my exploration, the media samples attached herein shall aid you to gauge the oeuvres of these artists and discover the hidden dissent in their works.

Early Beginnings: The Scion of Saturn

In a state of trance and deep meditation, he woke up among two beings with small antennae. He realised that he is transported to the planet Saturn. He could feel his body change. With such surrealism, the beings prophesied his role as a messiah through music. With this experience, Herman Poole Blount was reborn as Le Sony’r Ra, or Sun Ra.

The jazz scene after the tumultuous decade of 1940 plateaued with the rapid improvisation of bebop and entered into a time of slow and linear composition with cool jazz. With Miles Davis and Chet Baker leading the charge, Bossa Nova as a popular genre in Brazil around this period is one of the oldest remnants of cool jazz. The 1950s is the first focal point for Afrofuturism to begin in full zest with Sun Ra’s compositions. His band, Arkestra (although the name changed every time), toured with an exceedingly eccentric attire of gold and shimmers, ancient Egyptian inspirations, and the prophecy of Saturn.

Image Credits: Treble

It is the adaptation of cool jazz that started off the early career of Sun Ra. As time progresses, his future works become increasingly improvisational. That is not to say that his oeuvre becomes any less lazy. Improvisational jazz takes guts and musical genius. To envisage and lyrically draw metaphors for an alien world with Kubrick-esque science fiction soundtracks with increasing out-of-the-world composition is exactly his genius. Using earthly instruments to foretell an existential present is his body of work.

Lanquidity Remastered, Sun Ra, Sun Ra & His Arkestra/ Credits: Spotify

Commentary on African American roots in contemporary music shall exceed the walls of this essay. But needless to say, the occupation of blues and black prog as genres of the American Deep South in the 1860s is quite explanatory in its origin. These genres used call-and-response lyrics that comprise corresponding lyrics that call onto previous ones within a track. Deep melodic tunes in a trance of repetition create a groove that has also anthropologically connected these origins to African musical culture. A callback to these spiritual roots brings into light the value attached to Black identity devoid of a white supremacist. The existence of a distinct African, as opposed to the current diasporic coinage of African-Americans, serves as a departure for further existential inquiry.

The emergence of rock and roll genres with electronic fusion after the 1950s and into the late 1970s amalgamated blues and jazz with commercialised records originally targeted to the African American demographic. Rhythm and Blues, or R&B became the popularised version of the existential Deep South. The realist music production of R&B ventured into the hardships of a socially segregated America, love lost and won, and the endeavours of a life of labour. The contemporary and alternative influence of R&B with fusions into soul, funk, disco, and electronic music is our focus for Afrofuturist exhibitions in music.

Anxiety in the Avant-Garde

Speculative fiction in Afrofuturistic work and in music culture deals with ousting the lack of African American representation in science fiction. As a form of magical realism, a semblance of idealism is created where the current (under-represented) body politic is critiqued with concepts and realities that do not yet exist. The non-existence of such concepts (hence, futuristic) is the stage to present what is absent in the popular mainstream. This absence of socio-political realities becomes eccentric and avant-garde in the eyes of the general mainstream (read: dominant class). The avant-garde in Afrofuturism is nothing short of cognitive dissonance - the inelasticity of a hierarchical order imposes constraints on comprehension.

The premier place to experience dissonance and the angst of gazing at the incomprehensible would take one to Missy Elliot and decades of her projects that still hold a fresh and timeless perspective. From dancing in black trash bags (Supa-Dupa Fly, 1997) and in neon Matrix-inspired android worlds (She’s a B**ch) with rap music is Elliot’s genius that was coined as futuristic by her right from the start.

She’s a B**ch, Missy Elliot, 2009/Credits: YouTube