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
Missy’s performativity as an African American and a woman creates the dissonance on a layered basis. Bodily identities that are historically refused and personified with dehumanised violence pile onto the experiences of a traditionally patriarchal household. This double burden is refused by Missy in her work as a woman with autonomy in a futuristic world where race may exist but is not asymmetrically impose against her.
Lose Control, featuring Ciara & Fat Man Scoop /Credits: Youtube
Reclamation as Rebellion
Janelle Monae’s body of work comprises a near 15-year concept project on a dystopia. With her debut Extended Play (EP) Metropolis: The Chase Suite, She has created the perfect allegory for what haunts humanity well above the African American struggle. Building on Asimov’s conception of artificial intelligence, Monae builds onto a modern world of android robots - Metropolis. This project, years in the making with her acclaimed studio album ArchAndroid, implodes with Cindi Mayweather, a messianic android who goes back in time to save the citizens of Metropolis from a secret institution that suppresses freedom and love.
“PrimeTime”, Janelle Monae featuring Miguel /Credits: YouTube
Liberation in the Metropolis - android power, black, and queer identity has been suppressed and appear as minuscule objects of exotic curiosity to the citizens who have been brainwashed. This idea mirrors the need for creative expression and artistic endeavour as essential linkages to preserve identity. Using such posthumanist themes, Monae references Judith Butler’s work on reclamation and memory as crucial markers for a revolution today. Self-expression and coexistence in an oppressive world could not be more of a priority for Monae, who also identifies as pansexual.
The Afrofuturist body-politic/Image Credits: Vevo/Youtube
Repetitive beats and lyrics line up in the background in a call-and-response form in an intricate scene with the heaviest adjectives and imagery one could create in Solange’s new album When I Get Home. Emancipated African Americans who settled the Old West in the United States, many of whom were cowboys, remain erased from standard history textbooks. These “black-owned things”, as Solange sings in Almeda cannot go unnoticed:
Black waves, black days
Black baes, black things
These are black-owned things
Black faith still can't be washed away
Not even in that Florida water
She styles cowboy hats with cowboys on their horses in a pitch-black road (hidden from history) and a preoccupation with the binary of black and white colours and circular designs as a symbol of the historic struggle and its infinite existence. Florida Water is a liquor based product used for ritual cleansing. Highlighting the symbols of struggle as a means of memory is a way with which Solange connects with her home in Houston. She explodes personal struggles with her community as not just Beyonce’s sister, but just as an African American woman.
Almeda, Solange Knowles/Credits: YouTube
What sets her apart from the dystopian style of Janelle Monae is the explicit and unique imagery of her worldview and that of African American politics. It may be more neo-realist than Afrofuturist, but her connection with true visual art makes her work feel like ‘going to outer space to avoid the politics of the Earth’. One instance connects her with a (bejewelled) holy spirit with energy so strong it would make you chant in tongues and dance with the most vivid movements. Such spiritual similes may be autobiographical but link collective experiences as a window into the subjective.
Rejuvenation or Revolution?
The contemporary debate on the production and organisation of labour within neoliberal politics has been fairly inconclusive. Capital as a body without organs has transformed from the Fordist methods of the factory line to the current age of data capitalism and monopolistic corporatocracy. Where this leaves us is how to define this post-fordism.
The French Regulationists present compelling arguments about the primacy and complementary nature of production and the social fabric. The Regulationists ponder upon the reasons why Capital exists despite its contradictions and crises. They define a regime of accumulation and mode of production to display the current institutions that, in this context, uphold Capital. Moreover, the social paradigm of each epoch presents the psychological and oedipal nexus that regulates and homogenises consciousness.
With this School in mind, Afrofuturism is a frontier into a new form of social relations popularly opined without the existence of any coloniser. It is an escape from the current realities of class conflict, racial conservatism and the asymmetric consolidation of power. The perfect consolidation of all social realities, cultural aesthetics, and ancestral heritage culminates in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (first appeared in Fantastic Four #52, July 1966). The film adaptation works around a local coexistence of tribes with a futuristic technoculture. With Academy Award-winning costume design by Ruth Carter who was inspired by local fabric designs in African regions, the film boasts one of the most impressive and powerful soundtracks. Paying homage to the greats of R&B and pop, Wakanda represents decades of work to envision the African aesthetic devoid of its diasporic history.
Wakanda, artist’s rendition. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection/Image Credits: TIME
A renewal of interest in Afrofuturism for me stems from a political emergency. The emergency of neoconservatism shall also be a racial one. The politics and aesthetics of collective decolonisation for Frantz Fanon require liberation of the land, for it is the source of dignity and sustenance. Decolonisation in the truest sense requires reclaiming dissent from the past and to popularise its existence. Despite the individualism professed by current economic and social discourse, the hypocrisy of racial and nationalist frontiers plague the existence of criticism and a generational investment in society against despotism.
I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free), Nina Simone/Credits: YouTube
You may wish to explore Afrofuturist music with profound contemporary artists such as Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and Wu-Tang Clan. Inspired from earlier works by afro-funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic, the artists above present non-linear improvisations in R&B and neo-Soul genres. Jimi Hendrix and Afrika Bambaataa are some other stalwarts in this genre and aesthetic.
The Quiet Storm as a subgenre is a historical root of current R&B music ranging from The Weeknd and Drake to Frank Ocean, Masego, and many others in the pop scene. Characterised by slow-burn, balladic, and often romantic production, Quiet Storm came about as a radio show in 1976 and found popularity among the new baby boomers of a gentrified African American middle class. Here is a Quiet Storm playlist for your listening pleasure.
Quiet Storm Odyssey, Playlist/Credits: Spotify
By Kunal Panda
Kunal Panda is a final year undergraduate majoring in Economics from Hindu College, University of Delhi. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he strives to pursue intersectionality in his research. His academic interests include Political Economy and Gender Studies, having recently reviewed the psychoanalytic façade of ideology and aesthetics, under a broad view of fetishism and gender performativity. He is also an ardent reader of epic literature. He aims to be an educator one day.