Afrofuturism

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Afrofuturism is an emergent literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.

Examples of seminal afrofuturistic works include the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the photography of Renée Cox; as well as the extraterrestrial mythos of Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra, and the music of DJ Spooky. 

The afrofuturist approach to music was first propounded by the late Sun Ra. Born in Alabama, Sun Ra’s music coalesced in Chicago in the mid-1950s, when he and his Arkestra began recording music that drew from hard bop and modal sources, but created a new synthesis which also used afrocentric and space-themed titles to reflect Ra’s linkage of ancient African culture, specifically Egypt, and the cutting edge of the Space Age. Ra’s film ‘Space Is the Place’ shows the Arkestra in Oakland in the mid-1970s in full space regalia, with a lot of science fiction imagery as well as other comedic and musical material.

Afrofuturist ideas were taken up in 1975 by George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic with his magnum opus ‘Mothership Connection.’ In the thematic underpinnings to P-Funk mythology (‘pure cloned funk’), Clinton in his alter ego Starchild spoke of ‘certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies.’

In the late 1990s a number of cultural critics, notably Mark Dery in his 1995 essay ‘Black to the Future,’ began to write about the features they saw as common in African-American science fiction, music and art. Dery dubbed this phenomenon ‘afrofuturism.’ He writes:

‘Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.’ ‘African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart, literalizing Gibson’s cyberpunk axiom, ‘The street finds its own uses for things.’ With trickster elan, it retrofits, refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and science fictions generated by a dominant culture that has always been not only white but a wielder, as well, of instrumental technologies.’

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