The Afrofuturist Impulse in Music

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Afrofuturism is everywhere these days. Danny Brown plunges hip-hop into dystopian interzones. Kamasi Washington baths avant-garde jazz in celestial mysticism. Jamal Moss (a.k.a. Hieroglyphic Being) sprinkles cosmic dust across pulsating electronics. And Janelle Monáe rewires modern R&B into cyborg bop. That said, citing examples of Afrofuturism is significantly easier than actually trying to define a nebulous concept that blurs the edges between science fiction and magical realism, philosophy and spirituality, modern art and radical political critique. But let’s give it a try…

First appearing in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” culture writer Mark Dery defines Afrofuturism as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture.” These concerns are, of course, racism, oppression, liberation and, over the last decade, Black feminism. Just as vital are issues of identity, in particular grappling with the alienness of a people removed from their homeland, stripped of their culture, and enslaved in a far-off continent. Again, from Dery’s essay, “African-Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less unpassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind.)” We can add to this miserable list the military-grade technology now being wielded by America’s police force.

Dery’s primary focus is literature (including seminal sci-fi authors Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany). But perhaps the most fertile ground for the movement has been music. It’s an impulse that incorporates an astonishing number of voices cutting across a slew of genres: jazz, hip-hop, soul, reggae, funk, electro, Miami bass, techno and even modern classical. In addition to this rich sonic diversity, Afrofuturism in the music boasts a unique intersection of technological innovation, high-art concept, and pop novelty. This matrix reaches back to the two most important Afrofuturists: jazz visionary Sun Ra and Parliament mastermind George Clinton. Each in his own,unique way mixed up pulp fiction stories of flying saucers with African-American esoterica, deeply philosophical ideas of Black consciousness, and pioneering experiments in sound, including the incorporation of synthesizers. Echoes of their innovations ripple through modern mavericks like Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, and flutist Nicole Mitchell, all of whom have helped to carry Afrofuturism into the 21st century.

If our playlist’s sprawling mix of interstellar horns, rapping robots, futuristic synths, galactic funk, technoid grooves, and dub-drenched bass does inspire you to explore the literary side of Afrofuturism, then definitely check out the powerful work of both Butler and Delany. Also, the essays of Greg Tate and John Corbett respectively are central to understanding the movement’s deliciously eccentric evolution. Now press play and be prepared for a trip down the alleys of your mind.