AN INTRODUCTION TO AFROFUTURISM

BY LIAM EASLEY, TRUMPET ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

Science fiction, especially in the United States, is a genre we all know. Everyone has either seen or heard of “Star Wars,” “Avengers” or “The Terminator,” and these are all nice, fun, comfortable franchises, but their connotation is much more broad than what meets the eye. We see these films as fun stories about heroes and antiheroes saving the day from the challengers of order, and “order” will be a keyword here. 

Looking deeper, these are narratives that uphold a higher authority. When we watch the “Avengers” franchise or the old “Flash Gordon” serial, we see a world of heroes and villains – an “us” and a “them” – where the villains are opposing some sort of rightful order that maintains peace and the heroes must fight with all their will to save it. 

Looking into what these topics really portray can usually be pinned to a current event. “Godzilla” was inspired by the fear of another nuclear fallout in Japan. “Brave New World” was written as a response to the overwhelming power that industrialism was beginning to take hold of within our society. “The Terminator” is oftentimes interpreted as a film that opposed the acceleration of new technologies. 

Not all sci-fi topics have such a correlation, but a lot of them do, and this is important, especially when looking at afrofuturism. 

Afrofuturism has had a place in most entertainment media since the mid-20th century, but the term wasn’t coined until 1993 by culture critic Mark Dery. The genre, or mentality, was initiated as a response to science fiction at the time. As the idea of science fiction often portrayed the concept of maintaining order from a white and oftentimes colonialist stance, it did not cater or relate to Black communities at all. 

When seen from the stance of the Black community, they saw themselves relating neither to the “us” nor the “them” in these stories, as the protagonist oftentimes upheld an order that enforced their oppression and the antagonist was always just evil. 

The concept of order in sci-fi is very important, as the aliens in “Alien” and “Predator” and the Empire in “Star Wars” are not portrayed as anything more than foreign powers that seek to humiliate and destroy the order that maintains peace and prosperity. While I am not taking the side of the fascist Empire or the manslaughtering aliens, these topics reinforce a fear, and that is the fear of outsiders. 

When the civil rights movements of the 1960s started, it seemed all too familiar to the casual, white consumer, who had seen plenty of movies over their years about foreign, different-looking people (usually extraterrestrials like those in “Invaders From Mars” or Ming the Merciless from “Flash Gordon”) attempting to wriggle their way in and change the order of things. With this in mind, the existence of afrofuturism all of a sudden seemed so appropriate. 

Afrofuturism came to be for many reasons. First, it existed for inclusion. At the end of the day, there were not many science fiction stories that portrayed Black people as main character(s) in literature, film, radio or music. The idea of inclusion in these movies was a way of obliterating the “us and them” mentality by giving a stage to Black people who were just as human as white people and therefore had a right to be represented in the arts. 

The second reason was much more complex, and it brought into question the idea of science fiction itself. Science fiction is oftentimes depicted as either dystopian or pre-dystopian, meaning that the society has yet to succumb to a dystopian regime and is currently fighting it. Notice that there is almost always some sort of corruption going on within the genre of sci-fi. When sci-fi stories utilize white characters as heroes and victims, it’s not wrong, but we can do better. 

Going back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for an end to systematic oppression and racism, something that seemed unfortunately normal but was actually very dystopian. When Ngozi Onwurah made “Welcome II the Terrordome” in 1995, she showed a world where mass incarceration and police brutality were portrayed in a dystopian world. 

Films like “Welcome II the Terrordome” cemented the idea that dystopian stories were not so far off from reality. All of a sudden, afrofuturism began to blur the line between real and otherworldly, attempting to bring awareness to the public that science fiction movies and their oppressive motifs were not any distant than present. It declared the dystopia to be here and now, and that those who portrayed the dystopia in entertainment were not the ones affected by it the most. 

This brings us to the third reason: freedom. When Sun Ra said, “There’s no limit to the things you can do,” he was referring to being in space. Mixing with the escapism shared by most citizens in the United States, Black artists like Sun Ra sought to escape not just an oppressive society but even the planet. Almost all film in the United States has either promoted or capitalized on escapism, but afrofuturism made it genuine. 

The aforementioned Sun Ra created one of the first afrofuturist movies, “Space Is the Place,” in 1974, and a popular example of modern afrofuturism was “Black Panther.” In 2020, Beyoncé wrote “Black Is King,” another modern example of this genre. 

BEYONCE IN ‘BLACK IS KING.’ PHOTO COURTESY OF IMDB.

Afrofuturism mainly had its roots in music. Sun Ra was a popular example, but there was also Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Henderson, Pharoah Sanders and Hubert Laws. Jimi Hendrix was oftentimes placed under the label as well, although afrofuturist music was typically within the realm of jazz or soul. 

This Black History Month, I felt like sharing the concept of afrofuturism, but that does not mean that this should be the only time we explore it. In fact, experiencing afrofuturism only during the month of February contradicts its goals, as it calls for Black art not to be viewed as something different from other art. While it demands proper representation, it also calls for Black voices to just be voices. 

“There’s no limit to the things that you can do,” said Sun Ra in his 1973 epic, 21-minute experimental jazz track “Space Is the Place.” 

Science fiction, especially in the United States, is a genre we all know. Everyone has either seen or heard of “Star Wars,” “Avengers” or “The Terminator,” and these are all nice, fun, comfortable franchises, but their connotation is much more broad than what meets the eye. We see these films as fun stories about heroes and antiheroes saving the day from the challengers of order, and “order” will be a keyword here. 

Looking deeper, these are narratives that uphold a higher authority. When we watch the “Avengers” franchise or the old “Flash Gordon” serial, we see a world of heroes and villains – an “us” and a “them” – where the villains are opposing some sort of rightful order that maintains peace and the heroes must fight with all their will to save it. 

Looking into what these topics really portray can usually be pinned to a current event. “Godzilla” was inspired by the fear of another nuclear fallout in Japan. “Brave New World” was written as a response to the overwhelming power that industrialism was beginning to take hold of within our society. “The Terminator” is oftentimes interpreted as a film that opposed the acceleration of new technologies. 

Not all sci-fi topics have such a correlation, but a lot of them do, and this is important, especially when looking at afrofuturism. 

Afrofuturism has had a place in most entertainment media since the mid-20th century, but the term wasn’t coined until 1993 by culture critic Mark Dery. The genre, or mentality, was initiated as a response to science fiction at the time. As the idea of science fiction often portrayed the concept of maintaining order from a white and oftentimes colonialist stance, it did not cater or relate to Black communities at all. 

When seen from the stance of the Black community, they saw themselves relating neither to the “us” nor the “them” in these stories, as the protagonist oftentimes upheld an order that enforced their oppression and the antagonist was always just evil. 

The concept of order in sci-fi is very important, as the aliens in “Alien” and “Predator” and the Empire in “Star Wars” are not portrayed as anything more than foreign powers that seek to humiliate and destroy the order that maintains peace and prosperity. While I am not taking the side of the fascist Empire or the manslaughtering aliens, these topics reinforce a fear, and that is the fear of outsiders. 

When the civil rights movements of the 1960s started, it seemed all too familiar to the casual, white consumer, who had seen plenty of movies over their years about foreign, different-looking people (usually extraterrestrials like those in “Invaders From Mars” or Ming the Merciless from “Flash Gordon”) attempting to wriggle their way in and change the order of things. With this in mind, the existence of afrofuturism all of a sudden seemed so appropriate. 

Afrofuturism came to be for many reasons. First, it existed for inclusion. At the end of the day, there were not many science fiction stories that portrayed Black people as main character(s) in literature, film, radio or music. The idea of inclusion in these movies was a way of obliterating the “us and them” mentality by giving a stage to Black people who were just as human as white people and therefore had a right to be represented in the arts. 

The second reason was much more complex, and it brought into question the idea of science fiction itself. Science fiction is oftentimes depicted as either dystopian or pre-dystopian, meaning that the society has yet to succumb to a dystopian regime and is currently fighting it. Notice that there is almost always some sort of corruption going on within the genre of sci-fi. When sci-fi stories utilize white characters as heroes and victims, it’s not wrong, but we can do better. 

Going back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for an end to systematic oppression and racism, something that seemed unfortunately normal but was actually very dystopian. When Ngozi Onwurah made “Welcome II the Terrordome” in 1995, she showed a world where mass incarceration and police brutality were portrayed in a dystopian world. 

Films like “Welcome II the Terrordome” cemented the idea that dystopian stories were not so far off from reality. All of a sudden, afrofuturism began to blur the line between real and otherworldly, attempting to bring awareness to the public that science fiction movies and their oppressive motifs were not any distant than present. It declared the dystopia to be here and now, and that those who portrayed the dystopia in entertainment were not the ones affected by it the most. 

This brings us to the third reason: freedom. When Sun Ra said, “There’s no limit to the things you can do,” he was referring to being in space. Mixing with the escapism shared by most citizens in the United States, Black artists like Sun Ra sought to escape not just an oppressive society but even the planet. Almost all film in the United States has either promoted or capitalized on escapism, but afrofuturism made it genuine. 

The aforementioned Sun Ra created one of the first afrofuturist movies, “Space Is the Place,” in 1974, and a popular example of modern afrofuturism was “Black Panther.” In 2020, Beyoncé wrote “Black Is King,” another modern example of this genre. 

Afrofuturism mainly had its roots in music. Sun Ra was a popular example, but there was also Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Henderson, Pharoah Sanders and Hubert Laws. Jimi Hendrix was oftentimes placed under the label as well, although afrofuturist music was typically within the realm of jazz or soul. 

This Black History Month, I felt like sharing the concept of afrofuturism, but that does not mean that this should be the only time we explore it. In fact, experiencing afrofuturism only during the month of February contradicts its goals, as it calls for Black art not to be viewed as something different from other art. While it demands proper representation, it also calls for Black voices to just be voices. 

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