Watch a 5‑Part Animated Primer on Afrofuturism, the Black Sci-Fi Phenomenon Inspired by Sun Ra

We rec­og­nize its hall­marks in music espe­cial­ly. It is the province of Sun Ra, George Clin­ton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Afri­ka Bam­baataa, and, in recent years, Janelle Mon­ae, Andre 3000, Bey­on­cé, and many oth­er black artists who have updat­ed for the 21st cen­tu­ry the styles and sounds of Afro­fu­tur­ism. Reach­ing back into an Afro­cen­tric past—with heavy empha­sis on Egyptology—and for­ward to an inter­stel­lar future, the genre of Afro­fu­tur­ism reclaims the ter­rain of sci­ence fic­tion for peo­ple of African descent, serv­ing as an “umbrel­la term,” as one con­tem­po­rary Afro­fu­tur­ist com­mu­ni­ty puts it, “for the Black pres­ence in sci-fi, tech­nol­o­gy, mag­ic, and fan­ta­sy.”

One might be sur­prised to learn that the term itself did not orig­i­nate with the vision­ary founder of its aes­thet­ic. Sun Ra (for­mer­ly Her­man Poole Blount)—bandleader of the Arkestra and space alien from Saturn—called his space-themed big band music “cos­mic jazz” or, some­times, “phre music—music of the sun.” Instead, “Afro­fu­tur­ism” was coined by cul­tur­al crit­ic Mark Dery in his sem­i­nal 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” which includ­ed inter­views with sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany, crit­ic and musi­cian Greg Tate, and schol­ar Tri­cia Rose. Afro­fu­tur­ism has tak­en on a vari­ety of mean­ings, not only in music, but also in art, dance, film, and sci­ence fic­tion writ­ing like that of Delany and Octavia But­ler.

But as you’ll learn in the video above, the first in a 5‑part ani­mat­ed series on the genre from Dust, “its roots go back to the late 1930s in Huntsville, Alaba­ma,” the actu­al birth­place of Sun Ra, where he main­tained he was abduct­ed, tak­en to Sat­urn (not Jupiter, as the nar­ra­tor mis­tak­en­ly says), and told by aliens to “trans­port black peo­ple away from the vio­lence and racism of plan­et Earth.” The series traces the growth of Sun Ra’s orig­i­nal mis­sion through the cul­tur­al touch­stones of Lieu­tenant Uhu­ra, George Clin­ton, Jimi Hen­drix, and Mis­sy Elliott.

Sun Ra died in 1993, the year before Dery invent­ed the name for his gen­er­ous lega­cy. “What does it say,” the nar­ra­tor asks, “about how far we have or have not come if this mes­sage still res­onates with each new gen­er­a­tion?” Dery recent­ly took on the ques­tion in a 2016 essay, in which he quotes Tate—now at work on a book on Afro­fu­tur­ism: “Hav­ing ced­ed the racial ground war to Enlight­en­ment-era impe­ri­al­ism some­where back in the 17th cen­tu­ry, black futur­ism deter­mined that the fiery realms of the sym­bol­ic and the myth­ic and the rhetor­i­cal and the spir­i­tu­al and the wicked­ly styl­ish, son­ic, and polyrhyth­mic would become our culture’s baili­wick, rai­son d’être, and cul­tur­al tri­umphal­ist bat­tle­ground.”

Afro­fu­tur­ism trans­forms trau­ma, the era­sure of the black past, and bleak prospects for the future into pow­er­ful dis­plays of cre­ative agency. The strug­gle to claim that agency in the face of impe­r­i­al vio­lence and plun­der con­tin­ues, Dery argues, but now takes place in the midst of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments even a space alien like Sun Ra could not have fore­seen. While many of the ques­tions once asked about the human­i­ty of enslaved peo­ple have shift­ed to debates over androids, cyborgs, and oth­er posthu­man cre­ations, the con­di­tions for many col­o­nized and mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple all over the world have not con­sid­er­ably improved.

As “Afro­fu­tur­ism is all too aware,” Dery writes, “objects can have inner lives…. Con­se­quent­ly, it is less con­cerned with knock­ing the human off its onto­log­i­cal perch than it is in forg­ing alliances with Oth­ers of any species, human or posthu­man.”

Afro­fu­tur­ism speaks to our moment because it alone – not the ahis­tor­i­cal, apo­lit­i­cal cor­po­rate pre­cogs at TED talks; not the fatu­ous Hol­ly­wood fran­chis­es that have noth­ing to say about our times – offers a mythol­o­gy of the future present, an explana­to­ry nar­ra­tive that recov­ers the lost data of his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry, con­fronts the dystopi­an real­i­ty of black life in Amer­i­ca, demands a place for peo­ple of col­or among the mono­rails and the Hugh Fer­ris mono­liths of our tomor­rows, insists that our Visions of Things to Come live up to our pieties about racial equal­i­ty and social jus­tice. 

You can see three short episodes of Dust’s Afro­fu­tur­ism series above, with parts four and five to come. (You will be able to find them all here.) Until then, watch the short Vox video explain­er on Afro­fu­tur­ism below.

via Elec­tron­ic Beats

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

Sun Ra Plays a Music Ther­a­py Gig at a Men­tal Hos­pi­tal; Inspires Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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