The new sci-fi musical Neptune Frostset in a Rwandan village built with computer parts, tells the story of an intersex hacker and a coltan miner who lead an anarchist uprising against their oppressors.
The film – hailed for its “Afrofuturist vision” – is just one of the most recent works to engage in the transformative speculation of Afrofuturism, a cultural movement that draws on elements of science- fiction, magic realism, speculative fiction and African history. This movement is underpinned by the desire to create a fairer world.
As I point out to my students in my course on Afrofuturism, although the term was coined 28 years ago, it can relate to many types of work created by black people throughout history. In 1994, cultural critic Mark Dery proposed “Afrofuturism” in an essay titled “Black to the Future.” Black people, he wrote, have “more stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come.”
Beginning in 1998, scholars, artists, and activists from various fields refined the meaning of the term.
1998 book by British-Ghanaian writer and filmmaker Kodwo Eshun Brighter Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Future traces the origins and influence of electronic music. It explores how jazz, dub, techno, funk and hip-hop musicians have used the tools, culture and experiences of the African diaspora to create an electronic sound of the future charged with a desire for transformation.
That same year, American social scientist Alondra Nelson helped organize the Afrofuturism mailing list for artists, scholars, and ordinary people to explore African visions of the world as it is, in addition to the ” world to come”.
Nelson would go on to edit a groundbreaking special issue of the academic journal social text in 2002. This collection of essays argued that the notion that racial and gender distinctions would be eradicated by technology was “the founding fiction of the digital age.”
I tend to define Afrofuturism for my students as an intersection of speculation and liberation inspired by the concerns of people of African descent.
Although Afrofuturism evokes images of future-oriented action, that does not mean that all of these works are inspired by an imaginary future. The act of speculating on liberation has long been central to the black experience. Afrofuturists seek to reclaim knowledge lost through slavery and colonialism, and they are highly critical of contemporary practices that continue to marginalize people.
Why Afrofuturism Matters
Since Afrofuturism is rooted in the experiences of oppressed people, it generally seeks to undermine systems of exploitation while highlighting how modern institutions use race and gender as means of control.
Thus, artist and author Janelle Monáe’s use of the android as a metaphor for an exploited body struggling to be liberated offers a critique of race and gendered oppression. Along the same lines, John Jennings’ graphic novels explore black trauma by reimagining [folklore] and horror stories rooted in black history.
Afrofuturist critiques can even force audiences to reevaluate aspects of society that are taken for granted. For example, Rasheedah Phillips’ paper on Maps and Clocks explores how time zones manifest power and oppression.
Ultimately, Afrofuturist works ask the audience to think about how society can be made safe for everyone. Although Octavia Butler’s “Parable” novel series is set in a dystopian United States, it models community practices rooted in sustainability, gender equity, and mutual respect.
Julian C. Chamblissprofessor of English, Michigan State University.
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