By William Neubauer
The scene is Oakland, California, 1972: a large, oblong shape descends from the sky, bathed in light; landing in an open field, it begins to emit loud sirens and circular red flashes; an expectant crowd rushes towards the unknown object. Gradually, a yellow door in the centre slides inwards, smoke creeping from underneath: out steps a figure, a black man, clothed in a silver tunic and golden cape which flutters behind him in the wind. As he strides forward, a regnal chorus of trumpets and other horns announce his presence, and we see that he is wearing a large Pharaonic headpiece, also golden, extending upwards into an orb with two protruding arms; behind him follow a cluster of attendants, each dressed in increasingly elaborate Egyptian costumes, holding the edges of his cape and swaying to the music. Gently running his fingers over a keyboard, the figure speaks: ‘I am the altered destiny. I am the altered destiny, the presence of the living myth.’ ‘What is the power of your machine?’, a journalist asks. He replies, simply: ‘Music.’
Viewers are entitled – and intended – to be bemused. This is Space Is the Place, an utterly bizarre and highly recommended 1974 film featuring the music and personal mythology of the avant-garde jazz musician, Sun Ra. Ra’s mission is straightforward: he desires to emancipate ‘the black race’ from a planet on which they are unwelcome. The themes raised of alienation, assimilation, and co-existence are shared by many black writers in the tradition of James Baldwin – and are also undoubtedly familiar to readers of science fiction. Ra, however, collided these two visions head-on, exploring ‘the black experience’ in a cosmic setting. He was thus an early pioneer of ‘Afrofuturism’, a cultural concept coined by writer Mark Dery in 1993, which refers to works addressing the African diaspora through science fiction, technoculture, and imagined futures.
In order to understand the meanings and legacies of Afrofuturism, it is necessary to understand its causes: why did black artists find such apparently fantastical settings productive? Dery himself grappled with this question in a negative sense, asking, ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction?’ Indeed, literary science fiction was, and remains, a primarily white affair. But music tells a very different story: if you are a listener to jazz (Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock), funk and soul (Parliament-Funkadelic, Lonnie Liston Smith), or RnB and hip-hop (Outkast, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe), chances are you have heard music influenced by or embracing Afrofuturism.
The query should therefore be reversed: why have so many black artists turned to futuristic themes? Dery offered one explanation, which we might term the “simple material” view. ‘African Americans’, he noted, ‘in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare…’ His interviewee Greg Tate put this in more nuanced terms: ‘The condition of alienation that comes from being a black subject in American society parallels the kind of alienation that science fiction writers try to explore.’
Afrofuturism, then, is grounded in reality. But, seeing as it is far more than simply black science fiction, its response to reality is less obvious than perhaps Dery perceived. If Afrofuturism was born of the material realities of black poverty and oppression, why, for instance, did so many artists turn in precisely the opposite direction, towards the extreme realism of ‘gangster rap’?
This is due, in part, to the great resonances ‘reality’ has in African-American culture, resonances that are varied and complex. As the rapper Guru said in the introduction to his 1993 album Jazzmatazz, ‘Hip-hop, rap music, is real. It’s musical, cultural expression, based on reality. And at the same time, jazz is real, and based on reality.’ Accordingly, we should not equate “the real” with the expression of concrete material realities. Rather, anything is ‘real’, including art, when it reflects and exposes the nature of reality: the term can apply as much to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman as the gritty urban ‘realism’ of Nas. This allows us to see that Afrofuturism was most certainly ‘real’, and yet was neither a form of escapism from, nor a straightforward depiction of, reality.
For thinkers of all colours, science fiction and reality dovetailed in the process which put ‘man’ – meaning white man – into space. This did not go unnoticed by African-American artists, who contrasted America’s lofty cosmic ambitions with the material (and spiritual) sufferings of her black population. Gil Scott-Heron noted as much (‘I can’t pay no doctor bills / But whitey’s on the moon’), as, more recently, has Q-Tip (‘There ain’t a space program for n****** / Yeah, you stuck here, n*****’) and, of course, Ra: ‘They [white people] take frequent trips to the moon. I notice, none of you have been invited.’
It is unsurprising then, that an early ‘aim’ of Afrofuturism was to put black people in space (a development NASA declined to follow until 1983). Of course, white musicians also went to space, with David Bowie a prominent example (‘Starman’, ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Space Oddity’). But there is something almost conventional about Major Tom, or Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, astronauts in the NASA mould with a wife and fame on earth, seemingly at home in outer space. Contrast, for instance, the cover of Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album, Thrust, with the afroed Hancock ascending through purple clouds to a foreign planet, away from the viewer, guiding his spaceship with his keyboard. The Space Race, moreover, meant something different to Afrofuturists, something more than man’s physical presence in the cosmos. As we shall see, the black Eden which Ra evoked was ‘another planet’ in more ways than one.
This complex interplay between fiction and reality also manifested itself in a wider crisis of historical consciousness among the black diaspora in the latter half of the twentieth century. Ishmael Reed, in his 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo, played on the boundaries between history and science fiction: in a setting which both is and isn’t 1920s America, Jes Grew spreads, an infectious plague that is and isn’t a plague (‘Jes Grew victims said that the air was as clear as they had ever seen it’), causing unrestrained dancing in a manner reminiscent of, yet divergent from, jazz music. Jes Grew is an ironic title, evoking the character Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an orphan who ‘jes’ grew!’, and James Weldon Johnson’s comment that ‘the earliest ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘“jes’ grew.”’ Of course, just like jazz or ragtime, Jes Grew did not ‘just grow’: it is found to have roots in African dance, Haitian voodoo, and the Egyptian myth of Osiris. Yet, like the blackness that Jes Grew symbolises, a single origin text can never be found by protagonist Papa LaBas.
Jes Grew is an essential metaphor for the manner in which black history influenced Afrofuturism. On the one hand, as Dery thought, black people were ‘alien abductees’, ‘a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out’. Yet, there were still plenty of materials at hand. To begin with, there was the condition of slavery, and the blues, but there was also Africa, the land from which enslaved people had been transported. Many artists in jazz (Hancock, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Horace Silver) and hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Queen Latifah) were influenced by African styles of music or dress, or adopted a consciously ‘Afrocentric’ outlook. Ancient Egypt, a powerful and historical black kingdom, also influenced Ra (named after the Egyptian Sun God), Pharaoh Sanders and others, not least by its technological prowess. And others still sought rebirth in Islam, some under the Nation of Islam, or the Five Percent Nation, abandoning their old ‘slave names’ as Idris Muhammad, Abdullah Ibrahim, or Rakim Allah.
It is certainly not the case, then, that Afrofuturism was a substitute for a history that was lost. Nor, however, was Afrofuturism a necessary product of the rediscovery of this history. Africa was a spiritual homeland and a vision of the future. Like Jes Grew, Afrofuturism both combines and distorts narratives of reality, but it cannot be explained by the simple material fact of that reality alone.
This brings us to ‘altered realities.’ Not content to have sent black people into space, some artists now wanted to bring space to black people on earth, piercing and distorting their consciousness. Foremost in this regard was George Clinton, founder of the influential funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic. Between 1976-7, the group toured under the banner ‘P-Funk Earth Tour’, bringing their unique brand of ‘extra-terrestrial funk’ to black audiences across planet earth (read: the US), replete with lavish staging, lighting, and special effects. Their consequent live album gloriously upended the conventions of touring: it was not Oakland, say, that was the destination, but Earth itself, only the next stop on a galactic tour. Band members such as Bootsy Collins were raised to the level of intergalactic superstars as they set foot from the mothership onto earth.
Again, however, reality gave a helping hand: it was advances in musical technology which allowed black artists to masquerade as extra-terrestrial beings. The appearance of the Moog synthesiser in 1964 was particularly revolutionary, spawning the jazz fusion wave of the 1960s and 70s. Hancock, for instance, experimented with space-age pulses on albums such as Dedication (1974) and Sextant (1973), alongside soaring pads, fluttering electric keyboards, and harsh clavichord sounds, typically underpinned by African-influenced percussion. With the early technologies of hip-hop, such as turntablism, Hancock could again be found at the forefront on albums such as Future Shock (1983), Sound-System (1984), and Perfect Machine (1988). With his single ‘Rockit’, he even embraced MTV with a bizarre music video featuring strange puppet-operated automatons who later reappeared at the 1984 Grammy awards, strutting to the beat alongside their creator through a futuristic black and white landscape.
It is strange to read, then, in the words of prominent African-American sci-fi author Samuel Delaney, that ‘technology was like a placard on the door saying, “… Blacks and Hispanics and the poor in general, go away!”’. On the contrary, black artistic and technological innovation brought jazz fusion, funk, hip-hop, house, and more. And like the technologies of ancient Egypt, these were intimately connected with mythologies. In Space Is the Place, Ra used screeching horns, electrical pulses and keyboards, alongside strange chanting (‘After the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?’) to evoke travel through the cosmos. George Clinton was equally ambitious: the opening track of Parliament’s landmark 1975 album, Mothership Connection, promised, through Collins’ squelching bass, to introduce the listener to a new genre of music altogether: ‘P-Funk’. Clinton’s constant narration (‘Coming to you directly from the Mothership, top of the chocolate Milky Way, 500,000 kilowatts of P-Funk power’) uncovered a fantastical and nonsensical universe of musical characters like ‘Star Child’, ‘Sir Lollipop Man’ (‘chocolate coated, freaky and habit-forming’), ‘Dr. Funkenstein’, or ‘Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk’. This was a mythology in which the central myth was funk itself, an effortlessly moving vision of blackness, not unlike the Jes Grew, which transcended the confines of this planet.
But, as a progenitor of mythology, none can match Ra, who described himself as ‘the altered destiny, the presence of the living myth.’ In Space Is the Place, Ra faces the laughing incredulity of the black youth, who ask, ‘Is he for real?’. Ra replies:
I’m not real: I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real: if you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we’re both myths. I do not come to you as the reality, I come to you as the myth, because that’s what black people are: myths.
Ra explains that he is a product of the past: ‘I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors.’ Yet, his eye is always on the future: ‘How do you think you’re going to exist? The year 2000 is right around the corner.’
This is the essence of Afrofuturism: though it is born of history, of the material conditions of reality, it has always looked beyond that, to an ‘altered destiny’. Ra’s is a powerful act of reclamation, like that of Clinton, Coltrane, or Janelle Monȧe, embracing the mythologisation of the black past as the key to its future.
Having begun to glimpse the origins and influences of Afrofuturism, then, we can begin to grapple with its legacy. In some ways, Afrofuturism might seem to run contrary to more recent trends in black culture and activism. The model of consciousness-raising and ‘hippie’ spirituality prominent in the ‘60s and ‘70s has largely collapsed, replaced by narratives which rightly emphasise ‘education’ – whether on black history, structural oppression, or our role as individuals. The cultural influence of hip-hop has tended over time towards realism, and towards stark depictions of the continued oppression that remains so visible in society.
As we have seen, however, Afrofuturism in no way negates the material reality of black experiences: it is born of reality and reflects upon it. Afrofuturism’s first great legacy is thus to reveal stark truths about the simultaneously real and unreal quality of black existence. Its second, much like the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the 1970s, is to emphasise the empowerment of black people as agents of their own destiny. But whereas the characters of blaxploitation were primarily hustlers, pimps, and detectives, the Afrofuturist cast is composed of cosmic gods and extra-terrestrial beings at large in the ‘chocolate Milky Way’. Finally, and most radically, Afrofuturism draws on existing materials to craft altered realities. If these sometimes seem fantastical, it is little surprise: the greater the leap from present to posited conditions, the greater the ‘fantasy’. And, as Ra reminds us, ‘I’m not real: I’m just like you.’ But the ‘altered destiny’ is no illusion, rather a form of praxis communicated through the power of music, thus helping to create the very conditions it describes. As Ra says of his mythical black Eden:
The music is different here; the vibrations are different, not like planet Earth. Planet Earth the sound of guns, anger, frustration…. We’ll set up a colony for black people here. See what they can do on a planet all of their own…. They could drink in the beauty of this planet. It would affect their vibrations, for the better of course.
So, there are many reasons to believe, as Sun Ra did, that Space Is Still the Place.
WILLIAM NEUBAUER is studying for a master's in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies. He really ought to get out of Oxford more.
Art by Sam Griffiths