Afrofuturism = Radicality

Analysis

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find new forms to address Afrofuturism. Making a factual introduction doesn’t interest me anymore, and I believe Wikipedia does it better. Coming from the academic world, while developing a curatorial and artistic practice, I am now trying to find more dynamic ways to intertwine the concepts, poetry and images of Afrofuturism, wandering from reflection to emotion and vice versa. In this way, the following text could be described as an experiment. Its structure isn’t very linear and the content is definitely “to be continued”, discussed, if not disputed.

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Afrofuturism acts as a prism or lens for me, through which I can always shift my perspective of the world. A world that has been so far explored and exploited according to a single direction: that of rationality, humanism and progress. In contrast to this, Afrofuturism deploys an endless variation of times, spaces, metaphors and beings, never to be concluded, resumed, harvested or consumed.

Why?

Because rationality, humanism and progress are racially biased. They rest on ideological patterns and lead to economic systems, political actions and cultural organisations where black people (and other minorities1) remain relegated to the subaltern roles of the worker, the user and the prey. Yet aren’t they the foundations of capitalism, and aren’t we forever doomed within a capitalistic world? Well, this is one (Afro-)pessimistic way of seeing things. And I believe it is exactly what is expected of us: to give up, mope around, make do.

Mark Fisher describes capitalist realism as the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”2. He continues, “Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

In the same vein, Steven Shaviro writes, “We live in a world in which we have been told, again and again, that There Is No Alternative. The harsh demands of the ‘just-in-time’ marketplace have drained us of all hope and all belief. Living in an endless Eternal Now, we no longer seem able to imagine a future that might be different from the present.” And even Mark Dery – who coined the word Afrofuturism – says “our inability to conceive of the future in any other than dystopian terms is one sign that we’re moribund as a culture”3. He would later add that “[o]ne of the most useful services Afrofuturism performs is pointing out the debt our Visions of Things to Come owe to all that has been”4.

As I said, Afrofuturism is a prism. It won’t offer any definite solution, but it will stir you to put things into perspective and to recover never-ending potentialities. In a space and time where our collective unconscious – mindset, behaviour and creativeness included – is framed and pre-patterned, not to say paralysed, by the status quo, Afrofuturism is a radical state of resistance that stands for chaos and plasticity.

Black Imagination and the Collective

I first discovered Afrofuturism through Google Images. Portraits mainly. Of Sun Ra, but also a multitude of characters, each of them unique and familiar at the same time. Familiar, because they would be common images I had seen before in magazines, books and TV-porn. Yet unique, because dark-skinned personas were suddenly set in landscapes and situations I had forgotten or never even imagined they could adorn.

They would be Maasais sitting on the moon and Mami Wata in a swimming pool, Dahomey Amazons riding on Saturn’s rings. They would be lascars and banlieusards in conversation with 3D creatures. They would be a Pharaon saying these words to a bunch of hip kids from the 1970s:

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 a reality; I come to you as the myth, because that’s what black people are. Myths. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed a long time ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors.5

Afrofuturism is crazy. Louzy. Jazzy. Amazing. Some true Mumbo Jumbo, à la santé, here’s to the old man! It is his revenge in the shape of an amethyst.

Don’t get me wrong. Afrofuturism isn’t just utopian or dystopian but heterotopian. Crazy, louzy, jazzy doesn’t mean naively positive but optimistic indeed. Because I believe optimism is a trigger. Perhaps you might say that fear and despair are triggers as well, but those need an external agent to activate them against you. Optimism is about you and only you. Not as a capitalistic individual, but as the singular element of a collective, a gang, a troop, a family or a tribe: a community you choose to care for.

Because, yes, Afrofuturism is about a whole community from outer space. Not a given community based on historically obvious factors, but a bunch of people you truly chose to share something in common. No outcasts but legit outsiders.

Yet again, don’t get me wrong. Afrofuturism does have to do with blackness (even before Africanness6). But it goes beyond, into darkness, teaming up all those who are ready to bail out on humanity; not in the name of progress, equality or the future, but for transitivity, heterogeneity and the haunting ghosts of the Maroons of the past...

Drawn by the late-1950s’ space race, Sun Ra envisioned a new ground for him and his black fellows. Instead of exhausting their minds, bodies and souls within a country that regarded their lives and expectations as irrelevant, they would hack it over, pre-enact rather than re-enact, distort and interfere with it. He would re-form himself as the Saturnian preacher arising from the eponymous Egyptian god of the sun; his Arkestra would become a space-ark, appointed to lead his companions towards a renewed Earth and to restart history.

That would be a radical change of strategy. The goal wasn’t to survive anymore but to live an otherly kind of life. Because I do agree with Christelle Oyiri when she says “you cannot be free if you ask for it”7. Afrofuturism was always about more than subverting the norms; it bluntly stopped giving them any kind of consideration.

Let me give you an example. Because of his biological condition of cryptorchidism (undescended testes), Sun Ra did not conform to conventional expectations of male sex. Taking this as an advantage, according to a self-inscribed system of values, he turned himself into an angel on a mission to re-enchant the world.

In the same way, he prompted metaphors that would later become essential to highlighting the dynamic distinctiveness of black people. Instead of a negative historical position of stigma, blackness could be, from now on, positively performed. The uprooting of the African-American people, descendants of the slaves, could be “regenerated” in a way, it could be given back some design8 potential by considering them from their Egyptian alien ascendancy.

According to Belgian storyteller-of-music Pierre Deruisseau, Sun Ra and his Arkestra recorded over 120 discs from the late 1950s to the early ’90s and performed all across the US, in several European countries, Nigeria, Egypt, and even Japan. Above all, he created El Saturn Research in 1957, one of the first independent music labels, let alone one created by a black musician. Sun Ra was then able to compose, record and release what he wanted, when he wanted, gaining an unparalleled freedom of action. “I had to have something, and that something was creating something that nobody owned but us,” he would say.9

From him, I learned that “radicality”, used here as a synonym for eccentricity, didn’t necessarily mean to be cut off from the world or live in a cave. It was a methodology for opening up new times and spaces to heal, rest and feast, in order to recover strength and the collective wisdom to hack into and multiply the cracks in the System. To reject centrality and kindle as many hearthstones10 as we may need to consume Baldwin’s forecast of the fire next time.11

Perspectives

Persuasion

Perspectives Africa

Perspectives is a publication series of the Africa offices of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The series provides a platform for experts from Africa to express their views about issues pertinent to the democratic and sustainable development agenda in the region.

The latest edition of Perspectives tackles questions of state capture, and how the concept can contribute to understanding and strengthening democracies across Africa. Our contributors also open the possibilities that emerge when “state capture” is released from particular institutional settings and national boundaries.

Politics of the Underground

Afrofuturism is and has always been political. Aesthetically and philosophically complex, it is a space for collective awareness, experimentation and social justice.

Proposing an Afrofuturistic vision of the world is a matter of thinking critically about long-term developments, debates and efforts to create wider inclusive politics. And if black people are to be leading it, it is because true disruption can only sprout from the margins. Indeed, who better to deploy alternatives than those who are constrained to negotiate with the structures that oppress them?

And yes, Afrofuturism deals with what seem to be elsewhere realities (or as Jonathan Dotse12 puts it, “elsewhen”). However, isn’t what we commonly call dystopia already the daily burden of many people: food poisoning, coastal erosion, human traffic, and so on and so forth? While capitalist hopelessness strives to manipulate our inventiveness, making us believe we lack strength, support and imagination, Afrofuturism is about interfering with the daily, and experimenting with potential options of living differently.

Mixing quotes from Cherie Ann Turpin13, Deirdre Lynn Hollman14, Tim Stüttgen15 and Ytasha L. Womack16:

“Afrofuturism positions the master narrative about the past, present, and future into one of instability and uncertainty ... to develop a discursive strategy that complicates and disrupts those narratives and myths that depend on a singularity of timelines or more importantly, identity politics.” (Turpin) | At the “crossing of intersectionality and heterogeneity” (Stüttgen), Afrofuturism “is an affirmative aesthetic and philosophical position that questions how will we survive in the future, not if we will” (Hollman). | As a transitive and transgressive praxis, it deals with “racism and mass media images [in an otherworldly way] to show the development of more and more complex spaces, main characters and representational constellations, including black revolutionary women (with guns) and also queer subtexts.” (Stüttgen)

Thus, because it brings tools to hack historical portraitures and stories as well as contemporary tech and tools for situations to come, I believe Afrofuturism provides a new form of radical ethics.

It does not focus only on effects, but also the contexts and forces at stake. It develops a wider view of the structures of power, how they may evolve, and who will be left behind. Because it is anchored in contemporary observation of stifling norms, orders and institutions as well as past, traditional and subjective features, it allows us to subvert the very idea of “future”. Because the future isn’t ahead: it is above, below and aside us.

The Afrofuturist timeline is not linear. Its expansion is multidirectional, enabling times and narratives to simultaneously co-exist, letting us, as individuals and collectives, develop our singular forms of resistance for now, to heal the past, to shape the future, or all at once.

The Looking Glass of the Mainstream

Here, I’d like to quote Marie-José Mondzain17 on “radicality”:

I wish to return to the term ‘radicality’ its virulent beauty and its political energy. Today, everything is done to identify it to the most murderous gestures and the most enslaved opinions ... Radicality, on the contrary, appeals to the courage of constructive rupture and to the most creative imagination. The confusion between transformative radicalism and extremism is the worst venom [we ingest] day after day. [Radicality] is completely the opposite: an inventive and generous freedom. It opens the doors of indeterminacy, of possibilities, and thus welcomes all that happens, and all those willing to join, as a gift that increases our resources and our power to act.

Let’s now take a moment to talk about what might have been the widest worldwide “introduction” to Afrofuturism: Black Panther. However, it is not a movie about radicality18. In my opinion, it might be its utmost counterexample and thus cannot be labelled Afrofuturist. As Ashley Clark19 says, Afrofuturism is “not something that can be co-opted at the moment”.

By switching roles of gender and race (instead of inventing others), and never questioning the very structure, criteria and origins of these roles, Black Panther appears a hollow attempt to sheath the inventiveness of black imagination. To rationalise its protean uniqueness into one that could be analysed, compared, integrated and capitalised. It is about imagining the future with more black people being part of it. But what kind of future exactly? And what does “being part of it” mean?

Yet again, the question is how to reconcile an otherworldly and radical way of addressing the world with a day-by-day context of aggression. What is the point of imagining alternative models if you cannot apply them to a global scale?

I actually don’t believe in any global-scale goal anymore. I’d rather extend my energies toward local, mobile and emotionally connected constellations of people. Hence, it isn’t a matter of channels but rather of scale. Films20, contemporary arts and fashion21, music, technologies22 and politics23 are all biased means and industries, yet to be infiltrated and possibly hacked.

And again, communities. Not eternal categories of beings and social bonds, but temporary designs and performativity. I believe in attempts and mistakes and “entre-soi” [“among-ourselves”]. Not to exclude, but to preserve. And never based on a definite way and static rules, but following intuition and care. I believe that Afrofuturism is about being open to anyone – not trusting, loving and evolving with everyone. And seeking for a larger audience shouldn’t mean smoothing-over and standardising.

Going Deeper into Darkness

To wrap up: standing somewhere between performativity and faith, Afrofuturism is a praxis and a magical formula, a hashtag, a meme and an egregore, expanding beyond any static definition. It is radical because it is intricate, collective and prismatic, paradoxical and polysemic, brave and sustaining. It is irreducible, intransigent and unsolvable. And I hope I have failed to define it, because I would rather have you try it, an intuitive collusion that will keep mutating until you realise you own its definition already: you are still alive.

Endnotes
  1. Following Achille Mbembe’s lecture (in Politiques de l’inimitié [Politics of enmity], La Découverte, 2016), this downgrading of a certain category of people, first historically expressed against black people, has now evolved to include new types of subalterns. Adding to the “surface Negro”, meaning a person with dark skin and African ancestry, the “in-depth Negro” from now on includes a more complex array of people the System feeds on, while continuously despising and trying to unman (because of their faiths, genders, disabilities, etc.)
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009
  3. Mark Dery, Salon (to Howard Rheingold), May 8, 1996
  4. Mark Dery, Black(s) to the Future (to Mawena Yehouessi), July 11, 2015
  5. Quoting Sun Ra, from Space is the Place, Sun Ra and John Coney, 1974
  6. Another thought of mine: http://blackstothefuture.com/en/afrofuturism-the-afro-complex-2/
  7. AKA Crystallmess: https://soundcloud.com/crystallmess
  8. “Design” here is to be taken conceptually as the capacity to manipulate and inform one’s environment, from artefacts to cities, from technical functions to social behaviours, from drafting to programming, etc. Like so, I’d like to make a comment on some words: metaphor, myth and lineage. Metaphors are tropes, coding tools of the language, leading us to appropriate the world a certain way. They are effective strategies for learning and the development of social values. It isn’t just about story-telling and day-dreaming our lives. It means configuring the invisible frames of our habits and beliefs. It goes the same for myth. Cosmogonies are what eventually lead us to develop science and try to better understand our world. Religions are the first political system to organise our societies as they grew bigger, from clans to civilisations. History is nothing but a new way of calling for and constructing the ideological foundations of a society. As for lineage, I believe that shifting from the idea of a descendancy (a “descent”) to that of an ascendancy (a “rise”) when addressing black history helps to acknowledge the bias of thinking language and history as a single and impartial telling
  9. John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Da Capo Press, 1998
  10. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, Verso, 1998
  11. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Dial Press, 1963
  12. https://www.plurality-university.org/team/jonathan-dotse/
  13. Strategic Disruptions: Black Feminism, Intersectionality, and Afrofuturism: https://www.academia.edu/16199640/Strategic_Disruptions_Black_Feminism_Intersectionality_and_Afrofuturism
  14. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/octavia-e-butlers-kindred-is-now-a-graphic-novel_us_586b91 46e4b014e7c72ee3e4?guccounter=1
  15. In a Qu*a*re Time and Place: Post-Slavery Temporalities, Blaxploitation, and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism Between Intersectionality and Heterogeneity, Anagram Books, 2014
  16. https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/interview-with-ytasha-womack-on-afrofuturism-and-the-world-of-black-sci-fi-and-fantasy
  17. Confiscation: Des mots des images et du temps (Confiscation: Of words, of images and of time), Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2017
  18. By the way, did any of you realize how Black Panther proposes a state model based on the extraction of resources (vibranium)? Wakanda’s strength, and what ultimately legitimates its integration in the UN Assembly, is essentially the richness of its soils. Even beyond the obvious irony of promoting the ongoing logic of predation of African raw materials, the utmost achievement of this so-called “emancipated” land is finally to be “accepted” by Western organisations (not to mention movie’s tendentious last line, spoken by a representative of these very organisations, about what “a bunch of farmers” could offer to the world)
  19. https://mediadiversified.org/2014/11/14/inside-afrofuturism-this-movement-is-not-for-co-opting/
  20. Ephraim Asili, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Black Audio Film Collective, Adebukola Buki Bodunrin, Ja’Tovia Gary, Cédric Ido, Khalil Joseph, Wanuri Kahiu, Miguel Llansó, Terence Nance, C. J. Obasi, The Otolith group, Phantom Productions
  21. Laurence Airline, Ndoho Ange, Louis-Philippe de Gagoue, Ieluhee, Artsi Ifrach, Maria Jahnkoy, Selly Raby Kane, Kendario La’Pierre, Fallon Mayanja, Emo de Medeiros, Josèfa Ntjam, Nicolas Pirus, Tabita Rezaire, Kengné Teguia, Eden Tinto-Collins, Lina Iris Viktor, Elete Wright, Stef Yamb, Daniela Yohannes
  22. Sun Ra, George Clinton and Lee « Scratch » Perry of course, but also Cybotron, Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Tricky, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, Afrika Bambaataa, Shabazz Palace, Franck Biyong, Spoek Mathambo, Laura Mvula, Onoe Caponoe, Princess Nokia, Ibaaku, TiDUS, Witch Prophet, Sassy Black, and so on so forth
  23. AFROTOPIA, The Afrofuturist Affair, AfroCyberPunk Interactive, A’Part, Black(s) to the Future, The Center for Afrofuturist Studies, The Experimental Station, NMT, The Studio Museum