The Voices Disrupting White Supremacy Through Sound

With its robotic voices, lasers, mechanized noises and general tumult, the music of Chino Amobi, formerly known as Diamond Black Hearted Boy, can be heard as a kind of auditory science fiction.

As the 1996 documentary on Afrofuturist music, The Last Angel of History, shows, this has long been a tradition within Afrodiasporic music. The documentary argues that for Afrodiasporic people, the scenarios of science fiction are real, and that for them, apocalypse and dystopia have already happened.

American novelist Toni Morrison explained in Black Atlantic scholar Paul Gilroy’s 1993 book Small Acts that the victims of slavery were the first to have to deal with the traumatic effects of modernity.

As writer and musician Greg Tate puts it in the documentary, “most science fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual is going to contend with these alienating, dislocating societies and circumstances and that pretty much sums up the mass experiences of black people in the post-slavery 20th century.”

At the end of the film, Kodwo Eshun explores this alienation through the sci-fi trope of cybernetics, noting that “producers willingly take on the role of the cyborg, willingly take on that man-machine interface just to explore the mutation that’s already happened to them.” [Read More]

McKenzie Wark - Afrofuturism and Acceleration

A conversation about radical or progressive futures in the twenty-first century clearly has to be a diverse and global one. Much more so than someone with my limited experience of the world could possibly manage. At least one component of it would have to be that current sometimes labeled Afrofuturism – even if some of the more interesting people making art or writing in such a space might adjure the label.

The term was put in circulation by my friend Mark Dery. But it might name a whole, vast current that arises out of the transnational experience of what Paul Gilroy called the Black Atlantic. Sun Ra might be an exemplary and well-known instance. His Afrofuturism was marked by a double refusal. Firstly, like many in the Afrocentric tradition, he did not identify with the Israelites, but with the Egyptians. He wanted to appear not from the position of the slave, but from a position of power. But secondly, he was much less interested in earthly roots than planetary trajectories. His Africans were from, and belonged in – space.

Perhaps my favorite example of Afrofuturism is Kodwo Eshun’s magnificent book More Brilliant that the Sun (1999). It is sadly out of print – and going second hand for over ninety American dollars – but fortunately it can also be found fairly easily in digital form.

For me, Eshun is a crucial piece of the current now known as Accelerationism. He traced a line through Sun Ra, the Detroit Techno of Underground Resistance and beyond, based on a writing practice he called “speculative acceleration.”

Here he is in conversation back in 2000 with my old friend Geert Lovink

Janelle Monáe: A New Pioneer Of Afrofuturism

The head-spinning genre conflation on The Archandroid is the beachhead of Monae’s Afrofuturism. Speaking with The Quietus about Monáe, Marlo David, Afrofuturist scholar and professor of Woman Studies at Perdue University, points to the ancient tribal ritual of “playing mas”; a febrile act of spiritual rhapsody which involved assuming multiple guises around the fire. It’s the same process that empowers the Afrofuturists to “shift personae in ways that counteract the limitations of identity imposed by the hegemonic gaze of race, gender, class, and religion”.

Monáe’s appropriation of the historically ‘non-black’ genres of rock, electronica, MGM musical orchestration, cabaret and folk music allows her to transcend ideological borders - as she told The Quietus, “I learned to embrace things that make me unique even if they make me uncomfortable sometimes”. What strikes you most on The Archandroid is Monáe’s impossibly malleable voice which toggles though so many different tones, timbres, modes and methods as to be almost machine-like; or, at least, non-human. It’s the Android 57821 flicking settings on a sternum-embedded control panel, yet organic and native to the 24-year-old’s age-old soul.

While the genre-trekking on The Archandroid plays out in the foreground of some beautiful production, it takes more than special effects to be a bona fide afronaut. After all, with a bit of synth and a green-screen even The Black Eyed Peas can be futuristic, while everyone from the Daft Punk-sampling Kanye West to Martian M.C Lil’ Wayne flirt with Afrofuturist language – verbal or otherwise.

“To me, Janelle Monáe truly captures the idea of Afrofuturistic music,” argues David, “which is more than the use of digital technologies, calling yourself an alien or having music filled with blips and glitches or Autotune, although these elements are important”. For David, it’s Monáe’s use of both cutting edge production machines and futuristic styles (i.e the 'non-human’) and her adherence to the like of James Brown and more ripened forms (i.e the 'human’) which is key. This 'inexplicable mashup’ - the call-and-response between past and future - is what distinguishes the Afrofuturist from your garden-variety 'black musician into sci-fi’ and brings to the fore perceptions that African-Americans have always symbolically been human and non-human: “In the era of slavery, people of African descent were human enough to live and love and have culture, but were nonhuman to the extent that they were 'machines’, labour for capitalism”. This duality imposed on them by slavery is what David believes Monáe and other true Afrofuturist artists are confronting. By manipulating these symbolic references of past and future, a kind of third entity emerges which David describes as “a cyborg identity, in resistance to that involuntary binary”. Or, as Monáe has it on 'Cold War’: “I’m another flavour /Something like a terminator”.