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Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past. First coined by Mark Dery in 1993, and explored in the late 1990s through conversations led by scholar Alondra Nelson,[1] Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African diaspora through a technoculture and science fiction lens, encompassing a range of media and artists with a shared interest in envisioning black futures that stem from Afrodiasporic experiences.[2] Seminal Afrofuturistic works include the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Angelbert Metoyer, and the photography of Renée Cox; and the explicitly extraterrestrial mythoi of Parliament-Funkadelic, the Jonzun Crew, Warp 9, Deltron 3030, and Sun Ra.[3][4]


Afrofuturism can be identified in artistic, scientific, and spiritual practices throughout the African diaspora. Contemporary practice retroactively identifies and documents historical instances of Afrofuturist practice and integrates them into the canon. Examples are the Dark Matter anthologies, which feature contemporary Black sci-fi, but also include older works by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles W. Chesnutt, and George S. Schuyler. Since the term was introduced in 1994, self-identified Afrofuturist practice has become increasingly ubiquitous.

Mid-late 20th century development[edit]

The Afrofuturist approach to music was first propounded by Sun Ra. Born in Alabama, Sun Ra's music coalesced in Chicago in the mid-1950s, when together with The Arkestra he began recording music that drew from hard bop and modal sources, but created a new synthesis which also used Afrocentric and space-themed titles to reflect Ra's linkage of ancient African culture, specifically Egypt, and the cutting edge of the Space Age. For many years, Ra and his bandmates lived, worked, and performed in Philadelphia, while touring jazz and progressive music festivals world-wide. As of 2016, the band is still composing and performing, under the leadership of Marshall Allen. Ra's film Space Is the Place shows the Arkestra in Oakland in the mid-1970s in full space regalia, replete with science-fiction imagery as well as other comedic and musical material.

Afrofuturist ideas were taken up in 1975 by George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic with his magnum opus Mothership Connection and the subsequent The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, P-Funk Earth Tour, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, and Motor Booty Affair. In the thematic underpinnings to P-Funk mythology ("pure cloned funk"), Clinton in his alter ego Starchild spoke of "certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies".

William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer describes Zion, a Rastafarian space station populated by exiles of Earth, and dwelling of Maelcum, a Dub aficionado and one of the novel's main characters.

Other musicians typically regarded as working in or greatly influenced by the Afrofuturist tradition include reggae producers Lee "Scratch" Perry and Scientist, hip-hop artists Afrika Bambaataa and Tricky, electronic musicians Larry Heard, A Guy Called Gerald, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills,[5] Newcleus[6] and Lotti Golden & Richard Scher, electro hip hop producer/writers of Warp 9's "Light Years Away", a sci-fi tale of ancient alien visitation, described as a "cornerstone of early 80's beatbox afrofuturism".[7]

Cultural criticism in the 1990s[edit]

In the early 1990s, a number of cultural critics, notably Mark Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, began to write about the features they saw as common in African-American science fiction, music, and art. Dery dubbed this phenomenon "Afrofuturism."[8] According to cultural critic Kodwo Eshun, British journalist Mark Sinker was theorizing a form of Afrofuturism in the pages of The Wire, a British music magazine, as early as 1992.[9]

Afrofuturist ideas have further been expanded by scholars like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose, Kodwo Eshun, and others.[2] In an interview, Alondra Nelson explained Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the subject position of black people which covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a utopic future. The idea of "alien" or "other" is a theme often explored.[10] Additionally, Nelson notes that discussions around race, access, and technology often bolster uncritical claims about a so-called “digital divide”.[11] The digital divide overemphasizes the association of racial and economic inequality with limited access to technology. This association then begins to construct blackness "as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress".[11] As a critique of the neo-critical argument that the future’s history-less identities will end burdensome stigma, Afrofuturism holds that history should remain a part of identity, particularly in terms of race.[11]

21st century[edit]

A new generation of recording artists have embraced Afrofuturism into their music and fashion, including Solange Knowles, Rihanna, and Beyonce. This tradition continues from artists such as Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe, who incorporated cyborg themes and metallics into their style. [12]

Janelle Monáe has made a conscious effort to restore Afrofuturist cosmology to the forefront of urban contemporary music. Her notable works include the music videos "Prime Time"[13] and "Many Moons",[14] which explore the realms of slavery and freedom through the world of cyborgs and the fashion industry.[15][16] Her influences include Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Star Wars.[17] Other musical artists to emerge since the turn of the millennium regarded as Afrofuturist include dBridge, SBTRKT, Shabazz Palaces, Heavyweight Dub Champion,[5] and "techno pioneers" Drexciya (with Gerald Donald).[18]

Chicago is home to a vibrant community of artists exploring Afrofuturism. Nick Cave, known for his Soundsuits project, has helped develop younger talent as the director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other artists include visual artists Hebru Brantley as well as contemporary artist Rashid Johnson, a Chicago native currently based in New York. In 2013, Chicago resident Ytasha L. Womack wrote the study Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy, and William Hayashi has published all three volumes of his Darkside Trilogy[19] which tells the story of what happens in America when the country discovers African Americans secretly living on the backside of the moon since before the arrival of Neil Armstrong, an extreme vision of segregation imposed by technologically advanced Blacks.[20][21] Krista Franklin, a member of University of Chicago's Arts Incubator, is currently exploring the relation between Afrofuturism and the grotesque through her visual and written work with weaves and collected hair. Recently, she also created an audio narrative in collaboration with another Afrofuturist, Perpetual Rebel, called The Two Thousand and Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, which explores the ideas of identity and transformation within the context of hair and African American culture.[22]



Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, a survey exhibition of the artist's work at the Brooklyn Museum.

Jared Richardson's Attack of the Boogeywoman: Visualizing Black Women's Grotesquerie in Afrofuturism[23] assesses how the aesthetic functions as a space for black women to engage with the intersection of topics such as race, gender, and sexuality. The representation and treatment of black female bodies is deconstructed by Afrofuturist contemporaries and amplified to alien and gruesome dimensions by artists such as Wangechi Mutu and Shoshanna Weinberger.

Beyoncé's 2016 short film Lemonade included feminist afrofuturism in its concept. The film featured Ibeyi, Laolu Senbanjo, Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, YouTube singing stars Chloe x Halle, Zendaya, 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Serena Williams,[24] and the sophisticated womanist poetry of Somali-British writer Warsan Shire.[25] The through-line is the empowerment of black women referencing both marital relationships and the historical trauma from the enslavement of African-Americans from 1619-1865,[not in citation given] through Reconstruction and Jim Crow (1870-1965). The mothers of Trayvon Martin (Sybrina Fulton), Michael Brown (Lesley McFadden), Eric Garner (Gwen Carr) are featured holding pictures of their deceased sons in homage to the importance of their lives.[26]

The grotesque[edit]

In the Afro-Surreal Manifesto, Afro-Surrealism is juxtaposed with European surrealism, with European surrealism being empirical. It is consistent with the New Black Aesthetic in that the art seeks to disturb. It samples from old art pieces updating them with current images. This technique calls to the forefront those past images and the sentiments, memories, or ideas around them and combines them with new images in a way that those of the current generation can still identify. Both seek to disturb, but there is more of a "mutant" psychology that is going on. Afro-Futuristic artists seek to propose a deviant beauty, a beauty in which disembodiment is both inhumane, yet distinct; Afro-Futuristic artists speculate on the future, where Afro-Surrealism is about the present.[27]


Afrofuturism takes representations of the lived realities of black bodies in the past and present, and reexamines the narratives to attempt to build new truths outside of the dominant cultural narrative. By analyzing the ways in which alienation has occurred, Afrofuturism works to connect the African diaspora with its histories and knowledge of racialized bodies. Space and aliens function as key products of the science fiction elements; black bodies are envisioned to have been the first aliens by way of the Middle Passage. Their alien status connotes being in a foreign land with no history, but as also being disconnected from the past via the traditions of slavery where slaves were made to renounce their ties to Africa in service of their slave master.[28]

Kodwo Eshun locates the first alienation within the context of the Middle Passage. He writes that Afrofuturist texts work to reimagine slavery and alienation by using “extraterrestriality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectivities". This location of dystopian futures and present realities places science fiction and novels built around dystopian societies directly in the tradition of black realities.[29]


In Afrofuturism, water in many different works symbolizes both erasure and the existence of black life. These dual meanings while seemingly contradictory actually play off and inform each other. For instance, the middle passage can be considered where the first erasure happened of African- American history. There are no stories that survived that passage. Yet, it is through this erasure that Afrofuturism is able to craft any history the author’s desire. These histories live both in fact and in fiction, as the true history was lost in the waters of the Atlantic. Water erased the history, but it also allowed for the creation of a new history.

This is where Afrofuturism comes into play. To have a future, one’s past must be defined. However, for African Americans, their “history” has been drowned, Afrofuturism resuscitates this history. By its creation, it creates new possibilities for the future. In Carrie Mae Weem’s triptych Untitled (Ebo Landing), the Afrofuturism piece crafts a space with two pictures that could be both African and America with its depiction of lush greenery. In this way, the piece highlights how the original space of water has given way in which Afrofuturism can imagine a past or future that lives in the space of truth and fiction, the Schrödinger’s cat of African American past.



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