So what is afro­fu­tur­ism? Afrofuturism is real­ly about the black body and the black mind see­ing itself put into a space that is beyond the white suprema­cist struc­ture that we’re cur­rent­ly in at the moment. It’s plac­ing our­selves out­side, into a par­a­digm of futur­ism, afrofuturism. 

The term was invent­ed by Mark Dery in 1993 in his essay Black to the Future.” In that essay he wrote,

Speculative fic­tion that treats African-American themes and address­es African-American con­cerns in the con­text of 20th cen­tu­ry tech­no­cul­ture — and, more gen­er­al­ly, African-American sig­ni­fi­ca­tion that appro­pri­ates images of tech­nol­o­gy and a pros­thet­i­cal­ly enhanced future — might, for want of a bet­ter term, be called Afrofuturism.
Mark Dery, Black to the Future,” 1993

The first slide I’ve got up here is of Sun Ra. Some of you might know, some of you might not know, but Sun Ra is prob­a­bly one of the pil­lars of afro­fu­tur­ism, and it works across dif­fer­ent gen­res. So we’re talk­ing film, media, music, and lit­er­a­ture, the main two being music and lit­er­a­ture, I would say. Just to get us into a kind of afro­fu­tur­ist vibe, mood, and get us out of this kind of square, Westernized room, I’m going to play a short clip from Sun Ra’s Space is the Place to put us into that vibe, and then we can con­tin­ue on to the African space program.


In that imagery, you can see a lot of African cos­mol­o­gy, Egyptian cos­mol­o­gy, and these idea of ances­tral wor­ship, bring­ing those into an oppo­si­tion to the colo­nial­ized mind, I guess, which is the Christian white suprema­cist mind that was imposed on African slaves. There’s a lot of things around afro­fu­tur­ism con­nect­ing through ances­tral wor­ship, which I’ll touch on again later.

But talk­ing about lit­er­a­ture, Samuel R. Delany is a queer African-American sci­ence fic­tion writer (prob­a­bly one of the most famous besides Octavia Butler), and he said about sci­ence fiction,

Science fic­tion isn’t just think­ing about the world out there. It’s also think­ing about how that world might be—a par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant exer­cise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.
Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 2010, The Paris Review

And some of the oth­er writ­ers that are work­ing around those issues are Nalo Hopkinson, I already said Octavia Butler…I’ve got that stage fear, so you’ll have to come speak to me lat­er when I’m on the pan­el and I’ll prob­a­bly reel off about ten by that point.

The next slide’s for those who are oppressed, and how we cre­ate images out­side of that oppres­sion for our­selves as afro­fu­tur­ists, as black artists, as black com­ic book artists. 

Some artists who are work­ing around com­ic books are peo­ple like one of my favorite comics at the moment, Jiba Anderson’s Horsemen, which is a com­ic series placed around Yoruba gods and god­dess­es. The Yoruba gods and god­dess­es are part of Nigerian Orisha cul­ture, and they are Ṣàngó, Yemọja, Ọ̀ṣun, Ọbàtálá as well, and when the slaves were tak­en to places like the Caribbean and Cuba, they syn­the­sized their reli­gions with the Catholic reli­gion, which is the reli­gion I was brought up in.

What hap­pened is that you end­ed up with this mix of mys­ti­cism, Catholicism, and peo­ple using those gods as cover-ups, essen­tial­ly, for the African gods. This is reflect­ed in the Horsemen comics, so you have these char­ac­ters and then behind them they all rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent gods and god­dess­es of Yoruba culture. 

There is Kamau Mshale, the cre­ator of the com­ic Captain Kachela which uses and Adinke and Akan sym­bols, which are from Ghana. And Denenge Akpem, who recre­at­ed her own water fairy tale which is rem­i­nis­cent of African mer­maids by trans­form­ing her­self into a space sea siren hybrid jellyfish…thing. A lot of hybrids going on there. And many artists ref­er­ence the Dogon peo­ple, which I will touch on a bit lat­er, who believe their ances­tors arrived on a fly­ing arc from a dis­tant star.

So that’s lit­er­a­ture, that’s comics, there’s also visu­al artists as well, which I’m not going to touch upon today. But going back into music, which for me as a DJ and a musi­cian is prob­a­bly one of the main things to do with afro­fu­tur­ism that I work around, and also around dig­i­tal his­to­ries. There’s a piece by Daniel Kreiss who’s writ­ten about how Sun Ra and the Black Panthers appro­pri­ate tech­nol­o­gy and the piece is called Appropriating the Master’s Tools.” I don’t know if any­one’s famil­iar with the black fem­i­nist writer Audrey Lorde; she has this famous quote which is the mas­ter’s tools will nev­er dis­man­tle the mas­ter’s house.” It’s about cre­at­ing our owns, those of the African dias­po­ra, to dis­man­tled insti­tu­tions like this. It’s a love­ly room, but it’s very rep­re­sen­ta­tive, there’s dead white men on the walls, so we can’t dis­man­tle those struc­tures by recre­at­ing it with dead black men, for exam­ple. We need to com­plete­ly dis­man­tle the gen­der bina­ry, patri­archy, and all that kind of stuff.

So Daniel Kreiss writes,

In 1952 jazz musi­cian Sun Ra began using metaphors of cold war tech­nolo­gies in his per­for­mances in an effort to cre­ate a technologically-empowered myth­ic con­scious­ness for black peo­ple that he imag­ined would enable them to con­trol tech­nolo­gies and build the soci­eties of the future. Through his music Sun Ra con­struct­ed and per­formed what I call a black knowl­edge soci­ety,’ a metaphor­i­cal utopia of con­scious­ness facil­i­tat­ed by sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy and ground­ed in the cul­tur­al val­ues of ancient Egypt and a re-imagining of out­er space. Sun Ra’s engage­ment with arti­facts and metaphors of ener­gy, out­er space, and advanced technologies
rep­re­sents a black cul­tur­al uptake and recon­cep­tion of cold war sci­ence in terms of long-established African-American social nar­ra­tives of lib­er­a­tion and empowerment.

Sun Ra felt that African Americans were going to be left behind as the tech­nol­o­gy changed around them unless they devel­oped the tech­ni­cal agency to both use and rein­vent the tools of white soci­ety. For Sun Ra, this agency could be estab­lished through the cre­ation of a myth­ic con­scious­ness for black peo­ple that was cen­tered on the metaphor of a black knowl­edge soci­ety’ informed by the cul­tur­al imag­in­ing of Egypt and out­er space.
Daniel Kreiss, Appropriating the Master’s Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 19521973

Outer space and how that forms itself in afro­fu­tur­ist music.” I say afro­fu­tur­ist music” because that music works across dif­fer­ent gen­res, it works across Sun Ra from jazz to George Clinton to Janelle Monáe to Outkast, and a wealth of others. 

Let’s go to George Clinton, who I actu­al­ly DJ’d for five years ago I think. It’s quite an inter­est­ing sto­ry so I’m going tell it because it’s wacky. It’s like a sci­ence fic­tion nov­el. I was in the back and it was a European fes­ti­val so we’re all being very European and quite staid. Then two or three of these mas­sive big sil­ver trucks came back­stage and then the doors opened and some girls came out on roller skates. Smoke came out, and then there was these troops and then there was more roller skates. And then he came out with around ten peo­ple around him. I play in a punk band and this was one of the loud­est shows I’ve ever been to or played. It was painful. He had peo­ple doing all kinds of stuff. It was like enter­ing a moth­er­ship of some sort.

But George Clinton’s groups Parliament and Funkadelic. Parliament had more con­struct­ed sto­ries, they had the whole mythol­o­gy of P‑Funk, which I’ll talk about a lit­tle bit in a minute. And Funkadelic leaned more to the ethe­re­al and the spir­i­tu­al, which is prob­a­bly more reflec­tive of them in that era of the late 60s when Funkadelic came around. So it’s Funkadelic, then Parliament came after.

So the Mothership Connection, which is the name of my book club. Why did I call it Mothership Connection? Obviously a big fan of George Clinton, but it’s also that thing of how this idea of us as African diaspora-displaced peo­ple liv­ing in alien­at­ing soci­ety, this idea of being from some­where else kind of fits in with aliens and space­ships. So the Mothership Connection, even though it’s a fly­ing saucer, it real­ly is about this idea of con­nect­ing back to African epis­te­molo­gies, African ways of think­ing, being, see­ing the world.

When I wrote my piece for The Guardian, there was a big row in the Guardian com­ments, as there always is. Someone had said that George Clinton and Parliament weren’t polit­i­cal, because I’d men­tioned this thing about them bring­ing this polit­i­cal edge into their music. There’s a quote from this spir­i­tu­al song Swing Down Chariot” that George Clinton uses in this song. It’s an old spir­i­tu­al chant, and it’s that chant that slaves used to use while work­ing. Swing down sweet char­i­ot / Stop and let me ride.” There’s all these ref­er­ences that he puts into the music which is about escape, which is about redemp­tion and lib­er­a­tion, etc.

On the Mothership Connection, Starchild (which is George in anoth­er form; he has all these dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties as well) is a divine alien being who comes to Earth from a space­ship to bring the Holy Funk, with a cap­i­tal F not a small f, the cause of cre­ation and source of ener­gy in all life to human­i­ty. As it turns out, Starchild secret­ly worked for Dr. Funkenstein, the inter­galac­tic mas­ter of outer-space funk who’s capa­ble of fix­ing all of man’s ills because the big­ger the headace the big­ger the pill” and he’s the big pill. Dr. Funkenstein’s pre­de­ces­sors had encod­ed the secrets of funk in the pyra­mids (again, a lot of ref­er­ences to ancient Egypt) because human­i­ty was­n’t ready for its exis­tence until the mod­ern era. Those of you who are into hip-hop as well can see the con­nec­tions there with Afrika Bambaataa and Planet Rock” and all that kind of stuff as well.

So music and tech­nol­o­gy from Sun Ra, cold war tech­nolo­gies, George Clinton was doing a lot of inno­v­a­tive stuff at the time par­tic­u­lar­ly in stage shows and pro­duc­tion. One of the music groups that comes up a lot in afro­fu­tur­ism is Drexciya. Drexciya are from Detroit. They are two black guys, no one’s real­ly sure what they look like because they’re always wear­ing masks when they per­form. And there’s always this theme with black music cul­ture of using the lat­est tools. We see it in grime, we see it in house music, we see it in a lot of things. With Drexciya it’s tech­no. I’m just going to play a lit­tle bit here. It’s a bit heavy. It might be a bit much for this time in the after­noon unless every­one wants to have a bit of a rave. [Plays ~20secs of the following.]


What’s inter­est­ing about Drexciya is at the time they’re using this tech­nol­o­gy which is quite for­ward in music, but they’re also bring­ing in a phi­los­o­phy that under­pins all of their work. They’re putting togeth­er dis­parate strands of afro­fu­tur­ism, polit­i­cal activism, and Platonic phi­los­o­phy. The duo formed the detailed mythol­o­gy of the Drexciyan peo­ple, who were an aquat­ic race descend­ed from the chil­dren of preg­nant slaves thrown over­board dur­ing the Atlantic cross­ing. The music they pro­duced were mes­sages from the Drexciyan race (this song is called Wavejumper”), cre­at­ing a por­tal between Africa, con­tem­po­rary America, and the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, and as the myths devel­oped, so did the music.

So as I was danc­ing on the stage for you guys here and talk­ing about the loop­ing of house music, that sort of 4/4 time which comes direct­ly from a lot of African rhythms, I’m going to play a bit of the sacred drums of Burundi. You’ll see that the effect of this music is not very far from the effect caused by tech­no or elec­tron­ic music, as these musi­cal styles both work on the con­cept of loops. Whilst think­ing about this, it’s quite inter­est­ing to think about shaman­ism, and [as] this is Haunted Machines we’re talk­ing about mag­ic, and going into these mag­i­cal spaces. Shamanism is used col­lo­qui­al­ly as a blan­ket term to describe tra­di­tion­al trib­al reli­gions not stem­ming from Abrahamic faiths. 

So think­ing about Drexciya and the mythol­o­gy that they’re cre­at­ing around the Drexciyan peo­ple and then the Burundi sacred drums and then if you’re in a rave and lis­ten­ing to that music and you’re being tak­en off into that space, it is effec­tive­ly black music, this sort shaman­ic thing that dance music has. I’m going to play a lit­tle bit here and I think you can get a sense of what I’m talk­ing about.

There’s always this thing about the cir­cle as well, of keep­ing a loop going rather than in a lot of Western music which is very for­wards in a march.

I’m now going to talk a lit­tle bit about tech­nol­o­gy is black polit­i­cal resis­tance and as black lib­er­a­tion. As we live in the age of the Internet and this is the FutureEverything fes­ti­val, I’m going talk about things that are hap­pen­ing now, things of peo­ple that I com­mu­ni­cate with online and black online cul­ture, black lib­er­a­tion culture.

Colin [?] wrote a piece, and in it he quotes,

Throughout the black dias­po­ra, the phrase knowl­edge is pow­er” has been a cul­tur­al tenet used by many com­mu­ni­ties of African descent in the attempt to lib­er­ate them­selves from the oppres­sive throes of racism. The col­lec­tion, stor­age, and dis­sem­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion about how racism works in their com­mu­ni­ties, what groups and resources are avail­able to com­bat racism, and what his­tor­i­cal­ly has been done, con­tin­ue to be a valu­able weapon in our lib­er­a­tion struggle. 

So I was talk­ing about hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with some­one recent­ly, and we were talk­ing about sci­ence fic­tion by black writ­ers and sci­ence fic­tion by white writ­ers. They said to me, Have you noticed that a lot of black sci­ence fic­tion is actually…I won’t go as far as say­ing utopi­an, but does­n’t have a rela­tion­ship with tech­nol­o­gy which is as neg­a­tive some­times? There isn’t that dystopi­an sort of tech­nol­o­gy is going to be the end of us all, we’re all going to end up like Borgs” and all that kind of stuff. A lot of it is about tech­nol­o­gy lib­er­at­ing us from cer­tain spaces. 

Black Girls Code is a group that start­ed in the West Coast of America, and its mis­sion is to intro­duce pro­gram­ming and tech­nol­o­gy to a new gen­er­a­tion of coders, coders who will become builders of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion and of their own future. They usu­al­ly work with young girls between the ages of 12 and 16, and they teach these girls how to code because there’s obvi­ous­ly a lack of black women par­tic­u­lar­ly in that indus­try. This idea of being the for­ward change, knowl­edge is pow­er, that sort of thing.

And blerd cul­ture, which is anoth­er thing that’s kind of sprung up online, black nerds—blerds. We always put a b” in from of every­thing. We’ve got the blip­ster which is the black hip­ster, now we’ve got the blerd which is the black nerd. And when did this start to spring up? Maybe four, five years ago I start­ed to notice the term pop up around the Internet through hash­tags for a lot of stuff around black sci­ence fic­tion that I was talk­ing about. And what does it say on the poster?

I am a dream­er and a doer. I see pos­si­bil­i­ty every­where. I am the solu­tion. I don’t believe in wait­ing for change. I am bilin­gual. [Chardine: Which seems an odd thing to say.] I look fear in the eye and keep going. I believe that awe­some­ness is a virtue. I think bowties & glass­es are sexy. I walk in the foot­steps of those who came before me & blaze a trail for those who fol­low. I believe in reach­ing for the stars. 

What I’ve noticed about blerd cul­ture is this thing about defy­ing typ­i­cal black stereo­types of music lovers (I say that think­ing about myself.) and bring­ing peo­ple into tech­nol­o­gy, and mak­ing some­thing that black peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate in. That is hap­pen­ing a lot online. 

The pow­er of Black Twitter and hash­tags, Black Lives Matter, which is a cam­paign that I some­times work with. There’s been some stud­ies look­ing at how black peo­ple use Twitter. It’s actu­al­ly slight­ly dif­fer­ent from our white coun­ter­parts. 26% of African-Americans who use the Internet use Twitter, com­pared to 14% of online white non-Hispanic Americans. In addi­tion, 11% of African-American Twitter users say they tweet at least once a day, com­pared to 3% of white users. In 2010 there was an arti­cle by Farhad Manjoo in Slate mag­a­zine, How Black People Use Twitter”, which brought the com­mu­ni­ty wider atten­tion. He wrote that

[Y]oung black people—do seem to use Twitter dif­fer­ent­ly from every­one else on the ser­vice. They form tighter clus­ters on the network—they fol­low one anoth­er more read­i­ly, they retweet each oth­er more often, and more of their posts are @-replies—posts direct­ed at oth­er users. It’s this behav­ior, inten­tion­al or not, that gives black people—and in par­tic­u­lar, black teenagers—the means to dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion on Twitter.
Farhad Manjoo, How Black People Use Twitter”

He goes on to argue that the high­er lev­el of reci­procity between the hun­dreds of users who ini­ti­ate hash­tags, or black­tags,” leads to a higher-density influ­en­tial net­work. I don’t know if any­one’s ever engaged with Black Twitter here, or been on the receiv­ing end of Black Twitter, but it’s a force to be reck­oned with online. I engage with it quite a lot, like some of the #BlackLivesMatter cam­paign. You see how Black Lives Matter start­ed as a hash­tag and then became a move­ment after­wards. Now it’s an orga­ni­za­tion, and I do a lot with Patrisse [Cullors], who heads that orga­ni­za­tion, actu­al­ly. So black peo­ple con­nect­ing with each oth­er and cre­at­ing a voice in a dig­i­tal space as well. If you don’t have a space in some­where like this, you can cre­ate a voice in a dig­i­tal space, which is what’s hap­pen­ing with the hashtag.

There’s a Kenyan film direc­tor, Wanuri Kahiu, who made a 20-minute short film called Pumzi which is set in the future and you see use of tech­nol­o­gy to [sus­tain water], which is obvi­ous­ly quite a big issue in cer­tain parts of the con­ti­nent at the moment. I real­ly rec­om­mend it. It’s a real­ly beau­ti­ful film. Wanuri talks a lot about afro­fu­tur­ism as well in a par­tic­u­lar­ly African con­text, not the African dias­po­ra con­text. In terms of mod­ern afro­fu­tur­ist thought, her work is real­ly pro­gress­ing that forward.

I talked about the Dogon peo­ple and space [and] Sirius B. The Dogon peo­ple are from Mali in West Africa. They’re believed to be of Egyptian descent and their astro­nom­i­cal lore goes back thou­sands of years to 3,200 BC. According to their tra­di­tions, the star Sirius has a com­pan­ion star which is invis­i­ble to the human eye. This com­pan­ion star has a 50-year orbit around the vis­i­ble Sirius and is extreme­ly heavy. It also rotates on an axis. That’s all the tech­ni­cal stuff, but the most inter­est­ing thing about this is that the sto­ries that they are telling at that time were effec­tive­ly real. Those plan­ets weren’t dis­cov­ered until we had tele­scopes and things like that here. So again a lot of afro­fu­tur­ism refers back to this sto­ry because it’s about ances­tors, myth, mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy, and this idea of time and space in African ways of think­ing being cir­cu­lar, being led by events rather than by dates.

I’m going to end on an artist called Ras G because I’m a DJ, so that’s what I do. I’m going to play music, because it’s quite impor­tant to me. And this sort of mod­ern musi­cal afro­fu­tur­ist move­ment with groups like THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces. I’d also rec­om­mend if peo­ple are inter­est­ed in look­ing into this fur­ther, to have a look at web sites like OkayAfrica, Chimurenga mag­a­zine, which is a zine com­ing from South Africa which talks afro­fu­tur­ism as well. 

So I’m going to end on this. It’s called Ghetto Sci-Fi by Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program.

Further Reference

The Haunted Machines site.

Dedicated page for Haunted Machines at the main FutureEverything site.