By Ashley Clark
The term "Afrofuturism" was coined by cultural theorist Mark Dery in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future." While championing the work of pioneering African-American authors of speculative fiction including Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, Dery expressed surprise at the relative lack of African-American sci-fi literature. This absence was curious, he said, because “African-Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”
In the time since Dery’s initial usage of the term, however, Afrofuturism has come to represent both an amorphous multimedia aesthetic, and a useful framework for critical theory applicable to creative work concerned with imagined and alternate black experiences. Encapsulating the concept’s scope, author Ytasha Womack writes: “Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.”
One of the key figures in heralding the resurgence of Afrofuturist aesthetics is the “Archandroid” Janelle Monae, though there is a strong lineage of musical Afrofuturism, including—but not limited to—Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Parliament-Funkadelic, Afrika Bambaataa, the pioneers of Detroit Techno, and Missy Elliott. Notable examples in other media include the visual art and sculpture of Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu; the intricate, politically subversive canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Chris Ofili; the visionary graffiti of Rammellzee; and the performance art of Chicago-based Nick Cave.
Space is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film—the program I’ve curated for BAMcinématek—draws together a number of films that have engaged with, inspired, or been inspired by this ever-evolving intellectual and stylistic cornucopia.
Yet there’s another medium in which afrofuturist themes, ideas, and aesthetics have been brilliantly condensed into concentrated blasts of pure imagination: the music video.
As a warm-up for the film series, here are 10 of the best:
Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force (1982)
dir. Danny Cornyetz & Jessica Jason
You can simply sit back and enjoy the groove and the wacky visuals, but there's something deeper going on. Cultural critic Tricia Rose explains: “[What acts] like Afrika Bambaataa saw in Kraft-werk’s use of the robot was an understanding of themselves as already having been robots. Adopt-ing ‘the robot’ reflected a response to an existing condition: namely, that they were labor for capital-ism, that they had very little value as people in this society.”
Herbie Hancock — “Rockit" (1983)
dir. Godley & Creme
It might seem that this pioneering video could qualify as simply "futurist." Yet critic Inda Lauryn sees something subversive in the video’s messages: “It was Hancock’s idea to only appear on the monitor to make it easier to get his video played on MTV. Michael Jackson had just broken the col-or barrier the previous year. I’m certain that as a jazz musician from the ’60s, Hancock was well aware of all the invisible barriers still in place for black performers in the music industry. So he brought afrofuturism into the ’80s, and into the white mainstream. He replaced his own racially coded freak body with the freak bodies of broken robots.”
Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson — “Scream” (1995)
dir. Mark Romanek
At a cool $7m, "Scream" remains the most expensive music video ever directed. It featured the Jackson siblings alone on a huge spacecraft, away from the troubles and pressures of the world, but still angry. In 1995, when the video was made, it was still a relative rarity to see black characters in space.
Missy Elliott — “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997)
dir. Hype Williams
TLC — “No Scrubs” (1999)
dir. Hype Williams
This double from Hype Williams shows the most innovative music video director of the decade at his best, crafting indelible, freaky, space-age visual landscapes for his African-American musical superstars to inhabit.
Erykah Badu — “Didn’t Cha Know” (2000)
dir. Erykah Badu
Directed by Badu herself, this dreamy, sensual film finds the magnificently-attired singer treading harsh desert terrain in a captivating journey of self-discovery. It’s steeped in afrofuturistic imagery and cosmological thought.
Janelle Monae — “Many Moons” (2008)
dir. Alan Ferguson
This imaginative short takes place at the Annual Android Auction in the fictional city of Metropolis. Monae's alter-ego Cindi Mayweather performs for the crowd, while the other androids strut the catwalk and are bought off by the city’s wealthiest. Through "Many Moons," Monae calls attention to present-day power structures and systems of oppression that affect black women by engaging creatively with the past—a classic tenet of afrofuturistic science fiction.
Kanye West — “Power” (2010)
dir. Marco Brambilla
"Power," an astonishing short piece, places West inside inside a moving painting inspired by Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. It depicts an imagined historical moment—an empire on the brink of collapse from its own excess, decadence, and corruption.
Shabazz Palaces — “Forerunner Foray” (2015)
dir. Chad VanGaalen
The singer-songwriter and animator Chad VanGaalen put together this mind-bending psychedelic collage for the Seattle rappers. There’s no real plot, but the cosmic imagery takes in everything from references to '70s animation, heavy metal, and Magic Johnson riding a giant pizza slice through the galaxy.
The Dig — “You and I and You” (2015)
dir. Terence Nance
The director of 2012’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty brings his unique creative touch to this short film accompanying the 2013 EP by Brooklyn indie act The Dig. “The songs are playing at transcendence and simplicity and unseen forces,” Nance told the website Nowness. “I think that those things worked their way from the music to my subconscious, and then into the film.”
Ashley Clark is a freelance writer and film programmer from London who now works in New York. His writing has appeared in publications including Sight & Sound, Reverse Shot, Film Comment, Time Out, and The Guardian among others. He is the curator of Space is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film, screening at BAMcinématek April 3—15.