Everything about the ’80s said damn nature, damn everything about what’s natural. This is how we ended up with jheri curls and synth pop. Perhaps this made the ’80s the perfect time for music videos to find their own outlet on television. I now know they’ve been around since the 1930s or ’40s, but, like the rest of my generation, I discovered the music video in its modern form with MTV. That also means MTV introduced me to an already legendary jazz musician named Herbie Hancock.
“Rockit.” 1984. Predating Peter Gabriel’s stop motion classic “Sledgehammer” by two years. Also foreshadowing the marriage of jazz and hip-hop that would explode during the ’90s, creating an ironic trajectory both genres faced individually.
Of course, hindsight tells me this was my introduction to afrofuturism. Why would I even have a word for that at age five? (Apparently the term wasn’t even coined until 1989.) What I do remember are my first impressions, and the imprint this fascinating and creepy three and a half minutes left on me: half-robots trying to function like real people. But the one appearing to read the paper has no head. And, well, we never really see the lower half of the masturbating robot on the bed, just the disembodied legs edited to move in time with the music－creative but eerie all at once.
Hancock himself left a deeper impression on me, appearing only on a television monitor. First his hands, then his back as he bops in time, his hands rubbing together in a motion to emulate the sounds of a record scratching (a motion I still mimic to this day when I hear “Rockit”). Even the five-year-old mind knows that the person is supposed to be in the house and the robots in the TV. I only found the reason for this conspicuous yet rather genius role reversal years later.
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 color 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.
Such is the embodiment of afrofuturism. It goes beyond imagining ourselves in a future that manages to exclude our presence in almost all its imaginings, such as film, television and books. Focusing on the cyborg helps some artists transcend, in a way, the limitations placed on the black body in a society that simultaneously fears and fetishizes blackness.
Hancock seemed to understand the need to transfer the limitations of the black body when he made the video for “Rockit.” However, he was certainly not the first to bring an afrofuturist context into his music. Parliament/Funkadelic brought the spaceship on the stage. But before that, Sun Ra convinced a good number of his fans that was an alien from Saturn. Jimi Hendrix, as Paul Caruso, turned into an alien right before the eyes of a stunned interviewer (Noel Redding) on the opening track “EXP” of Axis: Bold as Love. Jimi imagined how music sounded underwater, even though he knew there was no sound underwater. And Labelle’s sexy space heroine costuming from the ’70s…
They made the future the present and, incidentally, assured their own places in their future: our present.
I’ve only been familiar with the term afrofuturism for the past few years. It didn’t exist for me when I first read Octavia Butler more than a decade ago, or when I read the first Dark Matter anthology while I was still an undergrad in the late ’90s. Somewhere along the way, I saw the short film anthology Cosmic Slop, bought a copy of Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place on DVD, and noted that music videos from the likes of Tupac and Dr. Dre, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes included post-apocalyptic, space, and robotic themes and elements. In hindsight, I can apply an axiom about porn to afrofuturism: I know it when I see it.
Like most social and cultural movements, I don’t see myself as part of the afrofuturist movement, as academics, not participants, like to call it. I am both a technophile and a technophobe. I love technology because it has given me the opportunity to participate in social movements and stay up-to-date on the latest news and happenings regarding cultural issues that concern me. More than that, computers have shrunk the world, allowing me to connect with like minds and feel at home in online communities that provide a safe space I didn’t have as a child growing up in a low-income family during the 1980s.
Of course, this technology also provided my gateway to artists like Hancock. Without technology, I’d have never seen through the TV on the television. Yet I fear technology. I’m afraid because I don’t know how machines work and feel too stupid to truly understand them. Plus the fact that I’m a late adapter to new devices makes me a bit gunshy with machines.
Even with my fears, technology connects me to all the things I love, particularly music. Perhaps this is why afrofuturism feels so familiar, like home. Its most basic function is to take us to another place and time. It imagines us as part of a future and present (and even past) that erases us. For someone who spent a good portion of her afternoons in junior high watching the original Star Wars trilogy back to back to back, this means everything.
Of course, I wasn’t always cognizant of this need. Stevie Wonder, Roger Troutman and Teddy Riley on the talkbox just always existed for me. The fact that I loved films like The Explorers and The Neverending Story even though I found no points of identification with the cast members didn’t mean anything to me at the time. That’s just how it was, and I generally accepted that for most of my life. The need to see myself in contexts other than the here and now only became clear in hindsight, like so much of my life. Yet once I knew afrofuturism was a “thing,” I felt a connection with it.
I understand the attraction to afrofuturism. Not everyone has the freedom to create self. Even though afrofuturism provides a unique opportunity to transcend the boundaries of blackness, many artists who embrace the concept (and afrofuturists who do not know they are, or do not claim to be, afrofuturists) appear more interested in expanding perceptions of blackness, not transcending it. In a way, they embrace the freakery already associated with black bodies and create something else entirely. The message doesn’t stop at “we are not one thing or we are all things.” Afrofuturists dare to say “we are not what you say or think we are.” Afrofuturists make their own worlds, make this world see them on their terms in an awesome act of mindfucking.
For instance, while the cyborg seems to currently rule the afrofuturism landscape, the alien was once the primary means of transcendence that still meant exploring constructions of blackness. Jimi did not simply transform into a space alien on “EXP”; he did it as Paul Caruso, a “peculiar-looking gentleman.” If we can assume Jimi’s reference was to the drummer who had crossed paths with him, then we know that Paul Caruso was white. Probably nothing more than an innocent inside joke. I still wonder about the implications of Jimi’s becoming Paul Caruso to become an extraterrestrial being.
And Sun Ra. I don’t even know his government name. I don’t want to know it. He’s Sun Ra. Who am I to say he wasn’t really from Saturn? Interestingly, Sun Ra didn’t seem to eschew blackness. His whole mythology had an air of Egyptology about it, something Earth, Wind and Fire would perfect during the ’70s. But, oddly, Sun Ra seemed to eschew humanity. How else could he convince people he was a man from Saturn? Even though he decided he was a being from Saturn, I still imagine his experience as a black man in America informed his life and art just as Jimi’s embrace of the hippie counterculture had to exist in his context as a black man from America.
Parliament/Funkadelic－their brand of extraterrestrial play did more than embrace blackness. George Clinton took the freakery associated with blackness and transformed it into an intergalactic carnival with the funkiest of soundtracks. In one song with two words, Parliament/Funkadelic embodies the very essence of how I see afrofuturism: the past informs the future. Or, as the old adage says, you have to know where you been to get to where you’re going. This is what Mothership Connection means. Clinton also brings me back to the question of how afrofuturism gives a means to create the self and transcend the limitations and common myths about the black body. However, this embracing the alien has its own tinge of freakery. I’m not sure if it is better to be one type of freak (alien) than another (cyborg), but I wonder what it is about this transcendence that makes that body “acceptable” or at least acceptable in the arena of the stage. It comes back to the contradiction of the hypervisible but invisible black body: everyone loves blackness/black culture, but not when it comes with the black body. To say that afrofuturism takes away or makes blackness less visible ignores the intersection of race and how that still affects the way afrofuturists are seen. After all, the press constantly referred to Erykah Badu as a flake for her presentation of blackness that did not fit into the acceptable performance of blackness for mainstream consumption. We accept this other freakery onstage, but do not transfer that acceptance to everyday black bodies on display in other contexts.
It also begs the question of who gets to construct this blackness, especially a blackness that comes with a black female body. For instance, I will always be fascinated with knowing that Quincy Jones reassured Steven Spielberg it was okay for Spielberg to direct The Color Purple because he didn’t have to be a Martian to direct E.T. Interesting how the black female body is already coded as alien. In this case, this alien body becomes something that is okay to manipulate until it resembles an experience those who are not black women recognize as “authentic.” We do not suddenly become less black because we embrace an aesthetic not recognized outside of “authentic” black experience. Within one or two generations, we simply become impostors to the very cultures we create because what we have created is no longer associated with blackness or black experience.
Herein lies the value of those who engage in an afrofuturist aesthetic and discourse. Afrofuturists acknowledge the ways in which the black body is used as a substitute. This speaks to the claim I once read that black bodies are science fiction: displacement, experimentation, alienness. I think it comes from Kodwo Eshun’s “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” in which he cites Toni Morrison as saying African people experienced “capture, theft, abduction, mutilation and slavery” and underwent “real conditions of existential homelessness, alienation, dislocation and dehumanization.”
When Eshun posits “black existence and science fiction are one and the same,” I hear him saying that black bodies are science fiction. Black bodies have been experimented on without consent, permission and sometimes knowledge (e.g., the Tuskegee experiment, Henrietta Lacks, and the “invention” of gynecology). Pop stars such as Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift wear blackness as a costume, then discard it when they are done with their “rebellious” phases, no longer needing a substitute for their “darker” facades. But when they wear these costumes, this artificial blackness becomes acceptable for their bodies to the point that they become the “authentic” source. I’ve seen this time and again from white teenagers who do not realize the white entertainers they love have come from a long line of culture vultures who, whether intentionally or not, have erased the black creators of their art. Hence, they make us the impostors in our own art.
Many of us who have been in academia have heard of or experienced impostor syndrome. I made straight As my entire grade-school life and graduated as salutatorian. I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in communications, a minor in English, and honors in English and history, then earned a Master’s degree in communication studies from a Big 10 university. Yet I often felt I did not belong in graduate school. I second-guessed every move I made, even though I progressed a lot faster than the other students.
Or maybe it was because I progressed so fast that I began to feel like a fraud. Suddenly Sly and the Family Stone’s “Underdog” became my anthem: “I know how it feels to get demoted when it comes time to get promoted because you might be moving too fast. Yeah yeah!” After all, that little snide comment about how I had time to read things outside of class readings was not just a joke from your friendly neighborhood second year.
The microaggressions I didn’t know how to name at the time got put on the back burner. I planned my future, which I thought would include writing scripts and books while I taught little black girls about “alternative” representations of themselves they wouldn’t see on BET or MTV. It was all a matter of determining what to do when they were determined to keep me the underdog. The solution could only be to take the scraps left behind and create something else like my generation of afrofuturists, the hip-hop heads, had done.
Afrofuturism is built into hip-hop culture, with its eschewing of live instruments and remixing and refixing what came before it until it looks and sounds as if it stepped out of 200 years from now. Of course, only in hindsight did looking at hip-hop as just one aspect of my life and preferences help me identify Afrika Bambaataa, Newcleus, Tricky, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monae as afrofuturist. Hindsight also tells me they provided me with a refuge, a place in which it was okay to be a pretender. And being a pretender doesn’t make me an impostor.
Perhaps it means I have finally embraced my imagination. For me, imagination is an essential part of afrofuturism, imagining ourselves in a speculative context whether past, present or future and making ourselves a part of that “reality.” A Twitter conversation produced an amazing proposal that imagination may be the last frontier of radical gesture, an idea I first found in Sofia Samatar’s reading of David Wojnarowicz. In my definition of afrofuturism, this way of looking at imagination makes the movement the most radical of gestures. After all, we already know how it feels to be the alien and the freak, the Other. Afrofuturism takes that Other and reinvents it in a way only black cool can. Afrofuturism takes a past and reimagines it in a way that connects it to the hopes of the future, the hope all past generations have had since they were taken from home and placed in a location and context unfamiliar to what they had known. Afrofuturism looks to the stars and other unfamiliar frontiers to make that connection. Listen to “Mothership Connection (Starchild)” by Funkadelic: “Swing down sweet chariot, stop and let me ride.” It can be no accident that the imagery of the chariot from an old and familiar spiritual collides with a hope to ride on the mothership coming for to carry us home.
As someone who spends a lot of time in online communities that embrace animation, anime, scifi, the speculative and the paranormal, that imagination I tried so hard to suppress as a child has come back with a vengeance these days and works to inform a good part of my existence. It dares me to see myself as a writer, one who can make an impact, whether I make up stories about family or go ahead with the space opera that’s been in the works in the front of my mind for the past couple of years. Embracing this sense of imagination means I can see a world better than the one in which I currently live, as well as the ways in which I can work to achieve that world. This is what afrofuturism does. Even in a dystopian context, a creator has imagined how the ills that currently affect us will eventually be our undoing, so dystopia effectively works to help us find out what we are doing wrong and how we should go about fixing it before it’s too late.
Janelle Monae is the first person I can recall linking to afrofuturism the first time I heard the term a few years ago. I’d listened to the adventures of her cyborg alter-ego Cindi Mayweather that crosses over her albums like the “Electric Overture” suites. I’ve seen theories that connect her use of the cyborg body and dance as a form of resistance and/or liberation. However, those theories do not take into account Janelle’s blackness and her embracing of queer identity. Those theories seem to erase the peculiar relationship blackness has had with humanity and how afrofuturism provides an avenue to reclaim that humanity.
You see, Cindi Mayweather is on the run for an interesting crime－love. Apparently, she lives in a world where it is illegal for cyborgs to love. I find this fascinating, because even when we decide to be something other than human, we still let love rule.
It reminds me of one of my favorite indie films, Greg Pak’s Robot Stories. The anthology film features an Asian American cast in four short stories that take on this cross between humanity and technology. Interestingly, one of the most emotional stories involves robot toys and life support, but Pak also includes a story of cyborgs seeking each other to fulfill something inexplicably missing. However, two stories explore the ways technology interferes with the personal. A woman devoted to her job adopts a baby with her husband－but they must first take care of a robot baby for a year to make sure they are qualified. Technology becomes even more intrusive in the last story, in which the dying are required to undergo a brain scan that uploads their memories, essentially making them immortal with no bodies. The fascinating thing about this story is the main character’s contradiction in his experience with the technology. As an artist, he resists the brain scan, preferring to revel in the sensory experience of creating and feeling his creations with his hands, but he uses this technology to stay in touch with his deceased wife, making love to her as his younger self and creating sculptures in her likeness. Even with technology changing everything about human existence, love is still the primary concern, so basic an instinct that it surpasses humanity and affects even those we create in our likeness. As the tagline reads, “Everything is changing…except the human heart.”
Cindi Mayweather also blurs the lines of how we think about love and who has the capacity to feel the strongest of all emotions. Love is what we say makes us human, but what happens when a non-human loves? Do we become more willing to see the humanity in those so long denied that label? In other words, are we more willing to accept Janelle Monae’s black queerness/queer blackness through the cyborg body of Cindi Mayweather? If we allow Cindi Mayweather to love and accept that as part of her existence, we just may have to accept this for Janelle Monae as well.
For me, the impostor syndrome extends further than worries about my short-lived academic career. When one decides to transform, the lines of authenticity blur. I ask myself if Janelle’s use of Cindi means she avoids the true self or finds it. Am I an impostor for changing my name, or did I find my true self? Perhaps this worry kept me from embracing my chosen name sooner. I worried that it would be seen as an attempt to escape from something rather than a way to accept my true self unconditionally. See, as much as I hate to admit it, others’ perceptions of me still matter, ironically, because I want to be seen as authentic in all my endeavors. Yet I don’t force my new name upon anyone who knew me under another for 33 years, and who still live in the city I spent most of my life trying to escape.
While the impostor syndrome hasn’t completely gone away, I feel much more comfortable as Inda than I did two years ago. She’s not someone I made up to put on a glamorous front. She’s not a new personality or a new wrapper covering an old package. She’s always been here; I only needed to acknowledge her existence and let her take the place in my life she needed: the forefront.
What I’ve come to realize is that cyberspace has made this transformation possible and easier. Cyberspace helps me pull off this sense of self. I live more “real” life on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook than I do in my current adopted city. Mutual follows become authentic friendships with real meaning in my physical existence. I even gave online dating a try, which presented an interesting cyberspace phenomenon in itself. Potential suitors got to know me as a soul and spirit encoded in ones and zeroes but still connected it to a body coded as black and female. They didn’t see the mannerisms that come with this body that make me a unique individual, which could be a good or bad thing depending upon what type of fantasy they’d concocted in their heads.
These complications and contradictions attract me to afrofuturism. We imagine a future we already actually live in with our current reality (see: Ferguson). I feel my own contradictory existence when I put together my afrofuturism mixtapes every year on Jimi’s birthday. I feel my preservation when I read Octavia Butler, the woman who put me in science fiction and fantasy when media I loved like The X-Files and Highlander didn’t, no matter how much I wished for it. In other words, I feel at home in my skin, if nowhere else.
Technology is not always compatible with me. However, my life is now incomplete without it. I have no community without the invisible wires. I don’t exist without an avatar. I am completely plugged into the matrix. I largely accept this “reality.” I justify that in the title of a documentary series I once saw celebrating the artistic achievements of African Americans throughout the years: I’ll Make Me a World. And like Jimi, I’m gonna wave my freak flag high in this world I make.
Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine and Interfictions and had her work featured on blogs such as BlackGirlNerds, Bitch Flicks and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects, and occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press.