Exploring a genre: Afrofuturism

Lynn Seah

As much as they can be used to confine and categorise, genres can also be a means of creation and collaboration. Such is the case of Afrofuturism, a genre perhaps less known as opposed to most genres that we are exposed to — the likes of thrillers, mysteries, dramas and comedies — and yet one of the most meaningful and creative genres of today. As Architectural Digest puts it, “Afrofuturism is a fluid ideology shaped by generations of artists, musicians, scholars, and activists whose aim is to reconstruct “Blackness” in the culture.” The term “fluid” is undoubtedly a good way to describe the genre, seeing as it exists in multiple forms and gives leeway to a stream of unrestrained creativity, in which the conversation of “Blackness” is given the ability to be explored in various art forms and different, new lights.

So how exactly did it come about?

According to this video by Inverse, it is a genre of “speculative fiction” that “highlights what regular science fiction can’t and won’t,” exploring the parallels of experience such as “alienation” that exist both in the genre of science fiction and the Black experience. The concept was first named in 1993 by Mark Derry. Still, some say its true creation dates back to the Middle Passage, where the enslaved Africans imagined a different reality for themselves and their futures, where “Afrofuturism imagines a future void of white supremacist thought and the structures that violently oppressed Black communities.” Often times, the use of technology is a key element in the experience, exploring the possibilities it offers for a better future and highlighting the involvement and abilities of the community in the field. Alondra Nelson, a famous sociologist, explained it, saying, “A facet of Afrofuturism that should not get overshadowed is Black people’s longstanding, innovative, and critical engagement with science and technology.” As technology is a means by which we interact with ideas of and make sense of the future, ideas and aesthetics steeped in Afrofuturism often include intersections between technology and politics.

Image from Wired

Some of the notable pioneers of Afrofuturism's concept are Black science-fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany and, as stated by the Tate, the “Jazz musician Sun Ra, who created a mythical persona that merged science fiction with Egyptian mysticism.” Perhaps the most popular example today is Marvel’s Black Panther, in which we see the tropes of science fiction get a twist from the norm as they blend with the Black aesthetic and are embedded in African tradition. Wakanda itself is a spectacular example of an Afrofuturistic setting, with its incredibly advanced technology and society, that still retains a clear and strong Black identity. Production Designer Hannah Bleacher spoke about how she drew inspiration from the “rich traditions” of the diaspora and explained that to her, “Afrofuturism really was the bridge between the mythology, the art, the politics, the science of Africa and of the culture and the sci-fi.” After the film’s release, a lot more talk and interest surrounding Afrofuturism was sparked, with people fascinated by the genre and its nuances, which were traditionally much less visible than other typical genres that graced the big screens. However, while Black Panther is probably the most renowned example at the minute, Afrofuturism has historically existed in “subgenres of literature, philosophy, music, fashion, and other aesthetics.” It’s not a genre exclusive to film but rather an umbrella term whose inclusiveness encourages and allows for Black artists and dreamers in different fields to find various forms of expressing their Afrofuturistic ideas.

Image from Jessica Valoris

One interesting example is visual artist Jessica Valoris, whose interactive installation, Phone Home, that “affirms radical self-care and creative courage as tools for personal and collective liberation.” The installation was described by Inverse as a means of using speculative fiction to “encourage people of the African diaspora to phone home.” Another more popular example we’re all familiar with is the rapper, Missy Elliot. Just type it into Google and there are multiple articles and studies on the subject and what she has accomplished for the genre. In her videos, lyrics, and futuristic visuals, she represents a successful example of the genre explored in hip-hop. Elliot has also famously incorporated lots of futuristic fashion looks in her neon colours, materials and accessories, and also her makeup and hairstyles. As explained in this article, her music video for “Sock It 2 Me” expresses the classic Afrofuturistic idea of “a stranger in a strange land,” portraying her as an alien in a spacecraft. More than just creating a catchy tune, Elliot uses visual cues and lyrical metaphors to express the Black experience of overcoming oppression.

Image from Dazed Digital

And she was right to do so. The importance of the genre in today’s climate is clearer than ever. Afrofuturism is a genre that provides a strong platform for representation and encourages creative freedom and imaginative thinking for the Black community and in the media. It challenges conventional and historical media portrayals and incites important conversations about the Black experience. More importantly, it is more than just a genre steeped in the arts, but also a platform for voices and questions, a “political movement,” and even “a feminist movement as it often emphasizes the idea of liberation from oppressive institutions.” As professor of African-American cultural studies Marlo David put it, it “challenges the post-human ideology of an imagined raceless future.” And as Gena-mour Barrett rightly said in her article for the BBC, it “can’t be ignored.”

Lynn Seah
Lynn is a rising Senior at Syracuse University majoring in Advertising with a minor in German. She is currently a Lunch and Learn intern at The Advertising Club of New York and a G.R.O.W.T.H. Initiative Fellow at 100 Roses from Concrete.
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