Afrofuturism: Past Meets Future

Afrofuturism. An oxymoron to much of the Western world and to forward thinkers, an idea ahead of its time. Jasmin Hoek explores this 1970s aesthetic through the music of a culture whose voice has long been marginalized.

Afro music has found its way to many modern left-field selectors and music lovers of late, supplying inspiration to producers in different genres and giving a unique flair to their productions. Cultural Vibe’s “Ma Foom Bey” was all the rage these past two summers, popping up in different DJ sets at a variety of festivals. Released on Easy Street Records back in 1986, the Youtube comments on multiple uploads of this Afro track are filled with listeners stating their amazement at how modern this track sounds for its time. “Ma Foom Bey” is a perfect example of the Afrofuturistic sound. However, Afrofuturism is more than just a sound or style as it brings along with it a certain ideology.

This ideology dates back to the days of black oppression, a recurring theme in many music genres, such as soul and disco, two popular styles that laid the cornerstone for electronic music as we know it today. Afrofuturism served as a form of resistance against the idea that everything futuristic and modern is white, or even black. To challenge this notion, black people produced all sorts of artifacts that had a futuristic feel to it, which often led to the movement being linked to science fiction. These Afrofuturistic artifacts are woven into the cultural fabric of the African diaspora; from literary works to music, from art to science and philosophy. In music, Afrofuturism is a vague and widely ranging term encompassing more “human” genres such as R&B and hip hop, to the post-human sounds of techno.

What makes Afrofuturism so fascinating is exactly this clash of the human vs. non-human approach; the embodied vs. disembodied blackness. In other words, it both places itself within black culture while breaking loose of its boundaries at the same time. Afrofuturistic music is recognizable by its black music influences, where soul, jazz, or even African percussion tracks are fused with experimental and futuristic hardware produced sounds. The references both retrace the steps to a cultural past while propelling towards a technology-filled present and future, bringing with it an escapist imagery; a wish to travel either back or forward in time to escape the burdens of the present.

Afrofuturism’s myriad faces manifest themselves in surprising ways. One may find established Afrofuturist artists like Sun Ra, Afrika Bambaataa, more contemporary experimental artists like Tony Allen and Ata Kak, and pop-sounding artists like Flying Lotus and Erykah Badu falling under the same umbrella of this movement. Even pioneering techno producers like Juan Atkins and Jeff Mills have also been regarded as Afrofuturistic. Jeff Mills’ album Every Dog Has Its Day, released under the alias of Millsart back in 2000, was heavily infused with African references that accompanied his signature drum computer productions.

The post/non-human sound of techno often makes it harder to trace back its “black roots”, so it shouldn’t be surprising after all that it is an Afrofuturist genre in itself – the embodiment of modern, futuristic technology that serves to transcend cultural boundaries.

The combination of Afro music with alien-like computer sounds is much more discernible in the works of Flying Lotus and an artist named Ras G who has released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Ras G samples a lot of African records, his culture and heritage often reflected in his song titles. He combines these with extraterrestrial electronic beats. This fusion comes together as intense yet dreamy electronic hip hop tracks, a attribute found in the works of Flying Lotus himself; except that in Ras G’s work, much more emphasis was placed on his Afro heritage. This aesthetic quality shines through as well in the visual art Ras G creates, where tribal African iconography meets space robot from the future.

Ethiopiyawi Electronic – a style coined by Mikael Seifu, an Ethiopian electronic music producer, to describe the music produced by him and his peers in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis-Ababa. Seifu’s Bandcamp description reads: “Mikael’s [sic] music does not westernize or electronicize extant Ethiopian music. Instead, Seifu uses Ethio-Jazz’s spirit of brewing estranged styles for his own musical tincturing.” While not subscribing to any Western ideas of electronic music in general, Seifu’s music does share some similarities with dub techno. As can be inferred from the artist description above, Seifu appears to publicly reject any allusions of his music to Western music and that in itself could be construed as an Afrofuturistic statement. That aside, his music is associated with Afrofuturism through the very sound it makes, even though this might not necessarily be the result of an obvious clash between his African heritage and modern computer generated sounds, as is the case with much music of this genre. Ethiopiyawi Electronic stands alone as a modern sound by its own merit.

In contrast to Seifu, Owiny Sigoma Band describes itself as a musical clash between Kenya and London. The five-man band – three british guys and two others from Luo, an ethnic group in West Kenya – mix traditional Luo instruments with electronics in their productions, creating a typical Afrofuturistic sound. The band’s approach is said to be experimental and boundary-breaking on both sides while retaining the Kenyan vibes of the environment in which their album was recorded.

Presenting a far more “human” sound than the aforementioned artists is singer Sassyblack. Her self-produced works of electronic psychedelic soul or hologram funk is more easily defined by the presence of her warm soulful vocals set against some surprising, obscure and almost ambient electronic sounds. Her outspoken self-penned lyrics are smart and painfully honest, touching on, among other issues, the struggles she faces as a black woman.

Foreshadowed by his nomad-like childhood growing up in nightclubs, the dark nomadic style of Chicago’s Jamal Moss – better known as Hieroglyphic Being – makes perfect sense. Moss’ eccentric sense of style manifests itself beyond his music right down to his appearance, identified by his never-ending dreadlocks. The musician and one-time gigolo gathered bits and pieces of his temporary environments along the way and put them all together into his own signature style. Often times, his live sets and experimental productions project a certain vibe that’s unfamiliar to most of us, one that evokes a nostalgic memory of a different time and place. Moss grew up in Chicago’s underground house scene with names like Adonis and Steve Pointdexter, the latter of whom kickstarted Moss’s career.  Heavily infused with upbeat Afro rhythm and percussion, his music, though usually placed under the category of techno, is everything but techno in its purest form. While playing his DJ-sets he will even throw in some blues, jazz or noise. Moss’ unique sound and open candor on the struggle of poor African Americans make him a key figure of modern-day Afrofuturism.

Several techno producers regarded as Afrofuturists have achieved legendary status in today’s electronic music and clubbing scene. This does not necessarily negate their contributions to Afrofuturism, however. Melvin Oliphant III a.k.a Traxx is very outspoken on this subject. He is not the first of the house/techno legends to speak out on what is wrong with the current DJ scene. While his mixing style is not one of seamless transitions, such a style was never his objective as a DJ. Traxx wants return to the old-school way of mixing, one that brings the emotion back into DJing. He puts this philosophy to practice in both his own productions and releases under Nation, Traxx’s own label. Embracing technology from the past, Nation issues only limited vinyl with no repress, just like the old days. Perhaps the resistance to new technology displayed by Traxx and other contemporary artists alike can be seen as a new and different form of Afrofuturism, where cultural struggles are played out in the artists’ stylistic choices and their proclivity to a more organic way of doing things.

If one of the intentions of early Afrofuturists had been to present an image of the future that broke free from the limits of their time, the fact that some of these timeless sounds and productions are back in our consciousness decades later as today’s favorite tracks is perhaps one of the highest form of acknowledgement that they have fulfilled their aesthetic potentialities, for the utopian and dystopian futures that these artists had at one time envisioned for their own generation is now being lived and breathed by the generation of their children. Today, the movement is still as relevant as the ethnic struggles back then that lay at its roots, but just like these struggles, it might not always be that obvious.