Afrofuturistic Politics: Less Power, More Commitment



Afrofuturism is commonly conceived as a musical and literary movement; an instrument to empower Black folks facing a country within a white systemic frame with no room for them in its historical narration, past or present. The term, first proposed by Mark Dery in a 1995 conversation with Afro-fiction writers, has built itself a genealogy through music, literature, visual arts, fashion, and other forms. From freak genius Le Sony’r Ra’s musical contribution, Afrofuturism has gradually become a label that tends to cover almost all questioning of the future made by people of color.

When I first met it, I felt renewed. Afrofuturism was this inclusive and abundant, diverse and uninhibited, creative and trans (taken literally as crossing) call for global change! Created by and for those who embody otherness and have been marginalized for centuries, Afrofuturism would cater to those of us unwilling to master or seize, but instead perform the world.

Yet, at a certain point I started having doubts. Was my understanding of it accurate or based on personal expectations? Wasn’t it just an impetus circumscribed around a certain “community” (e.g. Black-America, trend prescribers, or intellectual elite)? What was its impact, in effective, tangible, and political terms, apart from the thrilling hope?

To be honest, I’m still digging on that. But for now, here are a few reasons why I believe Afrofuturism is a key methodology to question,if not redefine, our contemporary world. Because Afrofuturism embraces many alternative narratives instead of one that is single and systemic, there’s an opportunity to experiment with what tomorrow will look like.

The Unexpected Legacy of Sun Ra: Branding as Political Statement ///

Sun Ra is one of the first heartfelt and sophisticated examples of self-branding, making his otherness a strength like no one else had before. Dragged by the early race context, Sun Ra saw in the announced “Space Age” of the 1950s a promise for him and Black fellows to finally escape a country that viewed their lives and expectations as irrelevant. Becoming the Saturnian Archangel descendant of the eponymous Egyptian God, he was on a mission to preach peace. Far from fantasy, not only did he officially register his name change, but also suffered from cryptorchidism, and like the angels, didn’t have a sex. As for his Egyptian alien ascendancy, what were African American folks if not that?

More importantly, his vision would prompt metaphors, bothmythical and mythological, (science-) fictional and religious. These metaphors later became essential to a dynamic highlighting the distinctiveness of Black people, from a historically negative perception to how it could be, from now on, positively performed: “Black folks need a mythocracy, not a democracy,” he said in a 1971 Berkeley lecture entitled “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” And myths are indeed some of the most effective tools for action and change.

Sun Ra & his group recorded over 120 discs and records in 30 years and performed across the United States, but also in Europe, Nigeria, Egypt and Japan. Above all, in 1957, he created El Saturn Research, one of the first US independent music labels. “I had to have something, and that something was creating something that nobody owned but us,” he stated. His use of the growing craze for jazz and Black music as a leverage to share his message thus became a significant game-changer, demonstrating that a person of color could set their own broadcasting channels and produce their own platforms. Whether “purists” like it or not, the legacy of Sun Ra is also to be found nowadays through the use of his myth in advertising patterns. When doomed with poverty porn or exoticism, knowing how to publicize ourselves is also part of cutting loose and overthrowing the shyness, the fear that we, as Black people, wouldn’t be worth a wider, if not massive, attention.

Beyond Blackness, Afrofuturism as a Self-Defined Queer (aesth-)Ethics ///

Proposing an Afrofuturistic vision of the world is everything but daydreaming a fanciful, year-to-come projection. It is instead a matter of critical thinking and long-term developments. It means debates and efforts to create wider inclusive politics on a global scale, beyond genders, races and species. In a 1996 interview, Mark Dery confided “that our inability to conceive of the future in any other than dystopian terms is one sign that we’re moribund as a culture. […] We have to relocate our cultural conversation about the promise of technology in the noisy, dirty here-and-now and begin to build a progressive, pragmatic futurism.” In a conversation I shared with him in 2015, he added: “one of the most useful services Afrofuturism performs is pointing out the debt our Visions of Things to Come owe to all that has been.”

In his book Politiques de l’inimitié (Politics of Hatred, 2016), Achille Mbembe wrote: “[Afrofuturism] states that the very idea of human species is defeated by the experience of the negro, forced through the Slave Trade notably, to assume the attributes of a thing and share the fate of an object. Today, the “background negro” — which updates the “surface negro” without necessarily having a black skin — corresponds to a kind of subordinated humanity which the Capital hardly needs and that seems to be doomed to zoning and expulsion.” Following both ideas, Afrofuturism stands as a “phenomenology of alterity” seeking to inspire an always more mixed and complex assemblage of people and collectives who have decided to quit a fudged game and start their own. 

By hacking historical portraitures, archive footages, stories, and contemporary techs and tools, Afrofuturism invents a more inclusive world. It also provides a new form of ethics; a morale both anchored in the diversion of today’s stifling norms, structures, or institutions and the recall of the past’s traditional and subjective features, including magical realism, in order to reshape the very idea of what “the future” actually stands for.

Alter-Humanism and Healing Politics ? How to Live Together ///

So that’s radical politics, really? It might be; especially at a time when democracy forswears itself in the name of the struggle against its “un-democratic” enemies. When political representatives are given credit for casually explaining why they believe in “a positive racism, without hatred,” or building “great walls ?” When only ten countries were officially free of any conflict at a world scale in 2016 (according to Global Peace Index)? One issue, for starters, might be, and has almost always been, that whatever the proposal, area or time, the idea of a community, and the laws and institutions it induces, rely on “us against them” dynamics, often fostered by a hegemonic greed. Plus, don’t expect everyone to aspire to the same future. So what then? Well, albeit no specific agenda, it’s still strongly believable that communities can build upon other criteria!

Rasheedah Phillips (attorney and funder of the platform The Afrofuturist Affair) once wrote: “Many of us were Afrofuturists long before it had a name. Whether you call it mythology, ghost stories, cosmology, parable, folktale, sci-fi, religious tale, or fantasy, people of color have always contemplated their origins in the same breath that they anticipated the fate of humankind.” Beyond a somehow hackneyed (and historically racist) “humanism,“ Afrofuturism, and other concepts developed by people of color (Creolization, Desidentification, Assemblage…) “rightly understand and foreground the relational nature of our being-in-common — our imperative to acknowledge the various iterations of our (social) difference and the ethical practice of being decent to one another in the face of this diversity” (Kaiama L. Glover). Common good is only to be found through multiplicity, and, if Afrofuturism is to be paradigmatic, it is because it is so inclusive, because it nourishes from always more different and unexpected subjectivities, cultures, cosmologies and languages.

Blurry, some might say. Well, Afrofuturism stands somewhere between performativity and faith: it is both a praxis and a magical formula, a meme and an egregore, a hashtag and a mantra. Thus, afrofuturism expands any static definition: it is the intuition of life being an enchanted journey and its purpose is precisely to re-activate the spell, apart from any sort of coercion.

We stand at a critical moment in this thing called history where we can freeze the moment and recognize our abilities to manipulate the collective timeline for positive change. Creating the future, defining the meaning of the future, and our existence in it, I believe, is the power of Afrofuturism. And so Afrofuturism and the concepts connected to it, must always be here, if we are to be here. And I believe we will be. (Rasheeda Phillips)