By Carnegie Hall
Abridged from the essay by Tony Bolden, Ph.D.
“Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.”
–Ytasha L. Womack
While Afrofuturism has been characterized as a philosophy, a movement, and a cultural aesthetic, among other things, there has been little discussion of the spiritual principles that essentially comprise the conceptual foundation of Afrofuturism in music. Several prominent characteristics associated with Afrofuturism, particularly flight and freedom, are manifestations of a spiritual ethos that shaped Black musicians’ worldviews and approaches to music-making in four centuries.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
–"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
If we think of Afrofuturism as a search for “cosmic liberation” and “possibility in a world meant to destroy any and all forms of Black life,” as Shanté Paradigm Smalls has stated, we can think of the Spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as a precursor. Certainly, the enslaved singers who composed and sang these lyrics (“Swing low, sweet chariot / Coming for to carry me home”) associated flight with freedom and “appropriate[d] images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
The Forerunners: Blues Roots of Afrofuturism
In the first half-century after Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, the spiritual ethos that permeated Black secular music was reflected in blues-based forms. The mid-20th century witnessed the first inklings of Afrofuturism in jazz and rhythm and blues.
Sun Ra’s spiritualism led him to think of music as a powerful energy that can levitate listeners, taking them on sonic voyages to places and spaces of psychological peace and release from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. What distinguished Ra was his reimagination and reinterpretation of this vital component of musicianship, which led him to envision art as a multidimensional expression in multiple periods of time.
He created futuristic sounds, imagery, and symbolism that recalled specific elements of ancient Egyptian mythology, all while conceptualizing music as supersonic flight.
“I and my musicians are musical astronauts. We sail the galaxies through the medium of sound, our audience is with us wherever we go, whether they want to be or not. The audience might want to be earthbound, but we being space bound we bind them to us and thus they cannot resist because the space way is the better way to travel. It keeps going out, and out, and further out than that.”
Ra simultaneously identified with ancient Egypt and considered himself a space traveler. His cosmology was rooted in Black vernacular culture. He transmuted traditional Black folk images into an African American narrative of Egyptology that celebrated flight and freedom in an ontological context later described as Afrofuturism. Yet spirituality remained a common thread in his transition from a conventional big band of swing to a swinging, space-age Arkestra.
Space is the Place (2015) by Sun RaOriginal Source: YouTube
These references demonstrate the connection between Ra’s most famous album Space Is the Place (1973) and his adoption of the Egyptian sun god as his namesake: “Ra left the world to rule the heavens,” and Ra signified metaphysical flight as freedom through his music.
Jimi Hendrix: Blues, Rock, and Afrofuturism
Though few people associate Hendrix with jazz legends like John Coltrane, Sun Ra, or Pharoah Sanders, his blues-based experimentation and his affinity for science fiction dovetailed with jazz giants’ themes and techniques.
As was often the case among stellar blues-oriented musicians, Hendrix was adept at creating tonal illustrations that represented human experiences through the medium of sound. His controversial cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, in 1969, provides a well-known example of this feature of his musicianship. At several points in the song, he simulates the sounds of war, particularly bombs dropping and exploding.
Where jazz musicians generally expressed thoughts and feelings in wordless sound, notwithstanding Sun Ra’s forays into film and poetry, Hendrix demonstrated that it was possible to foreground Afrofuturist sensibilities with imaginative lyrics.
Afrofuturism in the Funk Era
Betty Davis projected an Afrofuturist image in live performances that exemplified her largely southern, blues-based sensibility.
Davis's simultaneous embracing of past and future realms of blackness, which typifies Afrofuturism, also exemplified conceptual elements of funk aesthetics, which tends to delight in commingling contrasts, incongruities, paradoxes, and presumed oppositions, while demonstrating aversions toward simplistic, either/or logic as well as a preference for contrarian or eccentric expression.
Most discussions of Davis highlight her irreverent aesthetic and attitude regarding gender and sexuality. Her songs often describe Black working-class women’s experiences in street culture; and she rarely, if ever, describes space travel as such. But Davis’s space-age outfit, photographed on the cover of her 1974 album They Say I’m Different, represented one component of a broader, theatrical form of visual and musical storytelling that other funk artists embellished into funklore.
“The one thing that I wish was an advantage, but isn’t, is being the first to do something. I made it easier for people like Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan. Hell, I even had a silver space suit ... when Labelle were still in jeans.”
Funk artists’ reactions to longstanding stigmas and taboos attached to race, gender, class, and sexuality distinguished funk from the previous genre of soul. By incorporating theatrical elements, visuals, and technologies, funk artists paved new ground in American musical history. Parliament-Funkadelic experimented more extensively with Afrofuturism than any other funk collectives.
Parliament-Funkadelic's Mothership (2016) by FuzheadoOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons
The most obvious example of the collective’s use of technology involved the proverbial Mothership, that is, an actual spaceship that landed onstage during live performances.
But on a more basic level, the Mothership was blues-oriented satire akin to the great comedian Moms Mabley’s criticisms of misogyny. Since Black folk were marginalized in American society, Clinton figured that he would fly them to outer space. And the comical thing is that Black people weren’t supposed to exist in space. Popular culture created the impression that space was for white people only.
The Mothership symbolized an extraterrestrial atmosphere where Black folk could be themselves regardless and reclaim their blackness in the context of an integrated society. Modeled after the sci-fi television series Star Trek, the Mothership was commandeered by Dr. Funkenstein (George Clinton) and the Children of Production, especially “Star Child.” Clinton’s Afrofuturist funk was strikingly similar to Sun Ra’s cosmology. Both artists reflect “backward and forward” visions of Black agency.
Parliament-Funkadelic Prelude (1993) by Parliament-FunkadelicOriginal Source: YouTube
Just as Ra characterized his band members as “musical astronauts” who “sail the galaxies through the medium of sound,” Clinton’s mock-sermon on funk history in Parliament’s “Prelude” (1976) referenced ancient “Afronauts” who once “funkatiz[ed] galaxies.”
But since humans weren’t appreciative of the Funk’s virtues, it was “repossessed” and posited into Egyptian pyramids. But while Ra interpreted Black vernacular concepts in Egyptian symbolism, Clinton framed Egypt as a philosophical symbol that merged past and future into then-current, vernacular styles that reflected the concept of funk.
Afrofuturism as Neo-Funk Aesthetics
Parliament-Funkadelic became the default model for Afrofuturism in Black popular culture, inspiring such artists as Erykah Badu and OutKast, who reflected Afrofuturism in the 1990s, which in turn set the stage for Janelle Monáe and other artists who emerged in the 21st century.
Badu’s Afrofuturist vision exemplifies a Black womanist spiritual ethos: “bout ta give birth to church.” As an unapologetically Afrocentric preacher-poet-singer-thinker, Badu locates beauty in Black lingo and bodily adornment (e.g., gold teeth). Equally important, her identification with the Black past is evident in her music.
Rim Shot (Intro) (1997) by Erykah BaduOriginal Source: YouTube
On “Rimshot,” Badu’s first track on Erykah Badu Live (1997), the sixty-second intro is Miles Davis’s riff-chorus from his composition “So What,” which is the first track on his iconic album Kind Of Blue (1959), featuring Paul Chambers’s classic bass line on double bass.
Badu exemplifies the Afrofuturist question of “what if” through a Black woman’s lens. Having grown up in the post-civil rights era, when economic opportunities are increasingly scarce for Black people, she balances a near-dystopian reality with hope imbued in womanist-centered, Afrocentric spirituality.
For Badu, art, religion, womanism, morality, maternity, Afrocentricity, eccentricity, ecology, Black history, speculative fiction, and fantasy all seem interconnected. “The pattern I see,” she says, “is the return of balance through femininity, through the mother, through the womb. The universe comes out of a wombiverse.” In Badu’s songwriting, water symbolizes birth, life, resilience, and/or the lack thereof.
Janelle Monáe: Intersectional Afrofuturism
Like Badu, Monáe developed her concept of Afrofuturism in relation to funk. In fact, on the website for Wondaland Arts Society, the Atlanta-based collective that Monáe cofounded, the opening statement reads: “We survive on Funk.”
Shortly thereafter, the following statement appears: “We believe songs are spaceships. We believe music is the weapon of the future.”
Monáe’s queer politics and her brilliant use of sci-fi films as a primary touchstone distinguish her from other Afrofuturists. Essentially, she elaborated on theatrical aspects in funk aesthetics and used the technology of film to represent the multifaceted nature of human and non-human lifeforms in an unprecedented manner, all while centering music as a form of storytelling.
Janelle Monáe - Tightrope [feat. Big Boi] (Video) (2010) by Janelle MonáeOriginal Source: YouTube
On a basic level, Monáe’s “Tightrope” video criticizes false justifications used to define social groups as less moral, less intelligent, less beautiful, and ultimately less valuable.
“[Afrofuturism] looks backward and forward in seeking to provide insights about identity, one that asks what was and what if.”
Once these definitions are established, discriminatory practices based on race, gender, class, creed, and/or sexual orientation become increasingly normalized—this is Monáe’s premise in a nutshell.
In light of Alondra Nelson’s statement that Afrofuturism also “looks backward,” let’s look briefly at elements of Monáe’s style that precede the funk era.
Janelle Monáe (2010) by Joe MabelOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ytasha L. Womack describes her signature hairstyle as “a coiffed 1950s pompadour,” and her Black-and-white tuxedo has been the subject of many discussions.
But her most direct connection to African past is her incredible dancing. In the past half-century, only Tina Turner rivals Monáe’s excellence in vernacular-style dancing among women. She slides fluidly on one foot like James Brown, performs the famous moonwalk like Bill Bailey, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and, of course, Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop.” Indeed, the rolodex of her dance moves include nods to blues artists like Muddy Waters and Black dancers who performed in Vaudeville.
In her “Tightrope” video, Monáe literally performs the song’s metaphor: that for Black folk, navigating through life in a world of “haters” requires so much psychological balance and emotional resilience that the immense challenges are like “tip[ping] on [a] tightrope.” Thus she urges listeners: “keep getting funky on the scene.”
Afrofuturism has become increasingly meaningful to many writers, scholars, visual artists, and musicians. And while this is especially true for Black artists and intellectuals, it is also true for critical thinkers who are not African Americans themselves.
Tony Bolden, Ph.D. is a Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. His teaching and research interests include a broad spectrum of topics related to artistic expression in the African Diaspora, especially Black music and literature. His books include, Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture and Groove Theory: The Blues Foundation of Funk. Bolden continues to publish articles on Black writing and politics. He is also Editor of The Langston Hughes Review, and his current projects include a monograph on Black writing as well as a collection of autobiographical essays.