Afrofuturism in Black Music
The term Afrofuturism invokes writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Samuel Delany, Ytasha L. Womack, Ishmael Reed, and Mark Dery who coined the term in 1992. Even the great Zora Neale Hurston has been described as an Afrofuturist. And when the focus shifts to Black music, the following names often appear: Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, Grace Jones, OutKast, Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, and Janelle Monáe. But 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. It’s widely known that Sun Ra projected values, viewpoints, and images that we conceptualize as Afrofuturism before the term became operative. But the spiritual metaphysics that gave rise to Afrofuturist characteristics are seldom discussed. Spotlighting the spiritual ethos in Black music will reveal that Ra wasn’t as anomalous as many writers have suggested.
The question, then, is what is Afrofuturism? In Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, she raises and answers this question:
“Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.”Ytasha L. Womack
Similarly, Alondra Nelson, a pioneering scholar of Afrofuturism, characterized it as Black creativity with “other stories to tell about culture, technology and things to come.” And Dery has stated that Afrofuturism involves “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” Interestingly enough, these definitions take us back to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot:”
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Naturally, it’s counterintuitive to imagine spiritual songs in conjunction with Afrofuturism. But 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.” Indeed, they sang these words long before Orville and Wilbur Wright flew in the world’s first powered aircraft. Yet it’s equally important to understand that the song’s futuristic impulse is part and parcel of its liberationist impulse. The living hell of their horrific experiences created such a strong compulsion to seek freedom that singers imagined technology that didn’t exist: a flying chariot commanded, no less, by the Holy Spirit that transported them to a glorious heaven they called “home.”
Of course, it goes without saying that the sound quality and historical circumstances in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are far different from, say, Janelle Monáe’s hit single “Tightrope” (2013). Yet these songs share a common referent of alienation and propose parallel responses to it. Historically, Black musicians have often expressed fascination with otherworldly existence, and the eccentric sensibilities associated with that expression were related to an underlying spiritual impulse that began with the Ring Shout. This 19th-century religious dance was performed by a group shuffling in a counterclockwise circle. Often described as an ecstatic dance, the Shout was as transcendent as Monáe’s singing and dance moves are “elevating.” In the center of the circle, dancers manifested the Holy Spirit through uncontrollable yet rhythmically eloquent movements.
From a conceptual standpoint, then, catching the Holy Spirit is a foundational principle that informed Afrofuturist visions Black musicians have projected in the late 20th and early 21st-centuries. Such imagery and logic were so deeply ingrained in African American culture that Elijah Muhammad, who began leading the Nation of Islam in 1934, preached about “The Mother Plane” based on the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Wheel.
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 1948 home recording “Deep Purple” included notes that later became associated with extraterrestrial signals. A few years later, in 1952, he organized a small band, the Space Trio, which became the foundation for his Arkestra, a larger band he created in 1953, modeled on swing bands, such as those of Fletcher Henderson, who inspired and mentored Ra as a young musician. But even in his remembrance of Henderson’s musicianship, Ra underscored spirituality. “Fletcher was part of an angelic thing,” he said. “A lot of things that some men do…come from somewhere else, or they’re inspired by something that’s not of this planet.” While some might attribute Ra’s comments to mere adulation, they actually reflect a mental process or conceptual approach to music-making.
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. Amiri Baraka emphasized this point in his 1966 essay “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music),” in which he referenced Ra as an exemplary artist among other blues-oriented musicians who created “[a]n energy that take[s]…everybody…on a trip. That is, they visit another place.” So, Ra wasn’t unique in this respect. For instance, rhythm and blues saxophone Big Jay McNeely, whose first hit was his 1949 song “Deacon’s Hop,” was known for his trance-inducing, honking sound. McNeely is captured in a classic photo, playing his horn onstage while lying flat on his back, electrifying audiences, and extending solos for forty-five minutes. Likewise, the great rhythm and blues artist Little Richard was the grandson of a Pentecostal preacher who became famous for his outrageous, high-energy performances the 1950s. 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.”Sun Ra
Again, we find freedom and flight, and it’s not surprising that Ra once stated: “Ra is my spirit name.” But Ra’s spiritual vision was aligned with early Black thinkers such as David Walker who, in 1829, envisioned ancient Egypt as a philosophical alternative to white America’s reliance on Eurocentric values. In fact, Kemet, the Egyptians’ name for Egypt, literally means “Black land.” And while scholars disagree on whether the term referenced the people or color of the soil, Ra studied and embraced its religious principles and cultural iconography and symbolism such as the ankh, a cross that signifies eternal life, and that predates the Christian cross by thousands of years. In this way, Sun Ra’s spiritual ethos typifies Alondra Nelson’s statement that:
“[Afrofuturism] looks backward and forward in seeking to provide insights about identity, one that asks what was and what if.”Alondra NelsonAuthor
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. Religious overtones are unmistakable in song titles he selected in 1957: “Call For All Demons,” “Transition,” and “Possession.” By 1962, Ra’s imagery was prototypically Afrofuturist in such compositions as “Where Is Tomorrow,” “Jet Flight,” and “Space Jazz Reverie,” but the foundation was clearly spiritual. 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. Ra’s futuristic sound aesthetic, resulting from his experimentations with group improvisation, led him to pioneer the use of electronic instruments, such as the electronic piano, synthesizer, clavioline, and celeste, which is best illustrated on Space Is the Place.
Meanwhile, rhythm and blues musicians also projected Afrofuturist images in the mid-twentieth century. An important figure is Johnny Guitar Watson who prefigured Jimi Hendrix’s musical and thematic experiments. In Watson’s 1954 song “Space Guitar,” some of the phrasings simulate sounds that popular culture, especially sci-fi films, associated with space travel at that time. Implicit here is a mothership or mother plane, and it’s worth noting that both Hendrix and George Clinton, whose early musical performances were rhythm and blues, later elaborated on Watson’s theme. Another artist who deserves mention is Ray Charles who is primarily known for his innovations in rhythm and blues. But he also played jazz and recorded with some of the most respected instrumentalists in the idiom. Especially notable are his two albums, Soul Brothers (1958) and Soul Meeting (1961) that he recorded with vibraphonist Milt Jackson who is largely forgotten today, but was widely respected by musicians, as evidenced by his collaborations with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and many others. On Charles and Jackson’s Soul Brothers, Charles contributed his composition titled “Cosmic Ray.” Unlike Watson’s “Space Guitar,” there are no sonic allusions to outer space. But significantly, Ray interpreted the meaning of “cosmic” in terms of gutbucket blues sounds and sensations.
Themes of flight, freedom, and spirituality continued to appear in blues-oriented music in the following decades. The most noteworthy example is the aforementioned jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. In 1965, he recorded two suites, Ascension and Sun Ship that are jazz versions of Afrofuturism. Coltrane seldom made public statements on social topics, and he certainly didn’t project an Afrofuturist persona on stage. His usual habit of wearing suits was decidedly conventional from a visual standpoint. But for jazz musicians—whether they played “hot” dance music in the 1920s or avant-garde music in the 1960s—the meaning of music was its sound. And Ascension (1966) is arguably a tonal painting of his search for spiritual elevation amidst the racial turmoil of the mid-1960s when Watts, Detroit, Newark, and other cities erupted in rebellions across the nation. The second album Sun Ship wasn’t released until 1971, but it clearly accentuated his Afrofuturist motif. That tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who played on Ascension, composed “Astral Traveling” (1971) suggests Coltrane’s and Ra’s influence. The song title and sound exude a reconceptualization of the goose-pimple sensations and resulting metaphysical levitations that Black folk had venerated for generations in religious settings.
Jimi Hendrix: Blues, Rock, and Afrofuturism
Jimi Hendrix was a pivotal figure in the history of Afrofuturism in Black music. Most writers categorize him as a rock musician. But Hendrix not only once jammed with jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who’s known for playing as many as five instruments at once. He also influenced the likes of Miles Davis, the legendary Black trumpeter and composer who was regarded as an innovator in four decades—from the 1940s through the 1970s. Davis cited Hendrix as an influence on his groundbreaking jazz-rock album Bitches Brew (1969). 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. The late Black feminist writer Ntozake Shange underscores this point when she quotes Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower:” “…not only will the lord find a way/but there is a way outta here.” This is the litany from the spirituals to Jimi Hendrix, ‘there must be some kinda way outta here.’
Hendrix’s search is evident in his song “Third Stone from The Sun” (1967), which displays his innovative approach to the guitar and his imaginative storytelling as a songwriter. 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. Whereas Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s sonic effects in “Space Guitar” coincided with sounds in 1950s sci-films, Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock is considered a classic anthem against the Vietnam War. At several points in the song, he simulates the sounds of war, particularly bombs dropping and exploding. Hendrix used this same mode of tonal signification to illustrate his interest in science fiction in his 1967 song “Third Stone from The Sun,” a titular reference to Earth’s astronomical position to the Sun.
But in contrast to Hendrix’s rather noticeable social commentary at Woodstock, his critique in “Third Stone from The Sun” is subtle. Paralleling Sun Ra and Coltrane, the song tells the story of an extraterrestrial astronaut who travels to Earth in a spaceship. Hendrix uses spoken word and feedback to improvise a plausible, sonic representation of an alien’s voice in the midst of traveling through space. The band even creates the effect of the spaceship landing when Hendrix, Mitchell, and Redding hit a chord comprised of descending notes. The song criticizes superficiality, and questions whether humans are truly an intelligent lifeform. Though the alien acknowledges the greenery and beauty of the land, human life and our social institutions leave much to be desired. Thus, the song ends on an ominous note: humans “will never hear surf music again.”
Afrofuturism in the Funk Era
Hendrix’s influence among funk artists was extensive. That Betty Davis, Chaka Khan, George Clinton, and Bootsy Collins expressed admiration for Hendrix, provides some semblance of his impact. Davis prefigured Megan Thee Stallion’s aesthetic. Khan is known as the Queen of Funk. Clinton led the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, and Collins cut his teeth playing with James Brown and later joined P-Funk, mesmerizing audiences with his uniquely designed “space bass.” Hendrix was therefore a rare musician who received great respect from musicians who played jazz, rock, blues, and rhythm and blues. 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. And he accentuated the effect by developing a distinctive form of theatricality based on styles pioneered by guitarist T-Bone Walker, which became common features of blues performances during Hendrix’s apprenticeship playing the Chitlin’ Circuit. Hendrix’s audiences witnessed fluid, vernacular, dance gestures performed in androgenous, rock-inflected outfits that showcased a contrarian spirit of total rebellion.
Funk artists elaborated on Hendrix’s model in the 1970s. Davis, LaBelle, Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire and other artists showcased elements of Afrofuturism during this period. Women songwriters played an invaluable role. Francesca Royster has discussed Nona Hendryx’s work in her analysis of LaBelle, but Davis’s contributions to Afrofuturism have been largely ignored. Part of the difficulty is that her songwriting doesn’t highlight such themes. Rather, Betty Davis projected an Afrofuturist image in live performances that exemplified her largely southern, blues-based sensibility. Recall Ray Charles’s expression of gutbucket blues in “Cosmic Ray.” Thus, Davis remarked, “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.”
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. Even the word “funk” signifies good (e.g., artistic excellence) and bad (e.g. foul smell), depending on its context. 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 again, 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—what George Clinton calls funk operas.
Yet women funk artists interpreted Afrofuturism in noticeably gendered and sexual terms. Whereas racial codes of femininity normalized repression and stigmatized Black women’s sensuality, the funk aesthetic foregrounded non-conformity. The sexual implications were unmistakable. Observe Patti LaBelle’s recollection: “When I came out during “Space Children,” just standing there, the way [the audience] made me feel—that’s an orgasm, to see people accept you right away.” As LaBelle suggests, Afrofuturism in funk expressed a broader, contrarian attitude toward conventionality, particularly stereotypes about Black culture and criteria that devalued it.
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. For Davis, using technology imaginatively as a blues-oriented thinker involved conceptualizing her voice as a “projector,” that is, a musical instrument. For LaBelle, it meant using glam-rock outfits with space-travel imagery and performing songs like Hendryx’s “Space Children” expressed funk-inflected values such as love, harmony, and balance, which is evident when the narrator proclaims: “Space children, universal lovers.”
That Parliament-Funkadelic covered “Space Children” in live performances indicates LaBelle’s impact. Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk) experimented more extensively with Afrofuturism than any other funk collectives. Only Sun Ra and perhaps Janelle Monáe exceed the depth, output, and overall contribution that Parliament-Funkadelic made to Afrofuturism in music. 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. But 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.” And the flight or “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” represented a quasi-religious experience that the late composer and musicologist Olly Wilson called an “altered state of consciousness.” In fact, the hook (“Swing down sweet chariot, stop and let me ride”) alludes to refrain in the Spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The “‘Mothership Connection,’” writes journalist Chardine Taylor-Stone, “brought [Black people] the holy Funk (the source of life) so they could make the journey to their true home in outer space” where such values as peace, harmony, and balance are normalized.
Taylor-Stone’s reference to “home in outer space” is a great example of Baraka’s statement that stellar Black musicians create “[a]n energy that take[s]…everybody…on a trip. That is, they visit another place.” And the fact that the Funk was visually signified through dancing represented an alternative worldview that affirmed cultural values that permeated Black working-class environments. P-Funk’s music reflected the aesthetics of the people’s experiences. For instance, “Flash Light” describes the epic battle between Star Child and Nose D’Voidoffunk, a symbolic character whose steadfast refusal to dance satirized white cultural standards and Black people who blindly adhered to them.
Clinton’s Afrofuturist funk was strikingly similar to Sun Ra’s cosmology. Both artists reflect “backward and forward” visions of Black agency. 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. In “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” for instance, the futuristic narrator Star Child proclaims his intention to “reclaim the pyramids,” while manifesting the Funk in “3D” by doing “the loose booty” and other dances.
Afrofuturism as Neo-Funk Aesthetics
Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk) 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 has characterized herself as a “neo-funk” artist, and OutKast, the rap duo of André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, modernized funk aesthetics while elaborating on P-Funk’s alienation motif. And both Badu and OutKast have updated P-Funk’s model of the concept album (e.g., Mothership Connection, Funkelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, and The Motor Booty Affair) to explore Afrofuturism. In Badu’s case, notable examples include New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (“Window Seat”) released in 2008 and 2010, respectively. For OutKast, the second album ATLiens (1996) is unmistakably Afrofuturist.
Badu’s and OutKast’s musical ventures are as firmly anchored to old-school vernacular principles as Jimi Hendrix’s blues-inflected blast off into the stratosphere on “Third Stone from The Sun.” It’s been widely reported that Badu’s name (she was born Erica Abi Wright) was inspired by her favorite sound of scat-singing, and that the spelling of her first name is based on the Egyptian concept “ka” or “kah,” which means the essence of life. That Badu’s narrator in “…And On” identifies as a “flower girl” recalls Hendrix’s and P-Funk’s anti-war, hippie sensibilities. On the other hand, her “rasta style” is an ode to Bob Marley and reflects her African diasporic vision.
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. For instance, on “Rimshot,” the 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.
Benjamin and Patton (OutKast) are also ultimate crate diggers. Their song “Players Ball,” from their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), reprises the Ohio Players’ 1972 recording “Players Balling (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing).” Additionally, OutKast’s collaboration with producers Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade, and Ray Murray, better known as Organized Noize, played a major role in creating the duo’s southern-flavored sound quality. Brown’s father is singer, saxophonist, and flutist Jimmy Brown who was known for his falsetto as a member of Brick, the Atlanta-based funk band. Sleepy Brown’s high falsetto on “Player’s Ball” extends this approach by noted funk singers like Curtis Mayfield, Philip Bailey, Garry Shider, and, of course, Jimmy Brown among others. The ethnomusicologist Fredara Mareva Hadley drives this point home when she writes: “With lyrical influences and abundant samples, funk is the midwife of hip-hop. OutKast placed themselves directly in Parliament’s musical lineage when they collaborated with George Clinton in 1998 on their woozy and bass-heavy electrofunk song “Synthesizer” from their third album Aquemini.”
In this light, we can appreciate hip-hop journalist Charlie Braxton’s suggestion that OutKast is among Dr. Funkenstein’s Children of Production. Just as the narrator in “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)” greets listeners aboard Mothership (“Good evening”), announcing that he’s broadcasting from “W-E-F-U-N-K” radio, i.e., “the Mothership Connection,” so OutKast’s song “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)” opens with extraterrestrial signals that recall Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Space Guitar” nearly a half-century earlier: “Greetings earthlings.” Braxton provides key insight here.
“Ditching Parliament’s spaceship for a pimped-out intergalactic Cadillac, OutKast invited their kinfolk to planet ATL, a place where fans of southern hip-hop could be themselves without shame…”Charlie BraxtonAuthor
Several writers have pointed out that “ATLiens” addresses what W. E. B. Du Bois called the double-consciousness in Black people’s worldviews: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Similarly, André 3000 asks whether Black parents and children can avoid the “nigga syndrome” that results in loathing and intolerance from virtually all quarters of American society. But “ATLiens” also addressed alienation as a southern artist within hip-hop. He says, “They alienate us cause we different.”
The young artist’s statement harkens back to the Source Awards in 1995 when they were “reject[ed] by New York’s ‘hip-hop’ purists.” Benjamin said, “The South got something to say.” Indeed, part of the message in “ATLiens” is spiritual. He says that “God” “speak[s] through” the rap duo and rhymes that OutKast feels compelled to be “sincere with this here.” Incidentally, Benjamin’s meaning of “sincere” is identical with the core meaning of “funk:” utmost emotional sincerity. And in the context of his storytelling, sincerity meant abstaining from intoxicants to “get [God’s] signal clear.” His phrase reflects considerable self-consciousness, particularly the capacity to question norms and the extent to which our actions reflect such influenced. Like blues artists before him, Benjamin’s verse tells a story of how he confronted his contradiction: the artist curtailed his use of guns because his spirituality constitutes a “stronger” and more resourceful “weapon.”
By contrast, 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. She alludes to “the mothership” in her song “On & On” (1997), but in the next breath she sings, “it “can’t save you.” 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. The narrator in “On & On” (1997) “was born under water.”
The music video for “Didn’t Cha Know,” appears on her album Mama’s Gun (2000), shows contrasting imagery. The opening scene shows an expanse of cracked, arid, sunbaked soil with a flashing yellow light in the distance. The historical and geographical settings remain unclear. Is this post-apocalyptic earth or the beginning of life on a new planet? Badu’s Egyptian-styled space suit accentuates the ambiguity that parallels the story in the song. Reminiscent of blues singers who sang about predicaments that precluded indecision, Badu’s narrator has reached a crossroads. But unlike Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Road Blues,” wherein the narrator begs God for “mercy,” presumably for sinning and singing blues, Badu’s first-person narrator confesses our collective experience of confusion in this land: “trying to decide which way to go/Think I made a wrong turn back there.” This theme of indecision at the crossroads recurs throughout the song, and Badu resolves the conflict in the outro when she asserts the blues-tinged principle of resilience and rebirth. Equating life and love, Badu sings, “Free you mind and find your way,” which invokes Funkadelic’s album Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow (1970). In the video, Badu is heard singing this line while she emerges with her naked body from the depths of a water hole that is itself suggestive of a birth canal.
That Badu described her 2015 mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone as “a whole new frequency for the planet” seems quite fitting. But this statement characterizes her connection to Afrofuturism generally. For instance, the cover art for New Amerykah Part Two features a futuristic, lavender image of Badu with various types of flowers connected to her body, invoking her earlier “flower girl” self-description. However, her cranium is open, and the fact that part of her brain appears to be a tree arguably speaks simultaneously to her concern for the planet and our connection to it as humans. Oddly enough, Badu’s ecological fantasy analogizes the emphasis on harmony and balance in funk aesthetics, not to mention the power of funk music itself. According to Clinton, the “One” creates such energy that oppositions of social constructs (e.g., race, gender, sexuality) tend to resolve for fleeting moments because “we’re all together as one. A lifeform. I’m for you and you for me; we for trees and we for the planet.”
Janelle Monáe: Intersectional Afrofuturism
Among major recording artists, Badu’s collaboration with Janelle Monáe in her song “Q.U.E.E.N” points to a generational transition toward embracing and celebrating queer sexuality in Afrofuturism. “Being a queer Black woman in America,” she says, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women—I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” An indication of which is Monáe’s 2018 “PYNK” video, which she describes as a “celebration of creation, self-love, (sic) sexuality and pussy power.” Nonetheless, “Q.U.E.E.N.” remains an important index to her intersectional view of Afrofuturism. Included on her 2013 album The Electric Lady, the song’s title is an acronym for the following marginalized groups: queer people, untouchables, emigrants, excommunicated, Negroid. And as Monáe demonstrates, all these words cohere with the meaning of “freak.” “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?” she sings. Badu’s genius is that she inverted the denigrating term into an emblem of (Black) feminist respect: Q.U.E.E.N. Ytasha L. Womack might as well have specified Monáe when she said Afrofuturism involves “speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.” Chief among which is the narrow-minded, zero-sum, either-or logic that informs capitalism’s social constructions of gender and sexuality. Monáe visually projects alternatives through her both/and sensibility reflected in her androgenous image. In the “Q.U.E.E.N” video, Monáe wears her signature tuxedo with a pair of heels. Her pompadour hairstyle recalls pre-1968 photographs of the Godfather of Soul a.k.a. James Brown. The uniform reflects her own experiences and those of her family members as part of their economic survival. Monáe worked as a maid; her mother worked as a janitor; her stepfather worked a postal worker; and her father worked as a trash collector. They all wore uniforms.
Like Badu, and OutKast (Patton, who is credited with discovering her), 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.”
As with Clinton’s Dr. Funkenstein, Monáe’s songs revolve around her alter ego, Cindy Mayweather, an android from the year 2719. But 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. Where Clinton used Star Trek as a touchstone to highlight vernacular aesthetics in an age-old conflict concerning class divisions among African Americans, and where OutKast starred in the 2008 musical Idlewild to showcase their dirty-South aesthetic, Monáe’s approach to the sci-fi film genre is comparable to a musician’s discovery of a new instrument. It opens new realms of representation and artistic possibilities. She created the term “emotion picture” to reference her short films and videos that accompany her albums.
Monáe introduced her alter ego on her EP Metropolis (2008), which was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction film Metropolis. Then she developed the character in the two concept albums that followed The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013). The latter evokes Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 album Electric Ladyland and Electric Lady Studios, the recording studio he commissioned. But for Monáe, Cindi represents the future:
“It’ll happen—there’ll be a point where the android’s brain will have mapped out that of a human’s, and their knowledge will have surpassed that of ours. And we won’t be able to differentiate the speaking voice of an android from an actual human’s. I do believe that that will be true, because of the rapid speed of technology and nanotechnology advancing...I know that we will live in this world.”Janelle Monáe
Monáe’s futuristic vision coincides with—and may actually require—the medium of film to represent effectively. Even the sound of Monáe’s music has been described as “a sci-fi cinema soundtrack.” Yet there are parallels with Clinton’s funk operas. Just as the funkmaster converted the sci-fi dichotomy (i.e., human/good versus non-human/evil) into allegories of funk (wherein Dr. Funkenstein and his crew extolled previously demeaned values as positive or good), Monáe created Cindi as a symbolic figure whose exploitation and alienation invoke ongoing forms of margination in present-day America.
Interestingly enough, listeners learn much about Cindi from liner notes included on compact discs for The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady. Of course, liner notes are yet another page from the past. Record companies used them to introduce jazz musicians and their compositions on albums in the 1950s and 1960s. But Monáe’s versions are miniature short stories: fictional accounts written in letter-format by a fictional author named Max Stellings. As Vice Chancellor at the Palace of the Dogs Arts Asylum, Stellings reveals that Monáe is Patient #57821 at the asylum. “Dear Listener,” he begins. Then he tells the dystopian story of Metropolis. We learn that the patient Monáe is the genius behind the beautiful songs and imagery on the banned albums; that she has been “snatched,” “genoraped,” and “sold illegally to the highest bidder on a body farm;” that her DNA was stolen; that she was “forced into a time tunnel and sent back to our era;” and that her DNA was used to create the android Cindi Mayweather who lives in 2719 and creates a new form of music called cybersoul. She accordingly achieves rock-star status and becomes the leader of a rebellious, android movement. As such, Cindi is the Arch Android. Her ultimate transgression, though, is her forbidden love affair with Anthony Greendown, a human. And quite naturally, Cindi’s story of forbidden love between an android and a human is a thinly disguised reference to xenophobia and homophobia in everyday American life.
But while Monáe and Clinton certainly address alienation from different vantage points, she echoes his credo that dancing is a major fault line of social inequities. In her song “Givin Em What They Love,” featuring Prince, not to mention a mutual attraction between Cindi and a shapely built woman, (Janelle Monáe - Givin Em What They Love - Lyrics) the climactic statement dovetails with Starchild’s victory over Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk in Parliament’s “Flash Light.” He says, “Dance, sucker.” Likewise, Cindi proclaims: “the last one standing will order/and command you to dance.” And after repeating this demand, she satirically invites the listener to give preachers and teachers her message. Naturally, the not-so-subtle critique here concerns conventions of morality and education that disadvantage marginalized groups at the expense of elites. A similar conflict plays out in Monáe’s song “Tightrope.” The opening scene of the video reads: THE PALACE OF THE DOGS Asylum.
The fact that the asylum associates dancing with “subversive effects on residents” is indicative of the totalitarian nature of the Metropolis. But the image is also a satire on the process of alienation. 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. 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.
As with Monáe’s 2010 song “Many Moons,” her most recent album Dirty Computer (2018) was complemented by an “emotion picture” that further evidenced her futuristic approach to multimedia representation. 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. 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. The crown and triangular earrings she wears on the cover of The ArchAndroid could conceivably be associated with ancient Egypt. 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 (or is it Cindi?) urges listeners: “keep getting funky on the scene.”
Additionally, at several points in the song Monáe sings, “Now put some voodoo on it.” This line appears on the Wondaland Arts Society website, indicating its significance. She may have alluded to D’Angelo’s 2000 album Voodoo or Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 songs “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” But “voodoo” also recalls the earliest African Americans’ religious rituals and thus the Ring Shout dance that enslaved Africans performed in colonial America. The infinitely pleasurable, emotional energy of the dance that culminated in “altered state[s] of consciousness,” which brings us back to those enslaved Black singers who sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
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. DJ Spooky and Meshell Ndegeocello, who emerged in the 1990s, have also made important contributions. More recently, artists such as Flying Lotus, Future, RZA, Thundercat, Moor Mother, and others, including singer and songwriter Candice Hoyes, have made contributions. A graduate of Harvard who earned a JD degree from Columbia University, Hoyes is an artist-intellectual whose 2021 EP Blue Lagoon Woman exemplifies several Afrofuturist characteristics. Two of her songs, “Zora’s Moon” and “Waiting for the World (Tired),” were inspired by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, respectively. Her scholarship on such luminaries of African American cultural history represents a noticeable departure from the usual practice of isolating creativity and critical analysis, and the textures of her sound exemplify Afrofuturism as well.
As Hoyes states, “‘Waiting for the World (Tired),’…features the 1930 poem ‘Tired’ by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes set in a lyrical Afro Futuristic soundscape.” But in the final analysis, maybe it’s most notable that the Black London-based jazz piantist Ashley Henry reprised Dr. Funkenstein’s motif in his 2019 song “STAR CHILD.” Evidently, the Mothership made a stop in the UK.
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