New Age Afrofuturism: Using Music and Film to Reference the Past and Create a Narrative of Black Futures by Trinity Townsend

Illustration by Andrea Miranda

In the media, ideas of the future have historically been portrayed through science fiction. However, when analyzing science fiction as a literary and cinematic genre, Black faces are seldom at the forefront. The 1985 blockbuster Back to The Future is a notable title in science fiction but when looking at the cast list, I see 3 Black faces out of 50 total cast members. Using this movie as a model, that would make representation for 13% of the United States population  squeezed into 6% of media shaped futures…. I’m sick. That statistic is far from equitable. Although the movie premiered in 1985, the theme remains today. As of 2016, only 8% of the top titles in sci-fi featured a protagonist of color and half the time that protagonist was Will Smith. This statistic was shifted dramatically in 2018 with the release of Black Panther. This movie thoroughly and accurately represents how Black creatives have formed a genre of our own with Blackness at the center. 

Woman standing in the World. Manzel Bowman, 2018.

Afrofuturism– a term coined by Mark Dery in 1994- “is a cultural aesthetic combining science fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the African American experience”. In other words, it’s a way for Black creatives to reflect on the past while simultaneously project images of the future. It’s a portal, a conversation between history and what lies ahead. Black creatives are using their present power to manifest what the future will look like for themselves and I think it’s working. This concept is shown increasingly through different art forms, especially music and music videos. 

Sun Ra is an American Jazz musician and intellectual recognized for paving the way of afrofuturism in music. In 1973, Ra released ‘Space is the Place’ one of 200 studio albums released by the artist during his career. This album is regarded as a timeless masterpiece pushing the limits of what was and still is considered music. The audio album was then transformed into a full length film in 1974. With both visually captivating set design and costumes that would resemble something of an African extraterrestrial, Sun Ra used film as an avenue to bring these afrofuturistic themes to life. While the visuals shown throughout the film were futuristic, the underlying themes present throughout the movie were specific to Blackness and representative of the historic Black struggle in America. 

In the case of many Black creatives, the weights of their existence in the United States and across the globe could grow to feel restrictive. Understanding that these creatives are living in a world ruled by white supremacy and consumerism, there are sacrifices that must be made and identities that must be suppressed in order to be economically successful and  appreciated by an audience that sees them as a product. By creating a world where they exist in their full power, these artists create a space of refuge. These concepts were brought into lyrical terms with Outkast in the song ATLiens. This song in particular embodies the constant reflection between the past present and future in afrofuturistic art. This lyric:

 “the future of the world depends on, 

whether or not the child we raise gon’ have that n*gga   syndrome 

or will it know to beat the odds regardless of its skin tone?” 

Andre 3000 creates a scenario where a hypothetical future child breaks past cycles with present knowledge. Mad complex, but expressed with poetic ease; They did that. These types of visual and conceptual themes continue to grow in how Black creatives share their art. 

Roof. Rico Nasty, 2018

With access to digital music production and 3D visual design software, creatives have the ability to build every aspect of a world from scratch. Rico Nasty’s Roof is a good example of this. Rico creates a world controlled by her desires  with herself at the center. She is limited by nothing. This is a powerful statement. She meticulously constructs a reality where multiple versions of herself exist and she appears in the sky to bark orders at submissive white men. The production of the song itself sounds like Kenny Beats made the beat with sound effects from a 70’s video game-like Space invader. The production of the song, the messaging behind the video, and the visuals all create a mirrored effect of Rico’s futuristic reality while breaking restrictions that have been put on Black women in society for millenia. 

As of 2020, it seems like more and more Black artists are resorting to afrofuturism as the way they visualize their musical concepts. This is seen in Lil Nas X’s visuals for Lost in the Citadel and Doja Cat’s video for Need to Know. This growth could have been born out of isolation caused by the pandemic or a desire for artists to project themselves into the future they desire. Either way, I’m fucking with it, I just hope they take me with them.

Trinity is a 1.5 generation Jamaican immigrant from Philadelphia. She is a multifaceted artist and writer who takes complex societal trends and communicates them through music and pop culture for easy comprehension.

More of Trinity’s work in Mixed Mag:

Soulja Boy’s Impact on Fame, and Its Changing Role In An Influencer Dominated Society (issue 9)

Can I Advocate for Womxn and Still Enjoy Music Promoting Misogyny? (issue 7)

Is Hip-Hop Making the Beauty of Black and Brown Bodies More Digestible to the white Americans? (issue 6)

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