A Primer in Afrofuturistic Music
What the h*ck is Afrofuturism, you might ask? Well, it is a cultural aesthetic, a philosophy of science, a cultural and artistic trend that explores the developing intersection of African/African-American culture with technology. It combines elements from science fiction, history, fantasy, magic realism, and Afrocentrism with non-Wester cosmologies to re-examine historical events and criticize current problems. It addresses the themes and concerns of the African diaspora through the lens of science fiction and technoculture. And it is a trend that's been observed in many areas, from feature films like Black Panther or shorts like The Fiery One's Hello, Rain to literature, art, and music. And this last is what interests us today. Here are some of the most notable artists who have explored Afrofuturism in their music.
Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount (but he changed it to Le Sony'r Ra in 1952) was an American jazz composer, multi-instrumentalist playing especially the piano and the synthesizer, and poet. He was best known for his experimental music, "cosmic" philosophy, and his leadership of "The Arkestra", an ensemble with a constantly changing name and composition. And he was one of the earliest pioneers of Afrofuturism.
He expressed this through his elaborate persona and his stage performances. On one hand, he claimed to be an alien coming from Saturn on a mission to bring peace. On the other, his stage performances - sometimes solo, other times with a big band of over 30 musicians - he often featured dancers dressed in futuristic costumes at the intersection of ancient Egypt and the Space Age. He even co-wrote a science fiction movie, called "Space is the Place", featuring himself and The Arkestra landing on an alien planet and deciding to establish an African American settlement there. While Sun Ra himself passed away in the 1990s, The Arkestra still performs to this day.
Other notable musicians are known to have taken up Afrofuturist ideas during their career later. Funk/Soul artist George Clinton, for example, relied heavily on the same ideas on his album Mothership Connection, recorded in 1975 with the American funk band Parliament, assuming the persona of the Star Child. Other musicians who are regarded to have had similar forays are reggae producers Lee "Scratch" Perry and Scientist, hip-hop artists Afrika Bambaataa and Tricky, electronic musicians Larry Heard, A Guy Called Gerald, Juan Atkins, and Jeff Mills, among others.
There are many musicians and artists who incorporate Afrofuturistic elements into their work to this day. Among the most notable, we find rapper Missy Elliot, who often incorporated metallics and cyborg tales in her style, rapper FKA Twigs, musical duo Ibeyi, and DJ/producer Ras G, among others. Another notable figure to embrace Afrofuturism is Funk/Soul artist Janelle Monáe, with her critically acclaimed 2010 album The ArchAndroid, among others.