Printed: 2019-06-24

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Afrofuturism: An Aesthetic and Exploration of Identity

Ytasha L. Womack

Ethical Technology

January 04, 2012

The world of science fiction is known for its absence of cultural diversity.  While history texts are still recovering from the conspicuous absence of the contributions of non-European cultures across the world and in America, there’s an equal need to claim the future as well.

The world of science fiction is known for its absence of cultural diversity.  While history texts are still recovering from the conspicuous absence of the contributions of non-European cultures across the world and in America, there’s an equal need to claim the future as well.

Hijacking the imagination and perpetuating limiting views on culture and humanity in the imaginative future just won’t do.

Enter Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism is a term that emerged in the mid 90s, coined by cultural critic Mark Dery who affixed the term to the growing artistic movement and critiques that followed narratives of people of African descent in a sci-fi, futuristic treaties. 

Afrofuturists seek to inspire and forge a stronger self-identity and respect for humanity by encouraging enthusiasts to reexamine their environments and reimagine the future in a cross cultural context.

For example, one digital Afrofuturist painting of a young African American girl in the future depicted her in metallic space boots and pants; her hair was styled in an Afro and she wore an ankh, an ancient Kemetic symbol on her green-friendly T-shirt.  The image bound the future with the past, celebrated culture and universality, and positioned the teen smack dab in the latter part of the 21st century.  For many, simply placing a young African American girl in a futuristic context challenges the absence of such images and rearticulates the relevance of such cultures and world views in art depicting the future.

The aesthetic includes the music, visual art, literature, film, critical essays and other mediums dedicated to futuristic explorations primarily through the arts.  Works range in theme and story lines but they are typically characterized by compelling insights, both cosmetic and analytical into black identity in the Americas, Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa and beyond. 

From soul singer Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime” video which highlights West African traditions in a futuristic society to Nnedi Okorofor’s book “Who Fears Death” chronicling a mystical young girl in post-apocalyptic Africa, the depictions are culturally rich takes on the future through fiction that explore identity, too.

Artists like jazz composer Sun Ra, 70s funk pioneer George Clinton, science fiction writer Octavia Butler, or DJ/multimedia artist DJ Spooky are among the more popular purveyors of the genre (although Sun Ra, Clinton and Butler did work long before the term came into vogue). There are a bevy of new wave artists, musicians and filmmakers creating new works as well as a cadre of established professors now chronicling and teaching it. In fact, Afrofuturism is now taught in several universities as an artistic aesthetic, a tool for critical cultural analysis, a platform for rethinking the impact of modernization on cultural creations as well as an exploration of identity.

Pioneers created works largely to challenge color-based social structures, caste systems and the realities of second-class citizenship, which plagued the experience of black people, particularly in America and across the world for much of the modern era.  In many cases, particularly in music, they re-imagined technologies to create new artistic works or reinvented processes that created new sounds. The creations of avant-garde jazz, funk, dub, house, hip-hop and other genres are as innovative for their musicality as for their experimentations with electronic sounds and machinery. The use of a turntable needle in hip-hop to create music or the multi-layering of prerecorded noises in dub are as Afrofuturist as Motown Record’s Berry Gordy looking to Detroit’s car assembly lines as a basis for creating a new system in artist development. Each explores the impact of modernization and environment on the creation of artistic movements, identity and perspectives by people of color.

An extensive body of critical analysis using Afrofuturism as the prism currently exists. DJ Spooky, for one, is most known for reediting the film Birth of a Nation, a film which was technically advanced at the time but also reinforced horrific stereotypes of blacks during the Reconstruction period in the US and established ethnic stereotypes in films for years to come. DJ Spooky linked the images on the screen to his turntable and mixed and scratched along with the revisioning of the film.

Many Afrofuturist works are characterized by a synchronicity between the past and the future.  While many science fiction works heavily disavow the past, Afrofuturism has a great deal of reverence for ancestors and ancient societies as well as an active celebration of movements in history that countered the active dehumanization of people of color through power systems. This reverence is rearticulated in a futuristic context. References to Egyptian deities and other African Traditional Religions (Yoruba, etc), African Derived Religions (Santeria, Candomble, Hoodoo) and Native American folklore and spirituality are common as are references to Asian fighting arts and the civil rights movement in the US. Spirituality and mysticism are frequent threads. Humanity, freedom and self-determination are common themes.

While all works dubbed Afrofuturist aren’t created by people of African descent or don’t deal with black identity on the surface (the pop culture favorite “The Matrix” or the original “Night of the Living Dead” film for example) they share themes, symbolism or imagery that evokes cultural markers.

In essence, many Afrofuturists aim to challenge society’s limits to the imagination and this limitation includes a very narrow reflection on race, culture and ethnicity in fictional and artistic works on the future. Afrofuturism celebrates new takes on modernization and the histories that have facilitated social change.

Although some might argue that the term itself is as freeing as it is constricting, the growing body of work categorized in this genre is fascinating and enriching.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837