“Little did we know at the beginning of this term that Afrofuturism would become now, as we’ve been forced to adapt to new uses of technology — not just to complete the school term, but just to go about our daily lives.”
— Tananarive Due, lecturer on Afrofuturism in UCLA’s Department of African American Studies, speaking at the department’s virtual commencement on June 12
Professor Due continued by paraphrasing Angela Davis, one of UCLA’s most famous faculty members: “In order to work toward a better future, we need to believe that future is possible.” For many, Afrofuturism is exploring those possibilities.
An Array of Expanding Definitions
What is Afrofuturism? It’s the story of musicians, artists, writers, philosophers, fashion icons, filmmakers, costume and set designers, actors, activists and academics who have believed in a better future for Black people — and for all people.
Afrofuturism, more concretely, can be understood as a wide-ranging social, political and artistic movement that dares to imagine a world where African-descended peoples and their cultures play a central role in the creation of that world.
Witness the sci-fi novels of one-time UCLA Extension student Octavia E. Butler. The saxophone epics spawned by former UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music student Kamasi Washington. Marvel’s blockbuster Black Panther and the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, executive-produced and co-directed, respectively, by Bruins. Or Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “Family Feud” music video, set in 2444 and directed by UCLA’s own Ava DuVernay.
These are all examples of Afrofuturism, a term coined in the 1990s to describe a decadeslong cultural wave that’s now being recognized as a powerful creative force. Not only are these captivating, provocative works being brought forth by Bruin creators, but an entire body of UCLA scholarship also offers perspective on and gives shape to this multidisciplinary movement.
Many of its aesthetic tropes — a rich color palette, African iconography and a fascination with technoculture — were laid down by cosmic philosopher and jazz giant Sun Ra, starting in the 1950s. According to Shana Redmond, professor of musicology and global jazz studies in the School of Music and professor of African American studies, the Afrofuturist movement is evidence that Black music has often operated as protest strategy as well as a portal for developing ideas about new futures for African-descended peoples. Today, during a health pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black communities, combined with a renewed focus on systemic racial injustice, Afrofuturism’s power to imagine a more just society is increasingly relevant.
“Being in Los Angeles offers unique possibilities for the theorizing and practice of Afrofuturism, because there’s such incredible talent in this space and people are constantly colliding through formal institutions such as UCLA,” she says. “The creative magnetism of Los Angeles is naturally going to feed into all of the rivulets of a formation that might be called Afrofuturism.”
“With Afrofuturism, the point is to challenge what it means for Black people to be free on our own terms. Liberation is a very important part of the genre.”
Librarian and archivist for Los Angeles Communities and Cultures at UCLA Library
One of the movement’s inspirational figures is Octavia E. Butler, an Afrofuturist writer and thinker long before critic Mark Dery coined the term in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future.”
Butler was born in Pasadena in 1947. A self-described hermit, she would venture to the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library in pursuit of her passion for storytelling. At the library, she wrote her first book, Patternmaster, published in 1976.
In 2019, the Central Library opened the Octavia Lab, a do-it-yourself studio space named in Butler’s honor. This past summer, the Octavia Lab used 3D printers — the kind of technology that Afrofuturism celebrates — to produce personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Against the odds, Butler blazed a trail through the white male–dominated world of science fiction. She told the New York Times in a 2000 interview: “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. … I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”
One of her fans is Dalena Hunter, a librarian and archivist for Los Angeles Communities and Cultures at UCLA Library’s Special Collections. In 2018, Hunter and Kelly Besser, archivist for UCLA Library’s Special Collections, participated in a San Diego Comic-Con panel called “Beyond Wakanda: Intersectional Afrofuturism.” Hunter says, “With Afrofuturism, the point is to challenge what it means for Black people to be free on our own terms. Liberation is a very important part of the genre.”
Besser notes that the Octavia E. Butler Collection — the most-requested papers at the Huntington Library in 2019 — offers an intensely personal window into Butler’s writing life. “When she was struggling to become who she became, she created these large posters that had inspirational themes on them: ‘Act Courageous. Act Confident. Act Quietly Intelligent.’ And ‘Take the offensive against your fears … conquer them by sheer boldness,’” Besser says. “It has a real goosebumps effect.”
When Besser taught Butler’s 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower, to high school students in South L.A., the teenagers saw parallels with the 1965 Watts riots and 1992 L.A. riots. “The kids responded to the idea of shaping the future. There were people [in the novel] — of all races, genders and sexual orientations — struggling to survive. It looked like L.A. to my students.”
Amazon Studios is adapting Butler’s books Dawn and Wild Seed for TV, the former in partnership with DuVernay’s ARRAY Filmworks. Another indication we’re living in an Afrofuturist present? Parable of the Sower takes place in a fictional Los Angeles, set in the 2020s, that’s dominated by corporate greed, wealth inequality and ecological disaster — themes that are all too familiar today.
A World of Sci-fi Black Champions
Music, too, is a critical element of the landscape. Dexter Story M.A. ’19 is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, composer and producer who grew up in the View Park section of L.A., bordering Inglewood. He has produced and music-directed several concerts for downtown L.A.’s Grand Performances summer series — “Mothership Landing: Funk and the Afrofuturist Universe of ’77” in July 2017, among them. A Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellow working toward his ethnomusicology Ph.D. at UCLA, he tells the story of Afrofuturism from the perspective of a musician, an academic and a fan.
“I entered the world of Afrofuturism through comic books, the Black Panther — when T’Challa meets the Fantastic Four,” he says. “My start was in art. My mom was very encouraging of music but thought I should be involved more in fine art. What pulled me into Afrofuturist music were the [album] covers of Parliament-Funkadelic.
Story was hooked on the funk collective’s two bands throughout the ’70s. “Concurrent with me going into this Afrofuturist world with [Parliament-Funkadelic members] Bootsy [Collins], Bernie [Worrell] and [George] Clinton, I also had the artwork on the vinyl that spoke to sci-fi movies and soundtracks.”
When Story saw Parliament-Funkadelic band leader George Clinton and the Mothership on stage in 1979, he realized “it wasn’t just that it was symbolic of Afrofuturism — [Clinton] dared to go there and turn his narrative into an embodied experience for people — a spaceship that flies over my head and blows pyrotechnics, then he exits, and I’m transported to a world of sci-fi Black champions. So it’s that, too — it’s daring to create one’s relationship to this present and push the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington embodies Afrofuturism’s potential in the current moment, without being defined by it. He credits his time as an ethnomusicology student at the School of Music, from 1999 to 2004, with widening his worldview. He says he relates to the science-fiction and surrealist aspects of the Afrofuturist movement.
“I’ve always had that storyteller imagination, and I would drift off into my own little world,” he says. “Even before I knew the term Afrofuturism, once I found out there’s a whole movement of people that are like that, it was like, ‘Oh, cool!’
“It shaped who I am, musically and aesthetically, how I think and how I exist.” To Washington, “Afrofuturism is the creative expression of the wonder and marvel of what the future may hold.”
Washington’s music comes out of the jazz tradition but is constantly seeking to go beyond. Washington, saxophone player and producer Terrace Martin, producer 9th Wonder, and piano and keyboard virtuoso Robert Glasper make up the recently formed supergroup Dinner Party (their eponymous album was released in July). The group’s animated music video for “Sleepless Nights” is decidedly Afrofuturistic. Washington is also working on a graphic novel that draws from this aesthetic.
For Washington, music works as protest because it profoundly impacts the mind of the listener.
“Sound is the one sense that we can’t turn off,” he says. “[Music] is a great tool for creating empathy and for learning. Ultimately, the world is what the people who live in it make it. As we shape the minds of the people that live in the world, we help shape what that world will be at the same time.”
Reflecting on the current social justice movement, Washington says: “The most powerful thing I’ve seen is the notion that everyone needs to help push this rock up the hill. This global system that we’re all in is not meant for equality. If we’re going to keep the same system, then that just means we’re going to put somebody else in a state of inequality. That means we have to change systems.”
Black Panther, Green Light
Nate Moore ’00 had his own Afrofuturist awakening in the early ’90s through Marvel’s Black Panther comics, not knowing that one day he would be a steward of the billion-dollar Marvel film franchise. “I was a fan of the comic Black Panther: World of Wakanda through the years — the character’s introduction by Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four, then Don McGregor embraced African culture and tech and combined the two,” says Moore, who executive produced the 2018 hit film. “There were the possibilities for an Afrofuturistic aesthetic with these characters.” Chief among them was King T’Challa, gracefully portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman, who died Aug. 28 after a four-year battle with colon cancer.
Moore says Black Panther’s production designer, Hannah Beachler, and costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, worked in concert — inspired by Afrofuturism — to fully realize Wakanda on the big screen.
“Hannah put together a Wakanda bible that would pull from the technological cutting edge and from various cultures in Africa,” he says. “It was a love letter to as many cultures as we could include, without breaking the reality of the world or crossing over into appropriation. Hannah focused on: What does the future look like? How do you steep that in Afrofuturism?”
Moore adds: “How Black Panther embraces Afrofuturism is why we wanted to make the movie in the first place. Without Octavia Butler and others laying the groundwork, it would have been harder to pull off. We owe them.”
Following the movie’s breakout success, Moore has started to process what Black Panther’s legacy could mean. “Unfortunately, in America especially, visions of Africa are always of people in need of saving,” he says. “Saviors can come from Africa. That seemed revolutionary.”
A Future Without Limits
So what’s next? Or rather, what’s now?
Story believes the coronavirus and current racial tensions — related to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — are accelerating our collective journey into Afrofuturism: “[Video gaming platform] Twitch is the new home of Afrofuturism, if you follow people like [hip-hop DJ collective] the Beat Junkies, activist Tanya DePass, BlackGirlGamers and The Roots. The pandemic has dropped us into a wormhole of the cyberculture.”
Hunter looks to the Afrofuturist movies that younger Black people are being exposed to, such as Spider-Verse, which was co-directed by former UCLA fine arts student Peter Ramsey. “I appreciated how they incorporated [Miles Morales’] African American heritage into his identity as Spider-Man,” she says. “He’s not trying to fit in, but finding his place in this new school and flourishing. You get to watch him mature.”
And Redmond is optimistic for what’s next. “There’s been a whole recentering of the scholastic enterprise of Afrofuturism through the route of fiction and of music making,” she says. “We understand how much value we [as African-descended peoples] hold as a creative force in the world. If we can begin to take that seriously and train toward something different, then the alternative world will follow.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s October 2020 issue.