Dr. Spencer Crew, former president of the National Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, gave a lecture based on the relationship between civil disobedience, the Underground Railroad and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was an American slavery abolitionist who focused on the idea of revising the government through civil disobedience rather than overthrowing the system entirely. While the three topics do correlate, I was eager to ask Dr. Crew his opinion on the effectiveness of civil disobedience and whether or not Thoreau and other abolitionists and civil rights activists took the right approach to promoting equality. His answer to my question encouraged me to consider many layers of society and how activism influences public opinion.
One of my favorite things about The Fifth Season is the incredible amount of detail N.K.Jemisin puts into her worldbuilding. Even the profanity the characters use is appropriate to the world they come from (thank you, Professor McCoy, for pointing this out). However, how do you build a new profane vocabulary? What words do you choose to be considered explicit in the context of a world completely different from our own?
Disclaimer: this post uses profane words.
After this Wednesday’s class, I started to play my music on shuffle and was reintroduced to the album “The Chief” by Jidenna which is in my opinion the perfect example of Afro-futurism. The album is classified under the genre of rap but it has very traditional Afrocentric beats melded into classic boom-bap of the present. The album opens with an old Nigerian guru telling a story with the hidden moral of being careful who you call your family, because family are only closest to you to so that they can kill you easier; then it smoothly slides into the second part of a song with a simple African drums keeping the rhythm and rigid powerful rap. Another song on the album named “Long Live the Chief” does the same thing, opening with tribal/techno esque drums that meld shockingly well with the kind of “Kanye” tone of his voice; Rapping about his successful from nothing with such vivid afrocentric metaphors with terms that are relatable to today’s current climate. This song takes from the previous generation by paying homage to Nigerian culture in such a beautiful way, building on the music of the past and to make the music of the future.
I believe that something that would be great to discuss in terms of Afrofuturism would be J Coles album KOD. The reason I say this is because the entire album tells a story, and each song is like a chapter in the story. The main message is the struggles faced by children in the African American communities in our time. His main focus is the fact that young African American children are more prone to be exposed to terrible things such as drugs as well as gang related activities. This is because they are raised and brought up in areas that are not as fortunate as others, therefore they are more easily manipulated. He then writes about in his songs how certain people have the power to help these young children but don’t do anything to help them. One particular idea that we talked about in class that I believe relates to this album and the story it tells is the argument between an aesthetic and an activist. It goes back to the argument that if you have someone with the power and the voice to make a change for these kids, is it wrong for them not to? And on the other hand, some of the activists who are trying to make a difference don’t have the platform as some of the aesthetic’s may have.
Whether it is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or the impact of black preachers, black culture is based on “cut and repetition”. Snead notes that black culture is based in the process of “cutting” or stopping, going back, and continuing with the process; the process could describe music, spoken word, or figures within black culture. Black culture is “circular” whereas European culture “accumulates” (67). Yet both are flawed, black culture is doomed to “always suffer in a society” where it is based in material progress. European culture will continue to realize its limitations because “repetition has been suppressed in favor of fulfillment” (71). Therefore in the context of race relations, having solely either will result in each struggling against each other.
On their landmark collaborative “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star” album from 1998, rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli implement many elements of Afrofuturism, amongst other themes such as black empowerment and dealing with their identities as rap stars and black men. The whole album touches upon these topics, but one track, “Thieves in the Night” came immediately to mind when I saw this week’s task. The inspiration for the track comes from a novel called “The Bluest Eye”, which is written from the perspective of a black girl who ponders how differently she would view the world if she (was white) had blue eyes. The track deals with this theme of being black in a white world and how to adjust without losing self-identity. On Mos Def’s verse, he says “I find it distressing, there’s never no in-between. We either n****s or Kings, we either b*****s or Queens”, referencing the way America encounters black people through white representations of them, which usually only show the extreme sides of the “spectrum” and leads people to misunderstand black people. Black culture is extremely stereotyped, which in turn cultivates the messages behind them from the amounts of exposure. In the hook, Mos and Talib trade bars about more of these stereotypes and how black personalities are contrived by the media. “Not strong, only aggressive/ Not free, we only licensed / Not compassionate, only polite / Not good but well behaved/ chasing after death so we can call ourselves brave/ still living like mental slaves”. The fourth line hints at the fact that where a white person might be called good, a black person in the same scenario would be described as “well-behaved” because the representation of black people in our society leads the masses to EXPECT them to be “bad” or “poorly-behaved”. Mos and Talib bring many elements of black culture to the light on this amazing album, but Thieves in the Night resonates with me the most in terms of Afrofuturism.
While searching for an afrofuturistic piece of work, I found this poem written by Rodger Bonair-Agard. The poem titled How the World was Made- a Super Crown incorporates aspects of West African and Caribbean folklore and does something new with it.
When I think of examples of Afro-futurism that I see today I immediately think of my favorite rapper, Vince Staples. Through his last album I feel he embodied the very sound and idea of Afro- Futurism, even landing himself a song on the Kendrick Lamar produced Black Panther album. Vince described his album Big Fish Theory as afro futurism half jokingly but it still shows connecting elements. “We making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism. There’s no other kind…This is Afro-futurism y’all can keep the other sh*t. We’re trying to get in the MoMA not your Camry”. Rapping about his former gang lifestyle and what it’s like to be Black in America over futuristic, upbeat EDM beats. I feel like this connects to the idea of repetition especially because Vince himself challenged the idea that these beats are new or different because the EDM, electronic beats we think of today as outside of black culture actually originated in Detroit house music. Dance music, like almost every other kind of music to come out of America in the past century, is black music. Although he doesn’t speak about Afro-futurism in the conventional sense of the word, even bristling at the term himself, Vince speaks about societal problems and black issues over beats that sound the same as decades of black American music, tlike Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic.
One of my long-time favorite bands is Gorillaz. They’ve been making music since the 1990s, and the word I’ve most often used to describe them is “experimental”. They feature many different artists on their albums; the one that actually made me want to discuss them for this prompt was Grace Jones, who was featured on one of their more recent albums, Humanz. I’ve enjoyed the bands music for years, and although the reviews for Humanz were mixed, I’m listening to it as I type. The band has definitely experimented with hip hop before, but Humanz featured hip hop artists I enjoy independently: Vince Staples, Vic Mensa, and Pusha T, to name a few. The way the band uses not only hip hop, but pop, electronica, and alternative rock can create sounds unlike any other. The minds behind the band are two white men from England named Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett (although Albarn is the primary artist). Yet here lies another unique aspect of the band; they do not use their own faces. The official band has four members, all nonexistent fictional characters with their own stories. The actual human minds behind the music are almost completely nonexistent, and the characters serve as the real face of the group.
When I started looking for Afrofuturism case studies, I mostly understood the kinds of art that fell into the category, but really struggled to see more day-to-day manifestations of the same Afrofuturist impulse. Although I’ll probably end up doing my final project on Octavia Butler or another Afrofuturist literary figure, I found, for this assignment, a really interesting example of Afrofuturist design, specifically as it relates to furniture, which really departs from the text-based analyses we’ve primarily focused on so far.
Working out of London, the designer Yinka Ilori repurposes furniture in an up-cycling operation. Within this project, Ilori upgrades old furniture to make a statement on the value of “old” items and, furthermore, undermine the consumer society’s incentives to purchase constantly new products that don’t fill a need any greater than that product which one already has. To honor his heritage, Ilori decorates the upcycled furniture with vibrant colors and geometric designs, in the same vein as the dominant designs in Nigeria (the place to which he pays homage).
Based on what we’ve learned, Ilori’s work seems to epitomize the value that Snead puts on repetition within black culture: “Black culture highlights the observance of such repetition, often in homage to the original generative instance or act,” (65). Indeed, with his furniture, Ilori both honors Nigeria and rejects the principles of vapid consumerism that Snead explicitly associates with white culture.