Modern Music and Afrofuturism

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.

If I were to examine this band as possibly an afrofuturist work, a few things need to be acknowledged. First, it was created by two white men; although many iconic black artists are the key features on their albums, and the “band” itself  is four cartoons, this could just be seen as another instance of white people capitalizing on black artists and culture for their own benefit. However, I don’t think this is the case. In our reading of James Snead’s piece in Black Literature and Literary Theory, he often discussed the difference between repetition within European and Black culture. Snead writes “[a] culture based on the idea of the ‘cut’ [black culture] will always suffer in a society whose dominant idea is material progress [European culture]” (Snead, 67). European culture is more focused on progress or regression within repetition, while black culture acknowledges the importance of the repetition of an original form, as a sort of homage.

To me, the European desire for progress is clearly seen in a band such as Gorillaz. Each album sounds different; there are callbacks, and they don’t always necessarily improve, but it seems that something must always change. Here, I think the most important thing to acknowledge is the role that black artists play in the bands music. As earlier mentioned, repetition is a key part of black culture; when it comes to music, Snead writes “[r]epetition in black culture finds its most characteristic shape in performance rhythm in music…” (Snead, 68). This emphasis on repetition is shown in the music created by these black artists. This music by the featured artists interplays with Albarn’s own, and makes for an interesting mix. The afrofuturist aspect comes in here. Snead ends with a quote about how European culture is slowly accepting these aspects of black culture when he says “…late twentieth-century European culture is its ongoing reconciliation with black culture…the separation between the cultures was perhaps all along not one of nature, but one of force” (Snead, 75). Gorillaz might be an instance of that; the anti-repetition culture of the EU working alongside black culture, which itself emphasizes the importance of repetition. Although rather than examining the band itself as afrofuturist, I’d like to look at what black artists have to say within the songs. This input, both through the lyrics and beat, can maybe reveal their cultural influence on the works of the band, and how black artists can revolutionize a culture that may be stuck in the past, in its effort to constantly improve toward the future.

One Reply to “Modern Music and Afrofuturism”

  1. A wonderful, challenging idea here, Emma; you’re pointing out some important qualifications and working through them well via the theory. I particularly think there’s exciting potential for work here on the lines of sampling – scholar Jang Wook Huh is doing some interesting work on Afro-Korean writing and sampling which might give a theoretical dimensions to questions of the use of other cultures that are simply appropriative. I also like the ways you’re thinking about the historicity of sampling someone like Grace Jones as a way to bring us towards a future – and recognizing that while Snead opposes Black and European, he does not essentialize them as impossibly opposed. I’d love to see you continue with this in some way, if you want – no obligation!

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