May 14, 2021 | LIFE | By Sada Rice | Illustration by Xixi Qin
“The resilience of the human spirit lies in our ability to imagine. The imagination is a tool of resistance.” – Ytasha L. Womack
For my last book review of the year, I decided to go with a suggestion from a graduating senior. Ben Thomas ’21 is a music major who wrote his thesis on Afrofuturism. His project included his own musical tracks as well as a written element.
Thomas was first introduced to Afrofuturism through sci-fi visual media, particularly TV and
movies. He wasn’t introduced to Afrofuturist music until he discovered artists like Outkast and Erykah Badu. However, he notes that he did listen to those artists before he knew anything about the aesthetic.
“I feel like Afrofuturism is mostly recognized within the realm of visual art, so when I started re-examining these artists through the lens of Afrofuturist commentary, it raised questions about the communicability of Afrofuturist themes outside of visual art. This ended up becoming the central theme of my thesis, which I explored through a musical analysis of three Afrofuturist albums: ‘Space Is the Place’ by Sun Ra, ‘Baduizm’ by Erykah Badu, and ‘1983’ by Flying Lotus,” Thomas said.
From his thesis, he concluded that Afrofuturist themes can be communicated sonically (as a result of inherited jazz/funk/hip-hop/R&B influences, tone color, and lyricism), and that Afrofuturist music provides a catalyst to increase the social consciousness on issues of social injustice.
Thomas drew on Ytasha L. Womack’s book, “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture” for the theoretical background of this project. In this work, Womack describes Afrofuturism generally as a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens. Using Afrofuturism as a tool, people of color have the ability to project their own stories and control their image. Advancements in technology and the spread of social media are only making this process easier and cheaper.
Growing up a fan of sci-fi, Womack noted the absence of people of color in the genre. It’s one thing when black people aren’t discussed in world history, but she was frustrated that even in the imaginary future where anything is possible, people couldn’t fathom a person of non-Euro decent.
In her book, she outlines the history of Afrofuturism. This terminology is relatively new, but she includes artists such as Sun Ra who incorporated Afrofuturistic elements in their work before the academic world had a term to recognize such a concept. She then gives broad and diverse examples of current Afrofuturistic work and dips into the future of this type of music, literature, and art. If nothing else, her book will give you a ton of ideas for new media to check out.
Not only does Womack examine the academic and artistic ideas behind Afrofuturism, but she also applies it to current world problems. One of the powers of Afrofuturism is that it stimulates the imagination and can give kids the confidence to hope and expect more from the future. It also allows the individual to explore the dire issues that we have to address in this world in a more light-hearted context. Activist work can be draining, and this exploration allows for ideas of how to build a new and better society without the limitations and frustrations of our current reality.
Womack discusses how some cities in the U.S. are already post-apocalyptic. Using direct examples from sci-fi, she explains how to use these principles to come up with real solutions. In this way, Afrofuturistic art can be used for real-world social change.
“Just as the actions in the past dictate the future, imaging the future can change the present,” Womack writes.
With this borderline post-apocalyptic year coming to an end, the current senior class is having to imagine what their own futures will look like. For Thomas, this is somewhat uncertain, but he knows he wants to pursue a career as a professional drummer. After graduation, he plans to hang around for a while and spend time gigging in Denver and Colorado Springs with his band Host Body. After that, he’s moving home to teach drum lessons. His “loose goal” is to be in NYC by the beginning of 2022, where he hopes to work as a gigging musician, teacher, session artist, and touring artist.
At heart, a musician hopes to move listeners or at least allow them to see something in a new light. What would artists do if they knew activists were waiting to use their work as the foundations of social movement? How can art be used to encourage experimentation, reimagine identities, and activate liberation? Musician or not (and I most certainly am not), “Afrofuturism” is an insightful read that attempts to answer these questions and more. It brings clarity to a relatively new topic and makes academic concepts accessible to anyone. I invite readers to take this exciting ride through the ideas of the Afro-multiverse.