What is Afrofuturism? | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features What is Afrofuturism?

To celebrate Carnegie Hall’s citywide festival, five leading experts share their passion and knowledge to help audiences better understand Afrofuturism.

Quentin VerCetty’s AstroSankofa

This February and March, Carnegie Hall presents a journey to the world of Afrofuturism—an ever-expansive aesthetic and practice—where music, visual arts, science fiction, and technology intersect to imagine alternate realities and a liberated future viewed through the lens of Black cultures.

This trek across space and time enriches and revitalizes relationships to new futures and futures past. Whether one knows Afrofuturism through Alice Coltrane, the literary genius of Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany, the glowing world of comics, or the mythos of Sun Ra and P-Funk, epiphanies abound in this experiential saga through the realm of Astro-Blackness.

At Carnegie Hall, Afrofuturism’s sonic essence is celebrated with jazz, funk, R&B, Afrobeat, hip-hop, and electronic music performances by Flying Lotus, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Nicole Mitchell, Angel Bat Dawid, Chimurenga Renaissance, Fatoumata Diawara, the Carl Craig Synthesizer Ensemble, Theo Croker, and others.

Adding to the scope of the festival, participants in the education and social impact programs of the Hall’s Weill Music Institute explore the infinite possibilities of Afrofuturism. Across New York City and beyond, leading cultural organizations present multidisciplinary programming that touches African and African-diasporic philosophies, speculative fiction, mythology, comics, cosmology, technology, and more. A diverse range of online offerings also includes film screenings, exhibitions, and talks with some of the leading thinkers and creatives in this multitiered experience.

To help curate this visionary festival, Carnegie Hall brought together five leading experts to share their passion and knowledge, helping audiences of all backgrounds better understand Afrofuturism.

Reynaldo Anderson

Reynaldo Anderson is an associate professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University; executive director and co-founder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement; and co-editor of the books Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness and The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Black Futurity, Art+Design.

“Afrofuturism is the high culture of the African diaspora and people on the African continent. It is how people of African descent locate themselves in time and operate with agency. You could say it’s defining history for ourselves, in terms of how we interact with other peoples, other cultures going forward into time—or re-contextualizing what happened in the past, in terms of understanding, how did we get to this particular place or historical moment.”

King James Britt

King James Britt is a Pew Fellowship recipient, electronic music producer, composer, and performer. He is an assistant teaching professor in computer music at University of California San Diego, where he created the lecture course Blacktronika: Afrofuturism in Electronic Music, attended by many pioneers including Goldie, Marshall Allen, and Questlove.

“Music represents the sonic possibilities of Afrofuturism. It is the expansive soundtrack to a collective action of dream to reality. A great starting point is Sun Ra’s music and his film Space Is the Place. As a Black man growing up in the Jim Crow South, [he used] music as a vehicle for creating possibilities. These came to fruition when Sun Ra migrated to Chicago to work with Fletcher Henderson’s big band. This education—along with his love of Egyptology, electronics, and Astro-Blackness—was the foundation for the Sun Ra Arkestra, a band of like-minded musicians on a mission to save the Black community.”

Louis Chude-Sokei

Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer and scholar whose books include The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics and the memoir Floating in a Most Peculiar Way. He is a professor of English, holding the George and Joyce Wein Chair in African American Studies, and director of the African American Studies at Boston University. He is also editor of The Black Scholar, one of the leading journals of Black studies in the United States, and founder of the sonic arts and archival project Echolocution.

“Afrofuturism has become a lot of things to a lot of people. Before becoming a movement, it emerged as a way of arguing that the techno-culture we are increasingly defined by not only features Black people at its center (despite Black people being not often represented by narratives of technology), but the experiences of Black people could be expressed through the tropes, techniques, and the machinery of contemporary techno-culture.

“What if we thought of the experiences of Black people as not just rigidly and traumatically historical, connected to slave ships and pyramids? What if we added the metaphor of space travel? The metaphors and narratives of technology? Could that then lead to a reimagining of our relationship to those things? What if we start looking at futuristic metaphors to tell stories about Black people? Not only would that revise how we engage race, but it would also provide a map of the future in which Black people play a central and significant part.”

Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree Renée Thomas is an award-winning writer, poet, and editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and associate editor of the historic literary journal Obsidian. She is a contributor to Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda and a collaborator with Janelle Monáe on The Memory Librarian. Her books include Nine Bar Blues, Trouble the Waters, Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, Shotgun Lullabies, and the groundbreaking Afrofuturism anthologies Dark Matter and Africa Risen.

“Afrofuturism is a creative lens that we’re using all around the world to explore storytelling in new ways, to talk about where we want to be as a community on the earth through music, literature, visual art, architecture, and scholarship. And it’s a way of seeing Black people thriving and surviving in a future context, and being the masters of technology rather than being the tools.

“Music is our first language as humans. We sing to each other, we create hunting songs, we create songs where we want to win and be victorious. And music is the way that we communicate our values, and our dreams, and our aspirations, and our fears. Music in Afrofuturism is a powerful wave of all that storytelling for us. We’ve always communicated our dreams and hopes through music and sound, and it’s changed the world. Black music has literally changed the world.”

Ytasha L. Womack

Ytasha L. Womack is an independent scholar, filmmaker, dancer, and author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Her other books include Rayla 2212 and Rayla 2213; Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity; Beats, Rhymes & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip-Hop; and the upcoming Blak Kube. She directed the Afrofuturist dance film A Love Letter to the Ancestors from Chicago and is an artist-in-residence with Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal.

“Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future or alternate realities, but through a Black cultural lens. Afrofuturism is an artistic aesthetic. It’s a method. It’s a practice. And it’s also a great healing tool to help people who are wrestling with how to use the imagination and a great way to help those who don’t feel comfortable thinking about futures.

“Afrofuturism can be found in music, whether you’re thinking about someone like Sun Ra or Alice Coltrane, Janelle Monáe or Outkast or Erykah Badu. It also exists in film, Black Panther being the greatest example, but you see it in other projects as well. Television’s Lovecraft Country and Watchmen both reference Afrofuturism. You see it expressed in dance, visual art, and again, you see it as practice. And while you see it in a lot of mediums, you also see people really thinking about futures and looking at how to engage that in their lives.”

For more information, visit carnegiehall.org/afrofuturism.

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