“Are you ready to alter your destiny?”: Chicago and Afro-Futurism, Part 1 of 2

D. Denenge Akpem

Read Part 2 of the article here.

This Independence Day, let us consider a different kind of liberation: Afro-Futurism.

"Xenogenesis" from SEED (The Book of Eve): The Octavia E. Butler Artist Book, 2007, Krista Franklin

From El Saturn Records to free-flowing jazz conversations with poet Henry Dumas to endless name variations of his Solar Arkestra–a play on orchestra and Noah’s ark–to true accounts of space abduction and exploration: Sonny Blountt aka Sun Ra was the real deal: prolific jazz genius, human-alien hybrid, intergalactic space traveler, reluctant prophet.

In the iconic 1974 Space is the Place, he makes plans to “teleport the whole planet through music,” with a chant “Calling Planet Earth” imploring folk to rediscover “the music of yourself.”  Sun Ra believed that music was a literal teleportation device; the central control panel of his spaceship in the film is a combination organ/studio mixing board.  In Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro Black and Other Solar Myths,[i] Kerry James Marshall writes “Sun Ra is part of a long tradition of radical, Black Liberation ideologues…a combination of real-politic and myth-o-poetics.” For musician and composer David Boykin of Sonic Healing Ministries “Sun Ra’s social and political stance was not overtly but clearly a black nationalist perspective…In free jazz, the ‘free’ is self-determination, sovereignty, being independent to be who you are. With Sun Ra it took shape in how he controlled his creative output.”

"Octavia, Dear", 2008, Krista Franklin and D. Denenge Akpem

Afro-Futurism is an exploration and methodology of liberation, simultaneously both a location and a journey.  The creative ability to manifest action and transformation has been essential to the survival of Blacks in the Diaspora.  “Black Secret Technology (The Whitey on the Moon Dub)” Julian Jonker writes, “Black Americans have literally lived in an alien(-n)ation for hundreds of years. The viscerality of their abduction is equaled only by the ephemerality of the bonds which the disciplinary state has since imposed on them.”  Similarly, Boykin notes that in this context, “freedom is futurist.”

Chicago’s history is rooted in liberation struggles; the concrete jungle gives rise to a fiesty, rag-tag, Mad-Maxian, blue-collar style that respects hard work and survival of the fittest. We are alchemists in this city of steel, akin to the Yoruba god Ogun, fusing metal to metal.  We claim a real space traveler astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space and graduate of Chicago’s Morgan Park High School.  In the tradition of grand-forefather Sun Ra who graced our lake shores with his mystical genius, Chicago “shows out” with the sanctification of conduit avery r. young’s sweet nectar sweat as he navigates between states of being in his signature Sunday Mornin’ Juke Joint performance style. Chicago Afro-Futurism is revolutionary discopoet Khari B. levitating at the HotHouse long before will.i.am teleported from Grant Park to CNN headquarters on November 4, 2008. It is Krista Franklin’s multi-layered visual planes with giant children spinning LPs on oceans; spliced figures from antique photos become extra-terrestrial as she coaxes new stories from their faded mysteries.

Franklin’s collaged worlds entice, titillate, call out: see me, feel me, know my rare essence.  One of her best-known works, SEED (The Book of Eve) is based on the speculative fiction novels of Octavia Butler.  Filled with purple-tipped tentacles and voluptuous creatures, this multi-page artist’s book is an extended riff reflecting Butler’s shape-shifting ooloi, space travelers, characters who mutate past boundaries of time and form.  Franklin is equally well-known for her poetry which finds its way into her visual work as full poems or stray bits of exquisitely-placed text, expanding beyond the two-dimensional, taking us on a ride whose vibration we hop on gleefully.

"Do Androids Dream of How People Are Sheep?", 2011, from Tech Noire with Stephen Flemister at Northwestern's Dittmar Gallery, Collection of Tracie D. Hall

San Francisco has the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church; Chicago has Sonic Healing Ministries.  Founded in 2010 by David Boykin, SMH was launched in response to frustration with the music business.  “I started playing music because of the way it made me feel and wanted to get back to that. I felt I needed a place to play my own music how I want to play it when I want to play it and control how my art is presented.”

Since 1997 Boykin has released 10 album-length recordings and performed at jazz festivals and venues from Chicago to New York, Paris to Moscow, Dakar to Accra.  One project with the David Boykin Expanse was “Evidence of Life on Other Planets, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.”

(Click here to listen.)

At the core of SHM’s mission is an ongoing investigation of healing frequencies corresponding to colors, planets, musical vibrations.  “Creative music, spiritual jazz, free jazz, avant garde jazz, experimental music, improvised music, is a sonic representation of this love…It is a reverberation of the macrocosmic sound.”

For Boykin, “‘free music’ is what it’s about, improvisation, self-expression, ritual.  The purpose is spiritual with intention to go into a trance state.  Everything becomes that tone.  Everything that exists is the sound: it’s all sound, you are the sound, no longer separate…Especially with jazz, the more you learn, the harder it is to fall into trance.  You must learn and then forget it all.”  Of current investigations, “it’s about the intervals, the movement between as opposed to individual notes…to make people feel.”

The David Boykin Expanse, "UltraSheen"; designed by Rahmaan Statik Barnes

Having completed a two-month residency at Dorchester Projects, he will release a recording in Fall 2011. He broadcasts a live, all improvisational jazz session Sundays at 2 p.m. CST at http://www.ustream.tv/discovery/live/all?q=sonic+healing+ministries.

In “Bopera Theory” Amiri Baraka instructs us to “step outside the parameters of this society’s version of just about everything…Add five more senses to the five we know…Our use of the rhythm and motion and image become a social force, grasped by the people…”[ii] Afro-Futurism is rooted in history and African cosmologies, using pieces of the past, technological and analog, to build the future. These works rethink and rework notions of identity; hybridity; the alien and states of alienation; belonging, immigration, migration; and the “vessel” both corporeal and metaphoric, symbolized as a vehicle for liberation.  Afro-Futurism asks: what does “Blackness” or “liberation” look like in the future, real or imagined?

We are space travelers and it’s an open invitation: come aboard and ride on the fantastic voyage.

Upcoming related events:

July 3: Sonic Healing Ministries presents:  “What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, Read by Mankwe Ndosi, Sunday, July 3 from 6-10 p.m. at 7534 S. Eberhart Avenue.  (Suggested Donation: $5 to $10 or pay what you can.) Also performing: composer and saxophonist David Boykin performing some new compositions and DJ Ayana spinning Chicago soul 45’s

July 7: Award-winning speculative fiction writer Andrea Hairston gives a performance reading of her latest Chicago-specific novel Redwood and Wildfire with musician Pan Morrigan at Women and Children First at 7:30 p.m.

July 8-10: THINK Galacticon Conference at Roosevelt University http://tgcon3.thinkgalactic.org/.

To read an expanded interview with space sculptor D. Denenge Akpem on Afro-Futurism, visit Post Black the Blog.  Visit http://www.denenge.net and http://www.theGIANTblog.tumblr.com for updated essays and performance video.


[i] Marshall, Kerry James. “The Legend of Sun Man Continues”, Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro Black and Other Solar Myths co-edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terry Kapsalis in 2010 based on a 2006 Hyde Park Art Center symposium of the same title, p. 58.

[ii] “Baraka, Amiri.  “Bopera Theory”, Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Gus Edwards and Victor Leo Walker II, Temple University Press, 2002.