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

D. Denenge Akpem

Read Part 1 of the article here.

George Clinton leads the chant “Swing low, sweet chariot, stop and let me ride!”  Repeat the cry: “I think I see the Mothership coming!” “If you wanna ride, help me sing, come on now!”: your liberation is up to you and participation is the ticket.

Stills from "Shadow Vignettes - Odd Eye O Mumbo Jumbo," Jonathan Woods

Chicago prophet Curtis Mayfield’s train in “People Get Ready”; Sun Ra’s Solar Arkestra; George Clinton’s Mothership; “Black Moses” Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line: these vessels of transformation rise from the Black mythos.  Sun Ra’s musical ascension coincided with the inauguration of space travel; his contemporaries included young, Chicago-born Gil Scott Heron whose percussive poem “Whitey On the Moon” reflected those left in Earth’s tenements whom Ra came to rescue in Space is the Place.   “A rat done bit my sister Nell but whitey’s on the moon…”

Afro-Futurism is hot, moist, black nutrient-rich, deep in the bowels of memory and soul iterations.  It lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  “The central fact in Black Science Fiction…is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened: that (in Public Enemy’s phrase) Armageddon has been in effect.”[i] In Afro-Futurism, however, “everything is alive and transformed as opposed to being destroyed.”[ii] Afro-Futurism says: even “solid” matter is made of slow-moving molecules; Jesus walked on water and you can, too.

Chicago gave birth to the renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The documentary “Shadow Vignettes – Odd Eye O Mumbo Jumbo” by Jonathan Woods for AACM member Edward Wilkerson Jr. features strong elements of Afro-Futurism.

AACM continues as a multi-generational collective co-led by virtuoso flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell.  Her stunning Intergalactic Beings based on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series was performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art by Black Earth Ensemble.  The story unfolded like a mirage with a luminous composition and a thick, layered, enveloping, arousing, overwhelming performance.  Costumes of white plastic by butoh practitioner Nicole LeGette appeared ethereal, crumpled and molded to each performer, the masterful stage lighting turning the ensemble into an otherworldly apparition, a mystical secret society to which we bore witness.

Intergalactic Beings, Nicole Mitchell and Black Earth Ensemble, costumes by Nicole LeGette

Filmmaker and founder of As’e Kreative Group Jonathan Woods’ most recent project is Omandi Mech 5, a new motion comic series in development featuring an African family of the future.  OM5 creator Mshindo Kumba crafts brilliantly layered stories with what Woods calls “green technologies on steroids.”[iii] Executive produced by Wesley Snipes, the series is one of the first where a motion comic is created before the actual comic book is released. OM5‘s format is not style for style sake.  He elaborates:

 

“What animé did for Japanese culture, this can do for African-centered culture.  The work contains surrealist elements and is a way to explore aspects of being and living that may not exist in the English language…it’s a whole other way to tell a story…How the artist decides what is to be in motion or not in motion is up to the storyteller.  With a lot of African art, the interesting thing that happens is your fingers have an immediate feel for what it must be like to touch…That’s [key to this style]: the immediate connection to the senses.”

He and Christopher Adams’ video for Public Enemy’s “Do You Wanna Go Our Way (Director’s Cut)” takes place within the treetop city of a space-floating tree planet.  In chanteuse Ugochi‘s “Good Vibes” music video, the artist playfully sends out good vibrations to harmoniously balance the universe.

Still from Public Enemy's "Do You Wanna Go Our Way", Jonathan Woods and Christopher Adams

Woods characterizes Afro-Futurism as an act of freedom with holistic intent where “all points of space and time are accessible.” He references concepts explored in Malidoma Patrice Somé’s foundational account of a shaman’s journey Of Water and the Spirit: “With our people, the way we perceive time: the past is living.”

 

Award-winning writer Nnedi Okorafor’s novels explore African (specifically Nigerian) mythological systems, juju, and flight, to name just a few.  Okorafor’s intially devastating real-life “cyborg” experience with scoliosis, spinal surgery and re-learning to walk led her to writing during recovery. From the flying title character of Zahrah the Windseeker to the Desert Magician Legba trickster of The Shadow Speaker, Okorafor’s tales address real-world and mystical concerns, swirling past, present and future in a glorious harmattan wind where transformation is not only possible but manifest.

Intergalactic Beings, Nicole Mitchell and Black Earth Ensemble, costumes by Nicole LeGette

She describes the experience of visiting an Abuja market while wearing shorts (culturally unacceptable) as “an alien wearing attire that has the ability to stun civilians senseless and knock them off their feet…[organic fantasy] has the power to make something familiar strange…blooms directly from the soil of the real.  To describe myself as an actual alien in this Abuja market incident is to most clearly and honestly portray how I experienced it.  To write myself as a shape-shifter in that van to the village most accurately shows just how jarring the cultural shifts were to me…For me, fantasy is the most accurate way of describing reality.”[iv]

 

With a title based on Patrice Lumumba’s question “Dear friends, are you afraid of death?”, the award-winning, critically acclaimed Who Fears Death will be turned into a feature film directed by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu.

Like Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed shape-shifter Anyanwu, Okorafor lives between worlds, the Nigeria of her parents and the America of her birth.  This ability to morph between worlds, spirit to human, male to female to new forms of gender, is characteristic of the Afro-Futurist.  Think Grace Jones in her 2008Corporate Cannibal video.  She appears as black liquid mercury, grotesque and seductive against a driving militaristic ska beat:

“Pleased to meet you, pleased to have you on my plate
Your meat is sweet to me…

I deal in the market, every man, woman and child is a target

I can’t get enough prey
Pray for me

I’ll consume my consumers, with no sense of humour…”

Afro-Futurism is dred coils of rich magma-laced soil.  Glorious and untamable, the afro’s existence is predicated on flow. It is that moment when every cell in your body comes alive.  Afro-Futurism asks: what does the future look like?  And who has the power to control it?

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] Jonker, Julian.  “Black Secret Technology (The Whitey on the Moon Dub)”

[ii] Quote from interview with Jonathan Woods, June 2011

[iii]Quote from interview with Jonathan Woods, June 2011

[iv] Okorafor, Nnedi. “Organic fantasy” from The Black Imagination, Science Fiction and the Speculative, published as a special issue of African Identities: An International Journal, edited by Sandra Jackson and Julie Moody-Freeman