Birmingham, Alabama-born jazz musician Herman Sonny Blount stood out quite a bit from the other Southern, African-American musicians who immigrated to Chicago in the middle of the 20th century. Then again, any piano player claiming he was a robed mystic born on Saturn would probably draw a few second looks from the crowd.
Blount, who performed under the name Sun Ra, not only composed music for a sprawling jazz orchestra he assembled, which he called the Arkestra, but also wrote and lived by his own science fiction backstory, a blend of Egyptian symbolism and pulp science fiction imagery.
A black man willing to “open the door of the cosmos” may have seemed as unlikely as one preaching self-determination and economic independence. And he isn’t alone: Ra’s use of science fiction tropes, in albums and his movie Space is the Place, to comment on race and social conditions was a forerunner of the artistic movement now known as Afrofuturism, one that’s in the foreground again due to the highly anticipated release of the Black Panther movie.
At first glance, it seems like an elaborate stage show, but peel back the layers, and you’ll find extraordinary depth and social commentary embedded in Ra’s intergalactic musings. By positioning himself as not from this world, specifically a country with a history of enslavement, Sun Ra made a statement about African-American liberation and self-determination: a fictional declaration of independence that carried over to the real world.
A term first popularized in the ’90s by cultural critics such as Mark Dery, Afrofuturism is a literary and cultural aesthetic that uses the tools and tropes of science fiction, as well as references to African and non-Western mythology, as a means to confront and analyze the present-day issues faced by people of color. Author and cultural critic Ytasha Womack, who wrote a book on Afrofuturism, defines it, in part, as “a way of looking at the future or alternate reality through a black cultural lens.”
Marvel’s new movie takes place in the hidden kingdom of Wakanda, a fictional kingdom based in part on the Mutapa empire of 15th-century Zimbabwe, which was a regional powerhouse and center of trade, according to director Ryan Coogler. Its cinematic counterpart, the most technically advanced place on Earth, asks what could have happened if that civilization was allowed to thrive.
Perhaps the most widely known examples of Afrofuturism in contemporary culture come from music, where spaceship/ark iconography runs deep: Sun Ra’s intergalactic persona, Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid concept, the post-industrial themes that course through the Detroit techno songs of producers such as Derrick May and Jeff Mills, and George Clinton and the Parliament Mothership (which was partially inspired by the interstellar origin stories of the Dogon tribe of Mali).
The concept spans genres, from comic books to the award-winning books of Octavia Butler. And within the myriad levels of social commentary found in Afrofuturism, architecture, urbanity, and the built environment are all addressed. When reality is so bound up in issues of place and separation—redlining, urban segregation, and the jarring impact of the slave trade, a forced trip to an entirely alien world—it follows that fictional commentary would mine these rich veins of common experience.
Author Samuel R. Delany has said the concept of the inner-city, viewed by some as an otherworldly space compared to other sections of the city, has been a key theme in his work. As urbanist Pete Saunders notes, African Americans have perhaps been the most urban population in the country, but rarely get a seat at the table when it comes to planning decisions; Black Panther shows a sci-fi version of what a city designed by and for Africans could be.
“Majority culture often calls certain areas overlooked spaces, but if you do look, they’re very culturally rich,” says Womack. “It’s a matter of abandonment. Serenity can be found in the emptiness. Places such as Detroit can be like that in many ways.”
There are numerous ways Afrofuturism’s themes of imagination, liberation, technology, and mysticism reflect on the built world and strive to create alternate environments. Visual artist Stacey Robinson has created a Black Kirby series, a reference to famous graphic artist Jack Kirby, exploring African-American themes in the comics medium, while famed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates worked with artist Brian Stelfreeze on an update to the Black Panther comic series. These characters and storylines are faced with many of the issues that define the African and African-American experiences.
“If you look at a lot of this imagery, there’s a timelessness here,” says Womack. “What time does it represent: futuristic time, current time? It pulls from so many elements it creates an alternate space.”
Another rich vein for Afrofuturist art has come from African filmmakers and a recent wave of low-fi, science fiction stories making social commentary on dystopianism and corruption, and exploring, among other things, issues of cities and spaces, working through what Womack calls “issues urbanism and unused spaces, and using them as a basis for rebuilding.”
To Catch a Dream, by the Kenyan Nest Collective, offers a surreal storyline, and Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu looks at resource scarcity through the lens of a futuristic society living underground. Afronauts presents an alternative history of the space race, where Zambian astronauts are racing to beat Americans to the moon in 1969. A short exploring similar themes of urban space, Noise Gate by Vim Crony, which contains elements of steampunk, takes place in a desolate urban space.
It makes sense that science fiction and film directors would look at structures as a way to comment on society: they’re the building blocks of our environments, and often define the ways in which we relate to each other.
Consider the incredible architecture that came out of post-colonial Africa in the ’60s and ’70s, the subject of a fascinating retrospective at the Vitra Design Museum in 2016. Buildings with incredible, futuristic facades and daring shapes, proudly stretch over the cityscape of newly independent nations, and are imbued with optimism and references to vernacular design.
They seem like a perfect fit for the Wakanda skyline, which in the movie, consists of buildings patterned after “Timbuktu scaffolding and Mali pyramids” as well as a hyperloop. If science fiction is a means of discussing present-day anxieties and issues via the future, then it only follows that the architecture and design of our fantasies can make a massive impact on how we see our present day.