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General History of Afrofuturism and a Close Up Look at How it Influences Hip Hop

Wakanda Forever Still | ©Disney
Wakanda Forever Still | ©Disney

Afrofuturism is a genre and aesthetic built around Black history, culture, experience and agency; it incorporates science-fiction, technology, fantasy, and futuristic elements into disciplines like literature, music, fashion, and the visual arts. Often utilizing contemporary social movements or popular culture as backdrops, Afrofuturism reimagines, reinterprets and reclaims the past and present for a more empowering future.

The term Afrofuturism was first introduced by author, lecturer, and scholar Mark Dery. In his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” he describes the concept as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture.” But elements of Afrofuturism have arguably been a part of art, literature, and music at least since the birth of modern science fiction at the beginning of the 19th century.

In the United States, classic-style comic books and graphic novels played an important role in the evolution of the Afrofuturism movement. Writers and artists like Jack Kirby — creator of Marvel superheroes such as Captain America, the Avengers, and the Black Panther — appealed to the Afrofuturist love of fantastic tales and supernatural characters who overcame all the odds. Hope through adversity was a shared concept with enduring appeal for good reason.

From the time of institutional slavery to the Civil Rights era, Afrofuturism was ushered along by generations of Black creatives. It’s impossible to write a fully accurate history of black speculative fiction because very little is known about the dime novel authors of the 19th century and the pulp magazine writers of the early 20th century, including their ethnicity. But American physician, military officer, and writer Martin Delany was a prominent figure of the early genre.

The dawn of the Space Age was another major inspiration for Afrofuturism. Originally from Alabama, activist, cosmic philosopher, poet, and avant-garde jazz giant Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) claimed to have traveled to Saturn where he was inspired to use music to heal humanity. Seeing connections between ancient Egypt and space exploration, he took his name from the Egyptian sun god and used a mixture of Egyptian and space imagery in his costumes.

Modern day Afrofuturism, in its own right, stands as a successor to the Black Arts Movement. Octavia Butler, for example – widely referred to as the “mother of Afrofuturism” – decided that it was necessary to write her lived experience into science fiction, which was dominated by white male authors. So, she combined African mythology with social activism to conjure images of alternate Black worlds in her works between the 1970s and 2000s.

But Afrofuturism is not just about creating alternate worlds; it can also offer an escape from trouble in the real world and be used as a tool for examining the problems Black people are facing globally. As a culture that was always connected to comic books, novels and popular films, it shouldn’t be a revelation that Afrofuturism and its adjacent themes are as prominently embraced by so many Hip-Hop artists.

Hip hop has always had Afrofuturism in its DNA. Young b-boys and b-girls in the Bronx escaped the severity of their circumstances via dance, song and visual art, while adopting personas and monikers that evoked superheroes and science fiction. "Grandmaster Flash" took his name from the fictional space hero; Afrika Bambaataa's Soulsonic Force embraced futuristic sounds and fused them with the spirit of the Zulu Nation.

Since the genre predates the birth of hip hop in 1973, Hip-hop artists have also turned to Afrofuturism to inform their work as well as their aesthetic, taking inspiration from entertainers like Sun Ra and George Clinton, the leader of the super popular funk band Parliament-Funkadelic. He was known for wearing ornate Pan-African clothing and incorporating a spaceship stagecraft called “The Mothership” in his performances.

Sun Ra’s and George Clinton’s ideas, art, aesthetic and fascination with science and technology helped influence countless hip hop idols, like Dr. Dre, who included snippets of Clinton’s music on his 1992 album “The Chronic.” A few years later, Clinton made a cameo appearance in “California Love” by Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur. The collaboration evokes vivid images of turf war battles in a post-apocalyptic, climate change-ridden, desert wasteland with sparse water.

OutKast's ATLIENS (1996) is a prime example of Afrofuturist art. In an era when Hip hop's mainstream was dominated by East Coast and West Coast artists, their name signaled the duo’s status as outsiders. Around the same time, MC Kool Keith reinvented himself as Dr. Octagon and released Dr. Octagonycologist, a bizarre concept album about a homicidal, time-traveling, extraterrestrial gynecologist bopping around the universe at warp speed.

RZA's first solo effort independent of Wu-Tang Clan was his Bobby Digital In Stereo project, which, like Dr. Octagonecologyst, was built around a futuristic alter ego. It referenced his Five Percent leanings, while also emphasizing his love of science fiction. "I would mix in my love for comic books," RZA explained at the time. "It was a mixture of fiction and reality together to make a character I thought would be entertaining."

Starting in the mid-90s, hip-hop and R&B production began shifting between analog and digital sounds; with the changing technological effects, championed by emerging producers like Timbaland and Darkchild, music started sounding more futuristic. That coupled with the fact that music videos were trying out more experimental filming techniques, like using the fish-eye lens popularized by director Hype Williams, hip hop and Afrofuturism started to evolve in unison.

More than any other hip hop artist (save for OutKast), Missy Elliott seemed to embody the possibilities inherent in Afrofuturistic visuals. In some of her most popular music videos from the 90s and early 2000s, Missy performs in outer space, in virtual reality, or some otherworldly backdrop; she wears anything from tribal warrior dress to intergalactic armor. Hood Futurism, as it would be called in 2013, describes the visual styles of mid to late 1990s hip-hop.

More recently, Kendrick Lamar, winner of the best rap album at the 2023 Grammys, recorded 5 of 14 songs on the Black Panther movie soundtrack. In the music video for “All the Stars,” Lamar fuses African Americans’ desire to know what Africa was like prior to colonization to a futuristic pilgrimage that reimagines what it would be like to return to one’s ancestral roots. The film itself is an emblem of Afrofuturism, from its themes to its visuals.

Others, like author and entertainer Janelle Monae, have also incorporated Afrofuturism into their art. Both Solange and Beyonce Knowles carry forth its legacy. Artist duo Stacey Robinson and John Jennings, who go by “Black Kirby,” remix classic comic books to create new characters with stories with Afrofuturist themes. Their moniker is an homage to their childhood hero. Self-taught photographer and digital artist Osborne Macharia is a popular Kenyan Afrofutuirst.

At the end of the day, advocates of Afrofuturism champion using the past to analyze, think about, and create a future where Black culture is celebrated.


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