To the Future and Beyond
Afrofuturism may be a newer lens for viewing art, media, and philosophy, but it frames stories that have been thriving since long before their representation in the mainstream
Ytasha Womack is an admired author and filmmaker and a leading expert on Afrofuturism.
Born in Chicago, IL, Womack studied at Clark Atlanta University and Columbia University. Her movies Love Shorts (2004) and The Engagement (2006) were nominated for best film at the American Black Film Festival. She also wrote the romantic comedy Couples Night (2018) and produced the documentary Tupac: Before I Wake (2001). Her 2017 dance film A Love Letter to the Ancestors From Chicago was screened at festivals in New York, Chicago, France, England, and Nigeria.
Research into her 2010 book Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity drew Womack to Afrofuturism, which combines elements of speculative fiction, technological progress, and African American culture. Her text Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture (2013) is seen as an authoritative source on the subject.
Her other books include the Rayla Universe time travel series and the nonfiction anthology Beats Rhymes and Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop (2007).
Rasheedah Phillips is an admired author and public interest lawyer. She is the founder of the Afrofuturist Affair and cofounder of Black Quantum Futurism.
Phillips was raised in Philadelphia and received a BA and law degree from Temple University. She works as an attorney at Community Legal Services, providing legal representation for low-income homeowners and tenants. She received a 2017 Housing Justice Award from the National Housing Law Project.
As an author and artist, Phillips promotes the field of Afrofuturism: art that explores African American history and envisions its future. In 2014, she founded the art collective Black Quantum Futurism with musician Camae Ayewa. The collective published Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice (2015), which looks at science and technology from an Afrocentric perspective.
Her work has been presented at Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other places. She released a collection of speculative fiction stories, Recurrence Plot, in 2014.
Camae Ayewa is a multi-talented poet and musician, better known under stage name Moor Mother.
Born and raised in Aberdeen, MD, she studied photography at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. In 2012, after playing bass and singing in punk bands for several years, she began posting songs to independent music platform Bandcamp under the name Moor Mother. Her 2016 debut Fetish Bones was named one of the best experimental albums of the year by Rolling Stone. Sung to a backdrop of avant-garde electronic music, her powerful lyrics focus on protest and political injustice. She released a 122-page book of poetry alongside the album.
Her critically acclaimed third album, Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes (2019), was followed by Circuit City (2020), a soundtrack to her 2019 stage show.
In 2014, she founded the Afrofuturistic collective Black Quantum Futurism with artist Rasheedah Phillips to explore the intersections of futurism, art, and activism through installations, collaborative publications, and community events in Philadelphia and around the world.
If you’ve yet to encounter the vibrant world of Afrofuturism, get ready to feel the past, the present, and the future become one.
Rasheedah Phillips: It’s both an art and an attitude and it’s a culture.
Ytasha Womack: Afrofuturism is a way of looking at alternate realities through a black cultural lens.
Afrofuturism is a broad concept with its roots in science fiction. In recent years, the likes of Janell Monae, Beyoncé, and the Black Panther movie franchise have brought it into the mainstream. Aesthetics mingling ancient African symbols with high tech, cyborgian imagery. Stories about a future in which black people and black culture are not merely included, they are foundational. And in a world where the legacy of slavery lives on in public policy and private discourse, Afrofuturism offers an escape as well as a means of envisioning new possibilities for justice and equality of opportunity. The filmmaker, scholar, and writer Ytasha Womack believes that this is changing self perception in the black community.
Womack: Many people of African descent aren’t always accustomed to seeing images of themselves in the future. That showcase in and of itself transforms people.
Moor Mother: Afrofuturism is very much for the people, you know it allows me to fully be creative with the means that I have.
For experimental musician Moor Mother, Afrofuturism is a life philosophy and a path to liberation.
Moor Mother: I like to use my music as a form of time travel. So I try to use different things, you know from throughout time, sounds, field sounds, just things that may spark some type of memory within people that takes them to another place.
Phillips: Western civilization’s mode of time is very much future oriented. Moving into the future on this progressive linear line. Ancient African traditions of time flow backwards. They flow cyclically. They, you know, they return.
Rasheedah Phillips is a sci-fi author and with Moor Mother, the co-founder of the artists collective Black Quantum Futurism. She says that the term Afrofuturism is relatively new but its guiding principles are timeless.
Phillips: We’ve always speculated but it’s been called different things. And now Afrofuturism is like the, two-thousands version of something we’ve always done. The term was coined in the early 90’s by a white cultural critic named Mark Dery who wrote this essay called Black to the Future, where he essentially started off the essay by asking, “Well, why isn’t there a presence”of black people in mainstream sort of science fiction?”
(Excerpt from Mark Dery’s Black to the Future)
This is especially perplexing in light of the fact that African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements. Official histories undo what has been done to them.
Phillips: You know, I wrote this essay one time about this choice that I had to make, you know, just being a book lover, going to the bookstores and having to choose between going to the African-American literature section and the science fiction section, because I don’t know where’s Octavia Butler going to be? She going to be in sci-fi or she’s going to be in African-American literature? She’s often not in sci-fi. And so if I go to the sci-fi section and I don’t see Octavia Butler how am I as a young person going to know that black people write science fiction or that we are the characters or the protagonist in these stories?
AJC: I mean I think I would find that frightening if there were a futuristic science fiction and people who looked and sounded and walked and talked like me were not in there. It would almost feel like, somewhere there was an agenda for me not to be around in the future.
Phillips: Oh yeah, you think?
AJC: Is that your reaction to it?
Phillips: Yeah, but that was only my reaction after I became aware that we were even absent.
Today, Octavia Butler is considered the godmother of Afrofuturism. Its godfather is Sun Ra, the late American jazz musician and philosopher who claimed to be visiting from Saturn on a mission to preach peace. For more than 40 years, he led an ever-shifting roster of musicians, the Arkestra, in creating slices of utopia on stage.
Phillips: His music itself is like the definition of what Afrofuturism would be down to his very instrumentation in the sounds he experimented with.
Womack: He was very much on one level exploring alienation and kind of creating a reason of sorts to justify this alienation by literally saying he came from somewhere else. But I think, that now we’re in a different space and people very much feel like they can make a difference here.
Despite pockets of progress it’s clear that life has not really been improving for African-Americans. Afrofuturism is a powerful tool for radically re-imagining the world. In her day job, Rasheedah Phillips is an attorney at a free civil legal assistance organization in Philadelphia. And she doesn’t just practice her art at home.
Phillips: I was like, “Oh, this is fun and useful.” And how can I apply this to my clients or to the people that I’m seeing in my community who are feeling hopeless about the future because of they’re in poverty or because they’ve been told, you know, that they don’t belong in the future, or because they’ve seen that, you know, from mainstream ideas of what the future is and who gets to make it into the future.
Womack: For me, success in Afrofuturism is just encouraging people to use their imagination to transform their circumstances. Giving people a platform to feel comfortable telling stories they didn’t feel had an audience before. I would just jump up and down for that in and of itself.
And for those on the front lines for change like Rasheedah Phillips, Afrofuturism offers the chance to look at a world riddled with problems and feel more optimistic.
Phillips: Afrofuturism informs me in how I view time and how I view the ending of problems. I don’t live with this notion of finality that, you know, there’s this final thing that things are never going to get better and that is the final conclusion. No, there is this dynamic sense of what changes. And so, you know, I have hope.
Much traditional sci-fi imagines a dystopian future, one of great injustice and suffering. Many African-Americans have no use for such fantasies. They are already living in a dystopian present. What Afrofuturism presents is an idea, a belief, and a hope for some future utopia.