Gregg Reese | 8/1/2013, midnight
“Yeah, Sun Ra’s out to lunch … same place I eat at!”
Science fiction has spawned any number of spinoffs, among them alternative history or reality where a world is conceived in the aftermath of dramatic changes in actual history. This includes such deviations from actual events like the Confederacy winning the Civil War; tech-noir, exemplified by the movies “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Minority Report;” and the wildly popular subgenre steampunk, which juxtaposes technical innovations of the 19th century, particularly the Victorian Era as the prevailing scientific apparatus used by mainstream society. Films like “Van Helsing” (2004), “The Time Machine” (both the 1960 and 2002 versions), and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) are prime examples of steampunk.
In the last half of the 20th century, a cultural aesthetic developed within the African Diaspora, specifically geared to enhance a non-Western (or European) point of view. This movement, not initiated by one single mindset, nevertheless evolved in numerous segments of music and the arts in myriad geographic locales.
Cultural figures that might be considered as contributors to this include the pianist-bandleader Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount). From the 1950s on, he postulated a “cosmic philosophy,” including an eclectic musical approach and lifestyle. Among the first to use electronic keyboards and synthesizers, he and his “Arkestra” (a deliberate re-spelling of “orchestra”) performed in garish Egyptian or sci-fi-themed costumes, and Ra himself (Egyptian name for god) personally claimed he was from Saturn.
George Clinton and his rhythmic funk music collective, “Parliament-Funkadelic” or “P-Funk,” was heavily influenced by Sun Ra, but more commercially successful, while another fixture worth mentioning is the Bronx-spawned DJ and rapper Africa Bambaataa. He became politicized on a trip to the Motherland and borrowed heavily from Zulu culture to build community coalitions throughout the city of New York.
A White scholar, Mark Drey in his 1995 essay “Black to the Future,” coined the term “Afrofuturism.” Some devotees consider author Zora Neale Hurston a pioneer, although she is not normally associated with the science fiction tradition. Still others consider this an offshoot of Pan Africanism. This ideology got a cultural “shot in the arm” with the advent of the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975), and as social consciousness impacted the Hip Hop culture towards the end of the century.
As a testament to the cultural impact of George Clinton and his allies in “P-Funk,” a replica of the “Mothership,” the stage prop that was the centerpiece of Parliament-Funkadelic concerts, was recently selected for inclusion into the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Chocolate City’s own Smithsonian Institute.
Devotees of Afrofuturism seek to utilize the arts along with science, technology, and science fiction to explore and shape the Black experience. In this way, its definition might be best left up to the responsibility of the individual to classify for himself or herself, accepting and rejecting individual elements in terms of their personal suitability to a specific person’s life.
In that case, here is a sampling in the form of websites for those seeking information to guide them on their own individual journey towards arriving at that personal definition: http://afrofuturistaffair.tumblr.com, http://afrofuturism.net, http://afrofuturismscholar.com, http://beyondvictoriana.com, http://fyeahafrofuturism.tumblr.com, www.mothershipconnect.com.