Afrofuturism, Pastlessness, the Studio Museum of Harlem and Jamaica

A meditation on Afro-futurism and Jamaica’s contribution to it…

The first time I heard of Afrofuturism it was from Camille Turner (@Afrofuturist) who was helping Honor Ford-Smith with her Rest in Peace murals project. She introduced me to her short film, The Final Frontier, according to her “an ongoing performance that chronicles the voyage of African Astronauts, descendants of the Dogon people of West Africa who have returned to earth after 10,000 years to save the planet.” Check it out.

There’s quite a tradition of Afrofuturism in Jamaica. The inimitable Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is possibly the coolest alien the world ever hatched and he’s from here. check out his video below. It’s unclear if this is a spontaneous ad for Guiness but among other things the goblin of dub raises a toast or two to Dublin.

And then, improbably enough, there’s Bunny Wailer. He who hated flying in airplanes, navigates cyberspace on his flying carpet in grand style.

Bunny Wailer as Cyber Ras flying through space
Bunny Wailer as Cyber Ras flying through space

I should mention that the occasion for all this reflection on Afrofuturism is the current exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem: The Shadows Took Shape which i sincerely hope I’ll get a chance to see.

The Shadows Took Shape is a dynamic interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics. Coined in 1994 by writer Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future,” the term “Afrofuturism” refers to a creative and intellectual genre that emerged as a strategy to explore science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and pan-Africanism. With roots in the avant-garde musical stylings of sonic innovator Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, 1914–1993), Afrofuturism has been used by artists, writers and theorists as a way to prophesize the future, redefine the present and reconceptualize the past. The Shadows Took Shape will be one of the few major museum exhibitions to explore the ways in which this form of creative expression has been adopted internationally and highlight the range of work made over the past twenty-five years.

The exhibition draws its title from an obscure Sun Ra poem and a posthumously released series of recordings. Providing an apt metaphor for the long shadow cast by Sun Ra and others, the exhibition will feature more than sixty works of art, including ten new commissions, charting the evolution of Afrofuturist tendencies by an international selection of established and emerging practitioners. These works span not only personal themes of identity and self-determination in the African-American community, but also persistent concerns of techno-culture, geographies, utopias and dystopias, as well as universal preoccupations with time and space.

– See more at:

Last night there was a Shadows Took Shape Panel Discussion with Naima J. Keith, Zoe Whitley, Alondra Nelson and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) that was live tweeted making it possible for me to follow the proceedings from here. Check out the tweets below to get a sense of the event.

Studio Museum Harlem @studiomuseum live tweeted most of the following:

“How would you define Afrofuturism? Conversations about race and technology.” -Alondra Nelson

“Afrofuturism wasn’t originally about an academic lockdown. It was a collage of hip hop, sound, and tapestry.” -DJ Spooky

“People were bored. In the 90s the art world barely knew how to use a computer.” – @djspooky

“Whether you’re a dada-ist or a futurist you’re interested in new portals.” – @djspooky

“I loved Octavia Butler’s book, Kindred, so much that I wanted anyone I dated to read it first…” @alondra jokes.

“I took my name from “Nova Express” by William S. Burroughs.“ – @djspooky

.@djspooky highlights the influence of dancehall music in the Carribean on the course of electronic music.

“I loved anything that had an alien!” – @alondra

“People have a selective memory when it comes to slavery. There was no future.” – @djspooky

“Well, what isn’t futuristic about being black in America?” -Greg Tate

“The idea that the robots will uprise and take over goes back to slavery.” @djspooky

Thanks to @DukeU we can all access some of @alondra’s #Afrofuturist texts through Dec 21st. Visit:

“What’s wrong if it’s only afro? It isn’t about excluding other people. It was about carving out a space.” –

Panelist @djspooky offers a healthy critique on the exhibition recommending that there be more music.

Alondra Nelson @alondra
In the green room @studiomuseum with @djspooky @naimajoy and Zoe Whitley #afrofuturism…


DJ Spooky performance and talk at Roktowa in Kingston, Jamaica, December 2012.
DJ Spooky performance and talk at Roktowa in Kingston, Jamaica, December 2012.

For those who may not know, DJ Spooky’s mother is Jamaican. He did a residency in Kingston at Roktowa earlier this year  where he talked at length about his mom, his work, his music. Can’t reproduce that now but here’s an excerpt from an interview where he makes the Jamaican connection more than once:

DJ SPOOKY: Everything I do is all about the mix; social, political, economic, it’s a deconstruction of all the crap the 20th century has left behind. I really think that mix culture is that deep. It reflects so much of what is best in humanity, what makes people relate to their fellow human being. I guess you could say I’m a musical idealist.

RIOTSOUND.COM: When you were young your mother owned an international fabric business and you were able to travel a lot; how did that affect your outlook on music and Hip-Hop in particular?

DJ SPOOKY: My mom’s store was called Toast and Strawberries; I used to spend afternoons there after school. I’d play soccer with my high school’s team and then ride a bike to my mom’s store and do chores and whatnot. Then I would take a break and listen to records. I never really got into TV that much; I just liked to listen to records a lot. That made the transition into DJing [easy]. I started producing tracks when I got to college as a way of passing the time.

My dad passed away when I was 2 years old and I checked out his records as a way of getting to know him. My mom wanted us to travel a lot so we wouldn’t get caught up in this whole American trip of race; black, white, whatever. We had German exchange students and Nigerian exchange students [and others] stay at our house, so I was always open to people from different cultures. That’s what Hip-Hop is about to me.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You got a new double mix CD out that features a variety of tracks from the legendary Jamaican label Trojan Records. How did you go about picking out the music for “In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records”?

DJ SPOOKY: As far as I’m concerned, Jamaica has been part of Hip-Hop from jump. Everything from MC battles to DJ battles to sound systems, Kingston had it all. America was caught up in disco fever when Kool Herc showed up and switched the soundtrack. I pay respect to Herc and I pay respect to how dancehall helped shape what we know as Hip-Hop.

On the compilation I went through a lot of my records and found different versions of classic tracks; stuff like Desmond Dekker’s “007 Shanty Town” that Special Ed sampled or Lee Scratch Perry’s “Disco Devil” out take from Max Romeo’s “Iron Shirt” which Kanye West sampled. 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records looks at the intersection of Hip-Hop, sampling, and different production techniques. I just want people to connect the dots.

RIOTSOUND.COM: In your view, what are some of the most important values of Jamaican sound system culture that contributed to Hip-Hop and to the growth and evolution of music in general?

DJ SPOOKY Let’s put it this way, the sound system situation is a kind of musical democracy. Some people get to vote with their styles and others get to vote with how they respond or don’t respond to the different performers. There’s so many ways that I think this kind of way of presenting shows flipped all the usual performance issues of the day. At the height of the Beatles era people were just going to shows to see the band. The Jamaicans flipped that and made people go to shows to hear records. What could be weirder? I think you have to realize that today, most of the groups you hear, you hear because you checked out their record first, and then went to see them. That’s another gift from Jamaica.

Yet another gift from Jamaica is Small Axe editor David Scott’s interview with Orlando Patterson. This small excerpt, discussing Patterson’s “Toward a Future That Has No Past,” is directly connected to the subject of Afrofuturism though the term is never once used. Check it out:


How interesting! But I don’t want to let you off the hook so easily with that, because I remember reading An Absence of Ruins as a student at university in the late 1970s and feeling that I could identify with Alexander Blackman—with the sense that even as he is playing himself (as the Trinidadians might say), he is watching cynically a society play at being a “society.” And that perception, I think, is incredibly acute, and as relevant today as it was in 1967.


It was partly that, but I think Alexander Blackman was an archetype not just of Caribbean blacks but also of blacks generally. I was thinking of the black experience; I was thinking of blacks within the context of Western civilization. How is it possible to survive, to build a meaningful tradition, within the context of a very dominant Western culture? I was thinking of the whole question of what had been achieved, and whether it was possible or not to accept the nationalist answer “Back-to-Africa”; I began to see the dilemma of where you go from this very catastrophic past—especially if you’re not into Negritude, or Eddie Brathwaite’s interpretation. So that novel was more of a broader novel about the black condition than just the West Indian one.


It’s interesting that you put it that way, because in that very brief passage that I just read—”A being deprived of essence, a willing slave of every chance event”—one notices its deliberately paradoxical character. The passage notes the power structure, that he’s not merely devoid of essence but deprived of essence. He’s both a willing being and an enslaved being. He’s caught in a web of paradoxes.


And that, of course, is a very powerful philosophical trope, which is behind that Sartrean dictum that “existence precedes essence.” You may be deprived of essence but you still have an existence. It’s like a pure existential state, which I was trying to argue and which may well be the basis of a viable way of survival. I have an essay, which I wrote not long after I came here, “Toward a Future That Has No Past,” published in an odd sort of journal, Public Interest, in 1972 (it was the most radical thing that Public Interest ever published).56 The argument there was that precisely not having a past may be a liberating condition. We’re the people of the future. That was the theme. I linked up the West Indian experience with the black experience all over. So I was thinking in broader terms, even though I was using Jamaica, obviously as the site for the novel. “Blackman,” as the name [End Page 169] indicates, is about black people and the black condition. So I found working through existentialism very valuable then, in that you didn’t need an essence, you didn’t need a tradition, you didn’t need the bourgeois sort of anchorage—that, indeed, in the world in which we live, it may well be that you have the possibility of starting from scratch and creating a world for yourself.


So Alexander Blackman is an attempt, then, to create that kind of figure.


Yes. And by the way, I saw jazz as very much a part of that, as the most successful model. I seem to recall having an argument with Brathwaite about that. Because where he was seeing it in terms of continuities I was seeing that the spontaneity of jazz was only made possible because you weren’t trapped in tradition.


But it’s interesting because the challenge, I suppose, is to create a fictional figure that is both essenceless and simultaneously creative. And Alexander Blackman turns out himself not to be a creative character. He wanders around London lost and adrift at the end.


Right, that is the end, but it’s also the beginning. And it’s sort of simply saying, let’s forget about the past; forget about any essence; just start in this moment to create. And there may be advantages to that. That last paragraph of the novel was deliberately written in a more poetic way to almost suggest a sort of spontaneous kind of [John] Coltrane expression. So it was not creating something out of nothing but creating something out of chaos.


It’s not as if there was no past. All of your work is preoccupied with slave past. There is a past, but there is no continuity.


Right, but there’s the knowledge and weight of the past. There is, in fact, a kind of continuity, the continuity of problems and chaos—a continuity of discontinuity.

David Scott. “The Paradox of Freedom: An Interview with Orlando Patterson.”Small Axe 17.1 (2013): 96-242. Project MUSE. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. <;.

And finally check out Gemsigns, a novel by Stephanie Saulter (yes one of film director Storm’s sisters):

Humanity stands on the brink. Again. Surviving the Syndrome meant genetically modifying almost every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their fair share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic. After a century of servitude, freedom has come at last for the gems, and not everyone’s happy about it. The gemtechs want to turn them back into property. The godgangs want them dead. The norm majority is scared and suspicious, and doesn’t know what it wants.

I’m sure I’ve only scraped the surface of this fascinating subject. If you have anything to add please do so…I respond to all my commenters…Over the next few days i’ll probably add to and refine this post, so do check back!

PS: December 22, 2013. Paul Gilroy recently tweeted the link to this “1992 documentary titled simply Black Sci-Fi, which was directed by a Terrence Francis, for the BBC in the UK.

and of course you must have heard of the new Kenyan sci fi series Usoni, set in 2062, about European refugees fleeing to Africa?

 “Included in the film, which focuses on black science fiction in literature, film and television, are interviews with black sci-fi notables like authors Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and Steven Barnes, as well as actress Nichelle Nichols, and others.”
For more go here.
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