What is Afrofuturism?

What is Afrofuturism?

You need only cast a quick glance over the considerable career of someone like Isaac Asimov to note the prescient and directive power of science-fiction. The man who popularised the idea of robotics in his classic I, Robot and, in his 1964 article, Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014, foresaw everything from kitchen top coffee makers and microwave meals to satellite phones.

And then consider that Asimov’s predictions, as impressive as they were, cannot even be considered unusual amongst the sci-fi writing fraternity.

Ray Bradbury prefigured the advent of earphones in his best known novel, Fahrenheit 451. Whilst HG Wells, as far back as 1899, was imagining automatic doors in The Sleeper Awakes. In fact, everything from bionic limbs (The Six Million Dollar Man) to credit cards (Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel, Looking Backwards), to the now commonplace Skype-style video calling we all use and love has been prophesied one way or another by the heady imaginations of science-fiction.

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is considered one of the most influential books ever written
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is considered one of the most influential books ever written

And that’s before we even get into how much of our everyday vernacular is co-opted from the oft quoted but rarely read (and yes, I have read it) George Orwell classic, 1984 – terms like ‘big brother,’ ‘doublethink’ ‘newspeak’ ‘thought-crime’ (none of which will trigger your present day spellchecker) were all coined in a book authored in 1949, a full two decades before CCTV made its first appearance in the 70s, and over half a century before Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and the pervasive surveillance culture that’s now become so much a part of our world. We may as well call proponents of science-fiction ‘seers’ rather than writers, so often have their speculations foreshadowed, and in many cases shaped, the future reality.

That being said, at its heart sci-fi has always been about more than just gadgets and technology. In fact, it’s always been about more than just the future; the imagined tomorrow is a ready tool with which to examine the landscape of the today (hence the often dystopian bent).

In reality, the whole genre is a domain of elaborate thought experiments, designed to do more than merely entertain. Sci-fi seeks to show the world to us, one step removed, unveiled and refracted through the dark mirror of hyper-reality, and therefore beyond the apathy-inducing lens of what is familiar. Which is perhaps why Ray Bradbury once called it

“The most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas… central to everything we’ve ever done.”

And he’s kind of right. In generations long gone by our parables were hidden in aural traditions and fables, everything from Hans Christian Andersen, to Aesop, to Plato, Homer and back to the earliest cave drawings have carried their own polemic thrust. Our stories were ‘once upon a time’ then, hearkening back to fantastical histories in search of compass and roadmap for the realities of the present day.

However, since the forward-hurtling train the industrial revolution put us on, and the way technology has since quickened and enlarged the shifts between one generation and the next, the past has become a venerable though antiquated stranger, foggy and mysterious and hard to call to mind. In the words of bestselling science-fiction novelist, William Gibson

“It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.”

All of which means the tales that now tell what’s wrong or right about the world – our modern day myths, so to speak – no longer speak of what used to be, they envision what is still yet to come.

Which I guess is why it’s strange to find that science-fiction, at least until very recently, has been mostly dominated by just one particular kind of imagined future. Here’s how Gibson put it

“It seemed to me that mid-century mainstream American science-fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room.”

And more elbow room is exactly what certain parts of sci-fi – and afrofuturism in particular – have been trying to shoulder their way into for the last twenty years. And with some success. Enough for Nnedi Okorafor to call it

“The only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.”

africa-economistNow, this is a big deal. Because let’s face it, the co-opting of Africa’s future isn’t exactly a new or rare practice. Without getting into the hoary, knotty tangles of 19th & 20th century (French, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese and British) colonialism, even since the many (apparent) liberations and independences of sub-Saharan Africa the narrative for what the continent is and ought to be has been written by everyone from Joseph Conrad (see his 1902 short novel Heart of Darkness, and Chinua Achebe’s critique of it) to Ernest Hemingway to CNN. With added emphasis on the latter, because the outsider’s view assumed by most western media is an issue, one acknowledged by Komla Dumor, a Ghanaian correspondent for the BBC who recently lamented the media’s failure to recognise that any ‘expert’ analysis of Africa must come from its inhabitants, and not news organisations who’ve “[flown] in a correspondent to tell you what’s happening by looking out of [their] hotel window.”

It’s this kind of thing Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu is complaining about when she says,

“We [Africans] have never had a chance to talk about our own history, it’s always been written by other people.”

And it’s exactly here that afrofuturism comes in.

The term was coined by the American author and critic, Mark Dery, in 1993, who correctly saw the genre as the perfect way to narrate the African-American experience, an experience of those who were and are

“the descendants of alien abductees; [inhabiting] a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements [whilst] official histories undo what has been done.”

Dery saw the subversive, outsider oeuvre of sci-fi as ripe for both “asserting [the African-Americans’] presence in the present and [making] clear they intend to stake their claim in the future.”

It’s this sort of impetus Dery recognised in the writings of Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and Charles Saunders, as well as spying incarnations of afrofuturism beyond literature in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Bernie Worrell’s Blacktronic Science and George Clinton’s Computer Games, a sort of technocultural funk meme that’s found continuance in the innovative sounds of Janelle Monae, Outkast, Will.i.am and others.

But today afrofuturism is broader than this, reaching beyond Dery’s initial remit to encompass artists and writers from the continent of Africa as well as those of its diaspora, seeking to explore, in the words of artist and educator, Denenge Akpem, ‘what blackness could look like in the future’.

And it’s this exploration that really undergirds the genre’s value, and makes the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz, Clifton Gachagua, Bill Campbell and Steve Barnes worth supporting beyond the merits of their considerable talent. Because science-fiction of all kinds – of which afrofuturism is one – has proven over and over again its ability to set the frame for how we envision the future, and as Zimbabwean author and publisher, Ivor Hartmann, puts it

“If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart.”