Janelle Monáe

Through her scientific-fiction references past and future, her music conceptual series Metropolis and her alter ego Arch Android Cindi Mayweather, singer-songwriter Janelle Mone has been hailed as the spirit incarnate of modern-day Afrofuturism. While Mone might be the best-known exponent, in the past few years more and more musicians, filmmakers, writers and artists on the continent and in the diaspora are projecting their work through the lens of Afrofuturism. The movement itself has been around for a while. Acclaimed funk, jazz musician and composer Sun Ra, writer Octavia Butler, and hip-hop artist Afrika Bambatha are just some of the people whose works were influential in the canon long before the term itself was coined.

It would only be in 1993, when cultural critic Mark Dery labelled the growing artistic movement, that the narrative of AfricanAmericans in a sci-fi context became ocial. Back then, Dery described it as something that treats African-American concerns in the context of 20th century techno culture. It has also come to be known as the combination of technology and sci-fi used to speculate on the future, with African mythology and symbolism being used to reflect on the past. At its centre is the language of alienation, covering themes that explore issues of identity and marginalisation, and giving thought to what it means to be black through space, time and the present.

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While the term was originally used to refer specifically to the African-American experience, one can ask: is Afrofuturism something that people who consider themselves strictly African can also claim? UK-based writer Nana Ocran admits she is a latecomer to the topic, saying that although the nucleus of the movement can be traced to the US, there are features that distinguish the UK and African versions: I learnt about blackness through the US. But Egyptology (a theme often seen in early works of Afrofuturism) is laden with African icons and myths, so those who want to take it further will look beyond the US, she says. The term itself has recently appeared in South Africas creative culture. Spoek Mathambo and his super-band Fantasma, whose sound is described as a fusion of hip-hop, rock, Shangaan electro and Maskandi, have been described as deeply Afrofuturistic.

Art and music collective The Brother Moves On, who see themselves as a a time and space exercise, and other local musicians like computer girl Zaki Ibrahim, the BLK JKS and newcomer Moonchild Sanelly have all been described as belonging to the realm of Afrofuturism. Does the idea of mixing an African aesthetic with technology and a bit of speculative fiction automatically mean something is Afrofuturism, or is Afrofuturism the starting point for other ideas that we need to explore? Tegan Bristow, lecturer at the Wits School of Arts, sees these young artists, whore mixing everything from 1980s rock to stories that they learnt from their grandparents, as being at the forefront of contemporary culture. Their work is digital and it draws from the dynamic history of South Africa. However, she believes that because it is dierent to that of the African-American movement, for various reasons and with its own time frame, we need to find a dierent term to describe it.

By calling it Afrofuturist we are not recognising all the nuanced aspects of how and why it is happening here. The other question is whether Afrofuturism is applicable to only the black experience and whether Africans who are not black, like writer Lauren Beukes and film-maker Matthew Jankes (whose film Umkhungo has been mentioned as an example), can be described as Afrofuturists. For Ocran, thats an interesting issue. Both artists represent what she describes as Afro Sci-Fi, which can be seen as an extension of Afrofuturism. I guess being a white African still makes you African, even with the dierences of life or soulful experiences. But if Afrofuturism is an evolving movement thats being picked up throughout the diaspora, in its latest manifestation, perhaps there are white African angles and perceptions that are influenced by it “ and could be influencing it in turn. Many young local artists are taking Afrofuturism as a starting point to make sense of their own experiences. Moonchild Sanelly sees it in this light: I call my genre Futuristic Ghetto Funk, she says.

For her, its about African artists creating their own genre that is not defined by what is safe or that traditionally falls into the category of African music. Shes aiming to appeal to a wider audience than an African one. Zimbabwean-born artist Gerald Machona, now based in Cape Town, uses Afrofuturism as a way into the debate about xenophobia in South Africa. His seminal work, Vabvakure (People from far Away), is a series that examines the feelings of alienation experienced by a foreigner. He asserts that cultural mediation in the form of visual and performance art can oer insights into social trauma and potentially resist intolerance and violence associated with xenophobia. Through his characterisation of an African immigrant, embodied as Ndiri Afronaut (I am an Afronaut), he seeks to overcome the negative associations of the alien. My work has moved towards Afrofuturist literature and visual aesthetic, he says, because this was the most sensitive way I could discuss such morbid subject matter without losing my audience, and still be able to link it to migration and the African diasporic experience. Afrofuturism is more apparent during some moments in time than others “ as a trend, it ebbs and flows.

Bristow believes that, at its core, its a way to change perceptions of what it means to be black, and, by extension, what it means to be African. This issue has, even now, not been properly dealt with and it will keep coming back until its satisfied. TEXT: NTOMBENHLE SHEZI / PHOTOGRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES Were so globally tuned in with one another throughout the diaspora, says Ocran, that relationships with the black past and present are going to collide and blend. In its latest reincarnation, where social media platforms play a big role, a simple hashtag like #Blacklivesmatter has enormous power to connect people. As the movement re-emerges, fades, returns and evolves, the opportunities for Africans to reimagine ourselves, tell our stories and turn our ideas into reality become empowering, and limitless.

Janelle Monáe

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