What Is Afrofuturism? Part 8: Rasheedah Phillips

Rasheeda Phillips from The Afrofuturist Affair discusses her definition of Afrofuturism:

Via Alicia McCalla’s Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Stories of Color

The Future is already Here. It’s just unevenly distributed.

William Gibson

The word “futurism” embedded in the term Afrofuturism denotes a forward-looking aesthetic or theme that envisions the prospective future of humanity. If popular media, literature, and film are any indication, the images that people typically draw to mind when thinking of the future generally involve either 1) post-apocalyptic scenery 2) highly-advanced technology or 3) interplanetary and outerspace travel.

Afrofuturism as a genre, however, does much more than pay lip service to some far-flung future that we can only access to in our imaginations, futures that are so drastically different from anything we know in contemporary times that we cannot possibly have any direct link to it, or futures that only our descendants will be able to enjoy or suffer in. I believe that, distinctive from other notions of genre-based futurism, Afrofuturistic concepts of sci-fi, fantasy, myth, and speculation bind both the past and future, delivering them to a Now in visual, literary, musical terms (and any other mode of expression that one sees fit to attach the Afrofuturistic lens to). Afrofuturism is visionary and retrospective and current all at once, in that it recognizes that time cycles and revolves. In this way, we can all participate in Afrofuturism daily, in everyday life, to allow for a perpetually accessible bridge between ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants, between our futures and our pasts.

Moreover, Afrofuturism seems to recognize that the future can be as spaced out or as close as one chooses to define it, telling us that “it’s all relative”. The future is the next second, the next day, and the next decade.  Before we lived through yesterday and found ourselves in today, the future was today. Afrofuturism empowers the work of our ancestors by reminding us that we are their future, we are a part of the future that they helped shape because their experiences remain embedded in our experiences and give context to our choices. Afrofuturism is the conduit through which they can continue to speak and inform us. Under this interpretation (upon which reasonable minds can and do differ), I find Afrofuturism to be a potent platform upon which I can launch my own science fiction/science possibility stories and practices…

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The My-Stery: Bacchanal!!!!

Destra Garcia – “Bacchanal”

While doing research to write one of my poems, I learned about the Greek god Dionysus/Roman god Bacchus and Bacchanalia festivals. When I heard the word Bacchanalia, I thought of how often Bacchanal is said in Caribbean Calypso and Soca music, and I wanted to know the connections between Caribbean carnival and Bacchanalia. Dionysus/Bacchus is the god of wine (a psychoactive or entheogenic drug), ecstasy, ritual dance, mystery and drama. He is the opposite force of the Apollonian principles of beauty and reason.

Bacchanalia (called in Greece, the Dionysian Mysteries) was a ritual and festival that involved drinking of wine, playing various instruments, mostly percussion, spirit possession and wild dancing. In Greece and Rome, these festivals (or carnivals) were especially important for those who were are the margins of society, like women, slaves and foreigners because the activities were liberating. The festival was also associated with the god Liber and Liberalia. It involved the releasing of inhibitions and the breaking out of the boundaries of social norms. Eventually, the ritual was banned in Rome in 186 BC because of its explicit sexuality, subversiveness to the government and claims of extreme violence, which most likely were untrue.

It is no surprise why the name Bacchanal was adopted into Caribbean, specifically Trinidadian, carnival. In fact, the rituals are similar to Afro-diasporic rituals in religions like Vodou, which relies on rhythms for spirit possession. Additionally Bacchanal exist not only in the Caribbean, but in New Orleans as Bayou Bacchanal. This was in early Greek and Roman culture, but just as marginalized groups today, the participants in these festivals were seen as a threat. When a group of people come together out of the control of the powers that be, it turns to one. I guess history repeats itself once again.

Speaking of celebration, I am graduating today from college!!!

Otherworldy Videos: Two Perspectives on Akan Spirituality

A few days a go, I watched these two documentaries on the religions of the West African Akan ethic group.

“Return to the Land of Souls”

Watch the entire film here

This is the description of the film: In the 21st century, many ancestral beliefs are struggling to survive in a hostile, fast-changing world. In southeast Côte d’Ivoire, some Akan communities still make contact with the spirits through Komians or animistic priests, who go into a trance and are possessed by the spirits of the Forest and the Waters.

Jean Marie Addiaffi (1941-1999), a writer and intellectual from Ivory Coast, fought to conserve the Akans’ oral literature, myths and legends, and the knowledge and uses of the plants. “In Return to the Land of Souls,” Yéo Douley, a disciple of Jean Marie Addiaffi, will set out on a journey to visit his master’s grave and carry out a ritual libation. On his travel, he will attend the initiation rites of three people chosen by the spirits and witness one of them proclaimed as the new Komian, or high animistic priest.

I particularly liked this film because it gave a more knowledgeable, humane and personal touch to the Akans’ rituals. It did not have a detached outsider point of view unlike this next film, “Demons of Ghana.

“Demons of Ghana” depicts the conflicts between Akan traditional religion in Ghana and Christian megachurches. I have some criticisms of the film. First, it does not give a historical context of how Western missionaries have contributed to the conflict. Second, the narrator and filmmaker is “othering” both groups through his language and actions, especially at the end when he continues to videotape the wedding ritual after he is told not to and when talks about how in the West we are so different (no we are not, which is what I talk about on my blog. Third, the film does not give an overtly well-rounded perspective of traditional religion in the people’s lives, except for one priestess speaking about her experiences, but I read that was done under false pretenses. This film is often objectifying and disrespectful; it seems like it is more for sensationalism.

Modern Griots: Val Inc.

Recorded by Brooklyn Independent TV, Val Jeanty, aka Val Inc., explains in this video how her Haitian background influences her career as a percussionist, turntablist, producer and recording engineer. She describes her music as “Afro-Electronica.” Listen below to her work, “Life After Dark” with trombonist and cellist Dana Leong:

Modern Griots: THEESatisfaction

Photo courtesy of Sub Pop/Credit: David Belisle

MTV Iggy recently released a new article about THEESatisfaction, “Space is the Sound: Investigating Afrofuturism With THEESatisfaction:”

THEESatisfaction is the musical project of Stasia Irons (Stas) and Catherine Harris-White (Cat). Together the couple forms a two-woman, self-produced R&B/hip hop/psychedelic soul operation with strong cosmic overtones. Stas does a bit more rhyming while Cat is known for the jazzy vocals, but the beauty is in the way one thing changes into another as stylistic boundaries dissolve before your ears.

Inspired by everything from the Neptunes to feminist science fiction, the grooves on their Sub Pop-released debut album awE naturalE might take you to another world. After all, that’s what they themselves are seeking in their musical explorations.

We gathered some of this insight in our recent interview with the duo. Never ones to shy away from deep conversation, they opened up about the musical extraterrestrialisms they love and the process of finding their own spacey sound…

How do you feel about the term Afrofuturism? I think it’s been applied to your music in every single thing I’ve read about you. What, if anything, does the word mean to you?

Cat: I really like the term. It embodies a lot of things that I agree with. It has a deep meaning because it has a way of explaining a whole culture. It is still a label that boxes a lot of other things out, but at the same time it propels black people to another height. It examines things in a way that can stretch as far back as Egypt and the pyramids or as futuristic as you want, like right now with Janelle Monae. It’s a broad phrasing but it explains a lot of people. I think it explains us, a part of us anyway.

People apply the term a lot to your label mate Spoek Mathambo. Have you gotten into his music?

Cat: Yeah, Spoek is pretty cool. We got introduced to him through Sub Pop. We all got signed around the same time. Us, Shabazz [Palaces], and Spoek. We got the chance to meet him at SXSW and watch him a little bit. He’s a wild guy. He’s very creative. His music videos are just off the hook. We like him.

Are there other artists you identify with in music who have adopted an extraterrestrial identity?

Cat: Definitely. Outkast, Janelle Monae, and all the entities with George Clinton, P-Funk and such. Earth, Wind & Fire. Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones.  And even beyond that with Afro-futurism in the sense of different chord structures, different things that mean science fiction inside of our mind, leading back to things like Ella, Billie, Miles Davis. They just had a crazy kind of space sound and feel to them.

Can you tell me more about music you feel is inherently otherworldly like that?

Cat: Yeah, it’s all around us. Sometimes you’ll just hear a note that will kind of send you into space.  Definitely, tritones for us. I feel like it’s different for everyone. But sometimes people align with one sound or a certain sound that literally takes you to space, makes you zone out, takes you somewhere else, takes you on a journey somewhere. All the artists I mentioned definitely.

Stas: If you’ve ever listened to the Neptunes they have this little pling sound. I don’t even know how to describe it. Pling! That’s an interplanetary sound right there, something from outer space, something that you don’t hear naturally on Earth.

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Otherworldy Videos: I Am Other

From Kiss My Black Ads

Pharrell Williams always seems to have something cooking, so it should come as no surprise that the renaissance man has launched an uplifting video for his media venture, i am OTHER. Seen as way more than merely a record label, and instead a cultural movement of sorts, i am OTHER welcomes “thinkers, innovators and outcasts.” Presented with a slightly sci-fi twist, Williams is clear in his mission: to make “others” and the idea of thinking independently a much more mainstream ethos than merely following trends that have already been presented.

Although I think this is an interesting concept and they are already supporting shows like “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” this trailer is somewhat disappointing. Basically, I see no one who looks like me. Even if they are there, the camera never does a close-up on them. Once again as a Black woman, I feel invisible. To me the people in the video are mainstream others, the others who get more attention, while the less marketable others are not there. Also, looking at some of the videos on the account, I don’t see it as being as revolutionary as it appears to be yet. But maybe I am just over-analyzing it too much and need to wait and see.

The My-Stery: Enter the Dragon Ladies

A few weeks ago, I read an article about the oldest known spiritual ritual in the world — a 70,000 year old python ritual of the San people in Botswana. In another article, the author discusses the history of snake or serpent worship. In many religions, mythologies and rituals all over the world, serpents (snakes, dragon, sea monsters) are often associated with women.

The most famous are obviously Eve in the Bible and Medusa, but they tend to be viewed negatively. Actually both women and serpents are connected to wisdom in some circles, but later came to be viewed as “cunning,” and Eve’s name is possibly a derivative of the Aramaic word for “serpent.” Writers and other artists, like poet John Milton in Paradise Lost (one of my friends did a thesis on the poet and book) and and painter Michelangelo, have positively and negatively tied Eve and the serpent together.

Mother goddesses and priestesses in general have serpents as their main symbols and often the serpent has a sexual connotation because it is phallic. Some include Mami Wata (picture to the left), Sophia (Goddess of Wisdom), the Minoan snake goddess, and the python priestesses in Malawi, which I came upon on the website Suppressed Histories. Other lesser known ones are the Aztec Cihuacoatl and Tonantzin, the Indian nagi and the Chinese Long Nu (Dragon daughter) and snake queens. While the term “Dragon Lady” has been a negative stereotype of Asian women in the West, the history of serpentine women has received little recognition. As for why we are associated with snakes, they represent our cyclical or spiral nature from our menstrual cycles to the ability to give birth (and cause death and rebirth).

By the way, I strongly suggest taking a look at Suppressed Histories. The website provides information and a global perspective on the history of women as shamans, priestesses, sorceresses, goddesses, revolutionaries and rulers, which often is unrecognized in the patriarchal societies in which we live, as well as questioning colonialist, imperialist and patriarchal histories. Additionally, it points to other topics that I have talked about, such as the web in the matrix cultures section.