What is Afrofuturism? Part 9: Rhythmism


Louis Armstrong – “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue”

For Black Music History Month, I decided to write my own views on Afrofuturism:

A few days ago, I finally started reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and within the first few pages, I could see how Ellison used musicality with his literary work. In fact, Ellison trained to be a musician before becoming a writer. The main character in his book describes his appreciation of Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue” in the prologue:

“Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, the points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music…the unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and  waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well…” (page 8).

Within the prologue of his book, Ellison speaks not just of music, but how elements of music like off-beat phrasing, syncopation, breaks, and call and response, are manifested in life in general. Other writers and scholars, like Tricia Rose, Jon Spencer and Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., have said that in order to study the elements of diasporic cultures, music should be the foundation or connecting feature to study them. As a music and journalism major, I tend to agree. I even wrote a thesis involving that idea, which was how percussion and rhythm in hip-hop is not just part of the music, but in the language, movement, spirituality, identity, politics and philosophy of hip-hop. Music is also how I approach afrofuturism.

For example, in Music, Society, Education, musicologist Christopher Small said, “The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of [Western classical] music — to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed.” Thus, it is not just the music, but the cosmology, the philosophy and the perceptions behind the music. I do not see afrofuturism as just speculating about the future, but also as the future as a revisionism. The present and future are only revisions, which means seeing again, of the past. The future becomes the present and the past and what is modern becomes ancient (one reason I have a problem calling our time modernism and post-modernism). This relates to the common practice of “versioning” in our cultures. Another way to put is Amiri Baraka’s “changing same” or Ron Eglash’s “iterative transformations.” The changes develop from a common bases, another element that we emphasize in the music.

This cycling and repetition is not dull, but always dynamic. It has swing and rhythm to push us forward to the future. Paul Watkins describes this in his paper, “Disruptive Dialogics: Improvised Dissonance in Thelonious Monk and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers As mentioned in the previous post on afrofuturism, William Gibson said that the future is already here, but unevenly distributed. Again, that is in our music; our various music genres are multi-rhythmic and multi-metric. They are uneven, or as Zora Neale Hurston said “asymmetrical.” There are breaks, displacements, dissonance, and fragmentation and those are why the music is exciting. That describes the future as well; it is relative and broken up, flying into different directions. And what is future now will become past, vanishing like sound, and what is ancient now was once modern. It is why calling our periods of time “modernism” and “post-modernism” are misnomers.

These ideas within the music can be applied to other fields of study. Afrofuturist artist Turtel Onli also described his own visual artwork as Rhythmism.”Modern art“, like Picasso’s Cubism, would not have existed if it were not for the almost-living, surreal and rhythmic nature of West and Central African sculptures, textiles and masks from groups like the Dogon, Beti-Pahuin, Bwa, Bambara, and the Baoule. In Black Noise, Tricia Rose said that graffiti art and hip-hop has the same characteristics of layering, flow and rupture. Moreover, in the area of social and cultural theory, W.E.B. Du Bois’ “double consciousness” is rhythmic as writers like Paul Gilroy and Paul D. Miller have acknowledged; it was only new in the context that he was speaking about the plight of being Black in America. Our concept of rhythm can be applied to science and technology as well. We learn of cycling of elements in nature and the transformation of energy, which cannot be created nor destroyed, and we have used those ideas of cycling and transformation in a musical and cultural sense. Within the diaspora, we have invented musical technology to create new genres out of the older ones. Our cultures- from our music to our philosophies- has always been afrofuturistic.

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