Many go to church on Sundays for inspirational music and message, but last Sunday I was at the Moondance event at MOMA’s PS1 in Queens for them. Organized by DJ King Britt, the event, which took place in tent dome, featured several DJs, several musical performances, poetry and a discussion on Afrofuturism. The afrofuturistic event was filled with the interplay between fragments of past and future — D. Sabela Grimes dance performance consisting of an alien-like yet ghostly kind of ritual masquerade, soul and electronic music (“my soul system”), and cultural black performance and language with futuristic wording; DJs Hank Shocklee (of Public Enemy), HPrizm, Ras G, King Britt and Fhoston Paradigm pulling from a vast array of musical sounds to quilt together new works and Shabazz Palaces‘ combination of electronic and acoustic drum sounds; Ursula Rucker‘s Black Arts Movement-inspired word mysticism brought together social issues like the death of Trayvon Martin, honoring Amiri Baraka, and connecting spiritual hymns and sexuality.
This was all reinforced in the panel discussion moderated by Afrofuturism author Ytasha Womack, and included Britt, Rucker, Shocklee and Alondra Nelson. Womack described Afrofuturism as where the future meets the past; it facilitates that healing where we feel may have been a break between the two in modern culture. She continued by asking about the notion of race as technology and how afrofuturism is a tool to deconstruct race, how afrofuturism cultivates imagination to transcend circumstance especially in marginalized communities where imagination is under attack and how music is a gateway to understanding afrofuturism.
Britt, whose mother was friends with Sun Ra, said the DJ is an important part of afrofuturism as a time keeper and environment creator who takes listeners on a journey while also educating the audience as well as playing with time and space. They create a kind of utopian environment where people of all kinds come together but also are at the avant-garde of musical technology in the line of musicians before them like Sun Ra and the Moog in jazz.
Rucker, who is not as well versed in the specifics of Afrofuturism, said that as a basic level afrofuturism is just the dynamics of who we are, our multi-selves, and to have the courage to be ourselves and to move forward. She said it emcompasses the interconnection of life, that the place you make for yourself presently will resonate int the future. Afrofuturism is a being and a birthright not a brand. Thinkers like John Henrik Clarke and Chiekh Anta Diop opened up the potential for us to see ourselves in the future through connecting to the past. As a spoken word artist, she emphasizes the power of the voice as a lifesaver to elevate and enlighten and is a powerful tool in afrofuturism.
Nelson, who created the first afrofuturism listserv, said growing up in the desert terrain of San Diego, watching sci-fi and being one of the few black people around where she lived influenced her interest in afrofuturism. She reminded us that the term afrofuturism is a over 20 year old phrase and that the fact that it is still around means it captures the experience of many of us and acts as a centrifugal force with a genealogy. Idea of alien abduction where one can be snatched away at any time, connections between undocumentation, maroonage and fugitivity, and that race is an architecture but is also self-replicating, are all part of it and larger conversations Nelson also wanted to broaden the scope of afrofuturism to others like Lee “Scratch” Perry, whose music-making was world-building in that it created new ways of experiencing and being in the world, and dwelling in other frequencies, Garveyites and their parades which are like formal versions of carnivals and masquerades throughout the diaspora, and even those who are not necessarily part of the diaspora, but whose work can be included, like musician Fred Ho.
Shocklee, you can say, gave the sermon of the day. He said one of the works that introduced him to afrofuturism was Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. The backbeat and the drummer, to him, had a kinetic energy and felt sci-fi. He said that it all starts with music, the vibrational waveform; before there was light, there was sound as written in Genesis of the Bible. The vibration of sound is transcendent and self-actualizing. Artists like The Beatles, Sly and The family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix showed him that music can forceful and innovative (Hendrix and the sustained note). The recording allowed us to take away that memory of music and share it and manipulate it.
Shocklee kept it coming warning us that our imaginations are being robbed and that our dreams and our voices are important because we get it from the cosmos and have the power to change the world. That this is why those in power suppress the truth in them and make us apathetic. It is why hip-hop has universal appeal. But, as he said, the mainstream is set on a two-dimensional world of entertainment of looks and sound and dismiss the other dimensional values of message and action. They are trying to dumb us down. He ended with questioning is where it starts.
King Britt plans to do more events like Moondance and I would definitely like to see him expand it, especially with more artists of different gender and age backgrounds. It was worth almost going deaf for (it was loud in there). But, I’m going to end with King Britt’s advice for everyone: “Don’t lose your imagination!”
Be sure to watch some videos from the event on my youtube page.