Black People Are From Outer Space
Kai Wright: Hey, Regina.
Regina de Heer: Hi, Kai.
Kai: In the last couple of weeks, we've been talking a lot about a certain term on our team.
Regina: Yes, Afrofuturism.
Kai: Right. Which is suddenly everywhere, it seems like.
Regina: Right, exactly. It's everywhere, but what does it mean? What does Afrofuturism look like? What does it sound like? How does it speak to the Black experience?
Louis Chude-Sokei: Being Black is like a science-fiction experience in which aliens came and took you from your planet and brought you to another planet forcibly. Lee Perry, Sun Ra, George Clinton in very different ways told that story in their music.
Kai: Well, tonight on the United States of Anxiety, we celebrate Black History Month with a journey into Afrofuturism.
Regina: It is Black History Month and we're asking people around the park, have you ever heard of the term Afrofuturism?
Mimi: I've never heard of the term. I'm sorry.
Nicky: Yes. I have.
Andrew: I have heard about Afrofuturism.
Regina: How would you define it?
Nicky: The idea of an Afrocentric world in the future.
Nakhil: It's a forward-thinking look.
Nicky: Explores different ways of technology and future and how one involves in a social-political climate.
Jodi: It's about the importance of-- because we focus a lot on Black history, but also like Black futures are important too, and I think it's just about focusing on that.
Regina: Who comes to mind for you?
Nakhil: Like Sun Ra or like Janelle Monáe.
Andrew: Big Janelle Monáe fan.
Nicky: I would say Octavia Butler. I first researched the term because of theater company. They were these two amazing Black women that were part of their resident program. They were creating the Afrofuture work. When I saw their work, I was like, "Oh, what is Afrofuturism?"
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright, and we're going to start our journey into the ideas and sounds and sights of Afrofuturism by meeting one of the most influential visual artists working today. That's my assertion anyway. Over the past decade, Hannah Beachler has been creating these beautiful, complex, unapologetically Black worlds on film.
Among her other projects, she's been the production designer behind Moonlight, Fruitvale Station, Beyoncé's Lemonade, and perhaps most famously Marvel's Black Panther. That film made her the first Black person to be nominated for and to win the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Now, she has lent her eye to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she has curated a new Afrofuturism Period Room, which is yet another historic first.
Given all of that, she seems like exactly the right person to tell us what Afrofuturism looks like. Hannah, welcome to the show, and happy Black History Month.
Hannah Beachler: Happy Black History Month.
Kai: For you, what is Afrofuturism?
Hannah: I think there's a lot of different definitions, but for me, Afrofuturism is a reimagining of a history. It's like going back and reclaiming how history has seen Africans and African Americans throughout time. It's this idea that the past, the present and the future is not linear, but circular in a sense. Our present is influencing our future, is influencing our past. It's just the playing with time and how we retell our own stories with our own agency.
Kai: Well, you are the lead curator for the new Afrofuturist Period Room at the Met, and it is this fascinating illustration of everything you're just talking about, and people who visit the exhibit step into a speculative future home of the residents of what was once Seneca Village. Can you introduce listeners to Seneca Village?
Hannah: Yes. Seneca Village was a predominantly Black, also Irish community in Manhattan where Central Park is. It was a lot of freed Black men and women, born free as well as freed slaves, who escaped the city, if you will, of New York and moved into a more rural area and started a community called Seneca Village almost where the Met is located. It's probably about a 10-minute walk from the Met.
In the 1800s, Seneca Village was about 1827 to 1857, so right before the Civil War. If you owned land as a freed Black man or a woman, well, both, you had to have spent $250, and then you have the right to vote. Seneca Village was built up over time where they had schools, churches, homes and was starting to be excavated in 2011, I believe. They're finding these pieces of these lives. A lot of people ended up selling their property. The state took the land by eminent domain.
Kai: It had been a thriving community people, and it was taken by the state.
Hannah: Yes. There was probably about 300 people. The way they took it was by-- and in many of the same idea that was happening around a lot of Black communities at the time is by saying that they were the slums, and it would be better if they took them down and made this beautiful park because this was an eyesore. That wasn't the truth.
This exhibit was an homage to the people, to the idea of community of a protopian society and a conversation of the past and the future and the present around Seneca Village and what it meant.
Kai: How did you, even just as a designer, begin to imagine this collapsing of past, present and future of a place like that?
Hannah: Well, I just thought about what are the things in a home because, really, these communities are about home. These communities are about wanting the things that everybody has, family, a safe place, love, peace and a place to thrive where you are wanted. That's where I started. For me, that's the kitchen, because so much of Black culture and me living in New Orleans and looking around at my neighborhood and it's a lot about food. It's a lot about being neighbors. It's a lot about tradition.
In New Orleans, we still have these 100-year-old traditions. I wanted to start there and that's where I remember getting my hair hot combed and getting the grease behind my ears and people being in the kitchen and cooking and me being on my mom's skirt and the steam coming off of the stove and the conversations and the arguments and my brothers and sisters and I having water fights.
The kitchen is really where life happens. I wanted to show that as part of what maybe Seneca Village could be like. That's how you're going to know these people as people.
Kai: We aren't able to walk through it together because of the realities of life and pandemic and all the rest. Maybe we can do a virtual tour together here with listeners. I should say, there's a visiting guide on the Met's website. For podcast listeners, at least you can pause and go find that and if you want to take a look around with us as we do this.
Let's start in that kitchen that you're describing, Hannah. Tell me about some of the choices you're making there. What would you direct my eye to first?
Hannah: I think the first thing that I would hope that people would do when they walk in is look through our windows. On the sides of the structure, there's different size windows sporadically placed in at different heights. I did that because, for me, looking into what is the past for a lot of African Americans, not all but most, and a lot of Africans in the diaspora, we only get a little piece of that past. You only see so much, and I wanted everyone to have this experience.
There's everything inside that room, but you only get to see a little sliver of it. That's how being African American I've experienced my life, only knowing slivers here and there. Then it's very seductive as to who is looking and which way they're looking. The other thing in this room, the big thing in the room is the fireplace, which is right in the center.
Kai: The big hearth.
Hannah: It twirls up into the rafters, which has concentral circles around it, and this is our time machine. This is bringing all the beautiful artifacts that you see from Roberto Lugo, from Fabiola Jean-Louis, from Atang Tshikare, beautiful chairs that he's made that Fabiola's beautiful paper dress is sitting in. The dress to me is representative of the woman who lives in this and she is sitting, she is at rest, her body is at rest. That is an important piece to me because, so often, we're deemed as strong and warriors and working and fighting.
Kai: "The mules of the world," as Zora Neale Hurston tells us.
Hannah: Yes. That's right, at rest sitting and looking over the future that we protect with our time machine. A lot of it is me wanting people to come in and just have their own experience. Both ends are open because you can only see the future through the past, and you can only see the past through the future. The precipice where our body is sitting sits between them both. That is our present. That's how this room is laid out.
Kai: You mentioned this Philadelphia artist, Roberto Lugo, there's a lot of his pottery in the exhibit. There's one that it's like an urn, I think, that has a portrait of Harriet Tubman on one side and Erykah Badu on the other. Tell me about that urn and what it's doing in that room, because it sounds like it's doing a lot of what you're talking about.
Hannah: It is. It's a conversation. I think that that's representative of so much. Roberto wanted to really bring in powerful, strong women in our past, in our future and all the things that they represented, of freedom, of choice, of agency. These are conversations we've been having. These are conversations that are cyclical. To me, that represents where we are, where we're going, and the fight and the struggle to stay there.
Kai: You said earlier, going back to the window, you said that, for you, your experience with Black history is only being able to see a little bit of yourself. Can you say more about that? What do you mean by that?
Hannah: Well, I feel like, personally, I don't really know about my past, my ancestors, my relatives. It seems as though sometimes people think like African Americans like popped up in cotton fields and here we were. In our past, the history that we teach really doesn't teach beyond that. I never really understood my connection with Africa, or do I have a connection with Africa? I don't know who my ancestors were here.
They've could have come from the Dominican Republican. They could have come from South America. I don't really know this. Anything I learned, every time I learned something, it's like looking into a little window and seeing more, like I'm walking in a cave with a flashlight. Occasionally, you get something on the wall.
I wanted everyone to understand, when you're walking around the world really not knowing everything about your past, I can't just go back and be like, "I came from France, and came over." I don't know. I know a lot of people had to survive for me to be here. That was the idea of the windows, everybody experience that, that you see only so much.
Kai: Well, back on our tour, when you move into the living room area, one of the things that I'm struck by, we've talked about a lot of the pottery and stuff, but there are lots of images as well in this space. I'm really drawn to the portrait of Andrea Motley Crabtree, who is a real human who I did not know about. She's the first woman and first Black woman to be a deep-sea diver in the US Army. She's depicted here, she's sitting but done up in this fantastical diving gear. Tell me about this work.
Hannah: When I first saw this work when the Met had presented it to me and said, "This would be something that's great in the room," it's part of their collection, and I thought, "Oh, she's an astronaut." I'm like, "That is so cool." Half of which I'm thinking of space and thinking of this time continuum, and then they explained she was the first Black woman to be a deep-sea diver.
It made so much sense at that point because we know so little about the ocean. We know so little about space. We know so little about ourselves and our journey. It's all kind of wrapped up in the same feeling of flight and weightlessness.
I really wanted that you could stand in the very back by the kitchen and look all the way through, and you see the time machine. You see Fabiola's dress, and then you see this beautiful portrait. That line that it creates through this space, from one end to another, from the past to the future, that past is the future. This Black woman is the woman in space. That is who I look at the stars every night and see. That's why I wanted that there.
Kai: Hannah, after someone that has experienced this space, what is it you hope they take away as they walk out?
Hannah: Joy. Black joy. My mission is to teach Black joy before Black pain. No child needs to learn that first. I learned that first. I want people to walk in and what you see is joyful. What you experience through the pain is joyful. We put hundreds of iron nails in the side of the structure, and they had asked me why and I said because iron is so important. It is the thing that shackled us, and it's the thing that freed us. I want this to be like that. I want this thing to be the freedom.
Kai: I'm talking with Hannah Beachler about the exhibit she curated for the Metropolitan Museum called Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room. Hannah's many credits as a designer include the film, Black Panther, for which she won an Oscar for Best Production Design. We'll take a break and we'll talk more with Hannah about her career and about collapsing the future with the past. Stay with us.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. We're celebrating Black History Month this week, by learning about Afrofuturism. It's an idea that the past, the present, the future, they're all together in one thing. I've been talking with Hannah Beachler, who curated the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, new Period Room on Afrofuturism, and who, as a production designer, has been the visual artist behind some of the most remarkable films featuring Black lives in recent years.
We're talking about Moonlight, Creed, Beyonce's visual album Lemonade, Fruitvale Station, which was, of course, the wrenching biopic of Oscar Grant, the list goes on. I had to ask her about her Academy Award-winning work creating the Afrofuturistic world of the Black Panther film. Just tell me about working on that film, it meant so much to so many Black people. I just wonder what it meant for you.
Hannah: It meant so much as Black woman. It was big, and I knew it was bigger than me. I just felt compelled to do this, and then there was a lot of drive for that. I have, of course, Mr. Ryan Coogler to thank for having the opportunity to put on screen what I felt was so important for people to see a fictional Black nation to be what it could be. It was daunting.
I walked in, and I wasn't quite sure what it was, and Ryan was like, "Okay. I need to know how many people there are, what do they do, where do they live. Tell me everything about the country, where do they go, how do they drive, what are the streets, what are the stories." I was, "[gasps] I have to tell you all? I can't just make a pretty set?" [chuckles] We'll start building the world.
I just dug in, and I started from scratch. Yes, how do you build a world? You start with, where is it? What is it? How big is it? What does the country look like? What is the environment? What is the climate? Where's the capital? Now, how many people? How did they get there? Where did they migrate from? Why did they migrate there? What do they specialize in? How does their tradition evolve to be 50 years in the future from the west? What is the timeline? We built the whole timeline that shows you Wakanda from the Bronze Age to the present.
Kai: It started with Black joy also. I'm thinking about what you said previously, it's rooted in Black joy.
Hannah: Absolutely. We did the work. I'm not going to lie, it was scary. It's a big movie. It's a big company. I was just coming off of Creed, which was nowhere near that size. I did this big presentation with all of the execs over at Marvel. I was scared to death. My advice from Ryan was just, be yourself. I went in and I was. I was loud, I was excited, and I wanted them to see that, that this Black woman can handle this big budget, handle a large crew and be creative and pragmatic, and give them everything they want.
My main concern was making sure that I was doing right by my community in the diaspora and in America, because I am an African American. That is my experience. I put a little bit of that experience into this African nation as well. I just wanted to make sure I was doing right by everybody.
Kai: Well, you truly handled it in fact. Our producer pointed me to an IndieWire article in which you said that the first decade of your production work in your career was a real struggle and that you almost left the business.
Hannah: It was a real struggle. When I started out, and I started out as a set dresser in the art department. I worked my way up through all the different crafts in new Orleans. You just get to the place where it just felt like Hollywood was a thousand miles away, and it was, physically as well as figuratively. No one knew my name, and how am I going to get out there? How am I going to get these other jobs?
Wynn Thomas was a mentor of mine, Spike Lee's production designer for his entire career. I called Wynn like, "I can't do this anymore. I need to start finding something else." Sure, I thought he was going to feel sorry for me and pity me, and he said, "Well, you need to get your damn ass up and get back in the business. There is no crying. I don't care what you say, you're not leaving. Stand up, brush yourself off and that's it, girl. Stop." It took me back like, "Okay."
Kai: [laughs] When he snapped, too.
Hannah: He was not playing around with me. He was like, "You're not going to get a little pity party if that's what you're looking for. It's hard, so go work."
Kai: You went to work and eventually-
Hannah: I did.
Kai: -you connected with a, at the time, 25-year-old Ryan Coogler. He is obviously a massive figure at this point, but this was his breakout moment as well. The start of your collaboration with him was the film, Fruitvale Station-
Hannah: That's right.
Kai: -which was a pivotal film for me, I have to say, in terms of trying to look at Black pain and Black joy at the same time. It was just such a difficult film to watch. Tell me about working on that project. What was that like?
Hannah: That changed everything. After Wynn got me together, collected me a little bit, he said, "Go get an agent," I did. The first script they brought to me was for Fruitvale Station. I read it, I cried my eyes out and I said, "I want to do this film." I had a meeting with Ryan and he hired me the same day. A few months later, I drove out to Oakland and dog-sat so I can work on that, He had dog sat.
I became a different person and a different filmmaker having worked with Ryan on that film. Everything I thought I knew changed about how to tell a story. He taught me perspective. He taught me storytelling visually, and that the place that we're in is as important as the story itself, and that's where I would come in, the place.
He taught me all about that because of his love for Oakland, because of his love for Black people, because of his love for Black joy, and the need to tell this story, and it was not easy. It was really a difficult, emotional story to get through so it takes a toll on all of us. We were working 20, 22-hour days at that point, so we were also exhausted trying to get this done with very little money, but trying to do the absolute best we could.
There was me plus one other person in my department, so I did everything. I just watched Ryan and he blew me away and I knew, I could remember saying to his family, "Nothing will ever be the same for him after this, ever again. You are watching the rise of an important filmmaker in the history of film." By the end of the film, I knew that's what I was watching. Now, if he was ever going to call me again or not, I don't know.
Kai: Right. You knew him and Michael B. Jordan were about to go someplace. Well, luckily you did too. You and I are talking now, not only amid Black History Month, but just after Trayvon Martin's birthday. He would have been 27 years old this month. He was killed 10 years ago. This month also began with Amir Locke being killed by police in yet another no-knock raid in Minneapolis.
It may be a silly question to ask you, but in the context of all that has happened since Fruitvale Station, what do you feel like art like that film can do about this anti-Black violence? What is its role in responding to these awful moments?
Hannah: Humanity. What Fruitvale Station did was show people Oscar's humanity. He is a human being first, and that is so important. Though Moonlight wasn't about police violence or brutality, it was about a different type of brutality. I believe it did the same thing as show humanity and those are so important in Black cinema.
The complexities of Black people, that we aren't a monolith, that we are individuals. We are humans, not just sons, daughters, aunts, uncles. We are humans. We don't have to be these other things in order to be seen as human, and that's what Ryan wanted to say. That was the importance of the scene with the pit bull. Ryan and I talked about that and talked about that and talked about that and struggled with that scene.
At the end of the day, he looked at me and he said, "Oftentimes, Black men are looked at like pit bulls. You can run them down in the middle of the road and keep going." They are the not-needed of society, they are the danger of society. To show Oscar with that pit bull, holding that pit bull was such an important scene, and I think rounded out in the height of the humanity within this young man for whatever mistakes he made, for whoever anyone thought he was.
He was someone's son and he was a person and he was killed. I stood over the bullet hole in the BART Station at Fruitvale Station and looked at it. We stood around it with Ryan and held hands and he prayed. That's how hard that film was to do, and that's why those films are important.
Kai: As a consumer of this work, it feels to me like Fruitvale Station was the beginning of this movement in Black film. Does that what it feels like to you as well, and if so, how would you describe it?
Hannah: Absolutely, it feels like that to me. Sometimes I feel like I just got swept up in this moment that I'm so grateful and blessed for, and it was a moment-- I knew it was coming in a weird way. It's this moment of reckoning, and film is such a powerful medium that I think people were suddenly seeing like, "It's time for us to tell our stories and fighting for that." This generation of young people that have come in and made these films have been fighting for this.
It's the springboard of Spike Lee. It's the springboard of John Singleton. It's the springboard of Antoine Fuqua and F. Gary Gray, and you go back and back and back even further. I'm quite proud of this work, this body of work from working with B. and Barry Jenkins and Ryan, of course. It feels like truthfully, I don't often say, sometimes like I'm just this general that's protecting my people, protecting the story, because I'm a fighter.
I'll tell you what, I make sure that people aren't going to play games and silliness when we're making these movies, that the nuances that aren't usually there that people don't usually know are there, because it's my experience as part of my community. I stand strong and firm between what you see on the screen and what you might have seen on the screen. I make sure it's there, that people can see themselves in a real way, in a genuine way, not the way people want to see us, but the way that we are in all of our complications, messiness and joy.
I see myself as these filmmakers coming to me because they know that I'll stand strong for that, and I'll dig as deep as I have to dig and do the research until I can't see straight to make sure that it's right. I'll tell you what, I don't know if I can cuss, but I'll be goddamned if it's going to be something that's going to make these stereotypes continue.
No more of this perpetuation. I need people to see us as individuals, that we all do these different things. It's not just like, "Oh, well, sports and music. That's what y'all are." It's like, "No, man."
Kai: You're human beings. You're differentiated human beings.
Hannah: All the way through, and that's how I saw my role in this moment that's happening and why it's art department and production design, to paint our world for the story. That's what I think I'm doing, but I am in a way a guardian of that world and that's how I feel.
Kai: Before I let you go, I want to play a little bit of your acceptance speech at the academy awards. Setting aside the fabulous, bold-red gown you were wearing, which I mean, "Yes," it was emotional and really quite inspiring in the way you gave thanks, and here's the end of it.
Hannah: I'm stronger because of my family just supporting me through the rest of time. I give the strength to all of those who come next, to keep going, to never give up. When you think it's impossible, just remember to say this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman, "I did my best, and my best is good enough." Thank you.
Kai: Tell me about this moment for you, Hannah. Who gave you that advice?
Hannah: Victoria Alonso, who is the President of Marvel. My second day she said, "Come to my office. Let's talk." She knew I was nervous. She knew this was new for me. I'm in this big world right now that I'm biting off a big chunk. She wanted to make sure I understood that she was there to support me.
As we went through this film, I'd call her when I was feeling overwhelmed, or I'd call her when I needed a lift. I was always very, "It's not right. It's not perfect. It's not perfect. It's not perfect. It can be more perfect. I need this to be more perfect." She said, "No, it's beautiful." "It's not good enough. It's not good enough, Victoria. I have to do more. What more can I do?"
She said, "You have to say this to yourself every day, 'I did my best, and my best is good enough.'" I've never really thought that way before. I wrote it on a Post-it and I put it on my mirror. I said that every day, "I did my best, and my best is good enough," because I needed to understand that and I needed to learn that. I needed to step away from this twice as hard for half as much mentality. My best is good enough. Whether that's twice as hard or not, it's just who I am and this is my best.
She taught me that. That's where that came from in the speech. I wanted to make sure I said that, because I wanted other young women, other young girls to be able to say those words to themselves because, oftentimes, as a woman in a man's world, your best is never good enough. You keep pushing and pushing, and you'll push yourself until you're not healthy anymore.
I say that to myself every day. I'm a little bit more laid back working on Black Panther 2 right now. It's not quite as intense for me like, "Everything has to be perfect." I'm more at ease in my role and I'm a little more confident than I was the first time.
Kai: Well, Hannah, your best has not only been good enough. It has been a true blessing to me-
Hannah: Thank you.
Kai: -and to so many of us consuming your work. Thank you for that and thank you for this time.
Hannah: Thank you so much.
Kai: Hannah Beachler won an Academy Award for Best Production Design for Black Panther in 2019. She curated the new Afrofuturist Period Room at the Metropolitan Museum. It's called Before Yesterday We Could Fly. You can preview it on the Mets website. Up next, what does the Afro future sound like? Stay with us.
Kousha: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha. I'm a producer. We just heard Hannah Beachler talk about what it was like being a first as a Black woman, winning an Oscar for her production design, her leadership in the massive Marvel franchise, and it connects to our episode last week when we talked about the nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court. We asked for your perspective, if you're a Black woman, what does the Supreme Court news mean to you? A listener named Casey sent us this message.
Casey: I'm not really impressed with President Biden's plan to have a Black woman on the Supreme Court. If anything, it just lets me know how much he doesn't quite understand about the systemic barriers that we face in this country, and it seems quite performative to me.
Especially as a Black woman, and especially as a Black professional, I'm very aware of what it's like to be the first, the few, the only and that puts a lot of pressure on one human being, not to mention a lot of the obstacles and barriers we face when we're in those positions and what that does to us in our wellbeing, our mental health, especially at this time when we're talking about putting more and more women into these positions.
I don't think enough consideration is being placed on, "Okay, so how are these institutions changing so these people can thrive?" Not survive but thrive in these roles.
Kousha: Thanks, Casey, and everyone who's listening and talking to us. If you've got something to share, send us a message. Record yourself on your phone and email us. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, that's email@example.com. Thanks.
Kai: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. We're talking about Afrofuturism this week, and I'm joined by our producer Regina de Heer. Regina, hey.
Regina: Hi, Kai.
Kai: You wanted us to have a conversation about music? Why is that?
Regina: It wasn't until we started working on this episode and I realized that some of the inspiration for the artists that I have now come to love, and they're seemingly groundbreaking choices, were actually odes to artists that were really popular in the past that I just had never come across.
Kai: Right, right. Like who? Which new artist are you talking about?
Regina: I'm thinking of Janelle Monáe is an obvious one.
Regina: Also, Thundercat.
Regina: Flying Lotus.
Regina: Do you know any of these artists, Kai?
Kai: I mean, Janelle Monáe, but don't be trying to make me sound old.
Kai: No, I don't know those artists.
Regina: All right. Well, regardless, I came across this really rad playlist called Afrofuturism, and it had even more interesting music that I hadn't heard before. Turns out the playlist was curated by Louis Chude-Sokei, who is the Director of African American Studies at Boston University. He helped curate a music festival on Afrofuturism, which includes one of my favorite artists right now, Flying Lotus. The festival is running right now at Carnegie Hall, so I thought we had to meet Louis.
Kai: Hi, Louis. Thanks for joining us.
Louis: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for your interest in this.
Kai: It feels like Afrofuturism, at least as a label, is suddenly everywhere or at least more people are-- it's legible to many more people but, of course, it's not a new idea. The term was actually coined by a white man, as I understand it, in the 1990s.
Louis: Yes, Mark Dery is a remarkable cultural critic and thinker, who, in 1997, articulated the term but as a provisional term. When he called it Afrofuturism, he actually said, "For lack of a better term." [laughs] For him, it was just an acknowledgment that a lot of people were having, that there was this coming together of a number of themes pertaining to African American and Black peoples in the diaspora that was trying to understand their relationship to America, to the world, to the modern world by way of science fiction, technology.
In the musical world, Black musicians have always been pioneers in technology, but by the '70s and the '80s, and certainly, by hip hop and techno, it seemed as if the technology was foregrounded to a certain point in a way that we hadn't seen before. For Mark Dery and others, Greg Tate, the much-lamented Greg Tate, who just passed away a short while ago, there was something going on.
There was an awareness of not just music and rhythm and lyrics, and all of that stuff that Black people are noted for, but there was a deliberate technological superstructure at work. This was also happening with an obsession with comic books, Black comic books, and as well as different kinds of music that were deliberately focused on sampling new forms of technology. You got record album covers with laser beams and spaceships, et cetera.
Louis: We got George Clinton in the mix and all these other figures. By 1997, Mark Dery goes, "Let's just call it for now, Afrofuturism." Though he meant it as a provisional term, it stuck.
Kai: It stuck. We're going to talk about some of those specific artists and some of those specific laser beams. In general, applying it to music, is there certain instrumentation or rhythms or other musical characteristics that you'd say this is definitive of Afrofuturistic music?
Louis: Well, the thing about Afrofuturism, because it's becoming so widespread, one wants to be cautious in being definitive. [laughs] As someone who's been involved and around it or adjacent to it for quite a while, it initially is the music that, not only uses tropes and images of science fiction and space travel and outer space, it's actually the musicians who deliberately engage technological sound-making, like Sun Ra the great prophet of Afrofuturism was also one of the early musicians to use the analog synthesizer.
Louis: He used analog synthesizers in jazz, which at the time, although he had the electronic music that was emerging in jazz, Miles electronic period and Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra was doing that stuff before anyone, and it was kind of heretical. You got here with the analog synthesizers. You've got Detroit techno, which a lot of people still think of as a white musical form. It comes out of young Black-- I want to say kids, but that's because I'm 54 now and everybody's a kid, but young Black people in the '80s using samplers and drum machines.
Louis: It comes out of Jamaica and the use of Casiotone keyboards to create digital rhythms.
Louis: When I listen to the music of Afrofuturism, I tend to focus more on those who engage studio technology and new kinds of technologies sometimes in ways that were unexpected. You hear people who are deliberately trying to sound machinic, but at the same time, be funky with it. For me, that's very much a characteristic of a lot of Afro futurists sound making.
Regina: In preparing for this episode, I was so enjoying diving into the music. When you mentioned Sun Ra, I think of the Outer Space Employment Agency and that video and that song.
Male 5: We're opening up the doors with Outer Space Employment Agency.
Regina: For those who are unfamiliar like I was, what was Sun Ra's place in the Afrofuturism discussion?
Louis: One tries to stay away from defining an origin to things, but it's hard not to consider Sun Ra, the origin. [laughs] He wasn't the first to have these themes and ideas. I'm a literary scholar and a writer, so I know about themes of Black science fiction that go back to the early 20th century. They weren't Afrofuturist, but they're now a part of the canon that's emerging of Afrofuturism. Sun Ra, brother from the Deep segregated South, says he's from Saturn.
Kai: [chuckles] Well, they're kind of the same thing. I don't know.
Louis: Brother from the Deep segregated South comes out of big band jazz and picks up the analog synthesizer and starts thinking about Saturn, about Black people being aliens, not even in our own country, just aliens. We don't belong here. He's coming also in the context of this Black Pan-African narrative that argues that Black people are a part of a bigger world and participating in a broader diaspora. Sun Ra was like, "Well, my diaspora is even broader than that. It's cosmic." [laughs]
Kai: It's almost like I think about, when you talk about the Deep South and the idea that these Black people as subhuman, and him arguing, "We are suprahuman."
Louis: Exactly, exactly. He says this very clearly. This is why Sun Ra is such an important figure, Regina. He articulated these things. He had a full developed worldview. For example, he would say, "We have no rights in this society, so clearly we're not real. We are myths. We are myths that white people have." If we are myths, how do we create a different myth that we belong to, participate in and can draw from?
Although a lot of people in Afrofuturism or who feed Afrofuturism have the themes in their work, Sun Ra turned it into an ideology that was very much in conversation with Pan-Africanism, Black power and so many things. That's why he's so crucial on top of just crazy music and the stage shows and the films and this whole magical world view that really is asking Black folk, "Are we also not imprisoned by the logic of Western culture? Don't We have access to something else, another way of thinking about ourselves in the world?"
Kai: When you say that kind of stuff, we can't have that conversation without talking about Grace Jones also, who is a hero in my household.
Louis: Oh yes, mine too.
Kai: You've got her on your playlist, She's Lost Control.
Kai: Everything about her and that song makes me think about these more modern artists, Lil Nas X, Janelle Monae, playing with the sounds the way you're talking about, but then also the visual, like what we see.
Louis: All due respect to Madonna and people like that, Madonna gets a lot of the credit that Grace Jones deserves.
Louis: You know what I'm saying, right?
Louis: A lot of this is Grace Jones. The line from Grace Jones to Lil Nas X is pretty clear, but they're drawing from, not just a Black fantastical performance imaginary, they're also drawing from a Black queer discourse that goes all the way back to the '70s in disco. Grace Jones was so crucial because She's Lost Control is a post-punk song. That song is her doing a cover of a post-punk song.
Louis: She's bringing post-punk, dub reggae, disco, queer culture, and then sometimes notoriously homophobic dub Jamaican culture into one big pile. You can't not think of Lil Nas X in terms of country, hip hop at this very extravagant queer performance.
Louis: I think Grace Jones made a lot of that possible. It's Afrofuturist in that, if you look at Grace Jones' videos from back in the day, it was all about this man machine. She had that man machine thing, and a lot of angles where she just had everything looked like a robot. She was very clearly playing with this stuff, even though the word did not exist. Slave to the Rhythm is a great example of all of this.
Regina: Since we're just bringing out names, I just have really personally been enjoying Flying Lotus.
Louis: Who just sold out the Carnegie Hall show.
Kai: Oh, wow. All right.
Regina: I could definitely see where that could happen. His song, Never Catch Me, with Kendrick Lamar is one of my favorite songs to just get lost in.
Regina: He's having such an astronomical impact on the industry right now, collaborating with the biggest names in hip hop like Kendrick, Anderson Paak, Thundercat, while also doing sound design for a lot of really major shows, and that's just so exciting to see. I had no idea that his aunt is the great Alice Coltrane.
Louis: Alice Coltrane, yes.
Louis: The first Flying Lotus records that I heard had harp loops in them, and I just automatically soon knew it was him looping his aunt.
Louis: Alice Coltrane, she played the harp amongst other things. Listen to his first record, you hear a lot of harp loops in the mix.
Louis: I've never been able to confirm this, but even if they're not directly looped from his aunt, is a reference to his aunt, who's known for playing the harp, as well as Dorothy Ashby, another important Black woman who really funked out the harp back in the '70s. I would say that Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane to a lesser extent, they very much feed into the Afrofuturist imaginary, because a lot of Afrofuturism is not explicitly about technology and sound design, though Flying Lotus is clearly that, the cutting edge of that in America right now. Right?
Louis: A lot of that is picking up on space jazz. Some people call it ecstatic jazz or free jazz.
Kai: What is that? People don't know what that was. What is that?
Louis: There's that period in the '60s when jazz just pulled away from the rigid structures of bebop jazz, and you had people who were using the Astral-- Astral Traveling is an album by John Coltrane. You've got a lot of people using these themes of outer space because they're exploring through sound ultimate imaginary spaces for Black people.
Regina: Speaking of themes of space, I have been reintroduced to George Clinton recently, and I've just been listening to songs other and including, of course, Atomic Dog.
Louis: If Sun Ra is one of the primary figures, George Clinton is the other one.
Louis: The third one would be the Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Louis: In fact, in the early days of Afrofuturism, just after Mark Dery had written that essay, those interviews where he coined the term Afrofuturism, another cat named John Corbett put together a piece called Brothers from Another Planet, in which he talked about Sun Ra, George Clinton, Lee "Scratch" Perry. He asked this question, how is it that these three Black men from different parts of the planet, totally different cultural experiences, all arrived at creating this ideology in which Black people are from outer space? How do they create that in their music?
Kai: What is the answer to that question?
Regina: Yes, what is the answer?
Kai: For you, what is the answer to that question? How did these three Black men arrive at the same idea?
Louis: My interpretation of it is the desire to break away from all the constraints of Western culture, white culture, European culture and their own access to studio technologies that they thought of as allowing them to create new sounds and create new worlds. I'm pretty sure that they all read or watched a lot of sci-fi.
When Greg Tate said, being Black is like a science fiction experience in which aliens came and took you from your planet and brought you to another planet forcibly, genetically modified you to adapt to their new planet. He said that's a science fiction experience. Lee Perry, Sun Ra, George Clinton in very different ways saw that, and they told that story in their music.
Kai: We'll have to leave it there, Louis. This is so much fun. Thank you so much for all this wisdom and all this music that we're now going to go listen to.
Louis: Oh, please dig in. There's so much. This is not even the tip of the iceberg. This is the tip of the tip.
Kai: Well, if you want to jam out to some of this, if you want to try to get a flavor of it, you can check out Louis' curated playlist. We'll have a link in our show notes on our website. Hey, Happy Black future Month to everybody.
Louis: Absolutely. Thank you guys so much for this.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Do check out Louis' playlist, it's got this song on it, The Chant by Ibibio Sound Machine, as well as some of the other songs we talked about and many, many more. Our own theme music was written by Hanis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Sound designed by Jared Paul.
Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us your voice memos about anything you've heard. Maybe you've got a favorite Afrofuturistic song you want to chime in about, tell us about it.
As always, please do join us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves. Happy Black History Month.
Tsamina mina, eh eh
Tsamina mina zangalewa
Tsamina mina, eh eh
Tsamina mina zangalewa
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.