Ytasha Womack on Afrofuturism and the World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy

This story was originally published on November 18, 2013.

What does the future hold? Afrofuturists explore this question using various creative mediums (including science fiction, visual art, and a lot of great music) as both an artistic aesthetic and an expression of critical race theory, imagining the future and reexamining the past with the lens of African diaspora. As author Ytasha L. Womack says, “Afrofuturism is where the past and future meet.”

There’s a mass of works that fit into the genre and if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Womack’s new book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy is a good place to start. Womack (below, dressed as her character Rayla) is an author, filmmaker, dancer, and futurist whose past books include Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity and 2212: Book of Rayla. She also co-edited Beats, Rhyme & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop. In Afrofuturism, she provides an extensive introduction to the icons, themes, and recent works of the genre.

Womack took some time to speak with Bitch about feminism, Janelle Monae, and the past, present, and future of Afrofuturism.

Ytasha L. Womack dressed in a futuristic dress standing in front of a painted wall

You cover a lot of ground in this book, from music to literature, art to scientific innovations. What was your criteria for what you chose to write about?

I wanted to find as many points of access for readers to grasp Afrofuturism as possible. I wanted readers to see themselves in the book. Afrofuturism is vast. Although the term was created in the ’90s, many people are just discovering it. I’ve found that many people embraced Afrofuturist ideas but weren’t familiar with the term. So, I prioritized works that demonstrated how one could approach Afrofuturism as a musician, a deejay, an installation artist, a comics illustrator, a writer, a theorist, an activist, a history buff, an educator, a cosplay lover, a scientist, a science fiction fan, or as one who cares about their communities. I centered everything around the use of the imagination and dismantling race as a technology. I pulled common themes, like time travel and mythology, that popped up in all the works. I included the familiar, like Michael Jackson’s moonwalking or Parliament/Funkadelic and merged it with the niche and the avant-garde. But I also wanted to demonstrate that Afrofuturism isn’t new; it has roots in ancient African culture and was common amongst nineteenth century Black American activists.

That’s such an interesting aspect of Afrofuturism: the genres deep roots in the past. How have other African myths and stories influenced contemporary Afrofuturist works?

African myths and stories are all over the aesthetic. Jiba Anderson’s Horseman comic series places the Yoruba gods and goddesses in a futuristic sci-fi world. Kamau Mshale, the creator of the comic Captain Kachela, uses Adinke and Akan symbols. D. Denenge Akpem recreated her own water fairy tale reminiscent of African mermaids by transforming herself into a space-sea-siren-hybrid-human-jellyfish for a show at the MCA in Chicago. Many artists reference the Dogon, who believe their ancestors arrived on a flying ark from a distant star. In fact, funk pioneer George Clinton’s famous Mothership that he used on stage is in homage to this story.

You talk about many amazing artists in the book. Beyond the trifecta of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Octavia Butler, who are the icons you feel most passionate about championing to the world? Grace Jones is one of my personal favorites.

I love Grace Jones, too! Right now I’m pretty excited about astronaut Mae Jemison’s work with the 100 Year Starship Project. This project involves providing the research and support to help humans travel to another star system within the century. I share the project with everybody because it’s totally far out, but it’s taking place now. She presented at the Race in Space Conference that I helped shape with William Darity at Duke University in October and I was surprised to learn how interdisciplinary she is. In addition to being a scientist and working in medicine, she was an African American history major, a jazz scholar, and studied dance. Plus, I have a 100 Year Starship Pin that Mae Jemison gave me, so I’m a fan for life.

In the chapter “Moonwalkers in Paint and Pixels” you talk about a multimedia project A Star Is A Seed by Cauleen Smith, which explores how Chicago culture affected Sun Ra and his work. In fact, Chicago factors into a lot of the work that you discuss. What is it about Chicago that makes it fertile ground for Afrofuturists?

Chicago’s Black communities have been heavily concentrated in the same areas for nearly 100 years. So there’s a tight-knit community with a lot of overlapping history and longstanding self-contained civic and artistic institutions. Not to mention, some of the country’s titans in Black culture, including President Obama, Mae Jemison, and Jesse Jackson Sr., have evolved from the city’s dynamics. That said, the exploration of Blackness, identity, and access to the larger world is pervasive. The “who are we, where are we going question” is analyzed nonstop via local media, schools, churches, and bars. In fact, the conversation is almost inescapable and curious minds can run into casual talks around black identity that range from progressive to galactic.

Add to that, the community is highly musical, highly political, unusually organized, and preoccupied with history and their role in it. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who played a role in shaping black arts culture or political movements. Then you have top-notch libraries, museums, and universities that the general public has access to. I recently learned that Chicago has the largest black metaphysics and New Thought community in the country, which I’m sure has a far reaching impact. So it only makes sense that a Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock, Nnedi Okorofor, or house music would evolve here. For that matter, I guess it makes sense that I, being a Chicagoan, would write this book.

You devote a chapter to women Afrofuturists and say that the genre is very welcoming to female perspectives, that Afrofuturism is a “feminist space.” What makes this so? And further, mainstream feminism is sometimes criticized for not being inclusive of perspectives of women of color. Does mainstream feminism have something to learn from Afrofuturism’s inclusiveness and inherent embracing of intersectionality?

Professor Alondra Nelson identified Afrofuturism as a feminist space in that women feel very comfortable expressing themselves in whatever way they want. Women artists create their own stories and narratives and the expressions are uniquely individual. There is no one way that an Afrofuturist woman expresses herself. If you look at Grace Jones, Octavia Butler, Nona Hendryx and Erykah Badu, these women express womanhood in very different ways. Afrofuturism is also a space where men are comfortable embracing feminine aspects of humanity including valuing intuition, the power of feelings and celebrating beauty and nature.

Mainstream feminism could benefit from the sense of balance that Afrofuturism has around expression. Afrofuturism is very nonconformist and sometimes I feel as if mainstream feminism wants women to express their liberation in very specific ways to specifically counter damaging narratives created by men. Afrofuturism doesn’t create in opposition to anything. As a result, women Afrofuturists are free to do what they want and how that shows up is uniquely individual. It’s this individuality, particularly as it relates to sexuality that doesn’t fit neatly in mainstream feminist paradigms. Women of color who embrace their uniqueness, their hair, bodies, and curves are exoticized and sexualized by the mainstream and mainstream feminists alike. But self-expression through fashion is a norm in Afrofuturism. Self-expression in Afrofuturism isn’t about making a statement, it’s about being.

Afrofuturism is also very comfortable with embracing sexiness. I’m not talking about sexuality or sexual identity (which Afrofuturism is comfortable with as well), just pure sexiness. Funk music, the literature, Afrofuturist art, avant-garde jazz is sexy all day long. It’s a non-issue in Afrofuturism, whereas mainstream feminism is preoccupied with how sexiness should look. If you’re too sexy you’re playing into sexist tropes or you’re a male pawn. Ms. was criticized for featuring Beyonce on the cover, as if you can’t be pro-woman, empowered, a mother, and sexy at the same time. Beyonce is a modern day superwoman: she’s a business woman, a mother, a world-class entertainer, and she can be as sexy as she wants to be. Expressions of womanhood are uniquely individual and Afrofuturism understands that in a way that mainstream feminism still wrestles with.

The cover of Janelle Monae's album Electric Lady

Speaking of female Afrofuturists and controversy, Janelle Monae has gotten a lot of attention for dealing with futurist themes. It seems like there’s some confusion about how her image, her music, and her identity align. What do you make of the criticism her newest album has gotten from some music journalists?

I love the Electric Lady album. I think Janelle Monae does a great job of taking music styles from pop music’s past and remixing them in a refreshed, almost timeless and fun way. I think the critics want to define her one way or another and they can’t. They seem to have a difficult time accepting her as she is—wanting her to be serious and astute when she chooses to be, say, romantic and misty, or wanting her to be whimsical and wild when she’s focused and calm. It’s a challenge the mainstream has with many women who are Afrofuturists. Such women are hard to categorize and that’s the point. She can be all these things and none of them at the same time and the critics want her to choose. Others seem to want her to push some invisible envelope, embrace controversy or wave a flag for a specific cause.

Also, I wonder if people know how to deal with Janelle being a woman. She pulls from a lot of funk and electronica elements. Most of the celebrated innovators in those genres are usually male. Her story just doesn’t fit their usual narrative around women artists, particularly black women artists. She’s not the blues woman, she’s not the R&B starlet, she’s not a sultry vixen and she’s not a dirty rap princess.

You do an excellent job of explaining how pop artists like Aaliyah or Nicki Minaj have played with futurist themes. Afrofuturism isn’t a purely academic or high-minded phenomenon, right?

Not at all. You can go as deep or keep it as light as you want. If nothing else, Afrofuturism is a fun way to stretch the imagination.

What new Afrofuturist artists are you especially excited about right now?

I’m excited about Wanechi Mutu. She’s a visual artist with really compelling imagery that bridges femininity and nature in really exciting ways. I’m also knee-deep in house music and electronica. I had an opportunity to participate in the Bring the Noise: Afrofuturism x Russolo event at fidget space in Philadelphia. The showcase was curated by King Britt and showed the parallels between Afrofuturism’s electro artists and Luigi Russolo’s 1913 “Art of Noises” essay. At the show I checked out electronic music by King Britt, HPrizm, Marlo Reynolds, and Computer Jay which I enjoyed. Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy spoke, so I’ve been following his mixes, too. I like Flying Lotus, too. I also really like John Jennings and Stacye Robinson’s Black Kirby art exhibit.

You also create a science fiction multimedia series about the heroine Rayla 2212. What’s next for her, and for you?

I recently completed the Rayla 2212 saga and it will be released next year. I’m pretty geeked about it. In lieu of the release, I’m releasing short stories and art from the Birth of a Planet series that follows the creation of Rayla’s Planet Hope. The art was created by Cory and Craig Stevenson and debuted at the Race in Space Conference at Duke University. The images are wonderful. The first of the Birth of a Planet short story series came out in November.

by Alison Pezanoski-Browne
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Alley Pezanoski-Browne is a writer and media producer currently based in Portland, Oregon. She has also lived in and loved Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. She is a big fan of good books, music, food, and living room dance parties.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Mind = blown

Thank you for this piece. One reason I like Bitch so much is that it is constantly exposing me to ideas and materials I don't experience anywhere else. Going to see if I can purchase Womack's book for my library, as I believe it would be of great community interest in my city.