Postcards from a PhD
It was only recently that I realised that the term ‘afrofuturism’ only came into use in 1994, coined by Mark Dery in his essay ‘Black to the Future’. In a musical context, in my mind, I could very clearly see a recognisable afrofuturist linage going back to Sun Ra in the mid-1950s. It was a surprise to realise that while Sun Ra, who died in 1993, would have recognised all its elements, afrofuturism wouldn’t have been a word in his lexicon. The retroactive classification of music as afrofuturist and a preoccupation with lost pasts and re-imagined futures clearly has parallels with the emergence of hauntology as a musical genre over the last ten years, so with this in mind my reading over the last couple of days has been Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.
Womack’s afrofuturist primer is a very rooted in the personal and in particular the sci-fi and fantasy that she was drawn to from childhood. In the introduction she describes the paradox of her instinctive attraction to the imaginary worlds depicted in popular science fiction and her underlying feeling of dissatisfaction that these future visions didn’t adequately represent her as black and as female. Star Wars in particular was a crucial early influence, and she confesses her secret childhood disappointment that Lando Calrissian lost the Millennium Falcon in a bet to Han Solo, rationalising that had this not been the case he would have played a more pivotal role in the story. Similarly, she expresses her frustration as a young girl at Luke Skywalker being inducted into the ways of the Jedi first, because it prevented her Princess Leia Halloween costume being completed with a much coveted lightsaber. It is very clear that Womack’s attraction to afrofuturism, particularly as a fiction writer herself, is as an agency for re-imagination.
Womack defines afrofuturism via Ingrid LaFleur as “a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens”, with a particular emphasis on challenging the dystopian view of race. The slave trade, apartheid, genocide and ethic cleansing are all waged, Womack notes, on the basis of others being non-human, and it’s this starting point that both the recurrent motif of the alien and the attachment to imaginary hyper-evolved post-human worlds are grounded in. Womack primarily focuses on literary representations of these ideas and the interplay between fiction and 21st century technological innovation and engagement in the ‘real world’.
The section specifically on music in Afrofuturism is brief, and largely focuses on Sun Ra and George Clinton before fast-forwarding by way of a few short profiles, to the present day, and Janelle Monáe in particular. This sadly means a lot is overlooked, the afrofuturist aesthetic in 80s electro and hip-hop being the most glaring omission. There was also, I felt, some ambiguity in how Womack defines afrofuturism in music, whether this is theme based, i.e. the use of motifs related to space, time, science fiction and alternate theories of the universe, or whether it’s to do with real-time technological engagement and pioneering.
What Womack does write about music, however, is interesting, particularly her exploring of the creation of musical cosmologies. The costumes, the music and the artwork combine, she argues, to generate an assault on the senses, to create a new world where new music can be situated. The use of space as a theme is, Womack maintains, more than a gimmick, it serves as a visual tool to prepare audiences for something new; space as a metaphor for free thinking.
By this point in Womack’s book, I had come to the realisation that the parallels between afrofuturism and hauntology were not as clear as I had imagined. Fundamentally this is due to the standpoint from which they look back at the past. I have always thought of hauntology as embodying a cynical nostalgia, but a nostalgia nevertheless, a reaction to the commercialisation of retro culture in the nineties that looked back on the past with rose-tinted glasses. Hauntological music approaches this phenomenon wryly, but to varying degrees still seems to convey a fondness for what it reflects on. Afrofuturism has a completely different starting point, devoid of nostalgia, looking back on a past that is inarguably repressive and therefore not a place of reflection so much as space of renegotiation. “I think we feel held hostage to time”, D. Denenge Akpem suggests: “There’s this idea that if you can control time and your place in it, you can control history and the course of history”.
In his article ‘The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology’ (Dancecult, 2013), Mark Fisher argues sonic hauntology does share common ground with afrofuturism because it’s a product within white culture of late 20th century temporal disjunctions, suggesting, via Žižek, that there is a parallel between the experience of wage labourers in capitalist metropolises and African slaves hundreds of years earlier. I will explore this paper in greater detail at a later date, but this is an explicit example of why I feel it is completely inappropriate to continue to attach Derrida’s definition of hauntology within capitalist discourse to musical hauntology (or hauntologies as I am increasingly starting to thing of them), to draw crass analogies based on the chance naming of a musical genre. Indeed, in an interview in the November 2015 issue of Electronic Sound, Jim Jupp says of the Derridian definition of hauntology “I’m not even sure what it means”.
Yesterday on Facebook I saw a post someone had shared, via George Takei, showing a picture of Patrick Stewart holding an Amnesty International placard campaigning for the defence of the rights of women and girls. Accompanying it was the quote “People won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it”. The relevance of this is that it neatly encompasses the ridiculousness of using Marxist theory to suggest that hauntological music stems from a 20th century catalyst in white culture that echoes the Afrodiasporic experience that lead to the afrofuturist movement. When Ytasha L. Womack writes about alienation, of having one’s history supplanted, of not being represented in the popular culture in which she grew up I think we can safely say this is not an experience shared by the, largely, aging white men that produce hauntological music.
So then, in the interests of a tidy ending, let’s just say if I’ve taken anything away from Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism it’s the strong conviction that the metropolises of which Fisher and Žižek write, where the past haunts the present, are very different to the Metropolis where Janelle Monáe chooses to reside, where multiple eras and identities are lived simultaneously.