Cyberspace Is the Place? Afrofuturism in the 21st Century


Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2015. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.

“Planet Earth: sound of guns, anger, frustration. There was no one to talk to up on planet Earth who’d understand, so we set up a colony for black people here. See what they can do on a planet all on their own, without any white people there… Another place in the universe, up under distant stars.”

So muses Sun Ra as he wanders through the imagined landscape of a distant planet in his 1974 film Space Is the Place. The film is perhaps the first thing that might come to mind when you think of Afrofuturism, representing a sort of quintessence of the ideas of a man who essentially created that movement (even if it didn’t get named as such until decades later). It unites the main ideas of Afrofuturism: interrogating the nature of racial oppression and imagining a version of the future where black people and culture are free of such oppression, in Ra’s case by decamping to another planet entirely. Afrofuturist ideals are interesting in that they’re both expressions of utopian futurism and principles deeply grounded in history — the parallels with emancipation are obvious, and the vision of the real world as a place of incessant oppression remains as depressingly true as it was 40 years ago.

As far as music goes, at least, the Afrofuturist aesthetic reached its peak in the 1970s with the gloriously outlandish likes of Parliament and Funkadelic, for whom George Clinton created a complete sci-fi mythology, centered around the struggles of divine hero Starchild against the evil (and decidedly unfunky) Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk. The flamboyance of this music crossed over into early hip hop, but by the mid-’80s it had been replaced by the sort of gritty realism that would characterize the genre for the next 25 years. Indeed, the idea of realism became so deeply ingrained in hip hop that it became part of the lexicon — “keeping it real,” “real hip hop,” etc. When Nas pronounced on “NY State of Mind” that his music came “Straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap/ Where fake niggas don’t make it back,” he was setting out a manifesto for what hip hop would do in the 1990s: take the head of white America and shove it through the window to gaze into the dungeons it had created for its most oppressed citizens.

Psychedelic, space-age hip hop never quite disappeared — Kool Keith has been flying a lone flag for bugged-out sci-fi raps for the best part of a decade — but it’s seen a definite resurgence in recent years. The latest example is Seattle duo THEESatisfaction’s second album Earthee, which is out this week via Pacific Northwest institution Sub Pop. The label once known for grunge has become an unlikely hotbed of neo-psychedelic hip hop; along with THEESatisfaction, it’s home to Shabazz Palaces, the experimental crew led by former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler. These are fairly niche artists in terms of popularity, but the influence of psychedelia has also reached into other corners of hip hop — Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap was the sound of a man wandering through the backblocks of his mind, and listening to Flying Lotus is like being at that phase of a trip where everything seems to make a vague sort of overarching sense, a pattern that you’re aware of but can’t quite grasp fully.

Art that does a good job of evoking the psychedelic experience is always fascinating, because the experience it’s trying to recreate is one that’s by definition deeply personal and impossible to capture — write down the cosmic insights you receive when you’re on acid or mushrooms, and the next day you’ll be greeted with hilarious gibberish that your poor little brain can’t make head or tail of. But still, there are definitely works of art that manage to make some sense of altered states: Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, for instance, is the closest thing you’ll ever have to a trip without actually ingesting anything.

When it comes to the use of psychedelia in the work of artists like THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, though, it’s not just about getting pleasantly fried and wandering the fields, stopping occasionally to have intense conversations with passing ducks. There’s a sense that the psychedelic experience might offer some sort of release from the exhausting onslaught of the “real” world. In this sense, it’s implicitly political music, if not explicitly so, and more interestingly, it’s redolent of Afrofuturism — where Sun Ra and his contemporaries dreamed of outer space, artists like THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces work in the more abstract context of inner space.

The end product is the same, though: the creation of spaces where black culture can express itself without the oppression to which it’s constantly subjected in the real world. Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty, released last year, is dominated by virtual, imagined spaces: the cover art lays out a three-dimensional projection of a surreal, futuristic building, its interior divided into surfaces that correspond to sections of the record (or, as the press release calls them, “astral suites,” collecting groups of songs under labels like “Pleasure Milieu” and the “The Phasing Shift”). The image was created by Toronto designer Nep Sidhu, a multidisciplinary artist who describes himself as “an artist in continuum linking the ancient with the here and now.”

Image credit: Rajni Perera

“The first thing to do is consider time as officially ended. We work on the other side of time.”

The ancient has certainly always played a part in Afrofuturist imagery — the iconography of ancient Egypt, in particular, is a constant theme. I’m sure it’s no accident that THEESatisfaction’s Stas Irons and Cat Harris-White are wearing sort of pseudo-Pharaonic garments (perhaps imagined garments) as they sit on their crazy gold space chair on the cover of Earthee. (The image is the work of designer Rajni Perera, whose website is well worth checking out.)

The idea of contemporary black culture tying in to a deep-rooted lineage works in a couple of different ways: for a start, as Ytasha Womack notes in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Culture, “Egypt’s reign in the ancient world and Nubia’s influence stand as proof that cultures of dark-skinned people ruled advanced societies and shaped global knowledge.” It also alludes to the fact that this culture has been oppressed and exploited for a hell of a long time — if you have to look back to ancient Egypt for a time when black culture was free and ascendant, you’re looking back quite a long way.

But there’s also something hyper-modern about contemporary psychedelic hip hop — because there’s another place where you can encounter the sort of disconnected, timeless experience of psychedelia, floating in a space where information arrives without any sort of rhyme or reason. It is, of course, the Internet. As Spin’s Anupa Mistry argues in this excellent review of Lese Majesty, “In mirroring and transcending the schizoid, rootless form of digital society, [the album] is an attempt to help people cope with the culture.”

The role of cyber culture in the development of 21st-century hip hop is pretty fascinating to consider, and it’s a largely unexplored area of study — the pieces that have been written largely concern the way in which the Internet has been used to disseminate hip hop culture around the world (a process that, let’s be honest, was well underway long before the Internet became ubiquitous enough to have an impact on it).

Intuitively, one might think that cyberspace might function as a real-life, attainable analogue to the outer space of Sun Ra’s vision — a place where people can express themselves without worry about color or creed, a place where race and gender and other sources or discrimination are erased. (Certainly, this was an argument that cyber utopians used — and still use — in exhorting the benefits of universal and unceasing connectedness.)

The reality, of course, is rather different. Cyberspace is a space that’s as white-dominated as the “real” world, and it’s not at all friendly to minorities — the ongoing Gamergate fiasco exemplifies what happens when the hetero white male majority feels like its hegemony is being threatened, even online. Things are fine so long as you pass for a white male. If you stand up and proclaim yourself to be different, however, you tend to be knocked down. (The idea of “passing” on the Internet is examined here and here, among other places.)

Clearly, socioeconomic factors come into play here — the Internet has historically been a place dominated by the white middle class, for the simple reason that they’ve historically had far more access to it than anyone else. Whether the Internet can ever live up to its utopian ideals remains very much an open question — unlike Sun Ra’s planet, it can’t wipe away time (and thus, implicitly, history). But still, it can provide some sort of vision for the future, especially in an age when access is democratizing and the Internet can provide a lifeline and a way into culture for all sorts of alienated kids (even in cases where the reality is depressingly different).

Or, as David Crane argues in “In Medias Race: Filmic Representation, Networked Communication and Racial Intermediation,” from the anthology Race in Cyberspace, “Despite its conventional incorporation and transformative potential, cyberspace… generally connotes an ‘other’ world ontologically and phenomenologically distinct from the ‘real’ one. Its otherness, in fact, bestows upon it the capacity for transformation.” Crane’s essay is fascinating reading, arguing that “blackness functions to authenticate — and envision — oppositional identities and ideologies associated with cyberspace.”

In this respect, the pattern is depressingly similar to the offline history of the Western world — black culture is appropriated and repurposed to lend legitimacy to other forms of culture, and in doing so, becomes ever more ascendant in terms of influence while remaining oppressed in terms of who actually profits. Look around on the Internet and you can see countless examples: the appropriation of slang like “bae” by brands for use on Twitter, the existence of Iggy Azalea, etc. The bitter irony, of course, is that, as ever, it’s those who didn’t invent the culture who benefit from it. As Irons points out on Earthee track “Blandland,” “They take jazz, take soul, take hip hop/ And blame the nigga every inch and every drip drop/ They money making Harlem Shaking to the pish posh/ They tryna fuck it til they come, [and] hope they get off.”

“We bring them here through either isotope teleportation, trans-molecularisation, or better still, transport the whole planet here… through music.”

Ultimately, of course, the idea of absconding completely from this reality to another one remains the stuff of science fiction — the sort of outlandish processes that Sun Ra imagined when he set forth his vision of a black planet. (This is, after all, a man who apparently genuinely believed that he’d been to Saturn.) But even at his most ambitious, he realized that the most important journey one could make was a metaphysical one, a journey of self-realization, one where decades of prejudice and preconceptions and internalized oppression are swept aside.

The parallels with conventional ’60s psychedelia are obvious — a journey into the desert for some sort of peyote epiphany about your purpose in life — but they’re just as relevant today as they were half a century ago. Ultimately, as a white man, I have no place doing any more than noting and applauding the existence of these ideas. What sort of effect they might have on the future of black culture, in a world that is as oppressive of that culture as it’s ever been, remains unclear.

But it seems to me that there’s something genuinely beautiful about these exploratory, visionary sounds. In creating an imagined space where the imagined construct of race is dismantled and cast into an endless void to float into oblivion, artists like Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction provide a model for both our society’s reality and its abstracted reality, for real-life space and for cyberspace. Human nature dictates that such utopias will most likely remain imaginary places, as distant as another planet — but, at least, they’re places we can keep looking for ways to reach.