On Electric Ladyland’s “House Burning Down,” Jimi Hendrix resolves a race riot with the appearance of “a giant boat from space land[ing] with eerie grace” to remove all the casualties. By that point on his 1968 double album, he’d already extolled the virtues of a utopian Electric Ladyland (on “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)”) and abandoned the war-torn surface world for an underwater realm (on “1983…. (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”). Hendrix reimagined the electric guitar in rock forevermore, yes, but his hand in the founding of Afrofuturism also can never be denied.
Afrofuturism is generally defined as artistic works that dare to imagine an optimistic, progressive future for African Americans through the lens of sci-fi narratives, often also throwing back to tropes of African folklore. Anyone who experienced their tender-aged years in the 1970s probably first encountered Afrofuturism through the hi-tech fantasia of Wakanda, the African homeland of Marvel superhero the Black Panther, or perhaps the rogue adventures of Lando Calrissian, mayor of the interstellar Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. All this while their parents soaked in the electric excursions of Miles Davis, as the jazz-fusion of Bitches Brew changed the renowned trumpeter into equal parts rock and jazz icon.
Space opera’s whitewashed world of Flash Gordon made no room for people of color throughout the 1920s and ’30s. If their radio serials and comic strips were any indication, science fiction creators must have presumed that somehow darker-skinned populations wouldn’t survive into Buck Rogers’s 25th century. The modern imaginations of Black American musicians said differently: from the discography of avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra and the comic-book surrealism of funk pioneer George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic albums to the android social stratification storylines in singer Janelle Monáe’s music, the Black artists have long insisted that we survive far into the future.
Born Herman Poole Blount a long time ago (circa 1914) in a galaxy far, far away (Birmingham, Alabama), the late experimental pianist-composer known as Sun Ra later declared the planet Saturn as his homeland—laying claim to an alien heritage that infused his songs with the first sounds in jazz that qualified as Afrofuturist. Sun Ra’s own El Saturn record label released tunes with titles like “Space Is the Place,” “Tapestry From an Asteroid,” “Space Jazz Reverie” and “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus.” Releases from the Sun Ra Arkestra band musically presaged the free jazz movement of the 1960s, while ideologically infusing ancient Egyptian cosmology with a space-age orientation.
Sun Ra’s influence gleams from the ankh jewelry and Epperson fashions of singer Erykah Badu and appears in the African diaspora sci-fi of poet Saul Williams. The psychedelic, intergalactic music on Bitches Brew (represented visually by the surrealist cover art of painter Abdul Mati Klarwein) also represents an Afrofuturist jazz of its own. Pianist Herbie Hancock commanded a flying saucer from the cover of Thrust (1974), traveling sonically and spatially to worlds unknown. That through line extends over 40 years later to the album cover of The Epic (2015), Kamasi Washington’s ambitious triple-album featuring the saxophonist staring defiantly against the backdrop of two planets and all of outer space.
Afrofuturism in American popular music isn’t hard to find. Under Black Girl Nerds founder Jamie Broadnax’s definition of the movement as “the reimagining of a future filled with arts, science and technology seen through a Black lens,” DJ Grandmaster Flash’s manipulation of mixers and turntables in the early ’70s qualifies. George Clinton fused his funk music to a sci-fi mythology through P-Funk; decades later, Prince crafted a narrative on his Art Official Age that involved waking from suspended animation 45 years in the future.
In the ’70s, Clinton created a unique, signature cosmology around his funk group, Parliament, and his psychedelic black rock band, Funkadelic. The cornerstone concept of African Americans in outer space was central to the P-Funk mythos, evidenced by the group erecting a 20-foot, 1,200-pound flying saucer on nationwide concert stages. (The spaceship currently sits docked in a hallowed hall of Washington D.C.’s “black Smithsonian,” aka the National Museum of African American History and Culture). Clinton’s alien alter ego, Star Child, and both groups’ futuristic costuming, cover artwork and science fiction themes, make Parliament-Funkadelic a base component of Afrofuturism.
David Bowie ushered in glam rock as interstellar rock star Ziggy Stardust, with all the makeup, wigs and outrageous costuming that entailed. Then he moved on. But visionary designer Larry Legaspi moved on too: outfitting KISS, as well as the Afrofuturist fashion of P-Funk and the female rock-soul trio of Labelle. Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash opened for the Who and the Rolling Stones sporting silver spacesuit couture and glittery cosmetics, singing songs like “Space Children” and “Cosmic Dancer.”
Janelle Monáe called her 2018 short film, Dirty Computer, an “emotion picture.” Exploring concepts of womanism, gender fluidity and identity, Monáe cast herself as Jane 57821 in a totalitarian, dystopian society reminiscent of THX 1138—but with Black folks displaying an open sexuality. The Grammy-nominated record that this visual album stems from caps a career full of Afrofuturistic concepts, like Monáe’s cyber alter ego Cyndi Mayweather, and the Octavia Butler-esque backstory underlining The ArchAndroid and Metropolis: The Chase Suite.
The resistance initially raised against Black-invented music genres like jazz, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop (all of which were later embraced and subsumed into mainstream culture) happened because those music forms were innovative, cutting edge, ahead of the times in which they were created. Afrofuturistic, in other words. The unique struggles of Black life have always necessitated a lean forward into a future in which white supremacist ideals might be eliminated. The music—from the squealing guitar feedback of Jimi Hendrix to the off-kilter time signatures of Dilla—has always reflected that. The following artists’ work all bring the promise of Afrofuturist music to fruition, simultaneously celebrating the past while focused on the far-flung future like sonic Sankofa birds.
The Detroit-based techno-electro duo Gerald Donald and James Stinson, collectively known as Drexciya, concocted a nautical backstory to their releases worthy of anything from Namor the Sub-Mariner: an underwater colony, Drexciya, was populated by the unborn progeny of African women thrown overboard during the Atlantic slave trade’s Middle Passage. But the instrumental music of their Neptune’s Lair debut—synthy, propulsive, energetic—never sounded anything short of celebratory.
Inspirationally, the common denominator between modern jazz greats Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and Flying Lotus might be the late, great J Dilla. But the first to connect hip-hop and jazz like they organically deserved to share the same space was pianist Herbie Hancock on “Rockit,” the Grammy-winning centerpiece of his 35th album, Future Shock. He’d already piloted a flying saucer on the cover of Thrust (1974). But on Future Shock—a collaboration with Bill Laswell and his avant-garde group, Material—Hancock embraced GrandMixer DXT’s turntablism and the latest Fairlight synthesizers to explore a post-modern jazz with eyes and ears toward the 21st century.
On her sixth album, New Orleans-born Dawn Richard (late of the Diddy-groomed aughties girl group, Danity Kane) embraced EDM as the sonic backdrop to an Afrofuturist narrative centered on her android alter-ego, King Creole. Shades of Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, the liberation of King Creole is Richard’s metaphor for her own move away from the formulaic, rigid record industry towards artistic freedom and indie-label independence. There’s electronica effects that might be heard in a Star Wars bar (“SELFish”), with lyrics consistent with the concept album (“She not selling records, need help,” says “Radio Free”), but the album’s mostly heavy on the beats per minute. Second Line brings the celebratory N’Orleans tradition of its title into a far-flung future.
Before helping make Gorillaz great, producer Dan the Automator and rapper Del the Funky Homosapien joined forces to imagine life in the 31st century. Del (as Deltron Zero) defeats MCs from Mercury to Pluto on “Battlesong,” part of a greater narrative about wresting societal control from corporate tyrants as the Intergalactic Rhyme Federation Champion. Gorillaz mastermind Dave Albarn croons a hook (“Time Keeps on Slipping”), as does Sean Lennon (“Memory Loss”). But Del’s dense rhymes about memory apprehension glasses, Soulsonic Mantroniks, Optimus Prime, the Silver Surfer and a million other things command the spotlight.
“Flying saucers, spaceships move at warp speed,” the eclectic Kool Keith spits on “Livin’ Astro”—lead single to an Afrofuturistic rap record so underpromoted that the rapper publicly published record execs’ emails so fans could protest. Featuring self-production by the former Ultramagnetic MC who first turned heads on 1986’s “Ego Trippin’,” with appearances by Sadat X, Kid Capri and Roger Troutman, Black Elvis/Lost in Space runs two high concepts simultaneously: a bewigged send up of Elvis, and a spaced-out intergalactic traveler rhyming about “Darth Vader and 3PO/R2-D2, me too” (on “Rockets on the Battlefield”).
Awash with references to cyborgs, The Terminator, droids, Philip K. Dick and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Janelle Monáe’s stunning debut made just as many musical allusions: to funk (“Tightrope”), psychedelic soul (“Mushrooms & Roses”), James Bond themes (“Babopbye Ya”), classical music (“Suite II Overture”) and, amazingly, even more. Parts two and three of a concept trilogy started on her Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP, The ArchAndroid stars messianic android Cindi Mayweather freeing her oppressed synthezoid society through the power of love in the far-flung year of 2719. Follow the storyline or ignore it — the album created a new benchmark for alt-R&B.
The Trent Reznor-produced The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! (2007) musically cast a shadow on Kanye West’s Yeezus. Saul Williams doubles down on his minimalist industrial sound here — singing “I own the night and the stars, bright as suns of distant galaxies” (“I Own the Night (Sufi Vision)”) on a concept album full of afro-diasporic futurism. His tunes tell the tale of African hacker activists, a sci-fi story fleshed out in his directorial debut, Neptune Frost. But the mesmerizing electronica bleeping underneath lines about air on distant planets and fourth-dimensional libations help Encrypted & Vulnerable stand on its own.
Originally titled Landing in the Ghetto, Parliament’s fourth album sounds instantly familiar to those who partied in the ’90s instead of the ’70s: samples of “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” feature on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. One would be hard pressed to find a more indelible image of Afrofuturism than George Clinton in silver thigh-high boots hanging out the side of a flying saucer (aka the Mothership). Keyboardist Bernie Worrell’s signature wormy squiggles on “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples,” bassist Bootsy Collins anchoring “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and the horny horns of Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley help make Mothership Connection one of Parliament’s strongest efforts.
The Lion King: The Gift—soundtrack to Disney’s live-action remake of The Lion King, full of African pop stars (Tiwa Savage on “Keys to the Kingdom,” Oumou Sangaré on “Mood 4 Eva”)—had even more to gift 12 months later: the Beyoncé-directed visual album, Black Is King, featuring the same music. Her pan-Africanist, Afrobeat-infused collection of musical vignettes featured many Afrofuturistic images: an African youth streaking through space like a meteor; Beyoncé herself standing regally in desert sands with a lunar backdrop, like Rey Skywalker on the planet Tatooine. The Gift scales its highest Afrofuturism moment on “My Power,” with heavy assist from Tierra Whack, Busiswa and Yemi Alade, but it’s the album’s accompanying visuals that go black to the future.
Not to be confused with the soundtrack to jazzman Sun Ra’s 1974 sci-fi film of the same name, this five-song album remains the Afrofuturist bandleader’s most famous album. The title track features singer June Tyson intoning “space is the place” ad infinitum over spirited saxophone, clarinet, bass and organ from the Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra. Chaotic free form jazz dominates the aptly titled “Sea of Sounds,” while “Images” (structured around Sun Ra’s piano melody) sounds far more traditional than other avant-garde compositions in his catalog. The sounds of Saturn were never more accessible.