From slaveships to spaceships.
Afrofuturism and sonic imaginaries
by Lorenzo Montefinese

«What does it mean to be human?» asked Mark Sinker back in 1992, envisioning a thread that connected the dots between science fiction and slavery. Both are encounters with the threshold of humanness. Hence the parallel between the slave and the alien, the two most recurrent categories of non-humans. If otherness ties together the alien and the slave, another figure lurks at the crossroads of reality and fiction. It is the robot. The word “robot” comes from the Czech “robota” (meaning work) and surfaced in literature when Karel Čapek used it to name automatized workers in his 1920 play R.U.R. Being a forced laborer, then, is the quality which posits the parallel between the robot and the slave.
This uncanny equation between the slave, the alien, and the robot forms the loose basic tenet from which a parallel, spurious, unabashedly subversive strain of black thought and cultural production has sprung at least since the 1950s: Afrofuturism, whose developments and intertwining with afrodiasporic music – and techno in particular – have been thoroughly investigated by Claudia Attimonelli (Attimonelli, C., 2018).
According to common sense, there is nothing more irreconcilable than whatever is afro-related and futurism. Afrofuturism parts way with this established misconception – itself a futuristic act – and over a constellation of artforms and stances, tries to imagine alternate realities and possible futures from a perspective which reframes (and often goes beyond) the boundaries and the subject positions of blackness. A term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1994, afrofuturism manifests itself in a repertoire of cultural forms in which African descendants and technology are not anymore mutually exclusive: «African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism’». Dery’s essay was mostly focused on black science fiction, yet music is no less a privileged vessel for afrofuturist propagation.
Afrofuturism in music usually combines a reliance on technological processes of recording and producing with a science fiction imaginary. Technology is reappropriated and misused by black musicians. The music itself and its underlying fictionalized narrative are otherworldly: at once alien and alienizing. Yesterday and tomorrow merge in a tireless undulation between a reframing of the past and an urge to provide sounds, images and concepts for the future. From slavery abduction to the exploration of unseen and unheard sonic worlds. From slaveships to spaceships.
Afrofuturism is a retroactive concept. It was already in effect, and it has been for decades, before it was conceptually theorized. Its ex-postness doesn’t make it any weaker; it attests to things that acquire new meanings once observed from different angles.
In his 1992 article for The Wire (Sinker, M., 1992), Mark Sinker writes about Black Science Fiction, slavery, and the futuristic, otherworldly quality of Sun Ra, George Clinton, hip hop and techno. Black SF is characterized by the acknowledgement «that Apocalypse already happened». Stripped of its own past and memory, Black culture in America survived «by syncretism, by bricolage, by a day-to-day programme of appropriation and adaptation». Mutant, self-replicating, hybrid, alien: «Africa and America – and so by extension Europe and Asia – are already in their various ways Alien Nation». From alienation to Alien Nation.
However, Sinker never used the word afrofuturism. It was another Mark, Dery, who minted the term in a 1994 conversation piece with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose (Dery, M., 1994). In his view, black sci-fi auteurs like Octavia Butler, as well as sci-fi comics revolving around black characters, are afrofuturist insofar they depict possible futures and alternate realities in which blacks are empowered and freed from the enduring oppression they’re subjected to. To find inspiration, African Americans had to look no further than their racially segregated reality: «Black people live the estrangement that science fiction writers imagine» said Greg Tate. From the overtly sociopolitical topics addressed by literature to the more elusive musical landscape, the focus remains on technological appropriation and the visionary power of shaping new sounds and concepts.

Drexciyan soldiers

A key role in theorizing and understanding black culture is provided by Paul Gilroy’s concept of the black Atlantic (Gilroy, P., 1993). Emphasizing the Middle Passage as the event which erased past histories for the abducted slaves and at the same time allowed a transcultural renegotiation of black identity, Gilroy proposes a new framework for black subjectivities and cultural practices. The black Atlantic is considered as a «transcultural, international formation» characterized by a «rhizomorphic, fractal structure». Focusing on the Atlantic route means highlighting the role of the ships: not only vessels that brought labor force, ships transported cultural artifacts, traditions and practices as well, allowing them to survive, replicate, contaminate one another, alongside American, British and Western cultures in general.
It is this mixture of African, American, Caribbean and British cultures that will breed afrofuturist music and nourish its imaginary over the two sides of the Atlantic.
We can thus conceive music, and the pure physical qualities of sound itself, as a device to carry (or blur, or erase altogether) identities and racial subjectivities. If the creation of race is a technology, as Ytasha Womack argues (Womack, Ytasha., 2016), sonic afrofuturism is based on new usages and designs of this technology.
Conjuring sound technologies and a robotic, cosmic, interdimensional imaginary leads to the creation of fictionalized (sound)worlds, or what Kodwo Eshun terms sonic fiction (Eshun, K., 1998). Writing in a style as much lysergic and visionary as the music he presents, Eshun advances new models for deeper and kin-aesthetic understanding of “futurhythmachines”, “sampladelia”, “mixadelic universe”, “mutantextures” and “mythScience”. From the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra, to the sculpted beats of drum’n’bass, Eshun surveys the radical developments of black music as it emancipates itself from black traditional heritage and musical aesthetics. No longer bound to the streets, departing from the Soul era, afrofuturist music sympathizes with the alien, relies on the human-machine interface, and plays with history and linear temporalities.
Let us now dive deep into the “discontinuum of AfroDiasporic Futurism”.
When we talk about sonic fiction, about the ability to build parallel universes, and AlterRealities to unleash otherworldly messages and music, the prime example is Sun Ra. Born and raised in Alabama, by the 1950s he was taking jazz into experimental terrains with his orchestra, The Arkestra. Ra’s free jazz was a cosmic jazz that incorporated electronic elements in his compositions.

Sun Ra
Sun Ra

Sun Ra was cosmic because of the futuristic, freeform character of his music, as well as because of the imaginary evoked through albums and songs titles. Naming his band The Arkestra resurrected the ghost of slaveships. Now taking off for intergalactic travels, the Arkestra is the metaphorical and concrete vessel – through unpredictable music and avant-gardist performances – for entering other realms. Sun Ra himself stopped identifying as a human being and first declared he was abducted by aliens on another planet, then claimed he was born on Saturn. Casting aside his very humanness, let alone his belonging to black people, Ra identified with the mysterious Other, an alien Godlike deity who came to earth in order to restore harmony and enlighten people through his music. The albums recorded with the Arkestra betray a yearning for Otherness that surfaces already in their titles. The futuristic sounds of Sun Ra, Astro black, Atlantis, Super-sonic sounds, Cosmic tones for mental therapy, We travel the space ways, Space is the place. Their covers feature images of planets, galactic spaces, psychedelic and surreal environments. Even before listening to them, one is visually and conceptually driven in the sonic worlds they build.

But Sun Ra’s AlteRealities are open portals to the past as well as the future. Temporalities are jumbled, as the imagery of arcane Pharaonic splendor is reactivated. Referencing ancient Egypt is a device to obliterate more traditional accounts of Africanity: The Pharaohs were godlike creatures leading a technologically advanced society, and this imagery is projected onto the future of sci-fi topics and the unforeseen wildness of free and cosmic, electronically infused jazz. The MythScience of Sun Ra permeates the stage as well, as him and the Arkestra used to perform live dressed in glittering African clothes.

The shift from a series of concepts and a coherent AfroTopic imagery to a proper saga leads us to the funk of Parliament and Funkadelic, and their mastermind: George Clinton.
P-funk alienizes funk. P-funk’s sonic fiction is another tale of spaceships. In this case, it is the Mothership from which Clinton emerges, that lands on Earth craving the funk as an antidote against the rigidity of un-funky coolness. In P-funk mythology-funkology, funk becomes an intoxicating substance, the truth, a weapon.

Parliament band

Across several albums released by Funkadelic and Parliament, Clinton shapes a funk mythology, where his alter egos such as Star Child and Dr. Funkenstein are alien creatures craving, cloning, and spreading the funk. On Funkadelic’s “Mommy what’s a funkadelic?” he sings «By the way, my name is Funk…I am not of your world… I am Funkadelic, dedicated to the feeling of good». The liner notes on their Standing on the verge of getting it on state that George Clinton «begat Funkadelic to restore Order Within the Universe». The Mothership, which gives the name to Parliament’s Mothership Connection, is another afrofuturist iconic spaceship. It is from the Mothership, “home of extraterrestrial brothers, dealers of funky music”, that a connection with earth is established through the broadcasting of radio WEFUNK. The aliens on board “have returned to claim the Pyramids” and they command people on earth to “give up the funk”. The saga continues on The clones of Dr. Funkenstein. The Prelude of the album extends the myth further back in time and placing “Specially-designed Afronauts” as carrier of “Clone Funk”.

Together with the Arkestra and the Mothership connection, there is a third vessel from which afrofuturist excursions into sound took place. It is the Black Ark. Situated in Kingston, Jamaica, it is the recording studio where Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry would practice his dub sorceries.

Black Ark

With dub, the hierarchy between the musician/artist and the engineer/technician is erased, if not reversed. Dub is the science of the mixing board, the technologies of recording turned into creative tools to subvert songs and create new ones through processes of subtractions and additions. With dub, it’s not only the voice that fades away, but it’s all the surrounding sound environment – bass, drums, keyboards, horns, guitars – that is at once enhanced and rendered ghost-like via echo, delay and other effects, as to create an enveloping sonic womb. Discovered accidentally, the art of dub rose to prominence thanks to the genius of sound-engineers like King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Scientist.

Lee Scratch Perry

Dub sounded intrinsically new because of the scientific, almost magic treatment the recorded audio was subjected to. Perry was the wizard who twisted knobs and tinkered with the mixing board to shape sounds coming from outer space, and the Black Ark was more a scientific laboratory than a studio. The imagery of science and of the engineer-turned-artist-turned-scientist was kept alive by Scientist. The titles and the covers (although these were mostly made for the British Greensleeves label) of his albums depict a comics-style sci-fi outer world in which the mixing board often becomes the controls of spaceships and Scientist fights against fantastic enemies.

It is crucial to mention dub in an expanded account of afrodiasporic sonic futurism because it is dub that definitively sharpens the figure of the producer as a scientist, and because dub is a main example of subversive (and randomly discovered) usages of technologies that shape new sounds and entire genres, as we’re going to see with electro, hip hop and acid.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Roland manufactured two low-price pieces of equipment which unexpectedly twisted the course of popular music. The Roland TR-808, a drum machine; and the TB-303, a bassline generator. Both were supposed to emulate real instruments to accompany musicians. But, given their relative low fidelity to the sounds they should have emulated (808 and 909), and the amount of effort required for a proper use (303), they ended up creating new and more exciting sounds. 808 drums sounded artificial, thus unleashing the creativity of some African Americans who exploited their potential for robotic and alien sounds.

The 808 beats birthed electro, which was the first electronically based black music. The Egyptian Lover made the 808 his revered instruments, while Afrika Bambaataa realized one of the most memorable electro hit with “Planet rock” (which covered the melody of Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk, a linchpin of European electronic futurism). The Egyptian Lover and Bambaataa imaginary conjured a fully machine-made music with references to Africa, and they showed how blacks from underprivileged neighborhoods could be at the forefront of artistic innovation.
Acid is another landmark in the canon of technological misuses and reappropriation, as it was thanks to a second-hand 303 that the Chicago group Phuture invented acid house. Why try to emulate the sound of real instruments when you can let the machine take the sounds to previously unheard degrees of estrangement? The 303 basslines are piercing, gurgling, intoxicating, constantly yet subtly morphing over a four-to-the-floor thumping kick drum. Phuture translated their stage name into the music they produced, the 303 mis-used and taken further away from its prescribed usage.

Hip Hop as well couldn’t have risen without a creative engagement with producing and playback technologies. Isolating the breakbeats of funk songs and playing only these segments; prolonging them by playing two copies of the same record on two turntables; and scratching: all these innovations at the basis of hip hop are radical acts of conceiving the turntable as an instrument. Moreover, the technique of scratching, just like dubbing, was discovered by accident. Relying on these unforeseen usages of media, hip hop pioneers such as Dj Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash became the ambassadors of a new African American street culture.
But hip-hop culture was shaped by another technological artefact: the sampler. With it, rap producers were able to craft new beats cutting and looping selected segments of existing songs.

Twisting temporalities, fragments of the past were stitched together to create new music. Producers sampled from the past of black music and from the most disparate corners of pop culture, and Eshun observes a sheer futuristic stance especially in the beats of Mantronix and The Bomb Squad, or the idiosyncratic rap and personality of Kool Keith.
Another sonic revolution was blossoming in the Midwest. Detroit gave birth to techno music. Juan Atkins, both with Rik Davies as Cybotron, and solo as Model500 and other aliases, pioneered the new sound of Detroit – as the name of the first commercial compilation showcasing the then-emerging genre goes. Cybotron renamed Detroit “Techno city” and fused European synth pop and new wave with African American electro and funk. The result was a futuristic music which didn’t sound black nor white, a «complete mistake […] like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company», as Derrick May put it. May himself and Kevin Saunderson formed the first wave Detroit techno trio alongside Atkins, but it was the latter’s output that propelled afrofuturism the most, concept-wise and music-wise. Saying goodbye to black traditional aesthetics and going in a different direction than hip hop’s street credibility, Atkins looked at outer space and automatized technology.
If African Americans had been subjected to alienations, Atkins and techno fully embraced the alien. The man became cyborg (hence the cybo- in Cybotron). “Cosmic cars”, “Cosmic raindace”, “Techno city” reflect this imaginary, and so does the cover of Enter. When Atkins started producing as Model 500, he relinquished his human identity at all to identify with the machine. His first tracks, “No UFO’s”, “Future”, “Time Space Transmat”, released on his label Metroplex, evoke future metropolis and outer space even before listening to their syncopated and futuristic electro music.

At the beginning of the 90s, two groups from Detroit added a political and social consciousness to the cutting edginess of electro and techno music: Underground Resistance and Drexciya.
Founded by Mike Banks, Robert Hood and Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance was a collective and record label.Their name, their music and their artworks exude a militant attitude oriented against entertainment media “audiovisual programmers”. Theirs is a sonic war conducted through highly evocative releases and uncompromised music. UR imaginary is populated by cyborg fighters, human-animal mutants, and afrowarriors involved in telematic sabotages. Their releases have titles such as Punisher, Riot, Analog assassin, Interstellar fugitives, Knights of the jaguar, Message to the Majors.

While hip hop usually gravitates around the local space of the street, UR warriors sought to pervade outer space, progressively shifting from Nation 2 Nation to World 2 World to Galaxy 2 Galaxy. UR continues the cyborg mutation of blackness and, together with a rhythmic mechanization, gives up human individuality in favour of impersonal alter egos. Terminator, X-101, X-102, The Aztec Mystic, The Suburban Knight, The Infiltrator are the creatures that populates UR universe, whose military base/recording studio is aptly named “Black Planet studios”.
Emerging from the collective’s orbit was one act which took afrodiasporic sonic fiction to the extreme: Drexciya, the duo of James Stinson and Gerald Donald. Drexciya envisioned a whole mythology about drexciyans, whose ongoing developments were reported in records sleeve notes and labels, and were visually conceived by Abdul Qadim Haqq (who also drew covers for Model 500, UR and Detroit main techno producers).

The Drexciyan myth begins during the Middle Passage, when pregnant women on slaveships were thrown overboard. In the depths of the Atlantic, they birthed the mutant race of Drexciyans, inhabitants of the abysses. According to Eshun, Drexciya revives an Atlantean Aquatopia, with each EP navigating the depths of the Black Atlantic and titles that transmit this imagined geography and underwater epic through audio frequencies and wavebands. Tracks like “Positron island”, “Intensified magnetron”, “Aquabahn”, “Red Hills of Lardossa”, “Andreaen Sand Dunes” or “Soul of the sea”; and records named Deep Sea dweller, Bubble metropolis, The Unknown aquazone, The Journey Home, Hydro Doorways, Black Sea, are only a tiny portion of the Drexciya reappropriation of the Middle Passage narrative, an unprecedented attempt to link Middle Passage slave abduction to a fictionalized audio ecosystem.
Another Detroit techno sci-fi obsessed is former-UR member Jeff Mills. On one hand Mills stripped down and rigidified techno into a stark, restless minimalism, thus bringing techno further into alien territories; on the other, he scored more ambient-leaning soundtracks for sci-fi movies and explicitly dealt with outer space imagery.

From his live performances where he acts as a robotic and flawless mixing-machine jostling between turntables and the Roland TR-909, to more recent album artworks and soundtrack projects he’s embarked on – such as The Jungle Planet, Fantastic Voyage, Woman In The Moon, Planets – Mills has rendered techno a sonic vessel to escape earth and avoid musical binarism that tried to anchor genres to ethnicity.
Black Atlantic futurism wasn’t limited to one side of the Ocean only; it traveled along with people crossing the Atlantic eastwards, landing on Great Britain with Jamaican emigrants after WWII. Jamaicans brought their soundsystem culture with them. In the late 80s-early 90s, their bass-heavy sonic heritage merged with British rave culture, leading to a breakbeat-hardcore offshoot, jungle music. Jungle, and the overtly Jamaican-infused ragga jungle, featured hyperaccelerated breakbeats that represented a perceptual shock because of their inhuman speed and syncopation. By the middle of the decade, jungle evolved into a technically refined, less dark and jazz-tinged genre, drum’n’bass. It kept the tempo high and aimed at an extreme sophistication of breakbeats, a true breakbeat science. Jungle and drum’n’bass can be considered afrofuturist insofar as they rely on extreme technological virtuosity, reinforcing the imagery of the electronic music producer as a scientist locked in his studio-laboratory. Samplers, hardware and computer softwares are the tools which allowed early jungle producers and d’n’b icons like Goldie, 4Hero and A Guy Called Gerald to craft hypercomplex and sped-up breakbeats. Goldie declared his beats were sculpted in 4D; A Guy Called Gerald heralded this breakbeat-based music as a Black Secret Technology, while 4Hero were reaching a Parallel Universe. Jungle and d’n’b brought the past of black music – typical funk breakbeats, Jamaican toasting, soul and jazz orchestration – into the posthuman future and techno-dominated landscape of the ‘90s through a process of technological surgery operated on the source materials.

Erykah Badu

It is fundamental to underline that, as with acid house, electro and techno, this music appealed to, and was developed by, white producers and audiences as well. And this happened mostly because these sounds that blossomed from Afrodiasporic artists and communities managed to bypass – willingly or not – racial essentialism in the name of a future-driven, technologically-shaped sound. Interracial, international, intergalactic.
Afrofuturist traces are scattered through 1990s and 2000s hip hop and r&b as well, some notable cases being Missy Elliott in the “Supa Dupa Fly” video; Erykah Badu’s video for “Didn’t cha know” or her New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh cover; and OutKast’s artworks for ATLiens and Aquemini.
Janelle Monáe has been infusing her neo-soul/r&b with afrofuturist themes and imaginary which range from sci-fi cover artworks to socially and politically engaged lyrics. In recent years, R&B and pop music icons have moved toward afrofuturism, or at least its visual aesthetics: Rihanna, Beyoncè and FKA Twigs have sported afrofuturist looks in photoshoots, music videos and live appearances.
Attention and debates over afrofuturism have been especially rescued after the success of Black Panther. The movie sparked plenty of media recognition, allowing afrofuturist concepts and cultural products to reach a wider audience.

FKA Twigs

There are many more musicians, in the present and in the past, involved with this movement and its audio-visual aesthetics, let alone the vast amount of writers, theoreticians, activist and artists committed to a thorough investigation of what afrofuturism entails in social life and how projections of possible, better futures for African and African-descended people may look like.
Musical afrofuturism, for its part, helps us to understand how science fiction imaginary, or technological development and creative misuses, can be framed within an afrodiasporic perspective. The musicians introduced here, although belonging to different decades, genres and countries, nonetheless share a music-making mindset that points towards a technological emancipatory potential, as well as a desire to stop identifying with the alienated and dispossessed Black. The cosmos becomes a possibility space; African ancient signifiers are teleported in future sceneries; new techniques of production unveils new kin-aesthetics; the scientific progress and literary fiction are translated onto the media and sonic planes.
Space is the place and Black secret technology is how to get there.
The Metroplex of the Phuture is populated by Interstellar Fugitives, as the Mothership Connection is by aliens.
From alienation to alien-nation(s).
From slaveships to spaceships.

Attimonelli, C., Techno: ritmi afrofuturisti, Meltemi, Milano, 2018
Sinker, M., Loving the alien: in advance of the landing, The Wire 96, 1992
Dery, M., Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Duke University Press (pp. 179-222), 1994
Gilroy, P., The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Verso, London, 1993
Womack, Y., quoted in Billet, A., On “new” Afrocentric modernism, 2016.
Eshun, K., More Brilliant Than The Sun. Adventures in Sonic Fiction, Quartet Books, London, 1998

Lorenzo Montefinese holds a master’s degree in semiotics from the University of Bologna and a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from IUAV University of Venice. His research fields revolve around the intersections between popular music, especially electronic music, and aesthetic and cultural theory. He has worked on the aesthetic of repetition in minimalist art and music, on memorial practices in XXI century popular music, and is currently conducting research on afrofuturism and black diasporic music.