Embodying the Afrofuture as a “New Amerykah”: Afrofuturism, the Rhetoric of Redress, and the Cover Art for Badu’s “Return of the Ankh” – Part 1: Afrofuturism

Posted: July 3, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, cover art by Emek, 2010.

Crafted by Israeli-born illustrator Emek, the psychedelic cover art for Neo-Soul singer Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) deploys tropes of Afrofuturism to construct what cultural theorist Huey Copeland would call a “rhetoric of redress.”

In the cartoon portrait of her black female body—or bodies[1]—that the album cover depicts, Badu indexes a range of utopian aspirations that intervene in experiences of African-American blight, refuse historical forgetting of the black freedom struggle, and point toward a future aimed at societal transformation through an invocation of a mythical past.[2]As Copeland says of the mid-twentieth century avant jazz artist and Afrofuturist Sun Ra, Badu addresses the “contingency of black [female] being,” gesturing toward a temporal outside—a “New Amerykah”—that remains firmly rooted in the present post-industrial urban predicament experienced by many black Americans.[3] She does this through a kind of bodily performance, captured in the visuality of Emek’s album art, that ultimately signifies on the black female body as a site of both reparation for social injustice and liberation there from.

To both ground and substantiate this claim, the ensuing blog series first details the contours of Afrofuturism in part one. Part two of the series then interprets the Afrodiasporic movement of Afrofuturism as a Copelandesque “language of redress.” In this, I make reference to African-American conceptual artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, which Copeland treats in his own work, as a means to explain what we mean by “language of redress.” Through the dual lens of Afrofuturism and the “language of redress,” part three of this series finally interprets Badu’s album art for Return of the Ankh. In so doing I address the ways in which Badu—by way of Emek’s Afrofuturistic depictions of her black female being as simultaneously super-, sub-, and post-human[4]—engages Afrofuturism as an act of protest aimed at repairing the injustice of racial (or race-based) oppression.

Finding a Place Beyond Time and Space: Afrofuturism and the Outerspaceways of Sunny Ray

Cover art, Space is the Place, 1973

Cover art, Sun Ra, Space is the Place, 1973

First coined by scholar Mark Dery in the preface to a set of interviews with semiotician Samuel R. Delaney and cultural critics Greg Tate and Tricia Rose, the term Afrofuturism designates “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture.” [5]

More generally, it involves “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”[6] Afrofuturism is in this way a collective habit of imagining concerned specifically with the question of black liberation in the context of existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation and social deportation that has become part and parcel of the Afrodiasporic experience since the dawn of modernity in the form of the slave trade.

In this, it is a kind of cultural work which engages technology and technological imagery, artifacts and rhetoric as a means of envisioning alternative futures for the black subject in the present moment. As Afrofturist scholar Alondra Nelson frames it, Afrofuturism references a “past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation” and deploys science fiction tropes and technology not only to index black life and history as it unfolds in the present, but to imagine things to come.[7] It therefore invites a practice of self-making for a people historically denied access to the political right of self-determination. It meanwhile invokes a mythic past that extends beyond the horrific memory of the rupturing New World slave trade for the purposes of shaping the present and future.

For example, Sun Ra (né Herman Poole Blount), the 20th century mystic and avant-jazz musician (who is part of a legacy of Afrofuturist cultural producers, including musicians George Clinton, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Afrika Bambaataa, as well as writers Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney) was famous for his mytho-poetic musings that linked Afrodiasporic peoples to the advanced civilization of Ancient Egypt, and implicated them in an evolutionary process which culminated in the formation of an extra-terrestrial utopia predicated on black self-government.

For Ra, who renamed himself after the Egyptian God of the Sun following a visionary experience at the age of 23 in which he visited the planet Saturn by way of astral projection, Egypt functioned as an imaginative motherland for peoples of African descent.[8] Outer Space (or the “spaceways”) meanwhile served as a figurative, if not literal, “final frontier” of black self-consciousness. Claiming himself a native of the planet Saturn, Sun Ra cultivated what scholar Daniel Kreiss calls a “‘mythic consciousness’ of technologically empowered racial identity that would enable blacks to recreate and invent technologies and construct utopian societies on outer space landscapes.”[9]

sun ra_outer nothingness

Covert art, Sun Ra, “Outer Nothingness,” The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. One, 1965

Yet for Ra in particular and Afrofuturists in general, such consciousness is by no means a form of escapism or an ahistorical longing for life elsewhere. Indeed, it refuses historical forgetting and in fact serves as a means of reconstructing society as if it were an “outer space landscape”; in other words, it grounds the spaced out “elsewhere” of Afrodiasporic utopian imagining in reality on the ground. Indeed, Afrofuturism asks the pointed question: “Why is the black subject to so beset?”[10]

À la the black power inflected cultural politics of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism calls for the radical transformation of the black mind, body and spirit by re-articulating Afrodiasporic social narratives of liberation and empowerment through the lens of science fiction.[11] Themes of re-birth and self-possession emerge as key tropes in such “fiction”—understood more broadly as cultural work—that seeks to rewrite history from the perspective of the earth’s “wretched.”

Afrofuturism as Counter-narrative to White Supremacy

In this regard, Afrofuturism offers a counternarrative to white supremacist and Eurocentric constructions of history. As Lisa Yaszek puts it her article “An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Afrofuturism puts a “‘black face on the future’” and, in so doing, “‘combats those whitewashed visions of tomorrow generated by a global ‘futures industry’ that equates blackness with the failure of progress and technological catastrophe.’”[12]

It is therefore concerned with bridging the so-called “digital divide”—“a phrase that has been used to describe gaps in technological access that [have to do with prejudices concerning] race, gender, region, and ability but has mostly become a code word for the tech inequities that exist between blacks and whites”[13]. As a black way of being, doing, and thinking in the world, Afrofuturism frees black subjects from the mire of white liberal subjectivity[14] that undergirds, to echo scholar J. Griffith Rollefson, “Western universalism, rationalism, empiricism, logocentrism and their standard-bearer: white supremacy.”[15]

It is with this in mind that Sun Ra, in an interview recorded for the 1981 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, implicitly denounces Eurocentric constructions of history (pronouncing it “his story”) in favor of upholding “my story” (punning on the term mystery), as refracted through the sound of his own music. He says:

In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story. They say history repeats itself. History is only ‘his story.’ You haven’t heard my story yet. My story is different from his story. My story is not part of history. Because history repeats itself. But my story is endless. It never repeats itself. Why should it? A sunset does not repeat itself. Neither does the sun rise. Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?[16]

Here Sun Ra speaks directly to the Afrofuturist aim of reclaiming personal and collective black history—a collection of “my-stories”—in light of a past that has “been deliberately rubbed out”[17] by the displacements of the slave trade and institutionalized racism in the form of slavery, a failed Reconstruction project, de facto segregation, and, most recently, post-industrial urban blight.

Speaking to this issue in an American context, Delany tells Dery matter-of-factly in the interview referenced above: “When, indeed, we say that this country was founded on slavery, we must remember that we mean, specifically, that it was founded on the systematic, conscientious, and massive destruction of African cultural remnants.”[18] He adds, “That some musical rhythms endured, that certain religious attitudes and structures seems to have persisted, is quite astonishing, when you study the efforts of the white, slave-importing machinery to wipe them out.”[19]

Afrofuturism is one such enduring “musical rhythm” and “religious attitude” in its own right, which works to combat whiteness as it operates in the neo-colonial processes of capitalism that secure white privilege and power while excluding non-Whites from participation in the political sphere. As Dery makes clear in his introductory remarks to the interviews with Delany et al., the state of the future is no less precarious than the slave past, as it remains fixed firmly in the hands of white “technocrats, futurologists, streamliners and set designers” who have a stake in engineering our “collective fantasies” of things to come.[20]

nubians of plutonia

Cover art, Sun Ra, The Nubians of Plutonia, 1966

Because of this, Rollefson states, the “Afrofuturist project also focuses on the past [sic] through its tactical recovery of black soul.”[21] This is not to essentialize blackness–that is, argue for the existence of blackness as a kind of bodily essence, which further perpetuates stereotypes of the black body by dint of differences in skin color–nor posit it as an identity marker defined strictly as anti-white opposition. Rather, it is to define black subjectivity as an historically rooted and culturally constituted experience that is  shaped by what Michael Omi and Howard Winant would call “racial formation”–the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories [such as ‘blackness’] are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed” (see Racial Formation in the United States, 1994: 55).

Playing on race as a socially constructed category of difference that has been used historically to solidify conceptions of white superiority and black inferiority in the (white) popular imagination, Afrofuturism reclaims blackness and black subjectivity itself so as to profess black power. It does so by involving blackness in the (re)construction of history with the mythic dimensions of a black past located in Africa and a black present located in the contemporary context. In this way, Afrofuturism lays the groundwork for the creation of a new “‘uni-versal’ humanity”[22] on what Ra would call “spaceship earth. ” It does so by utilizing technology and/or themes involving technology inherent in science fiction to imagine new ways of black communal belonging that are fundamentally rooted in the experiences of what it means to be black in what history has thus far rendered a white planet.

In the next installment of this series, we will consider the ways in which a “language of redress” enables the Afrofuturist project to conceive of as well as think and talk about a “new creation” predicated on black self-determination.

 

[1] As this subtextual analysis of Badu’s album art hopes to make clear, Badu is depicted in both super and sub-human forms. However, it is still her own black female body that Emek is inscribing into these depictions, and it is as Afrofuturist variations on her black female body that I read them.

[2] In positing this, I want to acknowledge that it is Emek who is responsible for creating the art itself. However, for the purposes of this blog series, I treat the art as an object of Badu’s deployment and thus foreground her as primary agent in the album cover’s engagement with Afrofuturism and the “rhetoric of redress.” In other words, I read the album cover as a performance of her own self-image as a self-proclaimed “analogue girl in a digital world” (see lyrics, “On & On,” Baduizm, CD, Universal, 1997) for which Badu is ultimately responsible in her collaboration with Emek. This is not to discredit Emek, nor deny the fact that he has a hand in helping Badu perform her self-image. Rather, it is to give space and place to the subject of black female performativity and, in this, emphasize that it is finally Badu who exercises creative control over what she produces. Moreover, to date, I have found nothing of note on Badu and Emek’s collaborative process in conceiving the conceptual frame for the cover art. That said, it is outside the reach of this blog series to address the details of this collective effort beyond making a nod toward Emek. For more on Emek’s hand drawn and, as one critic on www.sleevage.com describes it, “heavily layered” mashing of “the political and personal; the organic and the intellectual,” see http://www.emek.net/. See also http://sleevage.com/?s=Erykah+Badu&key=Musical+Artist. For a close-up of the album art itself see: http://www.erykah-badu.com/gallery/displayimage.php?album=2&pid=10#top_display_media.

[3] Riffing on Huey Copeland, “Solar Ethics,” (paper delivered at University California Berkeley, Department of Art History, October 22, 2013). See also: http://arthistory.berkeley.edu/events/event/1785566-huey-copeland-solar-ethics

[4] A term which those within and outside of black cultural studies have used to designate as an alternative to traditional (black) humanism. In the context of black cultural studies, it serves as a theoretical model for the rejection of blackness as a “unitary subject position” (See Marlo David, “Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music,” in “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” African American Review 41, no. 4, [Winter, 2007]: 695). For the purposes of this discussion, it signifies the loss of (black) corporeality in an increasingly digitized world—“a universe governed by ones and zeroes”—where “the body cease to matter, thereby fracturing and finally dissolving ties to a racialized subjectivity, positionality, and [more generally a] ‘self’” (ibid).

[5] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in “Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture,” South Atlantic Quarterly 94, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 736.

[6] Ibid., 736.

[7] See Alondra Nelson, “Afrofuturism definition,” http://afrofuturism.com/text/about.html (accessed December 7, 2013). See also Nelson, “Introduction: Future Texts,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 9.

[8] See Calvin Forbes, “Sun Ra: From Negro to Black,” in Sun Ra: Traveling the Spaceways: The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths, edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis, 61-65 (Chicago: WhiteWalls, 2010): 64.

[9] Daniel Kreiss, “Appropriating the Master’s Tools: Sun Ra, the Black Panthers, and Black Consciousness, 1952-1973,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 58.

[10] Riffing on Forbes, op. cit., 64.

[11] Kreiss, op. cit., 61.

[12] Quoted in J. Griffith Rollefson, “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith,” in “Becoming: Blackness and the Musical Imagination,” op cit., 84.

[13] Nelson, op. cit., 1.

[14] See Alexander Weheliye, “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music,” Social Text 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 30.

[15] See Rollefson, op. cit.

[16] Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, DVD, directed by Robert Mugge (Baltimore; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.: Winstar, 2006).

[17] Dery, op. cit.

[18] Ibid., 747.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 736.

[21] Rollefson, op. cit., 85.

[22] Ibid., 94-95.

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