Earth, Wind and Fire as part of the cycle of creation.
What is Afrofuturism?
Briefly, the term denotes an African American ideological current associated with aesthetic references to outer space, non-Western cosmologies, religious and historical revisionism, and a stringent critique of the socio-economic plights of African Americans (and diasporic and continental Africans more broadly).
Earth, Wind and Fire’s video for “Let’s Groove ” (1981)
includes multiple aesthetic references to Afrofuturism: a backdrop of flying white stars in the vastness of outer space, glittery and metallic-colored spacesuit costumes, and a group line dance preceding through a receding, neon pyramid. The line dance—a salient feature of the Chicago-originated television series Soul Train, proceeds through a potent symbol of Egyptology: the pyramid. Egyptology, an influential religious current during the 1960’s and 1970’s, placed black people at the center of Western and world history, and the pyramid adorns several EWF album covers, including 1977’s All ‘N All.
“Serpentine Fire,” from EWF’s 1977 album All ‘n All, has similar references to ancient Egyptian and yogic wisdom.
In the inner sleeve of his 1972 album Music of My Mind, Stevie Wonder also drew on Afrofuturist iconography.
This was the first album in which Wonder had total creative control, and he heavily featured the futuristic sounds of the synthesizer.
Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. Marvel introduced T’Challah, the Black Panther, in 1966 in Fantastic Four #52, in which the FF travel to Wakanda.
In the 1970s, DC got in on the game, with an issue of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”
The complete story is linked on your syllabus. What was woke back then might seem cringeworthy now.
However, by 1970, most of the transformative social projects begun in the 1960s had ended in violence and chaos. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, followed by the murder by the Hell’s Angels of a Black concertgoer at the Altamont Music Festival (see Black Woodstock and the Opposite of Woodstock), and the “Days of Rage” in Chicago initiated by Students for a Democratic Society, in 1969, showed that what had begun with optimism and hope was headed in a dark direction.
The 1960s were definitely over when, on March 6, 1970, the Weather Underground (formerly Students for a Democratic Society) blew up a townhouse in Greenwich Village in which they were fabricating bombs, killing three Weathermen. Less than two months later, on May 4, 1970, four students were killed by the National Guard in a protests at Kent State University in Ohio.
If we think of the escapist trend in 1970s funk as a retreat from the hardships of the day-to-day struggle, the religious-science-fiction-cosmological-Afrofuturist trend in 1970s and 1980s funk goes beyond escapism, and advocates for a kind of spiritualized black self-empowerment. Is this vision also escapist? Or is it meant to unify the African-American community in the quest for a better future? If so, can it succeed?
Watch the legendary P-Funk Mothership landing live in concert for the first time in 1976, and note that Parliament-Funkadelic repeatedly reference the 19th-century spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:
The “sweet chariot” in the original song is the vehicle in which the Old Testament prophet Elijah was carried up to heaven. How do George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic revise this symbolism?
The landing of another mothership at the end of Black Panther.
The filmmakers are making the case that the way out of the Oakland ghetto, and the way to true equality, is through science and technology — an idea that is Afrofuturist to its core.
“Wake Up,” by Funkadelic, is a sonic manifesto of Afrofuturism.
One of the earliest pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic in music was jazz pianist Sun Ra. To learn more about Ra’s philosophy, listen to the lectures he gave as a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley in 1971, all linked here.
The opening titles from Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.
Ra live with his Arkestra in 1979:
Some femme Afrofuturism:
Legendary sci-fi author Octavia Butler.
clipping, the rap group co-led by Daveed Diggs, created the song “The Deep” in 2017, about an underwater utopia created by the descendants of African women thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade, who could breathe underwater.
The techno turntabling of DJ Jeff Mills, a.k.a. The Wizard.
Roots musician Jake Blount used spirituals in his 2022 album The New Faith to express what he calls
an Afrofuturist story set in a far-future world devastated by climate change. Jake Blount and his collaborators embody a group of Black climate refugees as they perform a religious service, invoking spirituals that are age-old even now, familiar in their content but extraordinary in their presentation. These songs, which have seen Black Americans through countless struggles, bind this future community together and their shared past; beauty and power held in song through centuries of devastation, heartbreak, and loss.