Funk and Futurism

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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.

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.”

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The complete story is linked on your syllabus. What was woke back then might seem cringeworthy now.

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: 

Grace Jones.

Janelle Monae.

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.

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In 1959, African-American composer Ed Bland made the influential short semi-documentary film The Cry of Jazz, which explains jazz for the newbie, and situates the music in the history of black life in America. Bland used the music of avant-garde Afrofuturist composer and pianist Sun Ra as the soundtrack.

1959 was also the year that saw some of the most innovative music to date in the genre.

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.

Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.

Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.

Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”

Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:

The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus

was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”

In September, 2019, the Sounding Out! blog published a special series on the 60th anniversary of Mingus Ah Um. Check it out here.

From Black Nationalism to Black Intergalacticism

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The visionary free jazz musician and Afrofuturist Sun Ra was a visiting artist and professor at the University of California-Berkeley in 1971. Here is fascinating audio from a lecture he gave in his Spring course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.”

The reading list for his course:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Radix: A New Way of Making Logarithms.

Alexander Hislop: The Two Babylons.

The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky.

The Book of Oahspe.

Henry Dumas: Ark of Bones.

Henry Dumas: Poetry for My People, eds. Hale Charfield & Eugene Redmond, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Leroi Jones & Larry Neal, New York: William Morrow, 1968.

David Livingstone: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

Theodore P. Ford: God Wills the Negro.

Archibald Rutledge: God’s Children.

Stylus, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1971) — a black literary journal published byTemple University in Philadelphia.

John S. Wilson: Jazz. Where It Came From, Where It’s At, United States Information Agency.

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan: Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Alkibu Ian Books, 1972.

Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney: The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature, London: Pioneer Press, 1921 (originally published 1791).

The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (Ra’s description; = The King James Bible).

Pjotr Demianovitch Ouspensky: A New Model of the Universe. Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art, New York: Knopf 1956.

Frederick Bodmer: The Loom of Language. An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, ed. Lancelot Hogben, New York: Norton & Co. 1944.

Blackie’s Etymology.

As Ra said:

I’m talking about something that’s so impossible it can’t possibly be true.  But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing.  My job is to change five billion people to something else.  Totally impossible.  But everything that’s possible’s been done by men, I have to deal with the impossible.  And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’.