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. In the 1970s, DC Comics published an issue of 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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Read the whole story here.

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?

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:

From Black Nationalism to Black Intergalacticism

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The visionary free jazz musician and Afro-Futurist 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’.

In 1972, a feature-length Afrofuturist/blaxploitation film, Space is the Place, was made based on Sun Ra’s Berkeley lectures. You can watch the complete film on Youtube.