An Alternate Canon of Afrofuturist Classics

17 artists, writers, thinkers and theorists share their thoughts on the music that best encapsulates the groundbreaking philosophy

July 11, 2019

The Afrofuturist pantheon is populated by artists across disciplines and decades, united by a persistent belief in the possibilities of freedom found through centering the black experience in visions of the near and far future. Although the first use of the term “Afrofuturism” is attributed to author Mark Dery in 1993, in describing a kind of “speculative fiction” that could be seen and heard in the work of writers like Octavia Butler and musicians ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Rammellzee, the label has since been applied to a wide variety of artists and all manner of musical, visual, political and theoretical expression. There are some overused tropes, to be sure – in 2019, most understand that Afrofuturism applies just as much to the exploration of inner-space as outer-space striving. Yet outside a science-fiction framework and beyond the shadow of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism remains an entrancing worldview.

This list sprung from a short question: What is a song you feel best represents Afrofuturism? From that starting point, a number of artists, academics, authors, curators and creative minds contributed selections that reflect both canon and alternate cuts. This list is necessarily limited: The expansive applications of Afrofuturist thought means anything definitive remains out of reach. But wherever and however Afrofuturism travels, it remains a space of utmost creative freedom and expressive possibility.

Louis Chude-Sokei on Scientist’s “Dematerialize”

It begins with echoes, before bass grounds you in space and rhythm orients you in time. Almost a minute passes before you realize this is actually a groove, and another before coalescing into a recognizable genre – reggae, or rather dub, which routes the former’s obsession with Afro-Caribbean culture and racial history through a simulacrum that manipulates roots in order to envision futures as unpredictable as echoes.

Scientist - Dematerialize

The most obviously “Afrofuturist” thing about this track is its title; also the others on the album, Scientist Meets the Space Invaders, including “Cloning Process,” “Beam Down” and “Laser Attack.” All reference science fiction as well as vintage video games, with the music’s effects sounding like the 8-bit squelch popular when the record was released in 1981. But Scientist had nothing to do with the naming, or even production. That was primarily Linval Thompson, the tracks having been recorded by the truly great Roots Radics in Jamaica. Scientist was a mix engineer. Afrofuturism also has less to do here with overt references or the iconic, cheesy sci-fi cartoon cover. It’s the music itself: space and memory (sounds evaporating in the distance, echoes trailing...), rhythm stuttering, distorted, gone (traces return, haunting, prophesy...).

Dub is about technologies not made for these users but appropriated by them as a sign of the political independence they had recently achieved and the futurity they hoped to construct. Science fiction had to be layered on top of slavery, colonial history and racial resistance. Such titles not only made sense, they were inevitable.

Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer, scholar, professor and the director of the African-American studies department at Boston University.

King Britt on Herbie Hancock’s “Rain Dance”

The first time I heard “Rain Dance” by Herbie Hancock was at some point in the early ’80s, when I was buying any music that had a synthesizer in it. I heard it at a store called Plastic Fantastic in Philadelphia. When I saw Robert Springett’s cover art for Sextant – Africans dancing on the planet – I took the last few dollars I had and placed all bets on this masterpiece.

Herbie Hancock - Rain Dance

A much overlooked album in the ongoing discussion of musical influences of Afrofuturism, Sextant not only contains the blueprint of what was to come musically, but also the sociopolitical awareness of black identity (identifying with Swahili names), the continuation of blackness in the avant-garde (AACM & John Coltrane) and the spiritual centeredness of their cosmic bond. “Rain Dance” introduced the world to how funky an ARP 2600 synthesizer can sound at the heart of a jazz-fusion band.

The addition of Irish electronic genius Patrick Gleeson was a testament to the spiritual welcoming of all like-minded individuals to complete the whole. Cosmic sonic exploration, and that cover, instantly transports any listener to another world from the first blip. The bond between players is heard in the loose but tight execution of rhythmic textures that only happen in divine situations. We are blessed to have this recording and I feel it is a defining moment in Afrofuturism.

King Britt is a DJ, producer, composer and curator based in Philadelphia.

Niama Safia Sandy on Sons of Kemet’s “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman”

On this track, the Shabaka Hutchings-led quartet channels the thundering persona of the mythic warrior woman Harriet Tubman onto wax. Afrofuturism is not merely about a narrowly defined aesthetic position or a distant future. It is not about a singular, linear view of time. It is a technology for re-membering Black peoples in the world – that could be about reckoning with history, or visions of an imagined future. It can be an apparatus for re/calling those who came before us, not necessarily in direct biological manner but more so connecting to the spirit or anima of things. It is a tapping-in to an accumulation of information across space and time.

Sons of Kemet - My Queen is Harriet Tubman

With this composition, Sons of Kemet scry and channel Black Moses across the centuries with ecstatic, percussive force. Hutchings’ tenor sax is, like Tubman herself, furious, fugitive, effervescent and resolute in purpose. Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner’s attacking drums are the sonic equivalent of multitudes of running feet – Harriet’s and the thousands of people she saved on the treacherous trips to freedom. Theon Cross’s tuba is cast as the multiple terrains on the road to freedom – dense forests, lowlands, muddy waters – and the unimaginable commingled with hope and terror of those who dared go. If you listen closely, there is a muted voice mixed into the track. I hear it telling me to “Run!”

Niama Safia Sandy is a cultural anthropologist, independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn.

Sonwabo Valashiya

Reynaldo Anderson on Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place”

Sun Ra’s avant-garde jazz album (1973) and movie (1974), Space Is The Place, with its musical selection and iconic cover, represented a signature sonic moment of the Afrofuturist movement. Ra and his Arkestra had already set the course in this direction several years prior with albums like the Heliocentric World of Sun Ra in 1965. A cosmic philosopher and logophile, Ra, his colleague Alton Abraham, the Thmei Research group, and his group the Arkestra, blended Egyptology, hermeticism, elements of Black Nationalism, science and technology, to produce a Black speculative utopian expression of metaphysical blackness in their work. Space Is The Place represents a postmodern Black sensibility in the wake of the end of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Sun Ra - Space Is The Place

For example, the 21-minute track’s clash of sound and dissonant musical creativity, anchored by strong vocals, blurs eras of jazz including bop and swing into a futuristic sound of their own that is spiritual and passionate. Sun Ra’s masterful musicianship in this selection reflects a rejection of earthly concerns, representing his primary focus on what he referred to as tone science’s ability to transform human beings. To this day, Space Is The Place continues to influence contemporary Afrofuturistic performing artists and organizations like Solange Knowles, Bilal, Moor Mother and the Black Speculative Arts Movement.

Reynaldo Anderson is a writer, Afrofuturist scholar and associate professor of Communication and Chair of the Humanities department at Harris-Stowe State University in Saint Louis.

Nettrice Gaskins on A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program”

Space Is The Place (1974) is ground zero for Afrofuturism. The film finds the musician, Sun Ra, engaged in a cosmic contest for body and soul against an evil overseer who seems to revel in the musician’s contemporary condition. A Tribe Called Quest’s final music video for “The Space Program” channels the Afrofuturist aesthetics and set pieces from Sun Ra’s film. The message in the lyrics from “The Space Program” negate the possibility of a different reality in space. The video also references Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam, which is based on Marker’s film. The rappers are trapped or tethered to their chairs and made to watch archival videos. Dystopian themes such as surveillance and time travel are prevalent in the video. Q-Tips raps, “Used to see the TV screen as the place I’d land my dream in.” Now, the dream is gone and the rappers seek their escape.

A Tribe Called Quest - The Space Program

“The Space Program” is a metaphor for the way we are now all plugged into the same images of global anxiety while at the same time finding utopia in nature, the past and in tradition. “The Space Program” interrogates the past and present through a contemporary lens. The song and video stand as a striking representation of Afrofuturism’s entanglement with time and space.

Nettrice Gaskins is a digital artist, critic and scholar based in Boston.

Overton Loyd on Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie”

Funkentelechy: The most Afrofuturistic term of all time?

As a kid, I’d stalk George Clinton whenever P-Funk toured Detroit. In 1977, I was commissioned to render the comic book insert for the Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome album package.

Parliament - Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)

Entelechy: A vital force directing growth and life.

I had no idea that we were forging the future of Afrofuturism. We were just having far too much fun reveling in the unprecedented freedom of being ourselves.

In 1978, P-Funk executive Archie Ivy burst into my office throwing some headphones on me, shouting, “You GOTTA hear this!” Listening to Bernie Worrell’s jazzadelic studio track, without vocals, gave me no idea what the song was actually about, but I was completely lost in its infectious groove, laced with ear-rotating bird-screeching. Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk screamed “SHADDUP,” as I scribbled him into being for the cover of Motor Booty Affair.

There’s plenty of sci-fi themed P-Funk tracks out there, but the extended version of “Aqua Boogie” is still among my favorites. It completely absorbs me into its virtual reality, compelling me to feverishly dance between the molecules of sweatness.

I grew up in a world that held little possibility for people of color. The resistance to our existence was so palpable, I simply couldn’t believe that someday the term “funk” and the purest, raw expressions of African-American culture would go POP, just as George Clinton predicted.

So here we are. Afrofuturism is currently omnipresent, and we now thrive in a world of wokeness with no jokeness!

Overton Loyd is a visual artist from Detroit, best-known for his work with George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic.

Tirhakah Love on Sudan Archives’ “Beautiful Mistake”

The artist known as Sudan Archives describes the exigency within her minimalist Afro-experimental record, “Beautiful Mistake,” as self-perspicaciousness in the face of a lover, ten years her senior, and, more importantly, his hatin’-ass friends. “They didn’t understand the potential of my career,” the LA-based violinist told OkayAfrica last year, directly invoking its dismissive lyrics: “To them it seemed like I was this hippie girl. But they’re just old people so they don’t know what they fucking talk about.” The self-produced song appears out of a momentary quiet on last year’s Sink EP – a heartbeat bass-grounding scratchy fiddle – quickly looped and ornamented with mellifluous string plucks and calls to bring this “we need to talk” tune to order.

Sudan Archives - Beautiful Mistake

Sudan Archives’ explanation of the song’s logic actually opens up room for broader interpretations. What begins as a reprimand for the flock of birds chirping in her man’s ear becomes a referendum on the ways readings of age and time work to immure us from love’s sensation. “Beautiful Mistake” aligns the artist’s personal antagonism against time-cops (“I don’t think I can spare another day”) thieving the couple’s joy for respectability’s sake with the self-assurance of her own thriving. What she argues for – the dissociation of age from her potential as a Black woman making art – begins with an assumption that she will sustain into an unknown future, that she has the power to bend reality to her will, to envision a life for herself and adjust her present to get there. It is an inherently Afrofuturist belief, without the space-age signifying entrenched in its more mainstream symbolism. Instead, the craft of “Beautiful Mistake” is a genre of futurism that is not easily dramatized, at once intimate and defiant.

Tirhakah Love is a writer and critic based in Philadelphia.

Bobby Blackbird on Jimi Hendrix’s “1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”

Jimi Hendrix would never live to see 1983, but in his pre/post-apocalyptic nod to that future on the aptly-named song, he described a world that had failed. The science-fiction obsessed Hendrix describes the war-ravaged landscape sonically and lyrically with space and stereo manipulation, outlining his desire to become a merman and leave the confines of earth. Not only is his subject matter literally detailing an alternate future of alien war holocaust, but one must also realize the pioneering, experimental sound being used in 1968. While “giant lipstick-tube shaped things continue to rain and cause bloody pain,” Hendrix and his lover Catherina develop technology that enables them to transform into underwater-breathing organisms. As Hendrix and Catherina transition from earth-locked to water-bound, the sound phases from heavy, earthy distortion to wide spatial alien atmospheric noise. Streaks of rocket ships and explosions can be heard panning across the listener’s earscape.

For me it’s a work of rock & roll, blues, psychedelic sci-fi, and an extremely visual and visceral look into the future. He may not be as heavily associated with the Afrofuturism movement as others mentioned on this list, but there is no denying that the greatest guitarist of all time was looking through the lens of the seer. Referring to himself as an alien, he once remarked in concert: “That’s what happens when Earth fucks with space.” Maybe he indeed was a man out of his time.

Nick “Bobby Blackbird” Deane is a producer and member of the Jamaican music collective Equiknoxx.

Ishmael Butler on Cody ChestnuTT’s “Magic In A Mortal Minute”

I don’t believe that time moves like an arrow, in increments of seconds, minutes and hours, but it’s more of a cyclical, flowing type of thing and this song is timeless in that way. It’s just a piano and Cody’s voice, but it rings of past, present and future all swirling together. And to me, that’s the essence of what they mean when they’re talking about George Clinton and Sun Ra. These “Afrofuturists” are people that eschew category, genre and even tradition for emotion, feeling and instinct. When I first heard the song, I felt like I was hearing the deities, the gospels of humanity. The joy cry of human beings all wrapped up into 40 seconds of magic. My life changed and I saw things a different way, almost like taking a hallucinogenic drug. Everything from then on was colored and felt different. From inside of me and from outside of me. Possibilities opened up, just like when I heard a lot of Sun Ra songs or George Clinton or Prince or Lester Young.

Cody ChestnuTT - Magic In A Mortal Minute

When Cody ChestnuTT recorded The Headphone Masterpiece, it was at a time when the old machine was still in place, with labels and albums and records coming out on Tuesday. So him recording this album in his home studio was really a harbinger of what the future was going to bring. In that way, it was futuristic, but then again it was just his instinct to be like, “Look, I don’t got the budget but I got these ideas. I’m gonna put together a studio and I’m gonna make this shit happen on my own.” He’s a master of singing and playing too, so yes, it’s a home recording but it’s a home recording of a master. So what is it? It defies category and it doesn’t need a category to be what it actually is, which I think is a solid tenet of the people that spearheaded what we know and think of as Afrofuturism.

Ishamel Butler is a rapper and producer from Seattle, formally of the hip-hop group Digable Planets and currently one-half of the duos Shabazz Palaces and Knife Knights.

Yugen Blakrok and Kanif The JhatMaster on Killah Priest’s “Temple of the Mental”

Yugen Blakrok

It was probably in the early 2000s when I first heard this song, and it completely changed what I thought you could do with rap music. A lot of the hip-hop that I grew up listening to came from the US, and whenever the artists I listened to tried to go back to the past it was always Egypt, or something like that, to try and find that connection that is lost. But when Killah Priest rapped about it, he took it even further – even earlier than Egypt, and it really makes you interested. It is sci-fi but it’s also real science and it’s also history as well. I found that element of it – the past tied in with the future – to be completely original. When you talk about Afrofuturism, I also think of Africa in terms of science and technology, invention and all these other things that aren’t necessarily attributed to the continent.

Killah Priest - Temple Of The Mental

Lyrically, it is quite obvious. The concept goes through what the character is going through in the song, so you get a sense of the environment in which the character is in and the kind of politics that affect them – which is just a metaphor for us in general. On a sonic level, the beat is super stripped-down and theatrical, it’s not a boom-bap song with the verse and a hook.

Kanif The JhatMaster

I think Killah Priest speaks of an Afrofuturism that’s maybe not as celebrated within the Afrofuturistic movement of Sun Ra and so forth, but I think he was and is futuristic. I think Afrofuturism is somehow made up of an African past as much as it is the future, and of the meeting point of the present. I don’t think any artist who is now celebrated as an Afrofuturist is practicing Afrofuturism. They are telling their story, and time reveals the futuristic element.

Yugen Blakrok is a rapper based in Johannesburg. Longtime collaborater, Kanif The Jhatmaster, is a South-African producer.

Sonwabo Valashiya

Ras G on Gary Bartz NTU Troop’s “Rise”

This song gives you all those different things that you hear about in this idea of Afrofuturism. It’s an uplifting song, it’s a spiritual song and it’s one of my favorite songs of all my time. If you listen to the song it says it all for you. Shoutout to Mark Maxwell, the name of his radio show that my friends and I have been listening to for a long time is Rise. He starts off his show with this song, so I’ve been hearing it since long before I even knew what it was called.

There’s a spirit in it – it’s that blackness. Blackness is everything and nothing at the same time. This song has been an inspiration for me from before I even made music. Before I heard Sun Ra, I heard “Rise.” It was always impactful to me. It can take you off the planet and bring you back at the same time. Great black music is everything and nothing at the same time, the spirit is everything and nothing. People say the spirit is non-physical, but it still has that feeling. A lot of great black art is older and more futuristic than the title of “Afrofuturism.” It’s the continuum of that great everything and nothing, representing the future enterprise.

Ras G is a producer, DJ and beatmaker from Los Angeles.

Sammus on Deltron 3030’s “3030”

This song is the premiere track from a bigger concept album about an imagined character, Deltron 0, going to the year 3030 to save the world from massive corporations and corporate takeovers. It fits really well into what Afrofuturism is about because, in my mind, Afrofuturism is about creating narratives that enable black folks to exist in places that we’ve been told historically and culturally we don’t belong to. In this case it’s outer space, the future and as heroes – the people who are taking over and reframing the social structure.

Deltron 3030 - 3030

The production really helps to set up this incredible narrative that is being told. There are elements of orchestral music ,which makes it feel like you’re telling a tale on the scale of something like Star Wars. They also use these high-pitched, violin-like sounds mixed in with futurist sounds that you would find in a keyboard, and there’s some DJ scratching at the end, so it mixes together all of these different sonic elements to tell a really epic story.

That’s part of what makes Afrofuturism special to me, is that we can tell really big, larger-than-life stories that exist outside of our day-to-day. In the middle of working on my dissertation, one of my mentors made a mixtape for me and “3030” was on it. At that time I had been rapping for a few years and I had written a concept album and it suddenly clicked to me that, “Wow, I’m a part of this greater tradition of storytelling through hip-hop in an Afrofuturist way.” That really recontextualized the song for me, having worked on my own concept album about outer space missions.

Sammus is a Philadelphia-based rapper, producer and educator.

Nicole Mitchell on Ras G & the Afrikan Space Program’s “All Is Well...”

Ras G, as an artist, is definitely continuing the legacy of innovation that Sun Ra had. In this particular song he also works with a video artist named Protius and he’s basically expressing this idea of returning to planet Earth through the music and through the visuals. At this point in time, I think that a lot of black music has become inseparable from experimental video work. The artwork and video work that’s done along with this piece both reflects a past effort of expression of Afrofuturism through Sun Ra’s filmwork and music and also brings it to a new place.

Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program - All Is Well...

The idea of Afrofuturism, to me, puts black people at the center of a vision of the future. This piece, and most of Ras G’s work, focuses on that goal through his sounds and the use of sampling, but also doing it in a creative way that’s not limited to a lot of what we consider more mainstream hip-hop. He brings in these otherworldly sounds and tries to warp dimensions through his music while still maintaining a real celebration of blackness through his work.

Sun Ra was looking at a perception of reality that allowed him to imagine himself beyond earth and in an interstellar experience. His music was attempting to do that and he was one of the first innovators in jazz to use electronics and really push the development of synthesizers. He was improvising in real-time with electronics and he’s not really given enough credit for that. Now, Ras G is taking different equipment to pretty much push the envelope even further; that aspect of it, along with a real sense of groundedness in connecting with black community and black language through his music, literally propels the concept of Black Quantum Futurism. Ras G would probably define his music as ghetto sci-fi music because he’s an individual and has his own way of defining what he does. But I think that it’s important that he be acknowledged for his contribution to the movement.

Nicole Mitchell is a flutist, composer and current director of the Jazz Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ytasha Womack on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”

Parliament-Funkadelic was part of the ether when I was growing up. The Maggot Brain album cover with the screaming woman’s head sprouting from freshly tilled earth was uncanny. Part Night of the Living Dead, part flower child black power, it was uncomfortable enough to scare the bezeesus out of me as a kid while digging through the family crates.

Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

The first time I remember hearing the title song “Maggot Brain,” Prince was playing it in Las Vegas at one of his infamous concert aftersets. It was the early 2000s, and Prince’s set sent me on a musical deep dive. The song had the most ethereal, haunting melody I’d ever heard, and yet it was the most familiar, intimate ode I’d ever experienced. “Maggot Brain” was not of this world, it was wholeheartedly of this Earth, and it stood as a testament to what infinity could feel like if it were trapped in black vinyl. The epic solo by the genius Eddie Hazel is a moment in guitar history. George Clinton, the group’s legendary mastermind, said he asked Hazel to play the song as if his mother had died. But this song isn’t about death, it’s about resilience – one whose been to the bottom, rounded angled space, and bounced back into their left mind. “I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe/I was not offended/For I knew I had to rise above it all or drown in my own shit.”

The song only has a few lyrics at the onset. Reminiscent of Sun Ra’s “It’s after the end of the world…don’t you know that yet?” chants, Clinton speaks as one who has found peace in the surreal nature of the post apocalyptic. One can dissect the scant lyrics for years to come, as Hazel keeps listeners in a state of transcendent bliss.

Ytasha Womack is a writer, filmmaker and scholar of Afrofuturism based in Chicago.

Tomi Adeyemi on Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane”

Afrofuturism has no set definition, but to me it’s anything that demonstrates and reminds consumers of the power and eternity in the black spirit. That and more is all over “Django Jane.”

Janelle Monáe – Django Jane

We gave you life, we gave you birth

We gave you God, we gave you Earth

We fem the future, don’t make it worse

Who twist the plot?

Who shot the sheriff, then fled to Paris

In the darkest hour, spoke truth to power?

And to back it up, the music video is a work of art. Janelle rocks her classic tailored suits with a tribal-patterned kufi (fitted african hats). Her dancers move in black leather jackets and shades that remind of us of the black panther party, but they’re rocking their own kufis to match. It’s an ode to black power and black achievement, and it shows how our past and roots influence our future. It’s truly a work of art!

Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American writer based in San Diego best-known for her 2018 fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone.

Georgia Anne Muldrow on Junie Morrison’s “Triune”

It was around 2006 when I first heard this song. Dudley [Perkins] and I were on a Junie Morrison mission and we were buying all of his music. When this song came up and I heard the first note, I couldn’t get past it – I just had to keep on listening to it. It had a vibration. I felt like I was getting tuned up; I felt my energy shift. The first line is, “What do we tell the children, for they deserve to know.” Afrofuturism in its finest hour has a lot to do with thinking about the next generation. In its most garish hour its very vain and non-functional, but I feel that the purpose of Afrofuturism has been made very clear here.

Junie Morrison - Triune

The Afro part comes out when he says “We all are solar angels.” That is a serious word! And that coupled with him talking about having a responsibility to the future is what makes this song so complete. This is a song that’s very illustrative in a beautiful and elegant kind of way. The synthesizer work on it, especially, is incredible. The way he’s utilizing the keyboard and synthesizers to make sounds from scratch is a form of engineering; it’s turning into a moving vehicle. He’s also talking about the circuitry of the brain. We forget about our bioelectric nature as humans and how frequency completely informs it, so I really dig this song because it’s teaching but it’s also healing.

Georgia Anne Muldrow is a musician and producer based in Los Angeles.

Interviews with Ishmael Butler, Yugen Blakrok and Kanif The JhatMaster, Ras G, Sammus, Nicole Mitchell and Georgia Anne Muldrow were conducted by Jessica Kariisa.

Header image © Sonwabo Valashiya

On a different note