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Posted under: Opinion

As A Leader In The Afrofuturism Movement, Here Is Some History On What It Is And Its Lineage As An Artistic Concept

Acclaimed musician Nona Hendryx on the Afrofuturism movement, her championing of the genre and how she is pushing the art forward.

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Afrofuturism is Afro-present and Afro-past. It is not only fiction, it is not only science — it is a future created in the mind, projected and seen through the lens of the African diaspora. It is part science fiction and fact.

Wikipedia’s definition of Afrofuturism is “a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology.” Proponents of Afrofuturism are seen everywhere, including the works of scholar Alondra Nelson, the novels of Samuel R. Delaney, the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the explicitly extraterrestrial music of Parliament-Funkadelic, Warp 9, Deltron 3030 and even in the Marvel superhero universe. Afrofuturism is currently seeing a revival and Hollywood is all over the concept of the Black superhero, as seen in the blockbuster, Black Panther, and the small screen television series, The Watchmen.

My definition of Afrofuturism is that it is, and is not, speculative fiction. It is born out of historical fact that imagines the future in the present. Afrofuturism was coined by cultural critic Mark Dery and alchemized by the artist/musician Sun Ra, the original musical genius and Afrofuturism proponent. Sun Ra’s words and sounds animate musical frequencies and vibrations which manifest in the symbolic dress, ritualized acts, prayers and repeated incantations (i.e. “Space Is the Place”), musical explorations and compositions, trance, dance, expressions of inner and outer rhythms, timeless space, is of now and not now. All his physical and nonphysical expressions are key tenants of the idea of Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism has been a key piece of the Black artistic cannon. It is Betty Davis’ “F.U.N.K” turning Miles Davis out and into a new world of music, it is Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire singing “Voodoo Child,” it is Labelle dressed in cult fashion designer Larry LeGaspi’s space inspired, silver cabled, part bird/part human costumes, performing songs like, “A Man In A Trench Coat (Taboo, Voodoo)” or “Lady Marmalade.”

Afrofuturism extends into the written realm and is seen in books such as Darius James' Negrophobia or Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. Afrofuturism is George Clinton & P-Funk landing the Mothership on the stage of the Apollo Theater; it is Sly and The Family Stone taking us “Higher;” it is Prince and The Revolution (partying like it’s 1999 in 1982); it is Grace Jones’ “Pull Up To The Bumper;” it is Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits;” it is Issac Hayes, Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit;” it is Earth, Wind and Fire, Janelle Monae, Moor Mother and Black Quantum Futurism Collective.

Like artistic movements Dadaism, Impressionism and Surrealism, Afrofuturism was created and embraced by artists melding culture, science, technology and art with music always in the mix. The effects and influences of Afrofuturism was, and is still, powerful. It is evident in the costuming of the rock bands KISS, David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars, Elton John’s Rocket Man, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. KISS even hired Labelle’s costume designer, Larry LeGaspi, to add a futuristic look to the mix, which rocketed them to mega success. Earth Wind and Fire, a traditional funk/R&B band, embraced Afrofuturism after seeing Labelle descend like alien birds from the sky and metamorphize into musical Egyptian Kings and Queens on Don Kirshner’s late night TV show, Rock Concert.

In my role as the Artistic Director of The Cosmic Synthesis of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism series at the famed performing arts center, Harlem Stage, I will lead the curation of events that celebrate this artistic movement. The programs will include scientists, physicists, astronauts, historians, scholars, music, technology, literature, film and dance events celebrating the magical and fantastical world of Afrofuturism and Sun Ra, and his long line of disciples: from George Clinton and P-Funk to Janelle Monae and Moor Mother with Black Quantum Futurism Collective. These programs will collapse time — past, present and future, space and place, inner and outer worlds, traveling — via music and the mind to Stars, Quasars, Suns, Moons and delving into Black Holes.

Coming up on February 29, 2020 will be “Nona Hendryx and the Disciples of Sun Ra in The Temple,” presented in collaboration with Harlem Stage and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This performance will take place inside the museums’ Egyptian hall, The Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing, and will unravel the mystery of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism. It will be a multidimensional, multidisciplinary exploration of sound, visuals, movement in spirit costumes created by Pueblo artist, Virgil Ortiz, and spoken word performed by musicians influenced by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The program will be led by Craig Harris, featuring Sun Ra devotees and students from Berklee College of Music with vocals and chants by me, Nona Hendryx, and invocations by Carl Hancock Rux, who will speak the words into life. Dancers of the Spirit, choreographed by Francesca Harper, will lead the procession into the Temple of Dendur to alchemize the Afro-Egyptian-Native-futurism.

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Nona Hendryx is a celebrated musician and author. Longtime fans know her as a member of the groundbreaking group Labelle, with their number one worldwide hit “Lady Marmalade (Voulez Vous Coucher Avec Moi C'est Soir?).” She is also an ambassador for artistry in education for Berklee College of Music/Boston Conservatory and founded Sistersmatr.org’s Fab Lab. Hendryx continues to develop and create new projects in the music, television and theater spaces.

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