Academic journal article African American Review

Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music

Academic journal article African American Review

Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music

Article excerpt

When incense bums, smoke unfurls Analog girl in a digital world The rasta style flower child Za dip dip dow zip dip dow The gold tooth smile Split them vowels Bling bloom bling Melanated I'm bout ta give birth to church But everybody wanna Ask this earth... What good do your words do if they can't understand you?

--Erykah Badu, "On&On" (Baduizm)

From the outset, this Postsoul Era has been characterized by an extreme indifference towards the human. The human is a pointless and treacherous category.

--Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun

This essay responds to a challenge posed by Alexander G. Weheliye in his article "'Feenin': Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music" to "turn the critical dial on our radio to those lower frequencies" found within contemporary R&B music (39). In that article, which appears in a special issue of Social Text devoted to the emerging field of inquiry called Afrofuturism, Weheliye makes the important observation that current R&B music garners relatively less critical consideration than other black popular music, such as jazz and blues or even hip hop. Weheliye suggests that contemporary R&B music has suffered as an object of critical inquiry mostly for its association with the devalued site of urban radio--its pop sounds and artistic banality--but also for its tenacious hold on a kind of critically problematic and theoretically passe black humanism. Though black folks have strategically altered humanist rhetoric and ideals in our freedom struggles, humanism has never been a benign sign. It has generally and rightfully come under suspicion for its hegemonic assertion of Enlightenment ideals of the liberal white male subject. As an alternative, the idea of the post-human has been posited as a remedy by those within and outside of black cultural studies, particularly in the space of futurist studies. As some would have it, in a post-human universe governed by zeroes and ones, the body ceases to matter, thereby fracturing and finally dissolving ties to racialized subjectivity, positionality, and "self." The rising specter of the post-human as a theoretical model to explain and analyze past and future black Atlantic experience is connected to the advent of "post-soul" or "post-black" aesthetics, through which contemporary artists and writers strategically reject blackness as a unitary subject position. While the post-human has been a useful intervention into humanist discourse, Weheliye suggests that this shift leaves aspects of black expression on the critical dust heap. In other words, as cultural criticism spirals out into a post-whatever cosmos and challenges to blackness receive larger audience, we will find ourselves in a future in which it becomes less attractive to engage with black cultural products that fail to abandon humanist claims. In this landscape, R&B becomes a relic of a bygone era. It is your analog television when everything goes digital in 2009. It is an artifact of the Old Ways Of Thinking.

Rather than theorizing himself out of attending to contemporary R&B music, Weheliye instead revises distinctions held among ideas of humanism, black humanism, and the post-human. Black humanism, he argues, has never truly been about the Enlightenment humanist project. The experiences of the Middle Passage, slavery, colonization, and racism have rendered that claim impossible. Humanism, no matter how politically and socially utilitarian it has been to the project of black liberation, has remained a space of "always, but not quite" in black cultural production; it has been a rhetorical and ideological tool in a trick bag of survival. Post-human notions address the issue of black resistance from another angle. Exactly because the experiences of the Middle Passage, slavery, colonization, and racism have worked to exclude black people from humanist claims, music journalist Kodwo Eshun writes that for black people "the human is a pointless and treacherous category" (Brilliant -005). …

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