The "Robot Voodoo Power" Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith

By Rollefson, J. Griffith | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The "Robot Voodoo Power" Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith


Rollefson, J. Griffith, Black Music Research Journal


In 1999 Alondra Nelson, then a graduate student in American studies at New York University, launched an online community dedicated to the study of what might be best described to the uninitiated as black science fiction. Nelson named the forum the "AfroFuturism" listserv after a term coined by Mark Dery in his set of interviews about black artists whose works displayed a uniquely African-American take on futuristic narratives of scientific and technological progress (Dery 1993). As Nelson explains, Dery and his interviewees--scholars Tricia Rose and Greg Tate and novelist Samuel Delany:

claimed that these works simultaneously referenced a past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation, and inspired technical and creative innovations in the work of such artists as Lee "Scratch" Perry, George Clinton and Sun Ra. Science fiction was a recurring motif in the music of these artists, they argued, because it was an apt metaphor for black life and history" (Nelson 2007).

Since the beginnings of the listserv, its contributors have commented on countless aspects of Afrofuturist culture and art, debated its aims and methods, and otherwise shaped the definition of Afrofuturism to the extent that it has become a recognizable field of scholarly inquiry and artistic production. (1) Later in 1999 Nelson organized a conference on the subject, "AfroFuturism I Forum: a critical dialogue on the future of black cultural production," at NYU and in 2002 a special issue of Social Text highlighted the subject featuring recent Afrofuturist poetry, prose, visual arts, and scholarship.

While the moniker "Afrofuturism" and the study thereof are relatively new phenomena, we can trace a long legacy of Afrofuturist cultural production. Scholars of Afrofuturism have recognized elements of the project in the work of novelist Ralph Ellison and bandleader Sun Ra as early as the 1950s (Eshun 1998; Weheliye 2003; Yaszek 2005; Zuberi 2004). This vein of artistic production continued through the 1970s with the prose and stage works of Ishmael Reed and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and the disco-funk of George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic up through the 1980s with the street art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the raps of the Ultramagnetic MCs. Today, the most notable examples of Afrofuturist activity continue to be found in the world of hip hop, where artists like Cee-Lo, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Kool Keith--formerly of the Ultramagnetic MCs--have laid claim to the supersonic identities, interplanetary alter egos, and robotic surrealities of the Afrofuturist legacy.

Much more than straightforward science fiction, however, the epistemes that accompany these identities reflect an oppositionality and an historical critique that seeks to undermine the logic of linear progress that buttresses Western universalism, rationalism, empiricism, logocentrism, and their standard-bearer: white supremacy. Lisa Yaszek offers a concise yet comprehensive summary of this critique in the introduction to her article "An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man": "As an intellectual aesthetic movement concerned with the relations of science, technology, and race, Afrofuturism appropriates the narrative techniques of science fiction to put a black face on the future. In doing so, it combats those whitewashed visions of tomorrow generated by a global 'futures industry' that equates blackness with the failure of progress and technological catastrophe" (2005, 297). In short, as the Afrofuturist scholar Alexander Weheliye puts it, this black science fiction ideology reflects "a posthumanism not mired in the residual effects of white liberal subjectivity" (2002, 30).

On the 1970 live album It's After the End of the World, composer and keyboardist Sun Ra gives us a taste of this posthumanism, taking his audience on a musical voyage through his trademark black sci-fi world-view. On Ra's piece "Myth Versus Reality (The Myth-Science Approach)," vocalist June Tyson and alto saxophonist Danny Davis ask: "If you are not a reality, whose myth are you? …

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