I have to admit that the first time I heard about afrofuturism was late 2017. I was meeting with an advisor and we were outlining the strategic direction of my business and setting goals and intentions for its future. As I described the contours of what I was setting out to accomplish in my business, she immediately identified that what I was describing sounded a lot like afrofuturism. I was initially perplexed by the suggestion. I’m sure I’d heard of afrofuturism prior to this conversation, but my surface understanding of the concept was heavily grounded in the arts. My limited exposure to the concept led me to believe that afrofuturism mostly described the psychedelic funk of George Clinton and Parliament, not the strategic foundation of a business. I had some research to do.
The origins afrofuturism
Do a quick search of the web for afrofuturism and two names will surely be in the top results—Mark Dery and Sun Ra. Mark Dery, an art critic who coined the phrase in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, was aiming to describe what he saw as a trend unfolding in the creative and cultural work coming out of the black community—music, literature, and art that explored futurist or even surrealist themes. Sun Ra is arguably the grandfather of the philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of the cultural work that Dery was describing in the early nineties.
Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation. — Ytasha Womack
It is not my aim to write a comprehensive history of the origin of afrofuturism, that ground has been well-trodden by other writers who have been engaged with the concept much longer than I have (this is a great starting point if you’d like to go deeper). My aim is to build on the concept from my perspective and experience.
Afrofuturism goes mainstream
Prior to 2018, the afrofuturism community was relatively niche and consisted of a small handful of artists, academics, and other thinkers and appreciators of works of afrofuturism. That was until Black Panther was release to critical acclaim. I can’t overstate the importance of Black Panther to the black community, both in America and around world. Whether people labeled it as such, it has made afrofuturism a global pop-culture phenomena. I’m sure this creates a set of complicated and mixed feelings for the artists and thinkers who’ve been engaged with afrofuturism long before Hollywood decided to weigh in, but it is undeniable that afrofuturism has gone mainstream.
Even though I started to engage with afrofuturism just before the seminal moment of its transition into mainstream consciousness, I can’t help but feel like Johnny Come Lately. I want to acknowledge all the thinkers and makers who have come before me. I first want to express appreciation to the authors and academics Ytasha Womack and Reynold Anderson who have both written or compiled amazingly comprehensive introductions to afrofuturism. I continue to study the origins of afrofuturism, particularly the contributions to it prior to going mainstream, but I feel like I’m familiar enough to contribute to and advance the conversation.
Reynold Anderson has been a vocal advocate for afrofuturism 2.0, with the 2.0 signifier intended to reflect similar trends happening in web 2.0. The shift of afrofuturism as a useful label for art critique to afrofuturism as an applied practice is of specific interest. As Anderson put it:
Afrofuturism has become a powerful way of using speculative thought to design new alternatives for problems faced today by people of African descent around the world.
The 2.0 monicker is a useful signifier for the transition of the concept from the arts to an applied practice and I appreciate Anderson for putting a stake in the ground to demarcate this transition. As I stated above, my aim is to build on this concept—with full appreciation of the creative and intellectual work that has been done to date.
I have worked professionally in the area of corporate innovation for the better part of my career. In concrete terms, this meant automating manufacturing operations using advanced robotics when I was working as a mechanical engineer, all the way through applying human-centered design concepts in city government. My entire career has been an act of applied afrofuturism without me even knowing it! The reason the concept has become so compelling for me coincides with a level of disillusionment I’ve had with the current structure of our society.
I became disillusioned, specifically, by the narratives put forward corporate innovation and Silicon Valley style startup culture. Growth at all cost capitalism has proven to be a failure as far as creating a more equitable society. We need new heroes and new narratives; and we need frameworks for creating the future we deserve—one with equity and liberation at the center rather than dominance and hierarchy.
Applied afrofuturism, to me, is a practice and a framework for empowering the oppressed. As we look forward to 2019 and beyond, I want to expand on this concept and imagine ways that we can apply it to our work. From business models that prioritize racial equity to digital tools that help transform corporate cultures to make them more inclusive.
For me, #afrofuturism isn’t solely a genre. I see it as a conceptual bucket where we can express our collective intelligence, creativity, & imagination. Where we can express our agency & de-colonialize our minds.— Elliott Payne (@elliottlpayne) January 2, 2019