Diversity, inclusivity and tolerance were front and center at this weekend’s Moogfest technology and music festival, and for some of us, that meant an introduction to a new term: Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism was one of nine key content themes at Moogfest. But even though several workshops, demonstrations and discussions touched on the topic, one particular panel did the best job of explaining and debating it.
Kimberly Drew, community manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and digital tastemaker, moderated the lineup of heavy hitters of the hip hop world in their discussion entitled “Can You Remember the Future?” on Saturday inside of the Durham Armory.
International hip hop star and entertainer Reggie Watts, artist and actress Janelle Monae, house artist DJ Hieroglyphic Being, and the twin brothers Taiwo and Kehinde Hassan who produce under the name Christian Rich were all in attendance to discuss what Afrofuturism is, the state of this movement and whether Afrofuturism is really “a thing” at all.
For those (like me) who don’t know, Afrofuturism is “a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.”
This is according to Wikipedia, however. The definitions and interpretations of term are myriad and varied, with some on the panel even expressing thoughts that the word is meaningless at best, and harmful at worst.
With little hesitation, the panel dug in. The first question from Drew asked the panelists to describe their first interactions or experiences with the Afrofuturism movement or the term itself.
DJ Hieroglyphics was loud, boisterous, foul-mouthed and quick to drop any semblance of a filter. No surprise he was the first to answer. He first heard the term in college, where he actively DJed at local venues. Not everyone, however, had long-standing familiarity with the term.
The brothers of Christian Rich first learned the term when they were called to attend the panel, which just happened to be a few hours before they stepped on stage. “I just learned the term today. We looked it up,” they said.
Resident space alien empress and glamour queen Monae seemed fairly positive about the term and movement. “I think when I first started singing about androids I was labeled as an afrofuturist.”
She’s more trippy and postmodern than can easily be described, and it seemed she dug the idea of an afro-oriented musical movement characterized by sci-fi thought and the rejection of the done and the normal. At the same time, however, she expressed some doubts about the term as a hard and fast descriptor for an artist. “When I was just playing songs on the guitar, I was neo-soul,” she said.
Her concerns about putting artists in a box seemed to open the floodgates for concerns or criticisms about the term. Taiwo and Kehinde were perhaps the most vocal and least rehearsed, likely due in no small part to the fact that Afrofuturism didn’t exist to them until just a few hours before the show.
"It's a word for everyone else... We're just people with ideas. I don't think it’s necessary… we’re just musicians,” Taiwo asked. The two railed on the fact that while the term might be a hyper-specific descriptor for futuristic or postmodern culturally black music, there may be some inherent wrongness in it.
The pair tossed the phrase “hyphenation” back and forth in relation to how we describe cultural and artistic movements born in the black community—or how we describe black Americans themselves. We’re American, they argued, our color doesn’t make us any less of a citizen than everyone else in the US. So why does Afrofuturism exist instead of futurism or post-modern hip hop? Why the “afro” prefix?
“I’m a diverse motherfucker, I’ll cut your grass if you got a check,” said DJ Hieroglyphics, who wasted no time offering his opinion on the topic, echoing the sentiments of both Christian Rich and Monae and expressing his displeasure in being put in a racially defined box.
Above all else, Hieroglyphics wants to be described as a “humanist”, and someone capable of diversity, free expression, growth and artistry.
Monae chimed in asking audience members how they’d feel about Caucasian performers being described as “Anglofuturists,” to laughter.
Watts seemed to be the only panelist who was fairly comfortable and excited about the term and movement. "As long as you have the groove... As long as you're not appropriating... I think it's a spirit.”
Of all the speakers, he seemed most open to accepting Afrofuturism as legitimate and worth cultivating as a unique art form.
All, however, were fairly eager to reject labels based exclusively on race.
Other highlights from the talk include Hieroglyphics attempt to coin the terms “Caucs” as short for caucasians, and the thunderous applause at the end of each of Watts’ many monologues. No matter which side you land in the debate about Afrofuturism, anyone in attendance for either his panel or live show knows the man has an air of effortless charisma larger than his iconic (and according to some fans who had the opportunity to stroke it, soft and wonderful) afro.
When asked by an audience member about the role of younger and more “negative” rappers like the infamous Bobby Shmurda or Chief Keef, Hieroglyphics had the following to say, “F*** a Chief Keef… They are devolved humans.” He pulled no punches when launching into a tirade about the destructive influences of the radio and media industry in promoting more violent and aggressive hip hop music.
We should find ways to draw in disadvantaged black youth to thought conferences like Moogfest, so they have an outlet besides Shmurda on their local radio stations, he said. That point met with a warm reception from the audience.
I should probably mention that the audience in attendance was about as white as ivory. While he didn’t dismiss us “caucs” as worthless, he passionately expressed the need for outreach focused on bringing underprivileged minority youth in contact with thought leaders in a conference format.
Moogfest has been a smorgasbord of music and art and culture, and despite how well it has progressed logistically under new leadership, one thing I’ve noticed is it’s hard to come out of any one talk or show or presentation with an understanding of a clearly-presented and directed narrative.
But talks like this that are laser-focused on the usage of one word that is so very important to so many influential industry members or performers, give me faith that Moogfest is growing and maturing and will settle well into Durham.
I was lucky enough to chat briefly and sip a beer with Watts after his Saturday evening show on the American Tobacco Campus. He waited about 45 minutes in the rain to chat with each fan individually, and he was just as charismatic in person as he was on stage. Also, for the folks at @loneriderbeer, he thinks Sweet Josie is “actually really good.”