The long-awaited “Black Panther” will dominate the pop culture scene over the next few weeks, and amid praise for the cast and Ryan Coogler’s astute direction, you’re likely to hear one word quite often: Afrofuturism.
The term, coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” refers to an aesthetic that infuses science fiction and fantasy with cultures of the African diaspora. It shakes up our preconceived notions of history and race by envisioning an often utopic future shaped by black technological innovation. Elements of it predate the term, going as far back as the 1950s, appearing everywhere from visual art to novels to comic books to music by the likes of George Clinton and the jazz musician Sun Ra.
While the Marvel film shines as an example through its storyline and design, a slew of recent projects from Janelle Monáe, Ava DuVernay and others have helped usher the term into mainstream culture.
Monáe released a trailer on Friday for “Dirty Computer,” a new album with an accompanying narrative film. The 30-second teaser, set to air ahead of some “Black Panther” showings, presents clips of a dystopian world set to guitar feedback and snapping fingers. Monáe’s co-star Tessa Thompson is abducted by a man dressed in military gear. We cut to the two embracing on a beach. Seconds later, Monáe lies on an examination table while someone strokes a mysterious tattoo on her arm.
“They drained us of our dirt, and all the things that made us special,” she narrates. “And then you were lost. Sleeping. And you didn’t remember anything at all.”
Monáe’s work has exhibited Afrofuturist influences for years — the Quietus, an online British magazine, proclaimed back in 2010 that she “brandishes the acetylene torch for radical Afrofuturism.” In her multi-album “Metropolis” saga, the singer’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, is a messianic android who was sent back in time to lead a protest movement against an oppressive regime.
“[Cindi] helps me write and she helps me talk,” Monáe told HuffPost in 2013. “When I speak about science-fiction and the future and androids, I’m speaking about the ‘other.’ ”
Her words engage with questions Dery brought up in his essay: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for more legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers — white to a man — who have engineered our collective fantasies?”
The science fiction novels of Octavia Butler used Afrofuturist aspects throughout the latter half of the 20th century. A prolific figure working in a space inhabited primarily by white authors, she prominently featured black women as protagonists and set her plots against a background of heightened technology and magical realism. Director Ava DuVernay announced in August that she, along with writer-director Victoria Mahoney and producer Charles D. King, would be adapting Butler’s 1987 book “Dawn” for television. The story centers on a black woman who joins forces with aliens to resurrect the human race centuries after a nuclear war.
DuVernay’s film adaptation of the science-fiction book “A Wrinkle in Time” is due next month, starring people of color in the lead and multiple supporting roles. She also directed a futuristic music video for Jay-Z’s “Family Feud,” released in late December, which takes place in the year 2444, working back to 2050. It envisions a world led by women of color and features a grown Blue Ivy Carter, who guides a group of women in rewriting the Constitution.
The aesthetic has also been linked to Erykah Badu, Rihanna, Missy Elliott, Solange Knowles and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” with its “phalanx of women in ethereal white dresses that simultaneously conjure ancient and space-age societies,” as a New York Times essay put it.
These projects typically present black creatives’ visions of a revolutionary future. Coogler’s “Black Panther” film, on the other hand, exhibits Afrofuturist ideals while set in the present day. Wakanda remains untouched by Western civilization — it’s a utopian nation in postcolonial Africa, created entirely by non-white people. Wakanda embraces African traditions and scientific prowess in its designs and practices, and the experiences of the hero, T’Challa, serve as a powerful contrast to those of the American villain, Killmonger.
“T’Challa represents … an African that hasn’t been affected by colonization,” Coogler previously told The Washington Post. “So what we wanted to do was contrast that with a reflection of the diaspora. But the diaspora that’s the most affected by it. And what you get with that is, you get African Americans. You get the African that’s not only a product of colonization, but also a product of the worst form of colonization, which is slavery. It was about that clash.”