“The sister is in space”

Black to the future: science fiction writer Tananarive Due talks about afrofuturism and why it’s important.

As Troy L. Wiggins puts it:

Afrofuturism serves as a ideological wrecking ball to the staled and played out construction of whites-only nerd identity, and allows practitioners and followers to douse themselves in blackness, Black Cool, and black nerd stuff while building a healthy dose of pride about their own blackness and nerd identity.

Afrofuturism has been around a long time, but was as far as I know first defined by culture critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay Black to the Future:

Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.

It takes place as much outside what you might call the official channels of speculative fiction, a multidisciplinary movement whose roots are deeply embedded in black music, from Martha Reeves & The Vandellas dancing amongst the Detroit production lines, to the ten droid commandments of Janelle Monae via Sun Ra, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Planet Rock, the funk mythology of bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic, who started taking every seventies pop sci-fi and pop parascience obsession and mixing it into a gumbo of Afrocentric sci-fi theology bringing back the funk to those caught in the Placebo Syndrome:

The Mothership, as a symbol of the P-Funk gestalt, took funkateers out of the disco-dominated dance scene which smelled clean and felt rigid, and returned them to the belly of the cosmos, where it smells skanky and feels rubbery. The Mothership symbolized the possibility of a spiritual, not a physical, return to blood and to roots, to the swirling gasses and dust of galactic conception, to the smell of freshly plucked wild yams, amorphous and still covered in the funk of the earth; of a return to a cut-loose, stink-up-the- place, get your ya-ya’s out, freak on down the road domain where “Funk is its own reward”.

If in Dery’s view, Afrofuturism runs through all kinds of music created in the African diaspora, jazz, funk, reggea, hip-hop and techno, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as Ytasha L. Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture makes clear:

It’s not clear at first glance that Afro-surrealist poet D. Scot Miller, jazz artist Sun Ra, and rapper Missy Elliott have anything in common, but Womack brings hidden lines of connectivity to the surface, revealing a shared set of interests: a preoccupation with experimentation, with the strange, with the soulful, with black history, with black imagery, and with a black future. The book is arranged thematically to make the connections clear. Themes include alien abduction as a metaphor for slavery; the influence of African cosmologies and science; the divine feminine; time travel; space exploration; and community engagement. There are also chapters devoted to music, literature, and the visual arts. The result is an abundance of images and names packed into a fairly slim volume. While this means that Womack doesn’t always analyze individual works very deeply, the archive she illuminates is worth the price. There are enough stars in Afrofuturism’s galaxy of artists to keep the interested explorer traveling for years.

One constant in discussions about Afrofuturism is how it’s more than just an artform or art movement, but is a way of understanding and re-imagining the world:

How might something called “afro-futurism,” in all its various manifestations—in sound, in vision, in narrative, in film, in poetry—provide the grounds for a different kind of imagining in black, beyond, besides, and around the reach and pull of the statistical imagination? And, given the very biased sample with which I started, three black gay men, how might something called afro-futurism be a peculiarly and particularly queer project, a way that queerness can re-frame the black imagination?

I have no answers: but I’m excited by work being done by Kara Keeling, Tavia Nyong’o, Jayna Brown and others that will extend the labor of the black imagination, framing it in new ways, opening up new possibilities, teaching us to imagine more, imagine better, imagine in black.

It’s no surprise Afrofuturism flourishes on the internet, but also in academia, with Alondra Nelson being one of the most prominent scholars to be active in it, editing a special edition of Social Text about Afrofuturism in 2002. imilar attention to Afrofuturism has also been paid to it by the long running Science Fiction Studies, focusing on what it can mean for science fiction:

It is not the intention of this special issue to incorporate Afrofuturism into sf. Afrofuturism is every bit as irreducible to sf as Bradley is to SHADO’s white hierarchy, or black Americans to Latverian robot slaves, or Luke Cage to the buck stereotype. Rather, it is the contention of this issue that sf and sf studies have much to learn from the experience of technoculture that Afrofuturist texts register across a wide range of media; and that sf studies, if it is to be at all radical, must use its position of relative privilege to provide a home for excluded voices without forcing assimilation upon them.

Some more internet resources:

Doctor Who cares

So I’ve not been too impressed with the latest Doctor Who series. None of the episodes have been great and a great many have been actively bad with shoddy characterisation and nonsensical plots. Throughout the series there have been the usual hints at thr big mystery waiting in the season final, with the irritating Missy popping up at the end of various episodes to vex recently killed extras. I wasn’t that confident that it would all add in the end and the trailer, which already gave away that the Cybermen would be involved, didn’t help. Giving away the big reveal like that took away much of the tension in the episode.

Now my pet theory had been that Missy somehow was the spirit of the TARDIS, revealed to a) exist and b) be female a few series ago, but this fortunately turned out to be wrong. Instead she’s a gender changed master, not even another Time Lord like the Rani, for a revival of that camp flirting between the Doctor and the Master that we saw in his previous appearance as well. There really are no new ideas in NuWho.

And then there was the plot catalyst that set the whole story in motion, as Clara’s boyfriend Danny Pink gets killed off screen in a car accident, she turns eevil and threatens the Doctor with losing the TARDIS if he doesn’t find a way to bring him back. Danny meanwhile finds himself in the Afterlife being interviewed by Chris Addison in which a Mysterious and Awful Secret from his Soldiering Past is revealed. So that’s a fridging, a Danger Room scenario and a troubled past in one sequence, which is impressive with its cliche denseness.

Things did get better as details of this afterlife and its implications became known, reminding me somewhat of Iain M. Bank’s Surface Detail, but this seems to get lost once Missy starts chewing the scenery, the Cybermen are revealed and all this afterlife business turns out to be a way to get recruits for their army: the dead outnumber the living.

It does feel as if two different stories have been smashed together, to the detriment of both. Why go through this whole charade if the whole intention is just to reprogram dead people as Cybermen? Why go for a tedious Cybermen invasion (again) if you have the whole idea of an artificial afterlife to play with?

As for the revelation that Missy is the Master, this both seems about the least interesting thing to be done with her and a deliberate snub of those who had been wanting a female Doctor for this series. I can’t even find it halfway progressive, as some seem to find it.

So yeah, of course I’ll be watching the second part to see if there’s any improvement, but I’m not hopeful.

For Hugh, but you weren’t listening

Robert Wyatt talks to the Grauniad about the Soundtrack of his Life:

When I’m not watching Russia Today, obviously, I’m watching pop TV. Even my son’s embarrassed by the infantilism of my tastes, but there’s some good stuff out there now. Pharrell Williams’s Happy– that’s absolutely fucking knockout. Williams is as good as any 60s soul singer and the song is brilliantly put together. It’s a great drum track, and there are only four chords or so, but they’re just enough. It’s really subtly done, absolutely spot-on. My granddaughter tells me I should totally disapprove of that other song he did, though. With someone else… something lines? Blurred Lines! That’s the one. Take it from me that I don’t like that one at all.

Cult prog rock hero, Robert Wyatt was of course one of the founders of Soft Machine as well as part of ur-Canterbury group the Wylde Flowers before that. He has the sort of sense of humour that left him to call his own group after leaving the Softs Matching Moles, as a pun or play of words by way of the French Machine Molle. Not to mention calling his first solo album after having become paralysed from the waist down after a nasty fal out of a window dead drunk, “Rock Bottom”. That sort of humour explains why his one and only brush with hitdom was with a Monkees’ cover:

Wyatt is no rockist snob:

There was a bit of mischief there, too. I didn’t like the fact that hierarchies had developed between what people thought was “serious” rock music and pop music– that was all rubbish. I was very uncomfortable with that. That was exactly the kind of situation I thought our generation had got rid of. I’ve always admired pop music, because I think it’s the modern post-industrial folk music. Everybody can join in, you don’t have to be a specialist. You can sing along with it. But there’s not much room in pop music for all the things I want to do. It’s a bit like food: I like all kinds of interesting food, but in the end, I can just sit down with an egg sandwich and really feel great.

Wyatt actually reminds me a lot of Alan Moore, carving out a similar uncompromising career in writing and with some of the same concerns and interests in magic and parascience, as well as magnificent bushy beards. In Wyatt’s case, there’s pataphysics:

Wyatt was introduced to ‘pataphysics in 1967, when Soft Machine—already established, alongside Pink Floyd, as darlings of the London underground scene, and about to tour the States with the Jimi Hendrix Experience—performed a live soundtrack to Ubu Enchaîné at the Edinburgh Festival. By the time of their second album, Wyatt was introducing the band as “the official orchestra of the College of ‘Pataphysics,” going on to prove these credentials by singing the letters of the alphabet in reverse.

Though sometimes the idea of Wyatt’s music appeals more to me that actually listening to it, at his best he’s brilliant, both solo and with groups like Matching Mole:

It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry

I’m still here, but yet I’m gone
I don’t play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loves you ’til the end
You’re the last person I will love
You’re the last face I will recall
And best of all, I’m not gonna to miss you.

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is Glen Campbell latest and last ever song. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease back in 2011, he embarked on his farewell tour which finished 2012. Now checked into a long term Alzheimer’s care facility, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is his farewell song to his wife in the knowledge that the disease is taking away his memories of her.

Not a video you can finish with dry eyes.