by Nadirah Simmons
I was a kid when I saw it in Missy Elliott’s video for “Sock It 2 Me.” I saw it again when I watched TLC’s video for “No Scrubs.” I heard it on Brandy’s “What About Us?” But I didn’t know what to call it until college. “It," is Afrofuturism.
Historically when the future is imagined in tv, music and film it is seen through a white lens. In 2016, Vox pointed out that “only 8% of the top grossing sci-fi and fantasy films featured a protagonist of color,” half of which were played by Will Smith (‘Hancock,’ ‘I Am Legend,’ ‘Independence Day,’ ‘Men in Black’). They added that there are less than twelve Black characters in the entire Star Trek franchise. There was only one in the original Star Wars trilogy. Zero in The Jetsons. And, only one episode of what I will argue is the greatest sci-fi show of all time, The Twilight Zone, featured an all-Black principal cast.
Growing up I didn’t watch 'Phil of the Future.' Or 'Ben 10.' Or 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars.' And the sci-fi shows that I did watch, like Dexter’s Laboratory, rarely featured any Black people.
A bad precedent is set when marginalized groups are presented with depictions of the future that do not include people who look like them. And in the case of little Black girls who learn at a young age just how powerful racism and misogyny can be, visions of the future are essential.
Brandy’s Full Moon was the second album I bought with my own money (the first one was Michael Jackson’s Invincible). I was 8 years old, and remember hearing the futuristic sound crafted by clinking noises and synths and turning into the Michael Jackson meme: “I love this song!”
The video took me over the edge. Brandy was in some world where gravity didn’t exist surrounded by silvery men in chains. It was the future, and it was amazing! It didn’t take long for me to become fascinated (read: obsessed) with images of the future in music created by Black women. And these images, with all their robots, cyborg themes, android shapes and shiny metallics, weren’t hard to find.
Though the term wasn’t coined until 1994 by cultural critic Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future,” the first Afrofuturistic approach to music dates back to Sun Ra in the 1950s. Ra led “The Arkestra,” with whom he recorded music that drew from hard bop and modal sources, and crafted space-themed titles to reflect his connection of ancient African culture to the Space Age. The same ideas can be found in the music of George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic.
When Dery first put a name to the philosophy, he posed questions that built the foundation for its importance:
Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for 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?
For people like Sun Ra, Afrofuturism was a form of liberation, to free Black people from white supremacy. For filmmaker and author Ytasha Womack Afrofuturism is “The intersection between black culture, technology, liberation, and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too.” Whatever it means for different people, one constant remains: Afrofuturism imagines a future shaped by Blackness and Black history. And for Black women it means that much more.
It is impossible to talk about Afrofuturism without talking about Missy Elliott. Her debut album ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ dropped in 1997 and was recorded and produced solely by Timbaland, whose futuristic beats, muffle ad-libs and warped effects created a sound that was quite literally out of this world. The video for the album’s first single "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" found Missy sporting an inflated trash bag during a fisheye lens shot in a silvery room. “The music that we make is futuristic,” said Missy in a behind-the-scenes interview for the video. The video for "Sock It 2 Me" only confirmed this sentiment, as it placed Missy, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat and Timbaland in outer space planet hopping to flee their attackers. The video for the third single, ”Beep Me 911,” finds Missy, Magoo and 702 reimagined as robotic dolls, staggering across illuminated backgrounds reminiscent of starry skies and all I can say is yes!
Missy explores sci-fi themes in much of her work, using outer space, superpowers and other fantasy elements to create imagery rooted in a conceptualization of the time to come. Imagery of Black people that had not been seen before.
TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Blaque’s “808,” Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson’s “What’s It Gonna Be,” Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know,” Janelle Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the visuals are endless. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t dance in the mirror and imagine that I was in the same silvery anti-gravity cube they were in when I was a kid.
Little Black girls need Afrofuturism because we need a way to visualize a future. A future where Black women are inventors, warriors and heroes capable of anything.