The Importance of Music in Afrofuturist Literature

afrofuturist literature

Continuing our series on science fiction genres, this week we’re talking about Afrofuturism.

What is afrofuturism? Afrofuturist literature spans across numerous genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and alternate history, to name a few. It often pairs technology with cultural elements from the African diaspora. Popular authors within the movement include Colson Whitehead, Nnedi Okorafor, and Samuel R. Delany.

Afrofuturism is one of the few genres that full transcends boundaries of form, working its way into film, music, and other visual arts.

Speaking of music, one of the most prominent themes of Afrofuturist literature is the incorporation of music as a central, binding element. It appears in literature as a callback to a cultural past, and as a glimpse into the future.

Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

One of Samuel R. Delany’s earlier works of science fiction, Empire Star presents the journey of a young agricultural worker, Jo, as he crosses the galaxy to deliver a message. Along the way, Jo begins to refine his “simplex” mind into what Delany calls a “multiplex being,” which is essentially being able to operate on an intellectual level where one answers the question before it is asked, essentially a heightened form of analytical and literary thought.

Delany experiments with point of view and chronology, ultimately revealing that the whole story was a progression of an ever-expanding timeline. He grapples with the remnants of slavery, both physically and intellectually, and brushes on the harsh powers of colonialism that keep people of color down using economics and education as leverage.

And yet, atop all of this heavy, thematic commentary, Delany still manages to show that music is a critical element in this world.

empire star by samuel r delany
The first edition cover of Empire Star, 1966,
image from Wikipedia

Early on, one of the characters that Jo encounters takes him to see the Lll, which are the slaves of the empire, builders of beautiful buildings. As a shuttle-bum, Jo’s job is to play music and soothe these creatures, who emanate powerful sadness that makes Jo cry.

Jo is told that playing the music will make the Lll happy, but he will not feel any better. And, to elaborate upon his point if he was not clear, Delany shows us later in the story, when another character tells Jo that “singing is the most important thing there is”.

For Delany, it is clear that music plays an important role in the preservation of culture and its ability to uplift spirits holds a special place in his writing. The Lll, the oppressed builders, are analogous to plantation slaves in the American south who sang spirituals and cultural songs to keep their hopes up and help cope with their situation. Even in a multiplex future, music is still used as a powerful cultural tool, and Delany incorporates it to indicate its transcendence through our past, our present, and our future.

The Afrofuturist Music of Jimi Hendrix & Kid Cudi

In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released “Purple Haze,” the song that took him to fame. He was inspired by years of reading science fiction and an UFO that he saw as a kid. The song was originally about the “history of the wars on Neptune” and was well over a thousand words long. For Hendrix, writing songs was his way of contributing to the science-fiction community and recognizing his Afrofuturism, and inspiring future artists.

Since the times of Jimi Hendrix, Mothership Connection, and Planet Rock, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Afrofuturism has persisted in music. In 2014, Kid Cudi released his Satellite Flight album, which is based heavily upon ideas of living on the moon and space travel while also retaining the social activism that Kid Cudi puts in all his music.

Cudi presents the idea that space is a place away from earthly restrictions, saying that he wants to take his “vibe” to a place where “there aren’t any roads” and where the haters “can’t follow.” In this way, space is an escape and a new horizon, a sentiment expressed across numerous Afrofuturist texts.

Rhythm Travel by Amiri Baraka

This story is a good one to conclude with, as it seems to pull together many of the threads that have been developing in this discussion of Afrofuturist literature and music. Written by Amiri Baraka in 1996, “Rhythm Travel” is a conversation between two characters, one of which is describing a method of time traveling based on music.

At one point in the story, the rhythm scientist, we shall call him, materializes in front of the other character, using certain rhythms to become “dis visible”.

Now, the idea of dis visibility is different than invisibility, and the scientist even makes a point of referencing Invisible Man and its author, Ralph Ellison. In this context, dis visibility is the ability to remove oneself from unwanted attention, to disappear and reappear at will, whereas invisibility, as Ellison might describe it, is to be unseen at all points, whether wanted or unwanted.

But what is it that allows the rhythm scientist to be dis visible? Music, of course.

This piece illustrates that intense power that music has for the black community, where it helps them avoid the oppression of the system and skirt the imbalance of power. Music here demonstrates a deep historical connection to survival, and has embodied that in the work of the rhythm scientist.

In Conclusion

From novels to rap, we’ve seen Afrofuturist literature at play with music in various ways. As an expression of desire to be understood and removed from an overly-critical environment, and as a deep-seeded cultural heritage used as a means of protection.

Music’s power as an element of change and vocal expression is a large part of the Afrofuturism movement, and there are hundreds of examples beyond these, so I encourage you to go out and find them, make the connection between literature and music, and find the many-faceted meanings of that connection.