Dreams Of A Black Planet: Hip-Hop's Afrofuturistic Spirit
By Stereo Williams
Afrofuturism smashes boundaries of race and time.
It makes sense that Hip-Hop would have an Afrofuturistic bent; the culture is born of Black struggle and Black creativity. From its very beginnings Hip-Hop has represented the need for Black artists to reflect their surroundings while also forging beyond the limitations of those surroundings. Young b-boys and b-girls in the Bronx escaped the poverty and crime of their communities via dance, song and visual art; while adopting personas and monikers that evoked superheroes and science fiction. The name "Grandmaster Flash" came from the fictional space hero of serial movie fame; Afrika Bambaataa's Soulsonic Force and hit electro songs like "Planet Rock" embraced futuristic sounds and married them to the ethos of the Zulu Nation. Hip-Hop has always had Afrofuturism in its DNA.
Obviously, Hip-Hop’s soul is rooted in reality, but it’s creative spirit knows no bounds. And the themes of Afrofuturism (race, religion, science-fiction and technology) are regularly referenced across a wide spectrum of artists and approaches. As a culture that was always connected to comic books, novels and popular films, it shouldn’t be a revelation that Afrofuturism and its adjacent themes are as prominently embraced by so many Hip-Hop artists. For many of the more left-leaning (“alternative?”) artists in the pantheon of Hip-Hop, such flourishes have been something of a staple for decades now.
In 1993, acts who could be dubbed Hip-Hop's alternative wave experienced significant mainstream success. One such act was Brooklyn's Digable Planets, a trio of college friends who'd been influenced by the teachings of the Nations of Gods and Earths, and who incorporated themes from P-Funk and the writings of Octavia Butler into their lyrics. They named themselves after insects, and referenced coming from outer space to "slam Earth" on their debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation Of Time and Space).
"I was listening to a lot of George Clinton and Sun Ra, so I was on some space shit, cosmic," Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly of Digable Planets) explained to OkayPlayer in 2018. "I was thinking of each person as a planet, we are all in a solar system, a galaxy and trying to orbit around each other. That was my imagination for those words."
In 1996, the famed Atlanta duo OutKast released their critically-acclaimed sophomore album, ATLiens, which featured rappers Andre and Big Boi moving away from the teenage pimp tales of their debut to something both earthier and more futuristic. The album’s artwork evokes science-fiction and comic books, and everything from the production to the interludes seems to reference dystopian imagery and technological themes. ‘Kast would continue in this vein over the course of their career.
OutKast's ATLiens was an embrace of the duo's status as outsiders in an era when Hip-Hop's mainstream was dominated by East Coast and West Coast artists.
It was also a declaration for a city that was embracing its uniquely Black perspective and culture; Atlanta became ground zero for a kind of Black eclecticism that OutKast (and the rest of their Dungeon Family compatriots epitomized). The Dirty South wouldn't just be defined by its bloody past; we are going to reimagine its Black future. The message was clear: Atlanta is another planet, and we are your alien guides.
Also orbiting the cosmos around the same time was former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith, who reinvented himself as Dr. Octagon the same year that OutKast became ATLiens. Dr. Octagon released Dr. Octagonycologist, a bizarre concept album about a homicidal, time-traveling, extraterrestrial gynecologist traveling the universe at warp speed.
A Tribe Called Quest may not have been explicitly Afrofuturistic in themes and sound, but the cover art for 1996s Beats, Rhymes and Life evokes the subgenre, visually; and their 2016 reunion album has tracks like “Space Program” that posits that outer space is the last outpost for white supremacist ideas and “there ain’t a space program for niggas. You stuck here, nigga.” And their Native Tongue cohorts De La Soul launched their Art. Official. Intelligence. would-be trilogy in 2000, which embraced futuristic imagery in their artwork even though the album's themes weren't definitively Afrofuturistic.
RZA's first solo effort outside of Wu-Tang Clan was his Bobby Digital In Stereo project, which, like Dr. Octagonecologyst, was built around a futuristic alter ego. The project referenced RZA's Five Percent leanings and the teachings of "mathematics" while also emphasizing his love of science fiction. "I would mix in my love for comic books," RZA explained at the time. "It was a mixture of fiction and reality together to make a character I thought would be entertaining."
But perhaps more than any other popular artist in Hip-Hop (save for OutKast), Missy Elliott seemed to embody the possibilities inherent in Afrofuturistic literature and visuals.
Missy vaulted to the vanguard of video creatives in the late 1990s with a seemingly endlessly creative string of eye-catching visuals that stood in stark contrast to what virtually everyone was doing at the time.
In classic videos like "Sock It 2 Me" and "She's A Bitch," Missy performs in outer space, in virtual reality, in any number of otherworldly backdrops; wearing anything from tribal warrior dress to intergalactic armor. Embracing such looks and themes in the 1990s helped provide a template that, not only upped the ante for visuals altogether, made Afrofuturistic imagery mainstream. Later acts like Janelle Monae and others have taken pages from what Missy has consistently done visually for 25 years.
Afrofuturism, at its core, is more than just Black people embracing science fiction themes.
In the literary works of luminaries like Octavia Butler and recordings by musicians like Sun Ra, Afrofuturism connects contemporary Blackness to it's lineage by way of futuristic aesthetics. OutKast framing themselves as "ATLiens" from "Stankonia," or Digable Planets beaming in from outer space to espouse Afrocentric teachings, it reflects the spirit of Afrofuturism even when its not explicitly Afrofuturistic.