features

Garfield Bright: How R&B Star Became an Afrofuturist Hip-Hop Writer

By Stereo Williams

Any fan of 1990s R&B knows Shai.

The quartet of friends who'd met at Howard University broke big in 1992 with their debut album and hit single "If I Ever Fall In Love" is one of the pillars of that era, a generation of R&B artists who had grown up on Hip-Hop and who fused the two genres together under one cultural umbrella. As a member of Shai, Garfield Bright has an enviable musical legacy, but he's also an educator and author; and Bright has an exciting new project. Lotus 3013 is his Afrofuturistic novel, inspired by his love of Hip-Hop, sci-fi and the souls of Black folks. Rock The Bells caught up with Bright and he broke down the genesis of Lotus 313, shared his thoughts on Jordan Peele and why these kinds of stories have to be told. 

RTB: When were you first introduced to sci-fi/Afrofuturism? What about it grabbed your attention/interests?

I’ve always been a fan of sci fi, in general. My dad and I would spend countless hours watching Star Trek, or the Twilight Zone when I was a pre-teen. Let’s see, with just a quick scan I remember watching Orson Wells and the WAR of the Worlds, along with characters like Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde which were just a few elements on the Sci Fi landscape that I gravitated to as a youngster. Cartoons like the Jetsons and comic books, DC and Marvel, further enhanced and fed my love for anything that expanded and captured my imagination. I never lost that thirst to dream and speculate about how the future may look and the types of beings and gadgets that might proliferate the planet when we finally got there.

As much as I was enthralled with all things “future,” I was equally fascinated/concerned with the lack of Black presence in all of my favorite sci-fi “go-to’s” throughout my life. Far before I developed a critical understanding of power dynamics, racism and politics, I used to sincerely wonder if somehow there was a stream of consciousness trying to tell us that Blacks weren’t really going to be around in the future. There seemed to be the occasional one or two Blacks in science fiction films, but never enough for Black culture to be represented in any meaningful way. It wasn’t until I was much older and all but resigned to the idea that indeed, Black people weren’t meant to appear on the landscape of future realities, according to the white popular imagination, that I ran into an author from Pasadena, California named Octavia Butler. I was living in Pasadena at the time and when I learned she was from that neck of the woods, my interest in her as an author intensified. She died shortly after I discovered her but I doubled back and read all of her books and enjoyed them as well. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase "afro-futurism" yet, but for the first time I was confronted with a Black author’s sensibilities about what future could look, sound and feel like, in regards to the Black cultural presence.

RTB: Take us through your journey as an artist, people have to wonder how you got from R&B star to author and educator. 

When I think about it, my path is the culmination of the major influences that punctuated life in my household growing up; music, education, books. Music was of paramount importance. My dad always had the latest and greatest music of the day as well as the highest quality technology, in terms of stereo equipment and speakers that would facilitate our enjoyment of the best possible sound. Funk, jazz, soul and traditional R&B were constantly rippling through the airwaves on any given day in our household. The sounds ranged from Sara Vaughan, Norman Connor, EWF, Maze, Luther, George Benson, to Parliament, Ohio Players, AWB, MJQ, Chaka Kahn, Stevie, Marvin, Donny, Mtume, Tania Maria and anywhere in between. This music was constantly thumping through the speakers as if we had no neighbors. My head was perpetually bobbing in my domicile, from sun up to sun down. These influences (melody, song structure, harmonics, lyrical content, etc.) were deeply etched in my soul and I didn’t even realize to what extent, until I started contributing to the songwriting process amongst my peers in the group Shai.

Equally as important was the theme of education and developing an appreciation for scholarship and critical literacy.

My dad and mom worked on the campus of Alabama State University, and both also served in administrative capacities within the Alabama Education Association (later my dad served as a Uni-serve Director and then an Organization Specialist for the National Education Association-NEA). 

The headboard on my bed was essentially a book shelf. My dad never took his books out of the book shelf, so at night and in the mornings before I officially had to get up, I eventually read each of my dad’s books. It was quite an interesting array of content for a 7-10 year old to be reading. The books I read over the course of three years included: Helter Skelter, Pride and Prejudice, Soledad Brother, Treasure Island, and Robinson Caruso. He also bought me a series of comic books that featured all of the Black historical icons entitled “Golden Legacy” comic books by a Black scholar named Benjamin Quarles. I was steeped in history and everything else before I even made it to the 4th grade. 

I carried these sensibilities with me to Howard University, where I began my college journey at 17 years of age in 1987. I was a bit young but was fortunate enough to have possessed some very developed academic gifts at an early age, which broadened me in many ways and held me in good stead for the academic rigor I was about to face. Still, in just as many ways I was just a typical Hip Hop oriented (I was part of a breakdancing/popping crew and used to battle or flow with other MC’s whenever I got a chance) 17 year old, coming of age, who was blown away by all of the pretty ladies at HU. My first roommate was Darnell who would be my groupmate in Shai four years later; he one who sings the chorus and the high note in “If I Ever...” His dad was a social worker at Eastside High School in Patterson, NJ (Darnell’s alma mater as well--of Joe Clark fame) and was also the manger for the group Riff, famous for the bathroom scene in Lean on Me. 

Although we landed a record deal with MCA and became pretty successful as recording artists, we still saw ourselves as educated Black men from Howard who had a legacy to uphold. While at HU, I was a member of an activist, radical student organization called Black Nia Force, co-led by Ras Baraka (Mayor of Newark, NJ and son of Amiri Baraka). We successfully shut down HU for over a week by taking over the A-building in protest of the Board of Trustees selecting KKK member Lee Atwater to serve as a member of the Board. As a Nia Force member I served the community as literacy coach as well as a social studies tutor. I often volunteered at Ujamaa Shule and at Banneker High School, in Washington, DC. Teaching was in my blood and I began to see that I was good at imparting skills to those who looked to me for help. As a member of Shai, we would always visit High Schools in various cities on tour, connecting with students, via constructive dialogues pertaining to identity, critical thinking and recognizing one another as valuable lifelong resources in the making, rather than performing for them. They always seemed to enjoy the unexpected energy we injected into their daily flow. We also came away fulfilled. I really enjoyed those moments.

As Shai’s star began to dim, I enrolled in California State Northridge, majoring in Political Science (My major at Howard). I was sought out by one of my professors as a consultant for a class she created that infused Hip Hop overtones with the political science content in order to enhance the engagement dynamic. Since I was a Hip Hop head, a burgeoning scholar and an actual veteran of the music industry, I was a good fit for the task at hand. The class was called The Politics of Hip Hop.

I applied to the Doctoral program in Educational Policy Studies at GSU and got accepted. After 6 years (4 years of coursework and 2 years of research), I maintained a 4.03 GPA and produced an award winning dissertation (Arts and Sciences Outstanding Dissertation award) that explored how Black males navigate spaces where the power dynamic is distributed inequitably, particularly in classrooms and the music industry. During the program, I taught many classes, published articles, presented at countless conferences and created several community based programs along the way, further strengthening my skills and concretizing my claim that I was indeed an educator. I guess I went from R&B to Ph.D. As far as I know, no one has ever been a platinum R&B artist (still actively doing shows and making music) and a Ph.D level scholar. I think I made history, low-key. [laughs]

The book Lotus 3013 would be the next pivot, adding “author” to the list of skillsets I had acquired over the years. I took the whole year after I received my doctorate in 2019 to actually write it, although it had already been conceived in my mind for well over 10 years. I thought of the concept during the time I spent with the Hip-Hop Think Tank at Cal State Northridge, circa 2006. 

 



Author, educator and recording artist Garfield Bright

RTB: How do you feel about the recent popularity of TV/movies that dabble in Afrofuturistic themes? Like Lovecraft Country?

Matt Ruff is brilliant. He literally turned racism into a horror scenario. It works because racism is actually a scary phenomenon when one is the object of it. But he facilitates an experience for the viewer that allows them to feel the angst that accompanies what Black folks feel when in the crosshairs of hate at the hands of white supremacy racists. Its sheer terror and he constructs it like no other. He reminds me of Oscar Micheaux in a sense. Micheaux did that inverted version of Birth of a Nation that scared the pants off of Whites because they were able to feel the terror Blacks felt at their hands through Micheaux’s construction of a racist reality with the tables turned. I think artists/story tellers like Ruff are good for the health of society because they disrupt the common sense nature of the racist narratives that have been embedded in our psyches as normal and non-sensational.  Jordan Peele has done some exceptional work in that area, as well. The disruption techniques they employ at once make for jarring entertainment and provoke much-needed critical conversations, privately between peers as well as publicly amongst the general movie-going masses.

 

RTB: When did you conceive of Lotus 3013? What inspired it? 

Lotus... came about when I was at Cal State Northridge. As a member of the Hip-Hop Think Tank, I was constantly thinking of new research topics for our journal. 50 cent, the rapper was the newest craze in Hip Hop at the time and his ascent was fueled by the fact that he was shot 9 times just as much as the hits he had had penned. A fellow researcher within the Think Tank and I happened to be building on the burgeoning phenomenon of MCs gaining credibility in Hip-Hop via their actual street exploits that had resulted in real life consequences (i.e. jail time, bullet wounds, etc). He and I resolved to do a two part research project. The first part was to be his research project. He would write a comprehensive analysis that spoke to the tenor of contemporary Hip-Hop, at the time, focused on the authenticity of MC’s who lived the criminal life they rapped about. My part was a speculative glimpse into what the future of Hip-Hop would be like, including the landscape of pop culture in America, in which it would be situated. I wanted to stretch the concept a bit, so rather than speculate on Hip-Hop in the near future, I imagined what it would be like in the next millennium, in the year 3013. My comrade in the Think Tank, never got around to fulfilling his side of the project, but I began to craft elements of what I felt could be strong plot devices around which to build a compelling futuristic story about the state of Hip-Hop in America in 3013. In addition to crafting what I believed would be the state of Hip-Hop, I also had to speculate on how America would be in the next millennium.

 

RTB: What has this project meant for you creatively? 

Creatively, this project has allowed me to expand as a writer and a story teller. It has also provided another medium within which I am able to fuse my academic knowledge of neoliberalism, school to prison pipeline, and racial formation with my “grown up” childlike imagination and love for Hip Hop culture. For example, in the tradition of Butler’s injection of “Earth Seed” philosophy into her story line, I injected a thought experiment into Lotus, that I had done as a research paper in my Critical Race Theory course entitled “Beyond Race But Not Post Racial.” The paper explores three different iterations of a society wherein the role of capital ranges from minimal to non-existent as a solution to the modern day global capitalist society’s tendency to create binaries that harm large portions of the human population on the planet (I picked one iteration to feature in the story line—the one where society had no basis for capital accumulation).

Creatively, as an artist, this book allowed me to literally zip up both modes of my mind (academic and artistic) into one unique deliverable. It allowed me the space to kill the binary mode within my own person. It freed me up!!

 

RTB: Why has it been important for you to tell a Hip-Hop story like this?

I feel like Hip-Hop is more than the 5 elements that comprise it. The magnetic energy that comes with Hip Hop culture has the potential to be the most radical, transcendental force that ever graced the planet. It has within it the blueprint for a social movement, if recognized as such, that is beyond infiltration by COINTELPRO. It is self-contained and truly democratic. It has outgrown, in its very design, the outdated civil rights mode of what constitutes a thorough approach to countering the status quo and speaking truth to power. The old model relies heavily on “organization” and “leadership” to execute a plan of action. This tactic is doomed to fail in modern times even more so than it has always failed in the past, in terms of its ability to have long term sustainability.

A more effective strategy is something more akin to movement, based on the philosophical underpinnings of UBUNTU—"I am because we are.” UBUNTU is also very similar to the wave/particle duality of light. It exists as both at once. Hip Hop is in itself an Afro-futuristic entity because as a Black cultural product its light-like way of functioning is supremely stable. The recognition of it as such is the most viable vehicle for Black thought to permeate “future” as a transformative, inclusive and productive worldview. Although most folks haven’t come to this conclusion, Hip Hop is wave and particle simultaneously. Across the globe, without any leader or any organization, people identify with Hip-Hop as an orientation through which they “represent” all phases of their lives. It is an ideal that resonates within them that transcends but includes the 5 elements. Asians, Blacks, Latinos, whites, etc., all contain a contingent that seeks to live according to what they imagine is the highest and most ideal way to represent their understanding of the essence of Hip Hop. They love Hip Hop so much as an identity piece, that intrinsically they will never cheat Hip Hop in terms of their conscious expression of it. Across ethnicities this organic calibration is tried and true. It looks different across the different cultures that self-identify with it, but it is an ideal that is consciously being represented at all times. This is the wave function. The individuals who have embraced the idea of Hip Hop as an identity are the particles.

KRS said “I am Hip Hop.” That’s really what I’m saying too.

And those who believe that, automatically form a landless nation who see the world through a Hip Hop lens where freshness, innovation, creativity, and criticality, is always front and center. If Hip Hop heads realized the organic power that has always been there and has always been illustrated by those who “represent” Hip Hop on the daily, across ethnicities, globally, more structures that reflect the “idea” of Hip Hop as a galvanizing force would materialize overnight and the planet would have to change accordingly. Lotus 3013 attempts to bring attention to such a phenomenon. That’s a big factor in terms of why it was important, and why I chose to tell a Hip-Hop story like this.