Music

How Black Artists Are Using Afrofuturism To Challenge America’s Troubled History

Celebrating the intersection of non-Western philosophy and creative mediums, Afrofuturism has long since evolved past its origins after being popularized by avant-garde jazz composer Sun Ra in the 1970s. As frontman of his ‘cosmic’ band Sun Ra And His Arkestra, Sun Ra enamored audiences with a magnetic ability to play a hybrid of free jazz, funk, and classical standards, inspiring succeeding generations of musicians.

Outside of music — and through science fiction and celestial interconnection — Afrofuturism has been personified as a movement that has reshaped the advancement of Black art, universally seen in films like 2018’s Black Panther, 2019 HBO miniseries Watchmen, and Beyoncé-led Disney+ visual album Black Is King. These visuals entranced viewers with shining examples of Black excellence through the growing presence of technology and fashion design, but Afrofuturist artists have also centered the Black American experience in their music.

In the last decade, multi-genre darling Janelle Monae ascended Afrofuturism by channeling feminism and queerness on her third album, Dirty Computer, while R&B polymath Solange transformed her hometown of Houston into a supernatural experience on her 2019 effort When I Get Home. Both albums pay homage to radical 1970s and ’80s Black artists like Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, and Stevie Wonder, while creating their own narrative through futuristic vision.

While Afrofuturism in music can be free-flowing and optimistic, current-day Black artists have used the culture as a platform to vocalize their gripes with the system. Reclaiming free thought, ancestral origins, and dissuading the indoctrination of governmental authority, here are eight artists who have reintroduced Afrofuturism to the masses.

Flying Lotus

Superproducer and occasional rapper Flying Lotus is no stranger to channeling the astral plane — in fact, he inherited the ability as the grand-nephew of jazz and spiritual composer Alice Coltrane. Last releasing the album Flamagra in 2020, Flying Lotus frequently tackles the concept of mortality and gun violence in his music, especially as Black Lives Matter protests have swept the nation. Meditating on the inevitability of death, Flying Lotus’ music is covertly political and urgent, even in its stretches of disorientation.

Shabazz Palaces

Decades after his introduction as member of 1990s jazz-rap trio Digable Planets, Ishamel Butler reemerged into abstract, alternative rap as Shabazz Palaces in 2009. At 50, Butler hasn’t lost his affinity for wanderlust psychedelia, keeping his stream-of-consciousness intact on the 2020 album The Don Of Diamond Dreams. Through cerebral rhyme schemes and apocalyptic production, Shabazz Palaces disapproved of former President Donald Trump’s reign, while demonstrating prophetic wisdom through hallucinogenic elevation.

Moor Mother

Arguably taking cues from minimalist composer Steve Reich, lo-fi artist, activist, and poet Moor Mother preached the ‘distorted reality’ of democracy and hope for a Black planet through repetition on 2020 EP Circuit City. Debuting the album as a multimedia piece as performing arts theater FringeArts, the choreopoem mercilessly addressed the dilapidation of low-income neighborhoods, racism, classism, and police brutality over frenzied live instrumentation.

Serpentwithfeet

As soul music has embraced few queer Black men like Blood Orange and Steve Lacy — even following the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. — Baroque pop and experimental artist Serpentwithfeet explores Black, gay relationships, and connectedness to the divine. Prepping his sophomore album Deacon for March, Serpentwithfeet was brought up in a Pentecostal church and references his Christian upbringing to vulnerably articulate his devotion for lovers both past and present.

Thundercat

While the cosmic singer-bassist has been beloved for his humorous reflections on public intoxication and his cat, Tron, on his fourth album It Is What It Is, Thundercat contemplated his existence and the severity of depression. As non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic men are less likely to have used mental health treatments than white men, It Is What It Is was Thundercat’s therapeutic refuge following the 2018 passing of friend and longtime collaborator Mac Miller. “I was posed with this moment where it was like: either it’s your turn to go or you walk the other way,” Thundercat said in a 2020 interview with The Guardian. “That’s what it felt like. You’re gonna stop or you’re gonna die.”

Georgia Anne Muldrow

On her twentieth studio album Mama, You Can Bet! released last year, singer and multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow transitioned from experimental funk into her jazz alter ego ‘Jyoti’. Previously nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2019 Grammy Awards, Muldrow’s 2018 album Overload lost to Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, but her music has long questioned America’s perception of ‘Black genres’.

Proclaiming jazz as “music of the diaspora”, Muldrow shared her thoughts about the Grammy category being renamed Best Progressive R&B album. “I mean, it’s going to take more than just renaming stuff. It’s going to take people really getting into the heart of the matter,” she said. “And if you’re calling it progressive R&B, really look into that field and really look into the pioneers of the sounds that are there.”

FKA Twigs

Although the English multi-hyphenate’s sophomore album, Magdalene, was released in 2019, FKA Twigs’ tumultuous relationship with actor Shia Labeouf went viral after a December 2020 essay in The New York Times. Filing a lawsuit against LaBeouf for sexual battery, assault, and emotional distress, the album chronicled the singer’s metamorphosis, and her reclamation of strength and healing in the process. In a time where Black women are twice as likely to be killed by an intimate partner than white women, FKA Twigs bravely used Magdalene to unveil her trauma.

Pink Siifu

Like Sun Ra, rapper Pink Siifu was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and his latest solo effort Negro was a crash course into hardcore punk. “I treated this album like I was tapping into some Arkestra shit. I know I can never get on Sun Ra’s level, but let me tap into what he was on. I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t fuck, and just made this album,” Siifu said in a 2020 interview with MTV News. Eschewing mainstream rap expectations, the album reimagined an armed Black America, referencing 1973 blaxploitation film The Spook Who Sat By The Door and centered a future of unabashed radicalism.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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