afrofuturism: a talk with artist coco fusco – black subjectivity meets science-fiction

April 30, 2013

Ignited at the intersection of social commentary and imagination, the cultural undercurrent of Afrofuturism critiques and examines Black subjectivity through the lens of science-fiction. Popularized by such musicians as Sun Ra, George Clinton and, most recently, Janelle Monáe, the Afrofuturist aesthetic has come into conversation amongst a new generation of youth and young adults that literally experience the world as cyborgs, both existing in person and as their online avatars via social media.
I recently sat down with interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco, best known for her traveling performance piece with Mexican artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña titled “Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West,” a professor at the New School University currently teaching an undergraduate class on Afrofuturism. With our interview, I learned about what inspires the constellation of artists envisioning new forms through which to communicate the experiences of Black identity.

By Justin Allen, AFROPUNK Contributor

When did you first encounter Afrofuturism? What interests you about it?
Well, I first learned about Afrofuturism because friends of mine and colleagues of mine in England who are Black-British filmmakers and critics were working on a film called The Last Angel of History…and were looking at an undercurrent in post-war Black thought and cultural production, and also futuristic imagery in Black music with Sun Ra, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and George Clinton. In these three different strains of music—in reggae, soul, and jazz—you have these three great figures in the history of Black contemporary music all working in different places in the world, not knowing each other, and yet all developing this futuristic imagery, and also combining that futuristic imagery in some cases with studio-produced sound.

Who are other Afrofuturist artists, across mediums, that you’ve encountered?
Well, I’ve asked students to read Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders, and last year when I did the course we bought in Nalo Hopkinson, who’s a Jamaican-Canadian sci-fi and speculative fiction writer. In the class right now we’ve just finished a whole section on the Planet of the Apes movies, which were not made by Black directors, but they are understood to be social commentary from the world of sci-fi on the race relations in the United States during a very intense period of conflict. We’ve looked at the use of the vocoder by early groups like Zapp, looked back to Afrika Bambaataa and the mechanization of the dancing Black body, we read the prologue to Invisible Man, we watched Brother from Another Planet and spoke about the escaped slave and the alien, and we’ve also talked about Lil Wayne’s song “Phone Home.”

How have you seen Afrofuturist work develop or change over time?
In more recent interpretations of Afrofuturist sensibilities there are more specific critiques of things and it’s more rooted in social criticism. But with something like Janelle Monae’s videos where she’s mimicking Metropolis, it’s hard to pinpoint what she’s criticizing. In interviews that she gave a few years ago she spoke about how she really identified with Black working-class people, that her tux is like a uniform, that her parents always had to work in uniforms. She had a lot of respect for these masses of people that basically make the world go round. That vision of a dystopic world of endless uniformed labor is very much a sci-fi vision.

Many different Afrofuturist artists identify as aliens, and Janelle Monáe refers to herself as an android. What do you think inspires these personas?
The argument that people who know much more about Afrofuturism than I do, like Greg Tate, have made for a long time is that the history of Blacks in the New World is sci-fi made reality. In other words, the population in the world that experienced alien abduction, destruction of identity, destruction of their world—all these kinds of scenarios of sci-fi, were Black people in the Diaspora. Being looked at as an alien, being treated as an alien, being stripped, going to another planet—here are real world scenarios and here are fictional scenarios; where are the connections?

Need more to feed your Afrofuturism fix? Check out The AfroFuturist Affair, this amazing Tumblr dedicated to all things Black sci-fi.

* Justin Allen is an undergraduate writing student at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. He currently works as a contributing writer for AFROPUNK as well as writes for a zine, BAD GRAMMAR, that he produces in collaboration with friends Yulan Grant and Brandon Owens.