25.01.2017 | Words by:
All art is propaganda and ever must be. The reknown sociologist W.E.B. du Bois made this bold claim in a 1926 essay about Black art. While he is mostly known to the general American public for co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), science-fiction aficionados have long praised his 1920 novel "The Comet" (in which a wealthy white woman and a working-class black man are forced to coexist after an apocalyptic event which kills the rest of the population of New York City) and his recently re-discovered novel "The Princess Steel" (which recounts the tale of a silver-haired dark-skinned princess whose gold-plated male nemesis is an embodiment of the capitalist patriarchy).
Du Bois' Afrocentric science-fiction is often considered to be one of the precursor of Afrofuturism. Like Du Bois, Afrofuturist artists rewrite black people's past and re-imagine their present, in order to describe a world in which blackness found its place. However it would be quite restrictive to portray Afrofuturism as a fantasy about a distant time and place in which Afrodescendents are (at least) in the process of freeing themselves from oppression. Indeed, Afrofuturism is as much set in the utopic future as it is set in a glorified past. There is a clear intent to reclaim and romanticize the heritage of African civilisations which predates the transatlantic slave trade, from the black gods, goddesses and pharaohs of Ancient Egypt to the fearless and powerful queen Njinga Mbande of Angola, celebrated to this day in Africa for her diplomatic abilities and military tactics -- she famously used a servant as a chair when she was literally refused a seat at the table during a peace negotiation with the Portuguese government. Therefore, the historical account given by Afrofuturists offers an alternative to the hegemonic narrative of the Western-centric education that fails to fully acknowledge the existence of prosperous civilizations which co-existed with the Roman empire and the Western world.
It goes without saying that being related to the struggle with slavery, racism and colonialism is a common trope for artistic movements which originated in the African diaspora (and in particular among the descendants of the West African slave trades). Afrofuturism has the particularity that it often rebrands black people's perceived otherness. For example, the jazzman Sun Ra
rejected his birth name, adopted the persona of a Saturnian who came to earth to bring peace on Earth and dressed in space suits and extravagant costumes inspired by the Ancient Egypt. In her sophomore album The Electric Lady in which she delivers a powerful Afro-feminist manifesto in the song "Q.U.E.E.N.''
, Janelle Monae portrays herself as a cyborg who travels through space and time. The perspective of the robotization of the black body echoes with the reality of the dehumanization of black womanhood and celebrates black women as queens of a distant future. In fact prominent black feminist artists like Erykah Badu, Beyonce and Solange
have embraced afrofuturist fashion, with its shiny outfits of Panafrican inspiration, as a mean of empowerment. In this setting, technology does not exist in a vacuum but is bound up with the experience and the desires of its user.
King Britt is no stranger to Afrofuturism. The American producer participated to the musical project Saturn Never Sleeps in 2009 for an exhibition about Sun Ra at the Institute of Contemporary Art of his native Philadelphia and introduced the public of New York City's MoMA PS1, a well-established American institution for contemporary art. Mr. Britt's music takes inspiration from jazz and funk as much as from hip hop and dance culture, embracing Afrofuturism as a source of inspiration. The dance music veteran has used different names over the years. Under the alias Fhloston Paradigm and on the label Hyperdub (Jessy Lanza, Kode9, Burial, Dean Blunt etc.) he released the album The Phoenix, which can be described as an alternative soundtrack album for Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element". His most recent album "What happened was" is produced under the alias Sylk130 and features funk, RnB and house love songs
In a country in which the first law enforcement forces were historically founded to uphold chattel slavery, catching and punishing runaway slaves, the motto "To protect and to serve" of most modern American police departments has become the symbol of an institution which fails people of color, religious minorities, LGBT people, women and disabled people, and more particularly any intersection of those groups. The systemic oppression of minorities by the US police has always been fought by civil rights movements and recently became the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement which focuses on holding local governments and the federal government accountable for police brutality.
First conceptualised as an echo to the 2014 protests which followed the fatal shooting of the unarmed black man Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson (Missouri), the project To Unprotect and Subserve
found its place in this intense period of activism by offering to its public a musical account of police brutality. Through field recordings of sirens and police communications, found sounds and distressing samples from audio recordings of arrests, Britt has brought together an improvised and experimental live performance that he describes as a sonic response to incidents of police brutality and delivers a powerful statement against state-sanctioned violence. In the same way that Afrofuturists re-appropriate the present to imagine the future, Britt’s avant-garde techno invites us to heal from the trauma of the emotionally charged audio recordings of the moments which led to the deaths of Sandra Bland and so many others.King Britt will perform To Unprotect and Subserve on Sunday 5 Feb in collaboration with The Rest Is Noise.