Afrofuturism Now: less politics, more Usain Bolt

With the success of the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, Afrofuturism has entered the mainstream, even popping up in ads. But, Rob Turner asks, are its political roots being abandoned along the way?

“I can’t pay no doctor bill,” Gil Scott-Heron famously snapped, back in 1970, “but Whitey on the moon.” Setting the $25 billion cost of the space race against the struggle for basic civil rights, this line catches the moment that Afrofuturism kicked its way into the national consciousness. It was still a marginal scene, yet to find a name, but by the end of that decade you couldn’t miss it. George Clinton was airborne with his P-Funk Earth Tour, accompanied by a crew of “certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies”; Sun Ra was tripping through Ancient Egypt with the Intergalactic Solar Arkestra; and Marvel Comics had let a black superhero star in his own story, with Black Panther’s Jungle Action #5 (July 1973).

Now beam forward 50 years, give or take, to the present day. Fade in on a television set, tuned to ITV during an ad break. The camera zooms into a mountaintop hideout: Usain Bolt is hanging out, decked in metallic superhero gear, waited on by a scientist who appears to be a clone of Bond’s Q. Bolt’s mildly pissed off because his Bolt Signal isn’t working; Q points out a nifty solution – courtesy of Virgin Media – and the hero grins. His signal sparks to life, job done.

Still from BBH’s ad for Virgin Media

Cilesta Van Doorn, brand director at Virgin Media, has laid out the idea behind this BBH-created broadband commercial: “The ad is the next chapter in SuperBolt’s journey,” she points out, “and it sees him struck by connectivity conundrums before our Intelligent WiFi steps in and saves the day; just like it will for our customers.” Over at Virgin Media’s webpage, the campaign is fitted with a tagline: ‘Is your arch-enemy unreliable WiFi?’ Well, maybe. But what if your arch-enemy is police brutality, the rise of neo-fascism, or, say, still being unable to pay your doctor’s bill?

Alondra Nelson, a pioneering theorist of Afrofuturism back in the 1990s, has turned to this specific question in her recent writings. In the pages of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Nelson traces the long history of institutionalised racism in Western health care, an issue that Harriet Washington famously described as “medical apartheid”. By turning from the moon to doctor’s bills, Nelson effectively restates Scott-Heron’s position: behind all the futuristic chrome and steel, both writers insist, lies a waking world of continuing structural inequality and racism. Or as Q-Tip put it, on the final LP from A Tribe Called Quest: “There ain’t a space programme for n*ggas / Yeah, you stuck here, n*gga.”

What if your arch-enemy is police brutality, the rise of neo-fascism, or, say, still being unable to pay your doctor’s bill?

There’s always been a tug of war between escape and engagement in Afrofuturist art, as the impulse to soar off to alternative realities – “Space is the Place”, as Sun Ra put it – is set against the need to front up to daily life here on our racist planet. In 1969, for instance, Duke Ellington anticipated Heron by a few months with a strange freestyle of his own, delivered over improvised celeste backing. Responding to the NASA missions via warped erotic fantasy, Ellington rapped: “Moon Maiden, way out there in the blue / Moon Maiden, got to get with you… / But my big problem is still unsolved.”

The split between sci-fi’s shiny sex appeal and the “big problem” of lived racism is also the split, of course, between the two Black Panthers. On one hand you have the political party running Free Medical Clinics; on the other you have the costumed superhero leaping through the pages of Jungle Action. And it’s the latter, of course, that has inspired the creative team at BBH, as SuperBolt tries to make off with a crumb of the hype surrounding Marvel’s recent blockbuster.

The numbers surrounding Black Panther are indeed pretty thrilling. The third most successful American film of all time (behind just Avatar and The Force Awakens), it has generated a worldwide gross of $1.35 billion. For a film with a black star (and a black director, and a black writer, and an African setting) to take control of the international box office so thoroughly surely does mark a cultural turn, one of those moments after which everything feels new.

Still from Marvel’s Black Panther 2018
Still from Marvel’s Black Panther 2018

Some of the press releases were uplifting, too: at the première in Los Angeles, for instance, the director and cast all wore West African royal attire, kicking back against black-tie tradition with a futuristic celebration of Afrodiasporic culture. In Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh première was used to ease laws banning the ‘co-mingling of genders’, allowing unrelated men and women to sit together for the first time. And, more recently, the film was screened twice a week for free in certain theatres to mark this year’s Black History Month. In the wake of all those dollars, and considering the film’s stable currency as a mark of noble governmental intentions (whether Saudi or American), are we finally witnessing the healing of the split between progressive and escapist currents in Afrofuturist culture?

Turn back to the film itself, though, and you find yourself trapped in a surprisingly retrograde lesson in black political history. The feud between Wakanda’s two heirs – our hero T’Challa and his nemesis N’Jadaka – is played as a dispute between conservative isolationism and Pan-African revolutionary action. And the screenwriters, of course, use the latter as the source of the film’s supervillainy. The guy’s sinister alias (N’Jadaka goes by the name of Killmonger, for god’s sake), nudges the viewer to see his rejection of white colonialism as murderous and malevolent.

Are we finally witnessing the healing of the split between progressive and escapist currents in Afrofuturist culture?

Given all of this, the hero’s nom-de-cape (‘Black Panther’) seems to be a bad fit. Stan Lee has always insisted, of course, that T’Challa has nothing to do with the political party of the same name. The overlap, he told interviewers again and again, was a “strange coincidence”. With Black Panther at last, the coincidence becomes transparent. This is a postcolonial vision with no teeth, palatable to Middle Eastern oppressors and British broadband providers.

In his landmark late-90s study of Afrofuturism, More Brilliant than the Sun, Kodwo Eshun defined the cultural work involved in this sphere as being the creation of “countermemories that contest the colonial archive”. With the sudden boom of the aesthetic, last year, as it shot from the cultural margins to the pantheon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this contestatory stance has been flipped. The Afrofuturist impulse is being used, at last, to resist anticolonialism, and to opt instead for the peace and quiet of an assimilated future.

Still from Flying Lotus – Fire Is Coming feat. David Lynch
Still from Flying Lotus – Fire Is Coming feat. David Lynch

The same turn, from radical decolonialism to centrist diversification, runs through the rising tide of recent multimedia releases by Walt Disney Pictures – check out Oprah’s turn as an insufferable astral traveller in Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time – and Blizzard Entertainment, with the blandly futuristic Nigerian playground of Numbani in Overwatch. As Afrofuturism has drifted towards the centre of entertainment, it has seemed increasingly aimless and numb.

This feels like a bad time to lose the politics. With apologies to Marvel, Disney, and Blizzard, these works felt outdated even as they hit multiplexes or consoles. Relics of a barely-remembered past, they flit through a lost world in which the election of a black president seemed to signal a cheerful post-racial age. Now, as the fascists gather, slouching towards Washington and Westminster, Afrofuturist visions can’t be reduced to connectivity conundrums and Intelligent WiFi. They need to plunge back into the fire. Don’t lose hope: there’s a new Flying Lotus LP on the way.

Rob Turner is a Lecturer in 20th and 21st-Century Literature at the University of Exeter. His book, Counterfeit Culture, which explores issues of truth and authenticity in American writing, is published by Cambridge University Press in May