Laughter rumbles through PhillyCam’s recording studio on a recent Thursday evening as if it’s being propelled by a magical force.
What should we call this elusive telekinetic force? Let’s call it joy.
And this joy lives in the hearts of the Black Tribbles, six self-described science-fiction nerds who talk Afrofuturism each week on their eponymous radio show. Obsessed with all things mystical, magical, and melanated, the group often records the show wearing superhero tees and capes. Afros, braids, and faux locks are stylishly tucked underneath knit caps.
Ten thousand listeners are tuned into tonight’s show that starts with a call from black comic book artist, N. Steven Harris. The Tribbles then launch into a spirited back-and-forth with Ayize Jama-Everett and John Jennings, the author and illustrator of the Tales-from-the-Crypt-meets-black-history graphic novel, Box of Bones, for which they’ve just launched a Kickstarter. The chatter brilliantly connects the dots between Bones, the 1970s horror flick Blacula, and the 1990s movie Candyman, which is about to get a sequel from Get Out and Us writer-director Jordan Peele. Will Peele do it justice? Time will tell.
Afrofuturism — broadly speaking — takes black histories and realities and adds a dose of magic, mysticism, superpowers, or all three to create new worlds where the protagonists are black people. These stories can be sci-fi, they can be horror, they can imagine a past that never happened or a distant future that by today’s standards seems impossible.
“Afrofuturism is about just being,” said Len Webb, also known as Bat Tribble, the founder and creator of the Black Tribbles. “There is a freedom in being able to see yourself in the future that still acknowledges our past. And that seems to be true today more than ever."
Stories of magic and mystery that also pay homage to the black experience are becoming ubiquitous in pop culture — with techno beats and what-if lyrics pulsating through the music of artists from Missy Elliott to Janelle Monáe to the Weeknd. It’s so much a part of the zeitgeist now that we may forget that this is drawing on a long history.
Afrofuturism’s might today is particularly evident in the realm of television and movies. Black superheroes like Marvel’s Luke Cage, Storm, and Black Panther have become a bigger part of the Marvel Universe’s success. DC Comics’ Black Lightning, which deftly mixes superpowers with political statements, is in its third season on the CW. And HBO’s The Watchmen and Netflix’s Raising Dion are among this television season’s unexpected hits. And to the joy of black sci-fi fans everywhere, Viola Davis is developing Wild Seed, the first book in Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, for Amazon Prime. To many, Butler is the grandmother of the Afrofuturistic movement.
On the fashion front, centuries-old Ankara fabric meet the miracle of modern-day stretch in forward-looking designs thanks to the work of designers like Norristown-based Nigerian designer Addie Elabor, whose D’Iyanu collection is sold throughout the world. Cynthia Erivo channeled an African princess of the future in an all-white Versace on the Academy Awards red carpet. And festivals such as New York’s Afropunk and Philadelphia’s Odunde keep Afro prints and puffs stylish.
And best-selling books from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel The Water Dancer to Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone are captivating diverse readers both young and old by creating new worlds where black people have powers that help them find a measure of freedom.
As Afrofuturist ideas spread across pop culture, and interest grows in black stories told by black people, the genre is becoming bigger and more complex.
That’s because, explained Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of race relations at University of Pennsylvania, Afrofuturism takes that which is familiar to us — natural hair styles and ancient spiritual practices — and marries them with worlds we’ve never seen before. Because Zuberi says, every person’s vision of the future is different. “That potential is undefined,” Zuberi explains. “It’s limitless.”
Still, in nearly all of these reimagined worlds — whether postapocalyptic or utopian — there exists a new reality for black people. Sometimes racism has been eradicated. Other times black people are the oppressors. These fantastical worlds, often complete with flying cars and touch screens, address more than just race: They ponder worlds with different gender roles and sexual norms, which explains Afrofuturism’s overwhelmingly androgynous aesthetic.
“Afrofuturism isn’t just science-fiction,” says Andre Carrington, an associate professor of African American literature at Drexel University. “It also reflects black efforts to imagine a utopia for black people. Black people are in effect imagining a future where we are still black, but we know that means different things. And we don’t have a language for it yet."
We’ve been searching for that language for decades, said Carrington. Decades before the current Renaissance, however, there were pieces of Afrofuturist ideas, which seemed unrelated and existed across different genres.
Carrington points to conservative black writer George Schuyler as one of the first writers to tackle black futurism. Back in 1931, Schuyler wrote Black No More, a novel about a time machine that could turn black people permanently white.
Most Afrofuturists credit Nichelle Nichols, for her role as Nyota Uhura in the late-1960s TV show Star Trek, as the first to introduce Afrofuturism to the mainstream. “It wasn’t until then that [black people] had a true appreciation for what it meant to see us in these spaces,” Webb said. Webb named the Black Tribbles after Star Trek’s furry faceless creatures in a classic episode.
The late 1960s and 1970s brought performances by futurist musician Sun Ra and his Arkestra, who performed in space-age costumes. Earth, Wind & Fire also gave off a futuristic vibe as did Parliament Funkadelic. In 1979, Butler published her first novel, Kindred, the story of a writer who travels in time to antebellum slavery. She’d write more than a dozen more books that married mysticism and the black experience.
“Her fiction imagined a future for people who looked like her,” Carrington said about Butler’s cult following. “That is to say [her characters who] encountered aliens or [participated] in political movements were black people. Black women like herself. They were beyond the realm of possibility. Beyond the imagination of most people.”
But it wasn’t until 1993 that the term Afrofuturism was actually coined. Ironically it was first uttered by a white scholar, Mark Dery, in an article he wrote called “Black to the Future." In it, Dery interviewed black scholars Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose about why black people didn’t write what he thought was enough science-fiction books. Strangely enough, the term stuck as black people took ownership of it.
Since then, black science-fiction has come into its own, but it wasn’t until recently that it’s hit the mainstream.
Webb started the Black Tribbles in 2011 because there were so few black voices that discussed comic books. During the last two years, however, Webb said he’s seen an explosion of interest in his show as more black people are telling their fantastical stories, and the internet has made it easier to distribute these stories in slick professional ways.