AFRO FUTURISM, A FEW MUSICAL- LITERARY and FILM INFLUENCES-Updated August 10, 2016
It is apparent that this site is not in chronological order. Someday maybe, but, well, its based on a “riff” of memories and research. A freestyle flow…..
African American film makers have dealt with horror and the supernatural for over sixty years. As a movie “genre,” the African American horror/supernatural film was one type of race movie made specifically for Black audiences. Its early pre-1950s days were difficult. Raising money, writing scripts, embedding Black issues and socio-cultural ideas resulted in limited distribution and less than serious critical review. Other bloggers have covered these and other issues 1.
Corney as they may seem today, I like many of these films. One film, “Son of Ingagi,” is written by entertainer/screen writer Spencer Williams http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3472679/ (perhaps unfortunately known too many from television’s “Amos and Andy” show) and directed by a man whose biography is yet to be more fully realized, Richard C. Kahn http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-no99026361/
“Son of Ingagi’s” story line features a young legally married couple (against stereotype of lascivious immoral lived experiences of young Black male musicians and their females) who moves next door to a spinster doctor, Dr. Helen Jackson,who apparently has a strange link to the wife. Dr. Jackson is an elderly African American female scientist who traveled the world and brought back a half-ape man “missing Link” that she hides in a cage in her basement; that scenario in itself is excitingly against the light-skinned African American chorus girl dancer stereotype on screen during that era. Sure, the doc is also light-skinned, but a light skinned African American female mad scientist in 1940?
A young married couple moves in next door. Apparently, Dr. Jackson has a strange link to the wife.
Director Richard C. Kahn and screen writer Spencer Williams tosses their all Black cast into a gumbo of love, deceit, suspense, a thug brother, familial betrayal, a mysterious inheritance, a nosey private detective, a chase scene, a fire that destroys the Drs. laboratory, a complimentary Black musicians’ jam session, a beast that “goes off” and hurts his keeper-the doc. The sad irony is that she is close to finding a cure to a disease when the beast does its rebellious rampage.
Yes, the plot is almost predictable, perhaps due to over 70 years between now and then of screen writers massaging, often with up to date technology, that very well worn formulae. Spencer Williams and Richard C. Kahn were 1st generation afro futurist. Here is “Son of Ngagi.”
1. A couple sites/blogs to explore:
Editor, journalist, author ROI OTTLEY’S A New World A Comin’
New World A-Coming is a fascinating book with a series of essays by journalist Roi Ottley. His life and work, though basically invisibilized in current “popular” scholarship, is currently researched by those aware of his more progressive outlook on who African American’s were, are, and are becoming http://web.sbu.edu/friedsam/archives/ottley/biography.htm Although out of print for years, several editions are still around. I have an exclusive glimpse into the 1943 hard back edition’s contents. San Diego State University’s Special Collections and Archives Department Director Robert Ray assisted me with tracking down the university’s mint condition edition.
Years ago, while writing a research paper on Duke Ellington for an African American music history classes for professor, researcher, mentor, and author Dr. Eddie Meadows http://www.ethnomusic.ucla.edu/eddie-s-meadows-bio , I uncovered a link between Ellington’s music and Ottley’s book New World A-Coming. Duke Ellington read Ottley and based his New World A’ Comin’ symphonic suite on the book’s content. The book was in San Diego State University’s Special Collections and Archives with which I was familiar due to Dr. E.N. Genovese in my undergraduate years and also during initial graduate research on several Medieval facsimiles and apparently a rare incunabulum for Dr. Laurel Amtower (now deceased). The New World A’ Coming Symphonic Suite was in the School of Music and Dance’s extensive record collection. I first listened to the LP album on a state of the art record player.
Ellington’s “New World A’ Comin’ ” suite is still a much appreciated musical work performed by orchestras around the world.
Thoughts about the significance of my graduate school research stored in physical folder and in my memory until after completing my MA, stayed unactivated for several years. It was during conversations about Afro futurism with colleague prof. Ajani Brown M.F.A. now pursuing his Ph.D., guest lecturing on Afro Futurism, and frequently presenting at Comicfest, Wonder Con, Comic Con http://www.comic-con.org/wca/comics-arts-conference that memory stirred to action.
After almost a month of restless reflection, a semester ago, I finally decided to visit San Diego State University’s Special Collection archives. Was A New World A-Coming still at San Diego State?
San Diego State University’s Special Collections and University Archives became a favorite research spot for me during extensive research on African American popular songs and sheet music for this blog site, The Vince Mead Collection. I acquired Research Use Rights for number of images at that time. Frequent interaction with Robert Ray and the staff, helped me chisel away at historical document research challenges.
A New World A-Coming had been moved, but Robert Ray located its new storage site. He retrieved it and we were amazed. The text is still in relatively good condition. Since I had obtained Research Use rights for my Vince Mead’s Collection (Sheet Music) page and had not exhausted my quota, https://sonictapestry.wordpress.com/the-vince-meades-collection/ , we expanded my archival research project to include texts as well as music.
Posted below are several pages from San Diego State University’s Special Collections and University Archives Roi Ottley book on Black America A New World A-Coming: 1943 edition.
The following images should NOT be duplicated.
Last page of the Foreword.Note Roi Ottley’s futuristic and perspective in view of Blacks’ lived experiential past. ” To a certain extent this book is a study of black nationalism (and indeed black chauvinism). I have explored its ramifications in Negro life, its progress in very recent years, its vagaries, and its effect upon the Negro’s thinking as he views the future cast of the world—-waiting for the new world a-coming.1
Back page illustration
I’ve also read portions of The Negro in New York to which Ottley contributed as an editor as well as his fictional novel White Marble Lady. The novel explores intra-racial relationships in the black community and interracial relationships between Blacks and Whites with Harlem’s nightlife and socio-cultural changes as a backdrop. The White Marble Lady story line is fascinating and yet familiar to those who study the conflicted intimate lives of black musicians/performers during Harlem’s 1930s-1950s.
Musewoman, Retro-future view December 15th 2015!
- Roy Ottley, “Foreword.” New World A-Coming (Boston:Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943) vi.
Perhaps not many know of jazz great Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington’s futuristic leanings and re-imagining of Black America’s participation in American history as well as African American individual and group identity. This is a brief post raising a few thoughts about Ellington, a pianist composer-producer born in 1899, died in 1974 whose blending of sacred with what many at the time considered shadows of the secular draped in the profane, created a sonic space for mythic musical exploration.1 Tenets of his work stand tall in the forest of genre bending African American musical accomplishments.
Inspired by his reading of a 1940s book, New Day A-Coming: Inside Black America by Roi Ottley 2, Duke Ellington wrote a deeply evocative set of sacred suites. One, his piano solo entitled “New World A-Comin” remains a work of meditative imaginings whether one is envisioning an immediate future to be realized in a contemporary new world, or an apocalyptic future new world decades from our 21st century’s chaotic racial beginnings.
Most pre-millennials (pardon the pun) base their”inner imaged world”(borrowing from Stevie Wonder’s “title “Inner Visions”) on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a foreseeable social-political new world of respected Black, Asian, Native, and White being of identity, and achievement, in an end times “mythic utopia.” Its existence places these longed for images squarely in a disputational ground, impacting African American spirituality and belief systems including theological paradigms proposed by Covenentalism or Dispensationalism.
Various creative responses that lasted from 1944-1957 emerged as a reaction Ottley’s “New World A Comin'” ranging from literary criticism to a radio show focusing on Black artists from various fields and their work. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/jim_crow/newworld.html
This is only a brief look at “the Duke.” Duke Ellington was more than a musician, he was a future looking seer in his work, his performances, and his life 3.
Listen to Ellington’s creative forward sounding 1965 jazz sonic tapestry: Enjoy
1. For more explanation of the theoretical tripartite division of musical/spiritual world domains, see John Michael Spencer, Theological music: Introduction to Theomusicology (New York: Greenwood Press 1991).
2. Roy Ottley, New World A-Coming (Boston:Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943).
3. Thomas Loyd’s essay, “The Revival of An Early Crossover Masterwork: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Work”, (Choral Journal May 2009) inquires among other topics into Ellington’s Sacred Concerts lush orchestration, performance considerations, and vocal score concerns. It is an informative, insightful and fascinating read.www.thomaslloydmusic.com/s/Ellington-article-final-version.pdf
It is a philosophical concept, a paradigm, a worldview; it is a way of life that embraces African American’s past, present and future. It started before Sun Ra, although he is widely recognized as one of Afrofuturism’s founders, progenitors. His film “Space is the Place.” is a cult classic.
Scholars continue to explore his work, linking him to avant-garde jazz, aesthetics, and political consciousness. According to Daniel Kreiss, ” With the exception of anthropologist John Szwed’s work (1997, 2005), most scholars do not consider the social and historical context within which Sun Ra’s music was produced or his connections to avant-garde jazz musicians in New York City during the early and mid-1960s, who used similar metaphors of consciousness and technology to situate their aesthetic process.”1
On examining his writings and those of others that explore Sun Ra ever evolving “becoming, in his work and his life, one is often left with more questions than answers. For example, the collections of memoirs and photos in the book that emerged on an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center pathways to unknown worlds: SUN-RA: El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68. 2
Futuristic art was often used on the Arkestra’s album covers by Ra and Claude Dangerfield, images of space and beyond.
Sun Ra as performer, philosopher, musician, film maker, street “preacher,” is an early example of ways in which what we now call Afrofuturism previously existed linking music and writing, to art, to physical personas, to ideologies of consciousness.
For more on Afrofuturism in science fiction art, literature, music, graphic art, and more. http://www.iafrofuturism.com/
1. Daniel Kriess, “Appropriating The Master’s Tools: Sun Ra, The Black Panthers, And Black Consciousness, 1952-1973, Black Music Research Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 58.
2. John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis curators. “Album Covers & Artwork” pathways to unknown worlds: SUN-RA: El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68. (Chicago: Whitewalls, Inc., 2006)
Grace Jones has been an eclectic performer, composer, presence in music for several decades. She emerged on the disco scene, a few years before Madonna.
Although it would be indelicate to talk about imitators–she really has none–Lady Ga Ga, Nicki Minaj, Janelle Monae and others can perhaps be considered her 21st century offspring. Grace Jones always “dances” in a persona and voice from slightly off-center temporal edges embracing societal margins.
She appeared during a musical watershed era when other unique women performers also bent gender corporeality into phantasmogorical circulinear realities. However, Ms Jones is well . . . silence, silence, silence . . .as a fan and aspiring Grace Jones scholar, she knows how to work sound and her being resonates with the radiance of stillness, carefully planned intonation of sonic silence.
She is futuristic in her essence. Her corporeal presence, physicality, speech, attire, stage persona, invokes other worldliness.
Although Jones still frequently appears globally, she rarely tours the US. Her fans here miss her; many enjoy her continuing innovations. Sonic collage echos of her current style emerge from downloading and shaping archived material. Her aural-visual cosmic weaves (pun intended) thread thick strands, meld afrofuturism into the sacred, secular,and profane aesthetic ground of African American music.
Jon Michael Spencer in Theological music : introduction to theomusicology(1) explores a spirituality infused theory that explores interlacing multi-sonic planes and multiple loci of African American music. Jones made a stunning appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009 where she performed several songs from her “Hurricane Album(2). It explores these multi-planar interfaces as they intersect humanity’s quasi-modern primativism embedded in technological innovation.
Grace Jones is one unique force on the arts scene. It was an honor to lecture on Grace Jones this spring Semester 2016 for the Africana Studies Department’s Africana Women’s Lecture Series created by Dr. Alameen-Shavers at San Diego State University.
Ever challenging herself to recreate interior aural-visual tapestries for her audiences to inhabit, Jones continues to blur profane/sacred/secular and to link past to present to future in several opaquely autobiographical songs. She shakes loose familial legacy, an offspring’s artistic conflict, soulful resolution in “William’s Blood.” If you listen closely, as a few scholars have noted, Jone’s mother sings at the song’s end.
Here’s one of my Grace Jones favorites that puts structural FRONK (funktified-rockin’-justification and spiritual angst) into Spencer’s construct.
1. Jon Michael Spencer, Theological music : introduction to theomusicology. (New York : Greenwood Press, 1991). Spencer uses a Vinn Diagram to illustrate his theoretical model of spiritual overlapping dimensionality and provides several chapters that apply his theory to various aspects of African American music. A music and cultural critic, he is the author of several books including: Protest & Praise: sacred music of Black religion(1990) and Re-searching Black music 1996.
2. Randall Roberts, Last Night L.A. Live (Jul. 27 2009)
He calls himself Astro
He’s a young rapper who is serious about the career paths he is taking. He’s chosen a 21st century name and presents fresh images of a young Black males life in is neighborhood. In light of growing Afrofuturism dialogue, Astro is the future on our present, on the move.
His music is available as well as his notes his legacy is ongoing in 2015 http://www.sunraarkestra.com/1-main.html
The young rapper Astro is only one of this generation’s “culture warriors” who embrace and employ futuristic
self-identification that opens the door for many new ways of seeing and being in our technological world.
Recently, after his popular appearance on X Factor, Astro’s Youtube videos have been blastin’ the scene.
His voice is still developing, but so far . . .this young artist has caught my attention!
He’s a young up and coming rapper to watch!