Afrofuturism Now Festival WORM

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Afrofuturism Now: The spirit of inquiry re-awakened!
(pics: courtesy of WORM and Max van Dongen)

I am a white caucasian male in my early 30s. Old enough to realize that the technology we now harness (and often take for granted) was once simply a figment of our wild imagination. Young enough however, to still be optimistic that we’ll eventually use our intelligence to extend our dreams and our discourse for centuries to come.

Back To The Future part 2 was one of my favorite sci-fi flicks growing up. As many of you know, this is the week Marty McFly travels to the future to save his present timeline. The DeLorean lands on Wednesday, October 21st 2015. Despite the fact that humankind accomplished some of the movie’s once-outlandish innovations (such as video interface, cinematic 3D visuals and fingerprint-based security systems), a part of me would rather live in the reality depicted in Back To The Future part 2 than the actual reality today.

And no, it’s not just the whole dopey neon glitz punk aesthetic. What inspires me most is the naiveté and optimism permeating in the imagery of this ersatz-future (or ersatz-present, in this case). Today, that kind of sentiment precipitates either nostalgia or escapism or both.  As a matter of fact, the impact science fiction movies and literature has on our lives is in fact deeper than we often realize.

I remember Canadian musician Patrick Watson telling me Star Trek functioned as a Trojan Horse to help break widespread social taboos. Creator Gene Roddenberry initially thought the concept of space travel was too absurdist to tackle real-life issues. But it was Star Trek that introduced the first mixed race couple on prime time television in the US. The show depicts a Russian, an American and a Chinese working for the same team during the apex of Cold War belligerence.

So yes, I am fortunate to at least recollect sci-fi’s ability to trail blaze technological progress and reframe anthropological premises. That sense of tangibility, however, is underpinned by a disheartening hypothesis: the more people allow their lives to be governed by Big Data, the further Western science fiction reaches a cul de sac.

The Matrix famously gave the protagonist a brutal ultimatum: take the red pill or the blue pill. Either discover the harrowing truth or meekly lull with the hebdomadal blob that’s everyday life, as the powers that be control our species’ destiny. It’s undeniable: since the turn of the millennium, dystopian angst and cynicism have been pervasive in contemporary Western sci-fi culture. Movies like Transcendence and (even) WALL-E reflect the peril and paranoia of facing an unwritten future. Maybe we that’s why need to start dreaming of a new one. Or better yet, millions and millions of futures, as said in true Carl Sagan fashion.

Perhaps that’s why the inaugural Afrofuturism Now Festival at WORM, Rotterdam feels so important. Compared to other large Dutch cities, Rotterdam isn’t all that concerned about adhering to its historical criterion. The skyline looks like an odd metropolitan patchwork of buildings and its striking rectangular Central Station like some spaceship ripped from the cover of an Asimov novel.

WORM is a subsidized downtown venue focusing its programming on avant-garde and DIY culture, taking pride in that same iconoclast frame of mind. The entire premises feels like some post-apocalyptic sanctuary, with strange anachronistic props and archives of rare content. Unlike Groningen’s legendary rock venue Vera, WORM doesn’t enshrine its 16-year legacy. It’s a bit more laid back. To all intents and purposes, the idea of this place is to expunge any sense of time and place.

On the surface, this sounds like the perfect place for Afrofuturism Now to transpire. But as WORM-host Florian Cramer points out during the festival’s opening statement, the audience visiting this venue is predominantly white and intrinsically preoccupied with the Anglosphere side of things.

Whether it’s the incessantly recited treadmill of beat poet prolix or more contemporary works like Simon Reynolds’s Retromania or Dave Eggers’s The Circle, our Western societal testimony is somewhat circumscribed, whether we intend it to be or not. Heck, I’m just as guilty referencing Back To The Future part 2. All the more incentive to bring back that sense of bewilderment and awe, to once again emphasize our pursuit for solutions rather than wallowing in maddening conundrums.

That’s where Afrofuturism Now comes in. As a city that’s considered one of the most culturally diverse in all of Europe, Rotterdam would need to host a forum for culture to be, you know, shared with one another again. In a way that actually represents the city’s vibrant cultural demographic. And by doing so, hopefully open up a new Pandora’s Box of questions and experiences.

The spirit of inquiry needs to once again be awakened and expanded. In other words, as Cramer put it: WORM and Rotterdam need Afrofuturism Now.

The term Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism is a collective term for sci-fi, history, philosophy, fantasy, African iconography and Afrocentricity through the Afrodiasporic lens. The term was first coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, a caucasian American critic whose work often delved into the relationship between cultural movements and technology. If there’s one practical use for the term Afrofuturism, it’s to vanquish hackneyed archetypes of black culture in mainstream media. At the same time, become an effective buzzword to “incentivize” discourse on a communal level.

While the term’s origin is still a significant footnote, it’s actually more convenient comparing it to the coining of Britpop around the same time, as opposed than something truly revelatory. With the internet-age experiencing its genesis, the vox populi was eager to reclaim a sense of cultural validity, despite the critical consensus that Britpop was a mere simulacrum of “British Invasion” romanticism.

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Afrofuturism never had to be invented though. It was always part of the cultural fabric. Rasheeda Phillips, founder of Philly grassroots community The Afrofuturist Affair and festival curator, ardently states in the festival guide: ‘We aren’t “reclaiming” anything. We already do this, naturally, and we always have. Which is why you can find so many examples of Afrofuturism if you apply the term retrospectively and use it to look at art, music, literature back throughout the decades in Black American and diasporic culture.’

Perhaps we should equate Afrofuturistic lore in astronomy, occult or spiritual traditions in centuries rather than decades. Centuries before ‘retrospective’ Afrofuturistic figureheads such as Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic and Afrika Bambaataa made their definitive mark in pop culture, African civilizations were already marvelling at the stars and heavens.

Since it’s impossible to pin down the full gamut of impressions experiences spanning these five days, I’ve managed to trim Afrofuturism Now down to eight compelling highlights.

1. Crumbs
This Ethopian science fiction movie brings a complete visual antithesis of the usual monochromatic aesthetic displayed in post-apocalyptic films like Children Of Men or The Road. The Ethiopian terra firma is depicted as a colorful and panoramic, with the remnants of human existence submerged beneath thick layers of topsoil. In a time where nature seems to have moved on from humankind, items we now consider flimsy become these archaeological relics. The plastic toy sword becomes Excalibur, a Ninja Turtles action figure becomes a figurine. It’s not only hilarious, but completely in tune with the Afrofuturist notion that time isn’t linear, because everything we encounter can be reinterpreted and recontextualized.

The most profound moments of the movie happens when the protagonist, a scrap collector called Gagano, starts praying to this photo of Michael Jordan, depicting the NBA star as some kind of deity. In Jordan’s prime days as a basketball player, this isn’t far from the truth. Michael Jordan became one of the first black figures who transcended racial inequity, becoming a revered sports icon on a global scale. I immediately had to think about Larry Bird’s famous remark after Jordan torched his Celtics with 63 points: “It was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

Gagano’s inclination to marvel at the stars instead of collecting archaic objects brings a subtle message to our own obsession with the past and how it shapes our present. There is no deus ex machina, no grand MacGuffins and no high stakes, let’s-save-the-world plot lines. The audience is simply left with the deliciously wry and absurd reality these characters inhabit, and that’s something refreshing in itself.

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2. Moor Mother Goddess
Moor Mother Goddess is a prolific artist who scrambles conceptual themes with improvised collages of sound and melody. There’s no contrived structure to her setlist, which instead relies on pure expressionistic vigor. She juxtaposes various layers of field recordings, spectral soundscapes and oscillating beats. This performance is anything but random, that much is clear.

The entry point to her setlist is a Dutch transcription of a segment from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the famous anti-slavery novel. Over the years, the book’s depiction of black stereotypes cast a shadow over its well-intended but horribly outdated rhetoric against slavery. Moor Mother Goddess cuts these narratives up with visceral intensity, distorting and diminishing them using abstract vignettes of music that interlace like parallel dimensions. It’s almost as if she’s allowing the pre-recorded words to cut her. She retaliates by hurling these natural forces at them to negate their overall significance. Powerful stuff.

3. Nyfolt
Nyfolt’s cosmic tapestries of sound emanate a strong Cyberpunk aesthetic, as well as a Gristle-ish propensity to experiment with spaces. This becomes evident right off the bat when JoAnn McNeil and Nathan Cook meander between audience members with tape recorders, whistles and minimal percussion. The first instinct is to simply close your eyes and allow these sprawling soundscapes to trickle down your psyche.

Nyfolt provides a nice counterbalance to Moor Mother Goddess’s riveting and frantic performance, maintaining a sweltering slow-burning pace throughout. Their blueprint is unlike anything I’ve heard before. McNeil, who’s a great singer, briefly sequesters a wistful, almost sacramental grace at one point, as if is transmitting a universal hymn or anthem into the galaxy.

For the most part, Nyfolt’s show progressed a tenuous sonic tightrope walk: sinister Coil-like industrial backdrops seamlessly bleed into kinetic Dan Deacon-like buoyancy, as well as the inversive spoken word meditations of Laurie Anderson’s post-modern classic Big Science. Don’t let all these reference points fool you though: Nyfolt is a true original, instilling all these different proponents into a uniquely devised vernacular. Amazing!

4. Morgan Craft
Guitar virtuoso Morgan Craft’s solo performance sucks the room into a vacuum of prickly tension. With flammable shards of guitar feedback, Craft asserts an primordial dominance with deceptive sleight of hand. It’s almost as if the stage is cut off by a one-way mirror, with the audience bearing witness to a highly cathartic self-exorcism.

5. King Britt (feat. Nyfolt, Moor Mother Goddess & Morgan Craft)
Producer, composer and pundit of all things Afrofuturism King Britt did a special improvised performance with Morgan Craft, Nyfolt and Mother Moor Goddess, informed by the subject of police brutality. You might wonder why something so grounded is chosen as a starting point. It all boils down to the escapist quality of Afrofuturism, a way to circumvent the perpetual disenfranchised state many Afro-American communities endure.

Just don’t confuse escapism with avoiding confrontation. Quite the opposite actually: King Britt’s haunting bricolage of dub-influenced backbeats, trap productions and warped, spacious electronics traces down the rapidly intensifying dialogue between a detained black man and a police officer with a forceful austerity. Instead of chopping up and rearranging the recordings like Moor Mother Goddess, King Britt swells up his music to empower the detainee as he defiantly vouches for his innocence to the officer.

While the transition between King Britt’s nimble, kaleidoscopic sprawl to Nyfolt’s claustrophobic noise tapestries could’ve gone a bit more smoothly, the latter aptly illustrates the sheer harrow of having your freedom taken unjustly. That sense of harrow reaches its apex once Moor Mother Goddess takes over. Looping a desperate “Let me go!” over and over, her music taps into the perpetual anguish, seemingly breaking down in tears herself. As this happens, you can almost feel this static energy field surrounding yourself, the sheer numbness taking over.

From here on out things can only go upward. Which is exactly what happens when Nyfolt rejoins Moor Mother Goddess. The two sides conjure an uplifting soundscape of white noise and feint snippets of sounds. It’s like sending out this shamanic transmission into the cosmos hoping some chivalrous group of beings answered the call. And, just like that, King Britt returns to the stage with Morgan Craft; as these five creative forces now expel a potent and intricate machinery of noise and melody in unison, and I find myself picturing Yoda lifting the X-Wing from the swamp. This is truly transcendental music in all its unspoken beauty.

Since any detailed description will fall short, I’d like to stress a statement made by film maker Caulleen Smith in Ytasha L. Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy Culture. ‘In the Western World, improvisation is a failure; you do it when something goes wrong. When black people improvise it’s a form of artistry.’ Smith’s assessment most definitely holds true throughout this baffling two hour performance. Turning hardship into empowerment is something we all aspire to do, and through the power of music and collaboration, King Britt and his friends were able to crystallize this universal ideal.

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6. Islam Chipsy + EEK
Arguably the most highly anticipated name at Afrofuturism Now is Egyptian keyboard prodigy Islam Chipsy and his tandem of mighty skinsmen, EEK. This will be Chipsy’s first show in The Netherlands, brought by WORM’s partners in crime, the Pantropical organization. An exciting prospect, considering Dutch chaabi-outfit Cairo Liberation Front’s valiant effort to cross over Egypt’s pioneering artists to Europe. Two CLF members, Yannick Verhoeven and Joep Schmitz, giddily make their way to the front in a packed WORM-venue.

And here I am thanking the stars the place is indeed packed. With the show starting at 1AM, there was a slight fear creeping in that people might not stick around. Chipsy once said in an interview with The Quietus’s John Doran that the intensity of his shows rely heavily on the crowds he plays for. Some artists just say stuff like that to make a cute sound byte, but I genuinely believe Chipsy. His music isn’t informed by pop standards or feigned show elements, but exerts an immediate, penetrative sonic transference from one spirit to the next.

This immediacy allows Chipsy to completely bypass any sort of stark, cerebral Westernized logic like “why does it all sound the same?” and “why isn’t there any palpable sense of melody?” EEK’s overdriven drum routs and Chipsy’s dexterous mashing of the ivories hex the audience into complete unadulterated frenzy. This place has gone bonkers, and so have I. If there’s one logic to Islam Chipsy’s remarkable fervor and virtue, it’s that it feels completely foreign. According to this article by Joost Heijthuijsen, Chipsy doesn’t really have much in common with the electronic mahragranat-movement popular in Cairo’s periphery. His playing is informed by ancient traditions yet he molded it into something that indeed sounds futuristic. So retrospectively, Islam Chipsy’s inclusion to Afrofuturism Now makes a lot of sense.

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7. Nyfolt & Moor Mother Goddess Studio Sessions
On the final day of Afrofuturism Now, Nyfolt’s JoAnn McNeil and Moor Mother Goddess devise much different setting than before. One of the striking things is the absence of a stage. Instead, McNeil and Moor Mother Goddess occupy the studio space that’s usually hidden behind the curtain when bands perform. Unfortunately, after a boisterous Saturday night headlined by Islam Chipsy, barely forty people showed up today. Serendipitously, the smaller the crowd, the easier it is to engage with one another. And on this Sunday evening, these circumstances fostered a different – but equally potent -magic from the hysteria that Chipsy generated.

Once Nyfolt’s cascading drones discharge from the speakers, you can feel a sense of unease amongst the audience members. What are we going to do? Step forward? Stand at the center of the stage to get a better look at the studio? Everyone in the room plants themselves neatly at the fringes of the stage or on top of the speakers. A part of me wanted to just lay down across the length of the stage and take it all in. I think Rasheeda Philips whispered to me that this was ok, but I didn’t want to set myself apart from the rest. So I sat near the emergency exit instead, and closed my eyes.

The first act was basically devoid of any melody, more like a reverberating mechanical noise. I imagined a huge spaceship tractor beaming the room skyward into the blackness of the universe. A beautiful nothingness. The shift toward the second act came when Moor Mother Goddess started infusing her collage-like MO into Nyfolt’s rumbling engine-like sonics. Not aggressively like during the King Britt performance, but very subtly, like feint transmissions from satellites circling the great beyond. The rare occasion when I opened my eyes and looked beyond the glass; I saw two women working a science experiment instead of performing a musical piece.

A part of me wishes they would just close the damn curtain, so everyone would basically be forced to let the music capture their imagination. But to be fair, telling others how to experience music is absolute folly. After the music stopped, McNeil and Moor Mother Goddess stumbled through the emergency exit with likewise bewildered expressions on their faces, as if they just experienced an alien abduction or epic space odyssey. It’s truly inspiring to see artists in a state of disbelief of something they did themselves. This whole thing felt like I was participating in some elaborate radio play instead of a concert.

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8. Young Paris
Whereas Nyfolt and Moor Mother Goddess expertly took away the stage to create an immersive experience, Young Paris is the kind of magnetic performer who thrives on that stage. If Young Paris had the same crowd Islam Chipsy, this performance would’ve probably been legendary. But enough with the what if’s.

This reality finds Young Paris entertaining twenty-five individuals if not less. Which initially seems like an easy task, as the rapper’s charisma and the luscious productions easily rub off on the rest. As a truly a proud performer, Young Paris is always eager to tell stories of his African heritage, like for instance, why he wears face paint and a headdress to honor his deceased father, Le Grand Elombe Badila. Badila used the art of dance to prosper and unite the regions of Congo.

Still, you can’t help but notice a glint of disappointment diffusing Young Paris’s frequent stage banter. When push comes to shove, it would be strange to simply go through the motions and call it a night when you look each person within this space in the eye. As any artist can tell you, playing for a near empty venue can be quite discomfiting.

Even Young Paris, with all his natural charisma, isn’t immune to this. He freely admits that the tiny stage he now occupies feels large and empty. Standing by his lonesome himself, he can’t rely on his many siblings funnelling all that boundless energy and enthusiasm to the crowd. On top of that, Dutch audiences are inherently timid, usually keen to play the wait and see game. Young Paris instinctively feels this and attempts to engage in conversation, asking if anyone has any questions they would like to have answered. An awkward silence follows.

All I could think of was this storybook ending, with all thirty of us joining Young Paris on stage and for once completely obliterate that whole Western concert dynamic. In Africa music doesn’t need a stage to be sacred: it’s part of the everyday fabric of life, like eat, sex and sleep. It’s not served as entertainment, but an important prerequisite to our very existence. So the only question I could think of was: “Would you like us to join you on stage?”

Fortunately, after three more songs, the question stuck and Young Paris invited all twenty of us for a stage invasion. Moor Mother Goddess and Nyfolt made the absence of the stage something meditative while Young Paris did the exact opposite: he made us feel exuberant and empowered with his untainted sensitivity, by openly embracing the situation as it happens. Like his father, he united us tonight with dance and music. It’s a victory to have twenty individuals completely in tune with one another, and achieve this unspoken measure of understanding. And it’s the best feeling ever.

Final word
By all means, Afrofuturism Now felt important from the start, but I could only speculate why. Despite the illumination I feel typing this, overall, I remain to be a clueless individual, inclined to only superficially sink my teeth into the fine esoterics of Afrofuturistic lore. What I do realize, however, is that science fiction is like a fabric, a wellspring from which we theorize, dream and meditate on our fate as a species. To go on about the dichotomy between Afrofuturism and Western (namely Russian and Italian) futurism would sell that significance way short. A cynic would call humans insignificant under the universe’s rule of law, but an idealist would call us remarkable anomalies.

I will boldly go on record saying I, as one of those remarkable anomalies, cannot empathize with the Afrofuturist quest for validity and representation before Western eyes. To me there’s no clear difference between my experiences these past five days and that wide-eyed optimism that takes hold when watching my favorite sci-fi movies. Artists informed by imagery that transcends or parallels our own reality, like Sun Ra and Bowie, have been known to challenge anthropological thinking, changing history. Recent LP’s like Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty and EMA’s The Future’s Void have that same potential to both enlighten and befuddle us. Mentioning the chaabi-movement in Egypt and Mali’s Tuareg blues uprise, that’s just scratching the surface what’s to come. Revolution is an ongoing thing, not a sequence of historical footnotes.

What Afrofuturism Now did help realize, is that the Western concept of futurism is just a valid, but extremely narrow fragment of what’s still left to explore. By comparison, it just comes off as spoiled to utilize art as a way of penalizing our failings as human beings. Now with global connectivity intensifying at a miraculous rate, we can finally assess to what ratio the ideals of Afrofuturism are embedded in our daily lives. Maybe that’s the push we need to start embracing the audacity that is hope.

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