“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” ―Chinua Achebe
"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past." ―George Orwell
"The question is: Who is doing the constructing?" ―Tricia Rose
Afrofuturism is having a moment.
In the last few years we've seen Black Panther net over $1.3 billion in the box office and become one of the highest grossing films of all time. Tomi Adeyemi has had one of the biggest book deals in the history of young adult fiction with Children of Blood & Bone. Nnedi Okorafor recently won a Hugo and Nebula award for Binti.
Public sentiment shows this isn't just a moment. Afrofuturism just may be the next boom... But why now?
Because it's super cool. But more than that. Many of us in the African diaspora mourn a connection to the past stolen from us or irrevocably altered due to slavery and colonial oppression. Many in the diaspora were raised in countries where they were taught that colonialism was a good thing, even as their families bore the scars that screamed otherwise. So many of us need to imagine joy and hope into the gutter we've been told is our inevitable future.
Since the creation of the term 'afrofuturism' by Mark Derry in 1990s essay Black to the Future, till today, there has been a strong need for reimagining of African futures.
I write this on Black Pound Day, escaping Twitter where people are claiming support for Black Businesses in the face of systemic oppression is 'racist.' Still others are complaining that Beyoncé is cosplaying Africa. It's an interesting time to be alive...
So why are people upset at Beyoncé and why does this matter?
Well, African traditions, the Black culture and identity of the African diaspora are often suppressed or exaggerated for the entertainment of Europeans. In this climate, an interest in Black culture isn't always good news for Black creatives.
Take literature. Many Black writers want to write normal characters who happen to be Black and not have their Blackness drive the novel. If we're only allowed one story then the 'Kings & Queens in Africa' tale gets old fast. Many Black people are tired of being seen as magical, strong, exotic. Anything but humans with nuanced experiences, fears, hopes and desires.
In light of this, Beyoncé has been called out for alleged "appropriation" and "Black capitalist exploitation." All from a trailer.
The feeling can be that under the White gaze, Black people are only of value if kings. The ordinary Black person is valuable only in as far as they can create economic value. The royalty myth can be exhausting and patronising. But it's also liberating and important for many.
Whilst many criticise the "Wakandafication of the continent" and worry rightly that their culture is being commodified, others celebrate the high profile celebration of a plethora of Black cultures in a major moment for the culture.
Afrofuturism bridges the quandary. It allows Black creatives a new type of freedom. Afrofutrism celebrates African heritage and royalty and moves beyond that. For many, creating and consuming art within the Afrofuturistic space is therapeutic.
Beyoncé has upset some people with Black is King. But she’s uplifted many more.
Many Black people don't know where in Africa they fit, but they feel a connection. People were forcibly taken from their lands through narrow passages such as the "door of no return" in Ghana's Elmina castle. Records were destroyed. Intricately braided hairstyles giving cultural stories were shaved. Names were changed and enslaved people beaten for daring to speak their native tongue. Black is King addresses this but moves beyond the tragedy.
When disconnected to culture, we tell ourselves stories about our origins and that’s okay. It’s not denial. Most know they weren’t kings. But when fed lies that you were all criminals, that you’re nothing, that the British empire saved you from scratching your fleas in mud huts... finding royalty within is empowering. Nobody is hurt by that imagining.
For centuries Blackness has been synonymous with criminality, danger & stupidity in a way that has stopped Black people feeling at home anywhere. Too Black for here. Too western for there. This is the context into which Beyoncé opens Black is King with: "You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let Black be synonymous with glory."
Beyoncé spoke up about her “passion project,” so there's no need to guess her motives. She said it was intended as a companion piece to The Lion King: The Gift but, “the events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant, as people across the world embark on a historic journey. We are all in search of safety and light. Many of us want change. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books.” She explains her goal is "to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message [about] what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.”
Afrofuturism does this. Black people are repeatedly told we have no past. Through Afrofuturism we boldly take the best of our murky intertwined cultures and create a strong future.
The merging of cultures in Black is King is a beautiful piece of Afrofuturism, something historically and contemporarily common. I worked in Ghana many summers during my teens and grew up enjoying a celebration of Jamaican culture on the beaches, seeing Nigerian inspiration behind iconic buildings in our skyline and enjoying much cultural mixing in Accra in a way that only strengthened my pride in my Ghanaian identity.
In Black to the Future, Mark Derry asked: "Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers ― white to a man ― who have engineered our collective fantasies?"
Afrofuturism addresses these questions in beautiful ways. As I finish the edits on my work in progress, a novel expanded from a short story set in Ghana, I recall almost giving up. Whilst writing I heard about and read (and loved) Children of Blood & Bone. I temporarily scrapped my project because it felt there was only space for one African themed SFF genre novel at a time. Now, I'm tired of that. This is the story I want to tell. Black is King may just be my soundtrack for finishing the book. It feels apt for these times.
As I edit, I think of K-pop and the importance of Korean people finding pride in their identity after centuries of oppression. That energy empowers many. In fact, I originally found the recent political use of K-pop strange... Now I get it. The energy is the same. I expect similar from Afrofuturism as the genre gains mainstream support and enthusiasm.
So, as a Black British Ghanaian Dutch women, proudly African in my identity, I'm excited to watch Black is King. I'm excited for all Afrofuturism and I love seeing it become Afro-nowism as a friend of mine recently coined.
The culturally rich and technologically innovative hope inherent to Afrofuturism is welcome. There's room for varied reimagining of African futures.
"We need images of tomorrow and our people need them more than most." - Samuel R. Delany