AN UNDERGROUND SPACE SHUTTLE GOING NORTH
by the nth digri
While recording the seminal collection of African Canadian spoken word poetry and music, WordLife Tales of the Underground Griots, I brought an album by comedian Godfrey Cambridge to a basement recording studio in Whitby. Sheldon Moore
(aka S-luv of the Pocketdwellers), scratched a line from the comedy vinyl into a beat he had produced. That line – “a train going north” – became the title of the lead-off track for WordLife. I later found out that Cambridge had lived for some time, during his childhood, in Nova Scotia, and that his parents emigrated from the Caribbean. And, I read that he had died on the set of a TV movie in which he was to portray Idi Amin. I also saw that, among his many TV and film roles, he was acclaimed for his performance in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery directed by Steven Spielberg
The oddness of an African American with a name sounding like some British aristocrat was enough, in and of itself, to endear me to Cambridge, but the confluence of ideas and incidents, in his life story, that somehow linked Amin, Sydney, Serling and Guyana, sealed the deal! The Spielberg link was also major in elevating his coolness factor in my eyes: I was a big fan of Poltergeist, ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and just about any other Spielberg production of that era. This was a natural extension of my reading preferences growing up, which included, most notably, authors like Phillip K Dick, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, and Octavia Butler. And that brings us to the hotly contested topic of Afrofuturism.
African American myth contains a view of Canada as a type of sanctuary. A very cold sanctuary, true, but a flight to Canada, as Ishmael Reed so wryly referenced in his book by the same name, was a fugitive’s escape to freedom. In fact, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is often cited as the historical source of Canada’s refugee policy, at least the more humanitarian-minded side of it, on-again off-again, to be sure. And, any liberation struggle is bound to be hotly contested. Afrofuturism represents a next level of flight, if you will. But 2001 A Space Odyssey and a myriad of other science fiction movies showed us that only white mankind would star in the giant leap outside the atmosphere
of our home planet.
Of the few token Blacks in major Hollywood productions, like the haplessly jungle-fevered Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in TV’s Star Trek or James Earl Jones voicing the villainous Darth Vader in the 1977 movie Star Wars, my personal favourite was Yaphet Kotto, who appeared two years later in Ridley Scott’s grimy film, Alien. Kotto’s Parker actually battled (and lost to, both on screen and an on the set in a real life wrestling match, by all accounts) another actor of West African heritage, namely Bolaji Badejo. A 19-year old graphic design student from Nigeria, the slender, 7-foot Bedejo was the man behind the Alien costume. Interestingly enough, his brother’s name was Boyega, the surname of another brother more recently in space, namely John Boyega, aka Finn of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Boyega’s response to the bigoted trolls who urged boycotts of Star Wars VIII was simultaneously hilarious yet dead serious: “I just don’t get it… You guys got every single alien in this movie imaginable to man – with tentacles, five eyes. Aliens that, if they existed, we’d definitely have an issue… Yet what you want to do is fixate on another human being’s color.”
While such a fixation may be somewhat curious, it is no mystery that, in the sci-fi genre, ‘alien invasions’ were often a superficial metaphor for the Red Scare of McCarthyism. But, underneath that, there were four to five centuries of loaded ‘otherness,’ central to Europe’s myth of racial dominance, in its view of peoples east, west and south. This dehumanization served the purpose of the colonial wars nations like Spain, England and France waged in invading much of the planet. Thus, the name of the Star Trek ship, the Enterprise, echoed the name of the commercial/military mission of King Ferdinand and Columbus in their bid to claim the prize of the New World: the Enterprise of the Indies
By flipping the script to self-position as not just object or side-kick, but protagonist , – perhaps as a Black astronaut like Trini-Canadian MC, Manchilde, in the music video
Back Again, or as a military leader like Montrealer Andy Bradshaw’s Sharp in his Recon movies – it is hardly a revelation that the central idea behind Afrofuturism should be perceived, in the zombified minds of racists, as threatening. But, even some Black visual artists appear hesitant to associate themselves with Afrofuturism. Since it is a movement often linked with visual-based artistic practices, this might seem strange. On the website iafrofuturism.com, filmmaker and author
Ytasha L. Womack, states the following definition:
Comprising elements of the avant-garde, science fiction, cutting-edge hip-hop, black comix, and graphic novels, Afrofuturism spans both underground and mainstream pop culture. With a twofold aim to entertain and enlighten, Afrofuturists strive to break down racial, ethnic, and all social limitations to empower and free individuals to be themselves.
Of course, few artists like being easily pigeon-holed in this or that aesthetic category. But, I suspect the ‘pop culture’ aspect may partially explain this hesitance, given that many of the genres connected with Afrofuturism, and with science fiction/speculative fiction, on the whole, have often been perceived as less serious artistic forms. In actuality, visual artists often linked with Canada’s growing Afrofuturism movement, like Toronto’s Danilo McCallum and Quentin VerCetty, or Ottawa’s Kalkidan Assefa and Komi Olaf, are thoughtful artists whose work show not only innovation, but artistic excellence and dedication to their craft.
McCallum, since 2013, has held an annual series of ‘Black Future Month’ shows which explore the past and present experiences of people of African descent, as well as future possibilities. In a recent Toronto Star article, McCallum defined Afrofuturism as imagining a future free from oppression, and as a reflection of “where our psyches are at and how far we can stretch in terms of creating optimistic black images.” Canadian artists like McCallum have extended their focus into the realm of community and political activism, their gaze trained not just on the stars, but also on current issues and hard realities. Assefa and collaborator Allan André famously stimulated dialogue in their tribute to Sandra Bland painted on the tech wall in Ottawa in July 2015, a mural that was defaced shortly after a Black Lives Matter message on the same wall was similarly defaced.
McCallum, since 2013, has held an annual series of ‘Black Future Month’ shows which explore the past and present experiences of people of African descent, as well as future possibilities. In a recent Toronto Star article, McCallum defined Afrofuturism as imagining a future free from oppression, and as a reflection of “where our psyches are at and how far we can stretch in terms of creating optimistic black images.” Canadian artists like McCallum have extended their focus into the realm of community and political activism, their gaze trained not just on the stars, but also on current issues and hard realities. Assefa and collaborator Andre Allan famously stimulated dialogue in their tribute to Sandra Bland painted on the tech wall in Ottawa in July 2015, a mural that was defaced shortly after a Black Lives Matter message on the same wall was similarly defaced.
For his part, Quentin VerCetty, a newly appointed art educator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has stirred things up further in organizing BSAM Toronto in October 2016. BSAM stands for the Black Speculative Arts Movement, a year long, traveling Afrofuturism, comics, film, and art convention held in universities and colleges. The organization is based in Detroit, and was founded by Dr. Reynaldo Anderson and Maia ‘Crown’ Williams. BSAM Toronto 2016 was the first such event in Canada, and was held, fittingly, at the OCAD University (formerly the Ontario College of Art and Design). While BSAM embraces Afrofuturism, Afro-surrealism, black science fiction and magical realism, the common thread, according to the organization’s website, is “a shared commitment to centre black experience and the importance of black people defining their past, present and future on their own terms.” Recent cultural works that are often cited to illustrate this idea, that offer “imaginative and often surreal possibilities of what is to come” include Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyonce’s Lemonade and Donald Glover’s Atlanta.
I met Quentin several years ago in Lillian Allen‘s creative writing course at OCAD, when the renowned dub poet invited me to give a guest presentation. Allen’s Juno-award winning records include Conditions Critical, which features remarkable cover art with a street art and magic realism flavor. VerCetty cited the Dub Poets Collective, Fresh Arts, and the Rastafarian community in his thoughts on the distinctions of BSAM in the Canadian context: “The main reason I wanted to bring (BSAM) to Toronto is because I realized that the Caribbean influence was missing… Also a pan-African perspective was missing and a narrative that’s not rooted in slavery.”
Toronto is now well known worldwide to music fans, thanks to the phenomenal success of hip-hop/R&B/dancehall-influenced artists like Drake, the Weeknd, and PartyNextDoor. No wonder, then, that BSAM should find fertile soil in Canada, as a key facet of Afrofuturism is its connection to hip-hop. As the artistic god-sons and god-daughters of the likes of Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, and Afrika Bambaataa, MCs like the Wu Tang Clan not only pushed the Mothership into new galaxies, musically speaking, but let the cover art of their LPs – like Denys Cowan’s design for the classic Liquid Swords – speak to both their love of comic book art and their speculative imagining of Black chess pieces come to life as sword-wielding warriors.
As Mark Rockeymoore (aka ‘Rahkyt’) writes on afrofuturism.net, one reason for this linkage is Hip Hop’s critical stance as a “post-modern deconstruction of a Western European meta-narrative,” that exemplifies “the effect upon the individual of societal ills that are now global in scope.” This critique was evident in the emergence of the Afrofuturism listerv, created by Alondra Nelson and Paul D. Miller in 1998. As Rockeymoore notes, underneath the “vigorous debates, expositions of consciousness, collaborations and intellectualisms lay an underlying strata of vast potentiality and possibility, made manifest through the broad and open genres of science and speculative fiction.” This movement was represented by “black authors, academics, Hip Hop headz and performers alike, all sharing a similar fascination with futuristic themes and expressions of modern societal tropes under the guise of the fantastic.”
The striking work of Montreal artist Maliciouz is a Canadian-based example of this linkage, specifically between Afrofuturism and one of the most loved – and, in turn, hated – of hip- hop’s elements: graffiti. I think my House of PainT people, who run that tremendously entertaining annual festival in Ottawa in late August, might agree that of these four elements (the others being DJing, MCing, and breaking), graffiti is probably the most fundamental. On Maliciouz’ website, one can see just how strongly graffiti influences the work of this artist of Haitian background, which resonates with the energy of Basquiat in pieces such as Typical Negus and street art style in pieces like De Mont Royal à Kenscoff. Indeed, her mural on de Boisbriand (between de Bullion and Hôtel-de-Ville), created for the Under Pressure street art festival in 2016, was cited as one of the best murals in Montreal on the wall2wallmtl website. The site lists a top 100 of graffiti pieces, as well as a top 100 murals, one of the signs of a booming and tourism-attracting street art movement, of which LA, Miami, New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Sao Paulo, Bogota, and Montreal are notable centres.
Writers of science fiction and speculative fiction were among the earliest and most central instigators of contemporary futurism, and Octavia Butler, with her mind-blowing series of Patternist novels, was one of the major voices of a growing number of authors of African descent to break the glass ceiling of an industry dominated by white male writers. Bias in the publishing world may have been one answer to the question Mark Dery posed in his ground-breaking 1994 essay, Black to the Future, when he asked “Why do so few African Americans write science fiction?” Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Steve Barnes, and Charles Saunders, were the only names Dery could come up with, at the time. Even so, magic realism was certainly alive and well in books by Black writers, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) being one of the best known examples. And, best-selling novelist Walter Mosely, though better known for his detective books, has published science fiction writing as far back as 1998’s Blue Light.
It was around the mid-90’s that I became acquainted, through the Ottawa-based cadre of spoken word poets, writers and activists known as the Young Poets of the Revolution, with the work of one Malcolm Azania, otherwise known as Minister Faust. And 1995 was the setting for his funny, action-packed, and most definitely Afrofuturistic novel – set in Edmonton, Alberta, of all places – The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. Published by Del Ray in 2004, the novel was one of a number of publications by this prolific radio host, journalist, blogger and poet, whose words and musical selections can be heard on the show MF Galaxy on CJSR FM.
2004 was also the year I met the incredibly talented Nalo Hopkinson, a pan-Caribbean (Guyana/Trinidad/Jamaica) artist who came to Canada in 1977 and published her first major novel, Brown Girl in the Ring,
in 1998. This novel, and others that followed – like Midnight Robber (2000) and The Salt Roads (2003) – formed a captivating blend, in a magic realism style, of dystopian Toronto and West Indian landscapes with folk elements so many of us of Caribbean background came up hearing from our parents in humourous moral tales and somewhat nightmarish bedtime stories. Anansi, the Douen, La Diablesse, jumbies and others were also what I call ‘deflections’ of a West African heritage, telling bits of cultural code half-remembered through the violence and post-traumatic stress of centuries of brutal oppression and colonial brainwashing. Wielded in the work of Hopkinson, they become mythic against the background, for example, of apocalyptic visions of Canada’s biggest city.
Hopkinson’s novels are really the first instance I recall of reading about characters in a speculative fiction novel with whom I shared not only a set of specific cultural references but also a familiarity with the same urban neighbourhoods I roamed while living in the 6ix; not to mention, as a Jimi Hendrix fan, my delight in seeing his guitar personified as one of her characters! It is, I think, this joy in seeing oneself reflected as central in an imagined future, in a richness of dimension, which is at the heart of the Afrofuturism movement. It is not just about ancient kemetic science, robots that speak ebonics, or space shuttles painted in kente patterns. But if I ever get a chance to ride such a shuttle, I won’t hotly contest at all – especially if it’s northward bound and underground!
About the author
The nth digri is a spoken word artist, writer, and arts activist. He organized the legendary Ottawa spoken word series, Golden Star Lounge, and is a co-founder of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. He has been recognized with awards by both
the CFSW, VerseFest and Kola literary journal for his contributions to Canadian spoken word poetry, and he has traveled to the Caribbean, USA, and Africa to perform and conduct workshops. His most recent book is a collection of poetry and fiction, Sirius Ting, and his most recent record is the music/poetry LP, South is North. As part of the artist collective, the Northern Griots Network, he is helping to organize the VISUAL17E OTTAWA project.