Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi & Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (Oct 2013) www.iafrofuturism.com
Adilifu Nama is a Loyola Marymount Professor, author and organizer of the Astroblackness Conference in Los Angeles, Feb 12-13, 2014. He organized the affair with professor/artist John Jennings.
Ytasha: Why did you create the Astroblackness Conference?
Adilifu: I couldn’t really find any type of official gathering that dealt with Afrofuturism beyond a strictly theoretical position. Some dealt with it as artist but not in an academic way. Then most of the events were on the east coast and the northeast. The last one I knew on the west coast was Black to the Future which was 15 years ago. Within that framework, I thought it would be nice to get these folk who are dealing with Afrofuturism, or are at the margins of what blackness is; this group needs to deal with itself and its ideas internally before someone comes and defines it for this group. And I say this as a person who is included in the Afrofuturist family. It surprised me that academics would site me as an Afrofuturist from my book Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film and Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. People began to link my name with Afrofuturism. I don’t have a problem with that. But I wondered if I can be so easily included, then the boundaries of that aesthetic are very porous and loose. But a way to define it more distinctly is to bring in artists, writers and scholars. Let’s bring this group together and see what happens.
Ytasha: What was the significance of having a conference like this in Los Angeles? To me, it seemed symbolic.
Adilifu: It has the potential to be quite significant. If there is a place that can offer an alternative to blackness, I would think the left coast, particularly Los Angeles being this dream factory, La La land could be it. Specifically since California is seen as an imaginary place where people can reimagine themselves and have this dream life. When we talk about dreams, imagination and fantasy, certainly Afrofuturism dovetails through all of that. There is a good match between the elements of the field and the popular construction of California and Los Angeles specifically.
Ytasha: How so?
Adilifu: The whole film industry which is an imaginative industry into itself, for one. We have these iconic, symbolic reference points for Los Angeles as a reimagining of possibility. Within the Astroblackness, we had people who were in the industry. It’s ironic how difficult it is for an industry that is based on all things imaginative but has a difficulty imaging black people.
Ytasha: How did the term “Astroblackness” unfold?
Adilifu: I recently told John let’s do one titled Afrofuturism. John Jennings, the tactful person that he is said it’s too much on the nose. I went back, maybe some insights were beamed down from Saturn and I said what would be the next iteration of blackness? Astroblackness. All of those futuristic things that astro signifies, it’s a modernist twist on what the future would be. For me coming out of science fiction, it was a good prefix for blackness. I came back with that title and John said that’s it. Then he came back on me and he said Sun Ra, that’s one of his songs. So that’s the story of Astroblackness
Ytasha: What were some of your greatest insights from the conference?
Adilifu: For me it was the synergy that was most important for me. The narrative that I use to talk about Astroblackness and how that came about, for example. John pushed me further. When I had Astroblackness, then he came up with the tag the “Universe is in our Voice.” That’s articulated from Sun Ra. It’s through that exchange that the graphic art work was created. That became a calling card. For me, it was that process that I was looking to catch on, too. So when I saw the interaction between Dr. Scot Brown and Gabriel Solis for the [music] panel you moderated, I don’t think they ever talked prior to the panel. But being in that space there was an interaction between them that took jazz and funk to another register as well as your moderation. That’s an interaction that’s something that needs to continue. That helps to fortify the field. It helps to fortify Afrofuturism, Astroblackness.
Ytasha: Why is this synergy important?
Adilifu: I want people to come out from behind the digital mask and come out from behind the digital cloak and reassert their material self in the world of ideas. Let’s deal with those tensions in a more sincere and upfront way. At the end of the day, we are black folk. We are African Americans, black folk in America have had to always reconstruct community because community has always been attacked or subverted. There has been a way for the internet to reconnect community, but it can be problematic as well. We come out of our digital shells and we see what we can do here and now, face to face with an opportunity to expand on those 140 characters.
So that was the challenge; for people who say they sound good on Facebook, and now you’re in front of your peers and you have to engage questions and ideas. I see Astroblackness as a stage to see if the wizard can really perform wizardry. I felt this was a proving ground to show those who can, and those who need to go back and work on that some more.
I’m very much about real cats into real things. That’s a jazz aesthetic. You can’t come into a jam session that’s open and you put up some weak phrasing and real corny riffs. They might take your instrument from you. You can’t go to a mike in a cipher and you can’t rhyme; dudes might beat you up. That’s the realness. We have a history of being very serious about our aesthetic. If you’re not serious and up to it we’re about letting you know it for your own good. The aesthetic is one of show and prove.
Ytasha: What insights did you gain from the panels?
Adilifu: The panel I moderated (Milestone, Graphic Novels, Animation & Afrofuturism) stood out to me for their honesty around race in Hollywood and trying to get creative projects out there. They were very candid. One of my favorite panels was the funk and jazz panel that you moderated (with Scot Brown of UCLA and Gabriel Solis of U of I). What stood out to me was the range of knowledge and the way in which dance and how people who respond to the music and how they engage with the space of the music for the dancers to do their thing. The space of being, that’s the whole backdrop for the Afrofuturist. To define that space to create something is what Astroblackness is.