Beyoncé continues to pave innovative paths and set examples for her fellow musicians and performers. The recent release of her visual album “Beyoncé” was the first of its kind. She also recently proclaimed herself as a feminist, standing in front of the word FEMINIST during her performance at the 2014 VMA’s. Though she is known for setting herself apart, she is one of many black pop/hip-hop/R&B artists whom all portray multiple examples of Afrofuturism.
Before learning about Afrofuturism, I had never considered there might be a significant historical connection between the portrayal of futuristic imaginings and some of my favorite black artists like Beyoncé. It is important to understand the context behind this connection as it relevant to slavery, alienation, and liberation.
So what is Afrofuturism? And why is it so heavily portrayed amongst many black artists? The term was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery and was described in the 1990s by Alondra Nelson. “AfroFuturism has emerged as a term of convenience to describe analysis, criticism and cultural production that addresses the intersections between race and technology,” she wrote. “Neither a mantra nor a movement, AfroFuturism is a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between techno culture and black diasporic histories.” 1
Reimaging of early Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation. 2 Ingrid LaFleur, an art curator and Afrofuturist, describes the concept as “Imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens and as a way to encourage, experiment, and reimagine identities and active liberation”. 3
Imagining possible futures cannot take place without remembering the past. In “Further considerations of Afrofuturism”, Kodwo Eshnu proclaims that Afrofuturism reimagines slavery and alienation by using “extraterrestriality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectives”. 4
Although it was only coined in 1993, Afrofuturism is by no means a new idea. It has roots in ancient African culture and its ideals were common amongst Black American activists in the 19th century. 5
Beyoncé has multiple examples of Afrofuturism amongst her arsenal of works. One that is well known, for those who have attended her concerts, is her Sweet Dreams “Interlude” that was played at the beginning of her “I Am…World Tour”.
WATCH: Sweet Dreams Interlude
The video begins with a computerized voice stating; “I am Sasha Fierce” while the noise of a helicopter, a heartbeat, radio static, and sirens chime in the background. Beyoncé then appears as a robot, moving abruptly and mechanically to her song “Sweet Dreams”. She then comes by a cheetah, whom she scans robotically and later morphs into. The setting of the video begins in a harsh snowstorm. As the video progresses, the storm calms and gives way to the beautiful northern lights. I interpret this video as an Afrofuturist feminist critique on women’s strength and their ability to withstand hardship.
The robotic outfit that Beyoncé wears in the music video is very sexy with cut-outs revealing her very shiny midriff and buttocks. The camera is not shy of capturing every sexy robotic move of hers. Afrofuturism is very comfortable with embracing sexiness. 6 It is seen as a non-issue, in comparison to mainstream feminism that is very concerned with the presentation of sexiness.
In many ways, Beyoncé’s character in this music video can be compared to the main character in the movie “Metropolis”, a movie by Fritz Lang that was released in 1927. It is a silent movie film that contains two distinct and separate classes: the workers and the thinkers. The main character, Maria, is a programmed android that corrupts the morals of the workers leading to a revolt. She is charismatic and admired by her fellow workers. This movie is repeatedly echoed in pop culture and by Afrofuturists.
A few other examples of Afrofuturism in Beyoncé’s work include the actual “Sweet Dreams” video, the ever popular “Single Ladies” video, and her performance at the 2007 BET awards.
WATCH: Sweet Dreams
The “Sweet Dreams” video opens with Beyoncé sleeping, apparently in the middle of a nightmare, and then transitions to her dancing in a desert. Near the end of the video she appears in a gold, robotic leotard and dances with stiff, robotic movements that mimic the interlude later used for her “I Am…” tour.
WATCH: Single Ladies
Featured in the song is a distinctly robotic noise that makes up the beat. In the video itself Beyoncé is sporting a robotic hand that she shows off at several points throughout. At the end she flashes her robo-hand and gives the camera a cheeky grin.
The music video for “Diva”, which is featured on the same album as both “Sweet Dreams” and “Single Ladies” (I Am… Sasha Fierce), showcases a very shiny, plastic looking Beyoncé who stands quite still, only moving to jerk or twitch robotically while being surrounded by mannequins. It is quite out of place with the rest of the song which has Beyoncé dancing with swooping arm and leg movements. The video starts with a car full of plastic body parts and ends with Beyoncé blowing the car (and the disfigured mannequins) up without a glance back.
WATCH: Beyonce’s 2007 BET Performance
Beyoncé’s performance of “Get Me Bodied” at the 2007 BET awards may be her most Afrofuturistic performance. The stage lights up with Beyoncé in a full metal suit which slowly opens to reveal her in a much more revealing (but no less robotic) outfit. The live performance is quite different from the music video for the song, which has almost no robotic tones.
Afrofuturism is not a new concept in Beyoncé’s work, but it did pave the way for other artists who incorporated mechanics into their music videos. Shortly after in 2008, Janelle Monae released her video for “Many Moons”, which is actually a very good visual description of the history afrofuturism represents. The video takes place in a world where humanoid robots, who have Monae’s face, exist to serve humans. The video features an auction of said androids while Monae’s alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, performs for the crowd. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” actually served as inspiration for Monae7 and afrofuturism is a driving force behind her craft8.
WATCH: Many Moons
In 2009 both Rihanna and Ciara released music videos that feature futuristic robotic themes: “Umbrella” and “Go Girl”, respectively.
Rihanna in her “Umbrella” video
“Umbrella” transitions from Rihanna loosely dancing in some French lingerie to a shiny, metallic, silver Rihanna whose movements are jolting and mechanic. In “Go Girl” the video shifts from a dominant business woman Ciara to a very robotic Ciara in a suit that mimics Beyoncé’s from the BET awards. “Go Girl” was released two years after the BET performance.
Beyonce at the BET awards & Ciara in “Go Girl”
Three years later, Nicki Minaj and David Guetta release their video for the song “Turn Me On” which literally features the building of an animatronic Minaj. After her creation, the Nicki-android becomes sentient and leaves, wandering around a town of other, less lifelike, more mannequin-looking robots.
WATCH: Turn Me On
Afrofuturism keeps turning up in music videos and performances of black artists and whether it’s a solely aesthetic decision, or a conscious metaphor for everything Afrofuturism represents, is ever up for interpretation and discussion. Either way, it is being effectively used and wielded by these artists. Some white artists have toyed with futuristic and robot themes in their videos and photoshoots, but their images have not been as influential or given as much attention as the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Janelle Monae, Ciara, or Nicki Minaj.
The historical background of Afrofuturism cannot be ignored. The aforementioned artists have helped bring the topic to the forefront of social conscious by incorporating it into their art. Beyoncé continues to pave the way for Afrofuturism and it does not seem she will be stopping anytime soon. Or at least, we hope she doesn’t.
1. Weblog entry on “A Notebook on Afrofuturism,” Cultural Font Blog, Posted April 14, 2012, http://www.culturalfront.org/2012/04/notebook-on-afrofuturism.html. Accessed 29 March 2015.
2. Ytasha Womack. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago Review Press, 2013), 9.
4. Kodwo Eshun. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturists,” The New Centennial Review 3, no 2 (2003): 287.
5. Alley Pezanoski, Weblog entry on “Interview with Ytasha Womack on Afrofuturism and the world of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy”, bitchmedia, Posted November 18, 2013, http://bitchmagazine.org/post/interview-with-ytasha-womack-on-afrofuturism-and-the-world-of-black-sci-fi-and-fantasy, accessed 29 March 2015.
7. Dorian Lynskey, “Janelle Monae: sister from another planet”, The Guardian, August 26, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/aug/26/janelle-monae-sister-another-planet. Accessed 29 March 2015.
8. Daylanna K. English and Alvin Kim, “Now We Want Our Funk Cut: Janelle Monae’s Neo-Afrofuturism”, American Studies (00263079). Vol. 52 no. 4 (2013): 218.