In October 2017, I saw Solange in concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She was touring in support of her then-new album, A Seat at the Table. One of the opening acts was the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Ten or so people walked onstage with glittering Afrocentric capes and multicolored hats and crowns. Once they were all in position, the band launched into a set of experimental free jazz. I had never seen anyone like them.
On my subway ride back from the show, I began to research and learned that, along with George Clinton, the Arkestra (founded by the late Sun Ra) was one of the first bands to center their work in Afrofuturism.
As author Ytasha L. Womack says in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture: “The space theme was more than just a kooky gimmick to play off the space age. […] The costumes served as a visual tool to stimulate higher thinking and to prepare audiences for something new.”
The more I read, the more I recognized Afrofuturism as a movement, a lens, a theory from which to critique the way black lives and stories often play out in the Western cannon as tragedies. From music and literature to medicine and technology, Afrofuturism exists as both an internal and external challenge. Often when no one wants to imagine any kind of positive future, one has to be radical enough to create that future into existence for their own damn self.
Imagining futures into realities is a practice that has increasingly brought storytelling and blackness to the fore. As Womack writes, “Black identity does not have to be a negotiation with awful stereotypes, a dystopian view of the race, an abysmal sense of powerlessness, or a reckoning for hard realities. Fatalism is not a synonym for Blackness.” In other words, we live with the grief of inequity, but it cannot cover the beauty, joy, and pride of who we are despite it.
Weeks ago, I set out to interview three great artists about Afrofuturism in music and fashion for this article. I had lined up questions and defined terms. It was set to be so good. But something kept gnawing at me. Once I’d had conversations with these artists, it dawned on me that the label of “Afrofuturism,” though emancipating in many ways, is just another classification through which I could neatly categorize their art and style. The truths I found in their perspectives were much more intricate than anything I could consent to label, however casually.
This got me thinking about how, despite our best efforts, the dignity and complexity of humanness is often a privilege rarely afforded to non-white people. In Sister Outsider, “black, lesbian, mother, poet” Audre Lorde states it plainly: “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as a meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying other parts of self.”
In Lorde’s mind, no single aspect of someone’s nature should be cleaved off in favor of another. Fragmentation of self is ultimately a death to self.
Lorde’s own way out of the fishbowl was to decidedly reject all externally imposed definitions. She favored instead the integration of those seemingly disparate parts of herself into a continuous action verb, a self-ness—a daily practice of consciously celebrating all aspects of the self as whole and valid, even if others attempt to minimize and erase it.
I found a similar ethos in my interviews with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Tanika Charles, and Pierre Kwenders. Scott’s latest album draws on West African rhythms of his ancestors, while Charles’ new songs are a celebration of the collective power of women and girls. Kwenders, whose given name is José Luis Modabi, performs space-pop in his alter-ego persona. Because these artists shake off labels at every turn, a kind of freedom occurs wherein everything is narratively and sonically allowed.
Amalgams of Space and Time: Pierre Kwenders
“I think I know more about the empires of the Western world than the empires in Africa, which is funny,” Pierre Kwenders, who is Congolese Québécois, reflects from his home in Montréal. “It was like homework to myself to go and find out more about my culture.”
Kwenders’ most recent album, MAKANDA at the End of Space the Beginning of Time, features futuristic soundscapes over 909 drum machine beats and horn lines. He raps and sings hooks in four languages including Lingala, a Bantu language from the Congo region. The album surfs seamlessly through funk, Afro-pop, trance, hip-hop, and Congolese soukous and rumba.
This convergence of musical styles was purposeful. “I want people to see Africa in it but also to see everything else that was inspired by Africa and went somewhere else—but still feels the connection with Africa,” he explains.
When I ask Kwenders whether he is an Afrofuturist, he is reticent: “When I start limiting myself to one genre, it gets boring. It’s like anything—when you do the same thing over and over again, you get bored and there’s no challenge. That’s why I like to touch everything.”
Kwenders’ vision for MAKANDA was “to blend everything from everywhere,” a challenge he and producer Tendai Maraire (Shabazz Palaces) felt ambitious about, both coming from Africa and growing up in North America. “My plan was really to build a bridge with the rest of the world. It’s kind of Wakanda-esque.”
Wakanda is the fictional African nation in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s record-setting 2018 film based on the Marvel superhero comic of the same name. Both MAKANDA and Black Panther came out at around the same time.
“I didn’t even know that the movie was coming,” Kwenders says. “But there was something about the album that felt like we were playing around with time and space at the same time. And that’s what we’ve been doing for years.”
I can understand the comparison. From Ruth E. Carter’s Oscar-winning Maasai, Xhosa, and Tuareg-inspired costume design to Hannah Beachler’s production design, Black Panther showcases seemingly infinite versions of black self-actualization rarely seen onscreen. MAKANDA uses the same touchstones of authenticity, like Kwenders and Tendai are finding the joyful extravagance of combining so many genres into something entirely other, sending the listener off to float around in time and space.
But nowhere does Kwenders live this joyful extravagance more than in his fashion. Onstage, his vibrant aesthetic invokes comparisons to predecessors like Fela Kuti and Prince. He is bold with color and print and wears heavily patterned shirts and pants, checkered jackets, soccer jerseys, and monochrome suits paired with gold earrings. Through all of this, one item remains conspicuously constant: his signature leopard-print pillbox hat.
Though the hat has many iterations, Kwenders was originally inspired by the cap worn by the chef coutumier/chef du village—the elected captain of the village, or as Kwenders puts it, “the one you go to when there are problems.” It’s both a nod to his home and the power of heritage.
“It will always be part of my outfit regardless of where I play because that tells people where I’m from,” he says. “The fact that I’m Bantu, I’m from Africa—that’s important for me.”
Within this outward manifestation, Kwenders has another ambition: the profound desire to connect with his audience and to encourage them to be as curious about the roots of his fashion as they are his music. “There was glory in Africa—there’s still glory in Africa,” he emphasizes. “If my music can help them find out about it and learn more about Africa, then I’m proud.”
Ancestral Recall: Christian Scott
For Christian Scott, a famed New Orleanian trumpeter, record label owner, and two-time GRAMMY nominee, the process of identity was gradual. He describes a particularly meaningful conversation with jazz guitarist George Benson while supporting him on tour in 2012.
“He said to me, ‘You have to figure out what you want the audience to know about you. You have to figure out what you want to leave them with—the why of it.”
Speaking with me from his home in Los Angeles, Scott marked that moment as a significant shift from tradition to innovation.
“When I listen to my music from 2008, 2010, even 2012, so much of what it is that we’re doing is still centered around creative improvised music in a jazz approach. Once I had this aha moment of speaking with [George Benson], those records after that are more rooted in my actual narrative, in the things that I grew up around.”
Scott’s new direction was simple: to go back to the neighborhood. Scott is Afro-Native American from New Orleans, a city he describes as hybrid of West African culture in America. He is the grandson of legendary Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., and was himself recently made chief.
“There are pictures of me dressed out in full ceremonial regalia when I’m like four years old,” he recalls. “I never connected the fact that what I was doing musically, up until that point, was actually begging for that.”
Eventually the suits and ties were no more. On stage, Scott instead wears Air Jordans and African-print shawls, often with his hair in braids. He adorns himself with elaborate gold rings, necklaces, and earrings. He plays a hybrid instrument of a trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn that he helped design.
“Why should I completely change my look, my style, my hair, all of these things to fit into this chasm, when in my daily life that has nothing to do with how I interact, dress, look, speak?” he asks. “Actually, what makes the most sense is for you to be truthful as possible. And what that in turn ends up looking like is uniqueness, but it’s really you just being willing to be who you are.”
During our conversation, I realize that Scott is trying to communicate beyond genre and aesthetic to something far deeper: his values, which are unwavering. Much of Scott’s life has been about understanding his roots: learning West African rhythms as a toddler, being mentored by uncle and famed saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., and fully immersing himself in the Afro-Native American traditions and rhythms of the Afro-New Orleanian Pow Wow.
Scott is not trying to repudiate these roots as much as he is attempting to incorporate all the meaning he can glean from them while remaining himself. To most listeners, this dual reverence for tradition and innovation mistranslates as a kind of futurism. “For most people, when they’re listening to my records, it’s ‘Oh, you’re moving this forward. This is a new direction.’ But what it actually is, is me embracing the root of who I am.”
Scott’s newest album, Ancestral Recall, is an embodiment of this deep connection to roots. Scott explains the process: “Usually when I compose, what happens, historically, is that I hear the harmony first. I’ll hear the emotive reality in the harmony first, and I’ll build everything around that. With this last record, I started to hear all of the rhythms first. I started to lay out all of these palettes and ideas of how the rhythms could be developed.”
When Scott played some of these new rhythms for Weedie Braimah, a master of the djembe, Braimah was astounded—they were exact replications of various West African rhythms. Scott was equally astounded; the rhythms were unlike any of the Afro-New Orleanian he had grown up playing. Both musicians were unnerved by the coincidence.
“The reason the album is called Ancestral Recall is because that’s the only way I can describe what the fuck was actually happening, because I don’t know those rhythms and I have never been to those places,” Scott explains. “Everyone was like, ‘This is eerie and kind of creepy.’”
With these factors at play, Scott spent a lot of time thinking about the weight of ancestry: “There’s clearly more going on here in terms of the energy of this place than you’re taught to be okay with or accept in Western cultures. What we were tapping into were these sorts of ideas and the beauty and grandeur of your actual connectedness to your past. I wanted to do that in a way that exhibited how regal and dynamic our ancestors actually are, no matter who your ancestors are.”
Compromise for What: Tanika Charles
Soul singer and recent two-time Juno Award nominee Tanika Charles spoke to me from her home in Toronto about her own evolution in the decision to consciously take up space in the Canadian music scene.
“I suppose when I started singing, I used to wear 1950s vintage—the rockabilly style,” she explains. “I put my locs up in victory rolls, and I’d put a flower in my hair, and I’d wear kitten heels. I was comfortable with that style. It was safe, but it was also expected.”
Things changed when she saw Solange’s “Losing You” video. The video features Solange amid Congo’s La Sape, an abbreviation of Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People. Sapeurs are Congolese dandies, elaborately dressed in impeccable suits, vibrant bowties, and scarves, in a larger-than-life high-fashion style.
“I had to do some research because I was obsessed—I couldn’t take my eyes away from the TV,” Charles says. “That led me to looking for local designers to kind of transition what I’m wearing now to what I envision for future shows.”
She connected with Rahyma Awanife, a Nigerian-born designer and owner of Rahyma Sleek, a clothing line featuring African print-patterned jumpsuits, jackets, and dresses. The chemistry was immediate: “Not only does the clothing fit beautifully, but she knows what works with my body. The colors, the styles, the patterns, the silhouettes. And on tour I could wash it because it’s cotton. It just all made sense to go down this path.”
Charles is quick to emphasize that she’s normally afraid of color. “I’m okay wearing black. So when I purchased my first jumpsuit—this purple, crazy-patterned jumpsuit—I thought, I’m just never going to be able to wear this. I love it. I’m going to keep it in my closet.”
Eventually, on a lark, Charles wore the jumpsuit for a show. “I swear it was like I had superpowers. It’s kind of fascinating what clothing can do to and for you.”
Charles’ new sophomore album, The Gumption, has much truth in its name. Her messages are confident, proud, and unapologetic. The beginning of the music video for “Look At Us Now” is poignant: a little black girl sits in a lounge chair outside. Staring directly into the camera, she asks a question Eartha Kitt asked decades before in 1982: “To compromise? What is compromising? Compromising for what? Compromising for what reason? Hahaha, stupid! Hahaha, you must think about that one again. Hahaha!”
The scene shifts into alternating shots of groups of women and girls, with Charles in the middle singing out: “But look at us now/ So happy that we made it/ Look at us now/ Said that we couldn’t/ Look at us now/ I feel so seen.”
“I feel that women are stronger together, and I wanted that to come through in the video,” Charles says. “We’re just not taking any more shit, and the video is a representation that we’re stronger now than ever.”
The video seems a definitive work in Charles’ catalog, a statement along her journey in becoming more and more completely herself every day. Yet, despite this growing empowerment, she worries that speaking out too much on race will inevitably stymie her career in Canada.
“I’ve witnessed a few friends that are in the industry that are very vocal, and I admire them so much, but I also recognize, you know, this person is a fantastic singer, but they’re not really getting a lot of work. When I research what it is that’s keeping them from moving forward in this male, white-driven industry, it’s because they’re talking about the realness of society.”
Aware of the barriers around her, Charles has chosen to affirm her own humanity in another way: her clothing.
“I want to be more outspoken and I want to be more bold. And in that safety of refraining from saying anything that’s too outspoken, I feel like I express that through my clothing and through the way that I perform onstage.
“This is just my statement, my announcement. I’m here. I’m black. This is the music, take it or leave it. And that’s it.”
Histories and Futures
Every time the idea of authentic selfhood arises in my conversations with these three artists, I am reminded of Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” Much of Kwenders’, Scott’s and Charles’ art resides within the desire to express their internal and external realities all at once, to marry those cultural and emotional truths and present them to audiences, hoping some of it will be absorbed and refracted back to them.
So Afrofuturism as an aesthetic may be a thread in the bigger cloth, but what is more evident to me is the singularity of vision these three artists present—their lion-hearted ability to view identity not linearly but kaleidoscopically. They consistently push themselves to hold reverence for their ancestry, all the while challenging us to open our minds and ears, perhaps sensing more understanding for ourselves in the process.
Black History Month can feel like a painful reminder of arrested development—everything we could have done if, say, the Federal Housing Administration had not barred black families from mortgages, or if Dafonte Miller hadn’t been beaten by an off-duty police officer in Ontario, or if Reconstruction had not been met with Jim Crow lynchings, or if the war on drugs had not incarcerated vast amounts of black men, or if the murder rate of black trans women was not seven times higher than the general population. It goes on and on.
I will always urge you to fight for the righting of these wrongs with your pocket, your voice and whatever else is available to you. But here I am advocating for something more: to foster space for black art to be whatever it wants to be, without limit.
In our interviews, I asked Pierre Kwenders, Christian Scott, and Tanika Charles to name three albums they’re listening to.
- Summer Walker – Over It (PK)
- Ari Lennox – Shea Butter Baby (PK)
- Koffi Olomide – Force de Frappe (PK)
- Björk – Vespertine (CS)
- St. Beauty – Running to the Sun (CS)
- Ismael Rivera – A Man and His Music (CS)
- Yola – Walk Through Fire (TC)
- Mac Ayres – Juicebox (TC)
- Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (TC)
Kaia Kater is a Grenadian-Canadian artist and multi-instrumentalist. Her first album for Smithsonian Folkways, Grenades, finds inspiration in her father’s journey from Grenada as a political refugee.