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Afrofuturism re-imagines Detroit’s future

Aug 17, 2015

The big thing you need to know about Afrofuturism is that it is joyous and fun and a celebration of the past, present, and future.

Detroit artist Ingrid LaFleur says welcome
Credit Marcelo Lopez-Dinardi

Late last month, three young artists road-tripped from Toronto to Detroit for a weekend festival called Sigi Fest that celebrated Afrofuturism. And they were certainly joyful. 

OK, they were Canadian, so they were also kind and thoughtful and said very nice things about Detroit — including that word on the street in Canada is that Detroit has become a hotbed of creative activity.

The people helping to run the festival had a happy glow — welcoming festival-goers with kind words and a little map of the day’s performances and workshops, along with samples of organic juices from one of the vendors. And so did the artists and activists I interviewed.

So what is Afrofuturism?

An easy way to answer that is to suggest a few artists who are inspired by this cultural aesthetic, which is essentially a way of looking at the future through a black cultural lens.

One of the biggest musicians inspired by Afrofuturism was jazz musician Sun Ra, who told everyone he was from Saturn. His song “Space is the Place" is a great example.

George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were also inspired by Afrofuturism, as was the artist Grace Jones, and science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Afrofuturism is also apparent in the music and performances of younger musicians Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu.

Afrofuturism is a combination of many elements, including science fiction, technology, mysticism, African traditions, and spirituality. It’s had a rich history in Detroit and has helped shape Detroit institutions like Motown and techno.

Ingrid Lafleur is from a younger generation of people inspired by Afrofuturism. She is an artist and art curator and she’s started a group called Afrotopia that hosted the recent Sigi Fest and put on a film festival this past spring. She says the group is about laughing, playing, and being open.

Dancers at Sigi Fest
Credit Marcelo Lopez-Dinardi

“That’s something I keep telling people about Detroit," Lafleur says. "Go to northwest side. Get out of Corktown and midtown and downtown and go into deep blackness. It’s ok, we’re fun! We like to dance. We like to have good, strong conversations, we like authenticity.”

We are all superheroes

The playfulness and creativity inspired by Afrofuturism also helps people address and heal from historical traumas.

“The more I travel the more I realize that the pain I feel as a black American or that collective depression I think is amongst my own community is actually everywhere," Lafleur says. "So when I think of healing the black body, I’m constantly thinking of that indigenous wisdom that resides in our blood and I’m trying to awaken that.”

LaFleur says now is the time to shine as superheroes. In fact, the idea that we all have magical powers and superhero abilities is another belief of Afrofuturism.

And with Afrofuturism, wild creativity can lead to healing, and not just on a personal level.

Ytasha Womack is an author and filmmaker. She says Afrofuturism can help empower people to shape and change the world around them.

Ytasha Womack's upcoming film "Bar Star City" is inspired by Afrofuturism
Credit Rashad Sallee

Flipping the script

And that’s an appealing idea in Detroit – a majority-black city where many African-American residents say their vision for their hometown is not being heard.

“When you look at the concept of how we’re taught to look at the future, oftentimes the assumption has been people of color aren’t in positions to be able to shape the future or shape their realities,” Womack says.

She says you can see that in science fiction, where not many people of color are represented. But Afrofuturism flips the script, and puts brown and black people at the center of the experience.

Womack also says Afrofuturism resonates with people who are looking for hope.

“I think it speaks to people who need to feel encouraged," she says. "To feel like there is a platform to be different and to use their imagination and really follow their own voice.”

In Afrofuturism, everyone’s voice matters. Womack says when a range of perspectives are heard and valued, it makes it possible to move forward, together.