Feature: Views From The Métropole

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“If your main squeeze has just decided to walk out on you, booze and Vasopressin are the ultimate in masochistic pharmacology; the juice makes you maudlin and the Vasopressin makes you remember, I mean really remember. Clinically they use the stuff to counter senile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses for things.”
– William Gibson, “Burning Chrome” (1982)


Where’s the subaltern in science fiction? Where are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Often, in obscurity. It’s no coincidence that speculative discourse in Euro-America doesn’t challenge but instead reproduces contemporary — and sometimes ancient — socioeconomic, ethnoracial, and geopolitical inequalities, because the past and the future are written to favor the winners of history. Consequently, despite the realities of diaspora and migration, the demographic consequences of colony and empire, and the internal heterogeneity of “culture” that results from these processes, Euro-American constructions the future are pregnant with Asimovian fixations toward space colonies, planetary fiefdoms, and galactic empires sustained by the hard power of rayguns, laserbeams, and toxic masculinity. Unsurprisingly, the serfs of the space age — the denizens of imperialistic futures — feature not.

For its apparent rejection of these sociopolitical reductions, though, the cyberpunk movement has been celebrated since its inception in the 1980s. As Sam Delany points out when he asks “Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?” the movement emphasized “working class heroes [and] the streetwise cynicism of its major and minor characters,” which posited “new, possible relations between science fiction and the world.” Despite that cyberpunk emerged better equipped to address the paranoia of disaffection underpinning the rapid emergence of new technologies in the 1980s, even the prescient hedonism of, say, Philip K. Dick’s narco-securocracies was often conveyed through the eyes of the police, not the policed (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), through culture producers, not culture consumers (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said). So even as the Gibsonian multinational became the contested zone of vicious anti-globalization skepticism, the cyberpunk movement’s characters, subjects, and themes — the alienation of the white, heterosexual “everyman” — was broadly indifferent toward those most exploited and affected by global capitalism, the true deviants of today’s gritty dystopia: the female, the colored, the migrant, and the queer.

In contrast to cyberpunk’s indifference, the Afrofuturism movement — which simmered in the second half of the 20th century and bubbled up in the 90s — take us further into the margins, subversively interpreting the Black experience as a matrix of technological innovation and, concurrently, appraising technology as the instrument of personal reinvention and the rearticulation of ancestral histories that transcend the self. Indeed, in “Black to the Future,” the essay that coined the movement’s name, cultural critic Mark Dery asks: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out… imagine possible futures?” No — if the past is never reclaimed.

But Afrofuturism is concerned with not only the future and the past, but also the future through the past. Although Dery’s original concern was Afrofuturism’s written materials, these dynamics are more salient in the music and visual arts that simultaneously and subsequently emerged. Recognizing that Black bodies have long been the subjects of technology (e.g., the burglary of Henrietta Lacks’s DNA, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment), Afrofuturism’s multimedia narratives transform these bodies into agents in control thereof. Therefore, Dery writes, hip-hop emerges from the “misuse” of turntables, the music paired with moves that are “funky and mechanical at the same time.” And precisely this symbiosis of organic and synthetic motifs captures the Hegelian dialectic embedded in Afrofuturist discourse, where the future corresponds to the synthesis of the unspoiled pre-abduction past (the thesis) and the gruesome post-emancipation present (the antithesis). Hence, Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation hip-hop awareness group — whose name reclaims the past to denote a utopian pan-African ethos — and the eclectic, futuristic-cum-traditional costumes he and his co-performers donned at shows.

Robotic, even. And that’s not a coincidence. We see this motif of organic and synthetic symbiosis repeatedly, both in Rammellzee’s meticulous quasi-mechanistic costume sculptures from the 90s and, more recently, in Janelle Monaé’s Metropolis concept series. For Afrofuturism, the humanoid non-human — the android — posits a future Other against which to examine the past and the present experience of the Black diaspora, drawing a parallel between the slave body subjugated and exploited by colonialism, and the bionic body subjugated and exploited by capitalism. Similarly, just as the android is the subject of empirical knowledge that permits objective deconstruction of its pre-programmed behavior, so the colonial project developed entire scientific disciplines (phrenology, eugenics) and co-opted others (early anthropology) to produce tautological ways of “knowing” the humanoid non-human (i.e., non-White) Other, thereby producing the Foucauldian subject of power that reifies stereotypes and naturalizes the subjugation of peoples.

Working against essentialist discourse about the Black body that proffers its “primitivism” (e.g., racist pseudoscience, sexual objectification, etc.), Afrofuturism seizes, occupies, and transforms hegemonic futures to accentuate the Afrodiasporic subject’s fundamental role in constructing modernity, “recovering the histories of counter-futures” — writes British-Ghanaian critic Kodwo Eshun — “created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic projection.” Drexciya, for example, uses Detroit techno to narrate the duo’s vision of the eponymous underwater metropolis founded by the mutated descendants of slaves thrown overboard throughout the Atlantic slave trade, most notably the Zong massacre. Drexciya synthesizes the future by reconstituting the past, which is disrupted, disturbed, and distorted by the antithetical present. By reclaiming the diaspora’s “rubbed out” past, Afrofuturism more broadly exemplifies how the Hegelian dialectic frames the development of subaltern futurologies in general: our visions of the future, emerging from the continuous opposition between the past and the present — the future of the past — can’t exist when the past itself remains smothered.


Yet even the Afrofuturism movement itself can reproduce entirely new permutations of essentialist discourse about the Black primitive, namely when it doesn’t account for the forking histories of Africa and the African diaspora in Euro-America — a vital distinction, given the importance of the past in constructing the future. Naturally, this is largely because the movement has been strongly rooted in the diasporic experience of African-American and Black British populations. Sure, these groups are rearticulating generationally-retained ontologies to grapple with a history of exploitation similar to that of colonized Africa. (Besides, the African diaspora in the Anglosphere includes significant post-emancipation migrant presence.) Nonetheless — or perhaps consequently — the African continent functions in many Afrofuturist materials as the indexical object of its themes and motifs, summoned and operationalized against hegemonic constructions of the future that emerge in Euro-America even though, crucially, Afrofuturist materials themselves historically emerge in Euro-America. In other words, Afrofuturism itself develops and deploys its own exogenous constructions of Africa; as expected from the condition of its producers, these frame the continent firmly in the past, as the once-was, no-longer.

Consequently, although subaltern constructions of the future reject conformity with the historical trajectory of Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism — which proposes the “end of history,” or the end of the future — many of these counter-futures perpetuate Marxist interpretations of classical social evolution, as they remain embedded within normative constructions of how “the future” — and thereby the past and the present — must look: a world of post-industrial cityscapes in which empirical science is the primary method of knowledge production and “technology” is uniquely derived therefrom, and thus synonymous with electronics, material commodities, economic wealth, and ultimately power.

Which is consequential. Returning to early science fiction, hegemonic constructions of the future are distinguished not via the fundamental restructuring of sociopolitical hierarchies, but via the development of increasingly complex technologies operated toward maintaining those inequalities. Afrofuturism offers a multiplicity of heterogenous spaces to excavate and interrogate these inequalities toward transforming discourse about the future. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s graphic novel Black Panther (2016) suggests, for example, that contemporary issues as police brutality — in its recognizably American form — aren’t impossible even in the African utopia of Wakanda. But crucially, the historico-geographically specific themes relating to the diaspora in Euro-America that permeate many notable Afrofuturist materials is a double-edged sword, because the indexical relationship toward Africa (i.e. the continent’s function as passive symbolic object rather than active generative agent) jeopardizes the movement’s capacity to usefully comment on the future of African peoples themselves versus that of the diaspora uniquely.

Therefore, one must understand Afrofuturism as a per se diasporic futurology. Euro-America can’t become the generative setting of subaltern futurologies about the African continent itself, because the diasporic past and the native past — opposed to the diasporic present and the native present — produce different visions of the future. And these differences are important. Ignoring them distorts the empowering movement into a Spivakian obfuscation — even appropriation — of subaltern voices, because African futurologies intrinsically reject “Africa” as a homogenizing construct and embrace the historico-geographic hyper-specificities from which their materials emerge and against which they are mobilized. Indeed, the category of “African” futurologies is merely a heterogenous convention, as futurologies that emerge in Africa are similar to each other precisely in that they are distinct; similar themes notwithstanding, there are distinct Tanzanian futurologies (e.g., singeli), Cameroonian futurologies (e.g., makossa), Ethiopian futurologies (e.g., Ethiopiyawi), and so forth.

And that’s precisely because these futurologies — specifically as articulated through music — leverage native ontologies to challenge situated post-colonial inequalities domestically and, by extension, subvert essentialist discourse internationally. Unfortunately, these counter-hegemonic futures remain uninteresting to and misunderstood by most outside listeners precisely because they torpedo exogenous constructions of Africa and Euro-American expectations of what Africa’s future could, would, and should become. Kodwo Eshun captures the nature of this rejection during an interview with Hampshire College’s Christopher Cox:

As soon as the work throws up a dimension of optical fugitivity, in other words, as soon as the work cannot immediately be read as belonging to what people recognize is African-American legibility, then suddenly it disappears, whereas actually it is exactly that work that is most compelling precisely because it blocks legibility so you can’t easily read it in terms of the identity of the person who is making it. [Emphasis mine.]

Of course, Eshun is discussing Afrodiasporic works, yet the same can be said of native African works. Not unlike Edward Said’s Orient, the “Africa” that Euro-America constructs is necessarily a continent stuck in the past — even outside of time — that emerges when Euro-America maps its own history onto the Other, fixating on African expressions of the Euro-American past (e.g., hunger, poverty, disease) and prescribing African implementation of the Euro-American future (e.g., electronics, urbanization, capitalism). Naturally, both of these tendencies presuppose that “technology” — the ostensibly Euro-American innovation — is both antonymous with the past and synonymous with the future, a narrow interpretation that exposes an imperialist discomfort: Because the Africa of the Euro-American imagination essentially declares independence when it develops subaltern constructions of the future in which the native is the agent that constructs modernity, Euro-America in turn re-colonizes Africa’s future with hegemonic constructions that produce the native subject of modernity, which ends with the passive adoption of technologies that increasingly render the continent structurally Euro-American. By thus colonizing Africa’s future, Euro-America neutralizes the agency of the Other and mitigates the threat of its Otherness itself.

Such discourse produces an antithetical relationship between Africa and modernity. Justifying his antipathy toward computers during an interview with Wired, for example, Brian Eno famously opined that “the problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them.” Eno’s characterization results from the negation of African settings as matrices of technological generativity, underscoring the “optical fugitivity” of technology that doesn’t emerge in Euro-America. Ironically, it’s taken decades of American and British researchers, particularly under mathematician Ron Eglash, to excavate technologies that their empires themselves had buried: to demonstrate that geomancy functions as binary code, which became Boolean algebra, which became the digital computer; or that various settlement types across Africa are organized in complex fractal patterns; or that corn-rows are programmable recursive patterns (i.e., fractals) that can function as pedagogical tools in STEM fields. Eshun’s optical fugitivity refers to Afrofuturist materials that block identification and demonstrate complexity, and consequently aren’t understood as Black. But the optical fugitivity of these technologies — and African futurologies more broadly — operates in reverse: they’re identifiable as African, and therefore not as complex, technological, or futuristic.

Nonetheless, many African futurologies reject the sociocultural sterility of hegemonic futures and accentuate rather than obscure the ethnic hyper-specificities out of which they emerge.

DJ Nigga Fox

Take kuduro. Originally a marginal genre, kuduro emerges in urban Angola during a period of radical sociopolitical transformations. It’s Luanda in the 1980s, and the Angolan Civil War ravages the country not long after independence from Portugal ousted some of the continent’s last invaders. Naturally, the violence causes many Angolans to flee the country, seeking asylum in Portugal. Among those who stay, physical wounds tattoo the urban tissue with infirmities that recall the conflict; if not you, someone you know. Of course, this complicates dancing.

Although genealogically rooted in Angolan semba, kizomba, and tarraxinha, kuduro traditionally samples the Caribbean genres of zouk and soca, plotting them on a hyperactive 4/4 beat that rejects the four-on-the-floor conventions of the house music to which it’s commonly compared. Indeed, the distinctive choreography that emerges alongside kuduro is entirely unlike anything Rust Belt clubs ever produced. Surely that’s due to kuduro’s fast pace and oblique rhythms, but these choreographies aren’t sociopolitically insignificant; they chart the topography of violence on the body itself with spasmodic movements that embody the frailty of a war-torn, incapacitated society.

By deconstructing and reconfiguring the music of the past, which is then operated to subvert contemporary discourse of the body through the body, music producers synthesize subaltern constructions of the future through the past-present dialectic and therefore exact agency from the urban margins through kuduro — a distinctly Angolan futurology. Even with the genre’s dash into the regional mainstream in the 2000s — and confident steps into the global — various aspects of its original marginality remain important today, as they preserve spaces that foster subversive discourse in otherwise authoritarian contexts. Indeed, one of the genre’s most prominent figures is Titica, a chart-topping transgender woman whose uncompromising, transgressive aesthetic unsettles normative sexuality in a country where homosexual behavior is punishable with hard labor.

Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that new articulations of kuduro are transforming space itself — outside of Angola. Within a dozen years of the war’s end, migrant communities deep within Lisbon’s bairros sociais — ghettos now populated with many second-generation Angolans — have established an exclave of calor humano that isn’t just about hospitality but circulates the heat of the body in movement. What’s surfaced in the shantytown clubs, the block parties, and the reverb in the alleys that cut between knolls of squatter housing doesn’t have a name. Lately, some know it as batida; for many, it’s forever been kuduro. Only its acoustic instability is certain, as “ghetto kuduro” emerges from the hyper-specific context of Angolan migration and reflects the precarity of its creators, who reverse the pathways of European colonialism by rejecting assimilation, mobilizing identities, and occupying the Portuguese metropole with sounds that aren’t just conventionally Angolan, but fundamentally modern.

If the word “ghetto” here seems coarse, the scene’s frequent use of the term self-consciously indexes Black African identities, subverting the term’s negative connotation by transforming these identities themselves into sources of pride rather than sociopolitical stigmata. Hence the movement’s founding document: the DJ’s Do Guetto (“DJs of the Ghetto”) mixtape, which the eponymous crew released in 2006. By unambiguously situating the aesthetic in the ghetto, these producers conjure kuduro’s marginal origins and salvage subaltern Black spaces as matrices of technological generativity, reimagining modernity itself as the receptacle of African identity and thereby negating the antithetical relationship thereof, produced by Euro-American futurist discourse. Accordingly, some DJs have referred explicitly to kuduro aurality as a venue of transnational placemaking. In his debut record’s liner notes, former crew member DJ N.K. says of producing DJ Do Guetto (2016), “I try to transport myself to the desert through my music so I can feel my tribal roots through my veins.” Noticeably, the forebears’ motherland (the thesis) and the migrants’ ghetto (the antithesis) coexist — are synthesized — in the liminal futures that kuduro constructs.

But “ghetto” isn’t the only term that’s been reclaimed. If one traces the scene’s genealogy sufficiently into the past, the mythic DJ Marfox — another founding member of the crew — is undoubtedly among its earliest, most significant ancestors. Hence the homages embedded in many producer’s pseudonyms: DJ Lycox, DJ Fofuxo, DJ Lilocox and, of course, the irreverent DJ Nigga Fox.

DJ Nigga Fox is among the most prominent associates of Príncipe Discos, itself the most prominent kuduro record label out of the Lisbon ghetto; he’s released a handful of EPs and performs regularly at Noite Príncipe, the label’s trademark monthly music event, held in Lisbon proper. However, following the unexpected surge in the scene’s international popularity circa 2013, Warp Records gathered DJ Nigga Fox and other kuduro producers to release the CARGAA 1 EP (2015). Warp has since signed DJ Nigga Fox, who made his debut with the Crânio EP, released in early March.

It’s meaningless to express that the feverishly lush and intoxicating rhythms on Crânio take the scene to new, unexplored regions. Perhaps unlike other insular music scenes, the Lisbon kuduro arena involves producers with exceedingly differentiated styles, among whom DJ Nigga Fox is surely one of the most oblique. Not just that: as the haunting opener “Sinistro” suggests, the regions Crânio explores are unequivocally dark spaces, saturated with atmospheres that underscore the precarity of the contexts from which they emerge — indeed, Black spaces. In fact, if describing the sinister aesthetic as “voodoo” seems improper, the track “KRK” overtly signals the krik-krak invocation of Haitian storytelling. And the image of a red snake wrapped around a female body — evoking the fraught symbiosis of strength and menace fixed in the body in movement — may well represent Mami Wata.

On Crânio, these fraught symbioses are key, as sinister atmospheres communicate the volatile reconciliation between the Black subaltern and modernity. It’s a futuristic account precisely in that it recognizes that, as Eshun insightfully points out, “Afrodiasporic subjects live the estrangement that science-fiction writers envision.” Indeed, Crânio’s menacing undertones construct a unique dystopian vision that emerges from the hyper-specific marginality of the Angolan migrant in the Lisbon ghetto.

Príncipe Discos’s co-founder Pedro Gomes remembers the caution he exercised during the scene’s foundational years to minimize the industry’s influence — his own — upon the groundbreaking music then only beginning to emerge in the ghetto. “If the music didn’t keep its qualities intact, it would be colonized,” he told Pitchfork. He’s absolutely correct. And yet, as the scene expands, the exact opposite is perhaps now true: to seek to preserve one construction of what Lisbon kuduro is risks essentializing its agenda, ossifying its aesthetics, and stifling its development.

And that’s a major risk. DJ Nigga Fox — even the brief Crânio itself — demonstrates the inevitable heterogeneity of even the most insular scenes. At the same time, heterogeneity implies an internal variety of types, each type static, defined by a granularity of discrete traits. In other words, we can say that, sonically, as a genre, kuduro is a heterogeneous category of diverse styles. But phenomenologically, as a futurology, kuduro cannot be described in those terms; a futurology cannot be heterogeneous because static aesthetic typologies cannot properly contain a process, something that is constantly in motion. And, if nothing else, we can say that kuduro is constantly in motion.

And that’s key to what sets kuduro and other African futurologies apart from hegemonic futuristic art: there’s an inherent dialectic process of future construction that rejects — indeed challenges — the thematic rigidity of most traditional science fiction or mainstream electronic music. Unlike kuduro, these non-generative aesthetics are interested merely in upholding the present status quo and extrapolating it unto the future; they don’t undergo or initiate a process. Consequently, they are not futurologies, precisely because they are not in motion.

Naturally, then, kuduro cannot be understood on their terms — on static terms. So, sure, we can say that contemporary kuduro is a characteristically Angolan subaltern futurology rearticulated in Portugal toward the subversion of Euro-American discourse about the future of “Africa” and the paradox of Black modernity. We can say that, despite their common goals, this African futurology is distinct from mainstream Afrofuturism since the continent plays an active agent role rather than a passive object one; far more than the Africa in Afrofuturism, indeed, the Africa in Lisbon kuduro is imminent, in motion.

But when it comes to kuduro as futurology, a static declarative statement is — and can only ever be — a statement about the past, about what kuduro has been. Conversely, the present can only be understood in action — action through which the community speaks, theorizes through music: kuduro remembers the past, kuduro interprets the present, kuduro imagines the future. Which is to say: who cares about what kuduro is? What matters, ultimately, is what kuduro does.

And what it does is Crânio — and it’s pretty fucking awesome.