The Data Thief Discovering Afrofuturism
John Akomfrah’s 1995 film titled The Last Angel of History is essentially a 45-minute-long montage that goes into depth on the origins and significance of the topic of Afrofuturism with a sci-fi spin on things. In between interview clips with many important figures to the African diaspora, Akomfrah incorporates a narrative that follows the “Data Thief”, a man from the 200 years into the future who travels through space and time in search of a code that holds the key to his future by finding the crossroads where a secret black technology was discovered. We know this technology to be the Blues, which is a genre that is considered the musical origin to many different genres. The Data Thief is tasked to do an archeological dig for these fragments of technology, to find and solve this code to receive the key to his future. He was given one clue, the phrase “Mothership Connection.” This clue connected the narrative to the interview portion of the film, because “Mothership Connection” is the title of George Clinton’s Afrofuturistic album. I believe the reason Akomfrah turned his documentary into a montage in this way because it makes the film itself a piece of Afrofuturistic art instead of just simply talking about what inspires Afrofuturism. It demonstrates in between the interviews what exactly the topic of discussion looks like. I think it also simultaneously helps define Afrofuturism, since it is common for people to ask for an example when learning about something new to grasp a better understanding of the thing.
Afrofuturism is a genre of speculative fiction, but the difference between it and other areas of science fiction is that there it has an eye for social justice. It allows black people to think creatively and imagine themselves futures where they are the ones at the forefront leading the attack on an alien army or discovering new lands. It is meant to transform how black people are seen and imagined by focusing on the subjectivities of their identities and getting to know them outside of their trauma and past. Greg Tate was one of the guests in The Last Angel of History and author of “Kalahari Hopscotch, or Notes toward a Twenty-Volume Afrocentric Futurist Manifesto,” in which he wrote, “For those of a progressive bent, Black music — electronic freedom jazz especially — Black feminist literature, and dub wise reggae became beacons of infinite, transdimensional creative possibility, options and outlets which superseded the demise of the Black Power movement” (pg. 332). This was essentially what The Last Angel of History was about, as all of the people interviewed were Black creatives. A jazz artist with one of the biggest influences on the genre of Afrofuturism would be Sun Ra, a figure talked about both in the film and in Tate’s writing. Sun Ra was a very famous musician in the 50’s known for linking the African American experience with Ancient Egypt and outer space. In the film’s narrative, the Data Thief asks Sun Ra and Lee Perry, another influential musician, for the secret of the Mothership Connection, and he tells us they said “Our music is a mirror of the Universe. We explore the future through music.” These two along with Clinton all used spaceships as vehicles to express their idea of exploration, Lee Perry in reggae, George Clinton in funk, and Sun Ra in Jazz.
“The Data Thief knows there is a connection between music, space, and the future.” — The Last Angel of History
From what I’ve gathered from the film, Afrofuturism is a way for Black people to escape their trauma by imagining a future that isn’t affected by it. However, this does not mean history isn’t important, in fact I think that says the exact opposite. The creation of Afrofuturism can be pointed to wanting to erase their past, if just for a moment. Something that spurs on the urge to create something new is still an important piece of the puzzle. Tate writes that what Black Futurists from the 60’s and 70’s envisioned was something more apocalyptic than utopic (he reasons this to be because of the political culture at the time) and you can see this demonstrated in Sun Ra. A famous quote from the musician is, “It’s already after the end of the world — don’t you know that yet?” (The Data Thief hears this being repeated by a woman as he is venturing through history), which Tate references in the seventeenth note, stating it goes hand in hand with a quote from Professor Griff, “Armageddon has been in effect — go get a late pass.” Tate also writes in the same note, “Sun Ra envisioned no difference between a Paradise Lost for African people and a transdimensional intergalactic African utopia. Both were dream worlds where Black people wouldn’t be lynched by hordes of white nuclear families…” (pg.336). This apocalyptic view can be entirely due to the influence of history, and if anyone is confused why a group of people who had been so scarred by the trauma of their history would want to envision an apocalyptic future, well, I’d say don’t be. I can understand maybe wanting to imagine an apocalyptic future that you get to save, that you can control.
“Black Futurism is, simply put, how human truths crushed to Earth rose to engage in symbolic warfare in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries of this Common Era. How a mutating nation of nobodies turned into more than the punch line of a brilliantly ironic Bert Williams song. By seeing institutional exclusion, hyperinvisibility, and massive social erasure not as impediments but as incitements, Black Futurist avatars are inspired to repurpose oppression and re-create the world anew every Goddamn day. Racism understood as a series of epic-making and epochal opportunities.” — Tate, section Thirteen
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, ‘The Father of Futurism,’ in his “Manifesto of Futurism” published in a newspaper in 1909, discusses the desire he shares with his fellow futurists to abandon the past and embrace the future. Marinetti was calling to destroy museums and libraries, places that held a lot of past and history within them, and to fight what he deemed “opportunist and utilitarian cowardice,” like morality and feminism. When it comes to Afrofuturism, I don’t see the exact same desire. We see in The Last Angel of History how the Data Thief travels through time and space observing history in order to find the key he is looking for. Akomfrah uses historical images and clips in his montage just flickering by as the Data Thief goes through it all. Marinetti would probably want the Data Thief to destroy all that instead of digging through it, but I don’t think Afrofuturists have the same goal as Marinetti might have intended. Tate tells us in the section of his text labeled Twenty-Five that, “Black Futurism recognizes the origins of Human Language, Consciousness, art, music, and spirituality among our oldest chromosome-dated human ancestors, the Khoisan people of the Kalahari,” (which I think goes hand-in-hand with what Kodwo Eshun, one of the writers featured in the film, describes the connection referenced in Clinton’s album to be– “a link between Africa as a lost continent in the past and between Africa as an alien future.”) and in the same section, “The history of Black Futurism is not shy about reclaiming the pyramids nor the great wall in Zimbabwe nor any of the Milotic valley cultures that produced the Cushite Empire, the Nubian kingdoms, and Pharaonic Egypt,” (pg. 388) thus confirming that instead of destroying history, Afrofuturism must acknowledge and connect with it. Tate does not think of Afrofuturism as about just the future or just the past, instead he sees it as nonlinear. The past is free to be reimagined as the future if wanted. I think this is seen in Akomfrah’s Data Thief narrative, as by the end we are told that the Data Thief gives up his right to exist in his time, thus allowing him to continue traveling between the old and new worlds but never to be a part of either. In the film there is a long discussion of technology and its influence on the development of music, and it is mentioned that since technology is capable of taking from different eras of music, time is then irrelevant. Both instances tell me that Akomfrah is in agreeance with Tate.
“Black Futurism is a temporally troubled matrix that thrives on opposites and oppositions, flowing lines and nonlinearity, conflict resolution and asymmetrical warfare. It prefers the mad dash on shifting sands while in pursuit of higher ground and safe havens. Such are the creative benefits bestowed on Black Futurism by the implosive depths of Black trauma, Black liminality, and the sharp edges of Black transcendentalism,” — Tate, section Thirteen