Nineteen ninety-six was an important year for a black cultural movement that really entered the mainstream in 2018 with the superhero film, Black Panther. The movement is called, of course, Afrofuturism, and the two works in 1996 that helped consolidate its key concepts, concerns, and projects are, one, DJ Spooky's Songs of a Dead Dreamer LP, and, two, John Akomfrah's documentary The Last Angel of History. Both DJ Spooky and Akomfrah speak tonight at Seattle Art Museum to open Akomfrah's SAM exhibit, John Akomfrah: Future History.
Spooky's album imagined a future that was not unlike that which is found in the early novels of the cyberpunk writer William Gibson. Here, the line between biology and technology has been erased. This means that the key concern in Blade Runner, the authenticity of memories, is not an issue at all in Spooky's Songs of a Dead Dreamer. Meat-ware and hard-ware are so thoroughly meshed, their functions and products (memory, thoughts, feelings) have been unified.
Spooky's track "Grapheme"—which is built on a boom-bap hip-hop beat and rises and sprawls with samples that have no source, like memories without originality (in the biological sense of being experimentally grounded)—drifts like the artificial owl that took off at the last dusk in history and surveys a dense megalopolis (or necropolis) whose size is galactic and inhabitants (black, white, brown, what have you) thoroughly re-mixed.
A few months after Songs of a Dead Dreamer was released, Akomfrah (a British Ghanaian artist and filmmaker) completed a 45-minute doc, The Last Angel of History, that provided one of the first serious attempts to make sense of what can be called black science fiction, but, unlike white European or white American science fiction, has its main representational mode in music, such as Detroit techno. Spooky is in this documentary, and so is George Clinton, Derrick May, Octavia Butler, Kodwo Eshun, and Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Nyota Uhura). To miss the substance of The Last Angel of History is also to lose an important link to a number of the sub-themes and visual language of Black Panther. It is precisely this connection, this link, that I critically engaged with in my recent e-flux essay "Which Angel of Death Appears in Afrofuturist Visions of Hi-Tech Black Societies?"