Black history meets Afrofuturism at Carnegie Hall

In partnership with Afrofuturist scholars and over 70 organizations, the iconic concert hall will produce a citywide, over-80 event festival from February through April.

As the saying goes, you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. But while February is the annual month America reflects on the innumerable contributions and achievements of its Black citizens, it is also an ideal time for those of us within the community to forecast and fantasize about what a Black future might look like.

Art: Manzel Bowman (screenshot: Carnegie Hall/YouTube)

This year, New York’s famed Carnegie Hall is joining in that fantastic voyage, launching the Afrofuturism Festival on Friday, Feb. 12. The festivities—which will take place citywide with satellite events in other locales such as Chicago—will kick off with a headlining performance by Grammy Award-winning artist Flying Lotus.

From February through April, there will be over 80 additional live and virtual events, spanning performances, exhibitions, talks, film screenings, online offerings, and more. The Afrofuturism Festival is produced in partnership with over 70 leading cultural institutions, including the Apollo Theater, Harlem Stage and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

What is Afrofuturism?

“Afrofuturism is still undefined, meaning it’s still quite energetic and quite powerful,” noted scholar Louis Chude-Sokei, a member of the festival’s Afrofuturism Curatorial Council.

As defined by Mark Dery, the cultural critic who coined the term in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future” and also consulted on Carnegie Hall’s slate of events, Afrofuturism is “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of the twentieth century technoculture—and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” (h/t Pratt Institute Libraries).

Dery was specifically referring to written work, but in the intervening years, the concept and the genres it encompasses have become much broader and amorphous, embodying the full breadth of what Blackness can be.

Author Ytasha Womack, also on the festival’s Curatorial Council, explained this during a 2017 talk at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.

“Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. Black cultural lens means the people of the African continent in addition to the Diaspora, the Americas, Europe, etc. It is an artistic aesthetic, but also a kind of method of self-liberation or self-healing. It can be part of critical race theory and in other respects its an epistemology as well. It intersects the imagination, technology, Black culture, liberation, and mysticism. An an artistic aesthetic it bridges literature, music, visual arts, film, and dance. As a mode of self-healing and self-liberation, it’s the use of imagination that is most significant because it helps people to transform their circumstances. Imagining oneself in the future creates agency and it’s significant because historically people of African descent were not always incorporated into many of the storylines about the future.”

Credit: Pratt Institute Libraries

A press release shared a little of what Afrofuturism Festival audiences can expect:

“At Carnegie Hall, festival concerts by celebrated artists in February and March explore Afrofuturism’s boundless sonic essence through jazz, funk, R&B, Afrobeat, hip-hop, electronic music, and more. In addition, education and social impact programming and special events created by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute invite New Yorkers of all ages to consider the infinite possibilities of Afrofuturism.

Credit: Carnegie Hall

“In developing this festival over the past several years, it’s been exciting to see how Afrofuturism embraces such a diverse array of art forms and the intrinsic role it plays in pop culture,” said Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, Clive Gillinson.

“With the incredibly valuable guidance of our Afrofuturism Curatorial Council and in collaboration with our festival partners, we look forward to taking audiences on a vivid journey into this forward-looking theme…With Afrofuturism, we invite people to join us on a journey of discovery, to be inspired, and to imagine new and empowering visions of the future.”

Screenshot: Carnegie Hall/YouTube

Carnegie Hall also teased several upcoming events on the program:

February 17 – Sun Ra Arkestra with special guests Kelsey Lu and Moor Mother. Blending jazz and blues with electronic influences, these true pioneers of Afrofuturism carry on the vision and spirit of their late founder, Sun Ra. Joining the Arkestra are two equally prolific guests who carry on Sun Ra’s torch.

February 19 – Black Feminist Futures. The Black Feminist Futures series features programs that highlight the powerful and long-standing relationship between Afrofuturism and Black feminism. Presented by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the programs include Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Sheree Renée Thomas, Tananarive Due, Andrea Hairston, Dacia Polk, Tanya Denise Fields, Dr. LaWana Richmond, and more as part of the Schomburg Center’s 10th Annual Black Comic Book Festival.

February 21 – Jubilee for a New Vision—A Celebration of Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Artists. For this festival event, Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, Ayla Xuan Chi Sullivan, and Roger Q. Mason of the New Visions Fellowship—a new initiative of National Queer Theater and the Dramatists Guild of America—showcase excerpts from new works that amplify the trans and gender non-conforming experience in scene, song, and performance that envision Black Futures.

March 4 – Chimurenga Renaissance and Fatoumata Diawara. Comprised of Tendai “Baba” Maraire and guitarist Hussein Kalonji, Chimurenga Renaissance brilliantly blends experimental hip-hop with traditional African music to create a captivating and consistently surprising “trans-Atlantic mélange.” Also featured is Grammy Award-nominated singer, songwriter, and actress Fatoumata Diawara—one of the most relevant female voices of the new generation of African artists.

March 9 – Afrofuturist Cinema:The Expanded Universe. Black Metropolis: 30 Years of Afrofuturism, Comics, Music, Animation, Decapitated Chickens, Heroes, Villains, and Negroes is a feature-length documentary on the life and career of “OG Afrofuturist” Tim Fielder. Presented by the New York Film Academy, the documentary is available to watch in person or online, and features revealing interviews with groundbreaking cultural critics, Afrofuturists, colleagues. 

Credit: Carnegie Hall.

“Audiences should look forward to being transformed,” said Womack in the festival’s promotional video. “They should look forward to feeling both a deeper sense of self and a sense of being connected to a larger universe.”

The  Afrofuturism Festival will run from Feb. 12 through April 10. For more information, visit the event page on the Carnegie Hall website.

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in the fashion and entertainment industries, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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