Afrofuturism in the Age of Digital Memory
Written for an Afrofuturism course at the University of Chicago, March 17 2017
A 2017 video on Don Giovanni Records’ YouTube channel opens with a haunting view into a world of shuttered windows and back alley trash. Lit intermittently by pulsing floodlight, the scene is populated only by the visage of a woman swaying, her head down and face covered by tumbling dreads. The text “ M O O R M O T H E R ” flickers and hangs on the screen. Then, the first kick of a splintered beat breaks the home-footage haze and a bitter voice begins to eerily mutter: “I’m right by the light, I’m right by the light, I’m right by the light, I’m right by the light.” Light is a central figure in the work of Camae Ayewa AKA Moor Mother AKA Moor Mother Goddess, as are noise, memory, history, time travel, death, ghosts, and quantum physics. Her sound is in equal parts harsh and atmospheric, mixing synth drones and feedback with affected soundbites and recordings of her own voice; it carries with it the clear vestiges of digital manipulation, noticeable in glitch-like moments and gamey, distorted elements which betray the computational nature of their source. This digital quality, considered in tandem with the futurist aesthetics and philosophies that underscore her lyricism, centers Moor Mother’s work in a decidedly contemporary Afrofuturist project. I am interested in interrogating this digital quality of Moor Mother’s music in light of contemporary developments in black art and theory and especially with respect to the definition and redefinition of Afrofuturism.
It may be tempting to read Ayewa’s harsh electronic noise aesthetic as a crystallization of her rage. But although her contempt for racialized violence-cycles is undeniable, it must be stated that there is more to the noise than simple anger (as is often overlooked in art produced by black women). Ayewa’s use of the digital medium, particularly in her destructive and distortive tendencies, is more than a means of lashing out against hegemonic structures—her work emerges at a decisive moment in the development of new forms of Afrofuturism which are central to black liberation in the digital age. Digital memory has become physically and rhetorically crucial to the construction and processing of history. In response to this, Moor Mother joins a growing body of Afrofuturist work which encourages fluidity between digital and non-digital (e.g. the analog, the spiritual, the metaphysical, the quantum) realms, allowing for nuanced control over the creation, destruction, and interstitial flow of memory.
The present is a contentious time for Afrofuturism. In the last two decades, aesthetics of interest to the Afrofuturists of the 20th century—including space travel, robotics, egyptology, and (post-)apocalypse—have begun to phase into the mainstream as black musicians, actors, and creators gain a tenuous foothold in popular cultural production. Contemporary artists like Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, Kanye West, Stromae, and Erykah Badu have put themselves in conversation with the 20th century futurist theatrics of Patti Labelle, George Clinton, Sun Ra, and Wu Tang. Yet if their clean reception into the ever apolitical mainstream is any indication, these artists have not necessarily engaged in structural reorganizations of digital politics. New methods of music distribution, endemic to the age of social media and data streaming, reflect evolutions in market logics more than evolutions in Afrofuturism thought, and the donning of a cyborgian outfit doesn’t have quite the speculative oomph it used to. Art which reimagines futurism itself in light of the digital, seems to be severely lacking in the limelight.
Radical black writers, thinkers, and artists have noted this lack and responded with a reevaluation of underground art and its role for the current political and cultural moment. Martine Syms’ The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto gives a list of topics she would like to erase from Afrofuturist discourse (“No interstellar travel…No inexplicable end to racism…No aliens unless the connection is distant, difficult, tenuous, and expensive”). She writes that “Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?” In many ways, what was futuristic to past artists—robots, long-distance video communication, vast quantities of digital storage, lightning-fast simulations and computations—has entered reality, moved past novelty, and now sits squarely in mundanity. If the Earth is all we have, as Syms suggests, the advent of global digital culture has ensured that we still have no shortage of futurist material to work with. This blur between mundanity and futurism is a central facet of 21st century Afrofuturism, and something that Moor Mother contends with in her work.
In particular, race dynamics unique to the digital age have begun to be noted by scholars of Afrofuturism. In the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) Manifesto, Reynaldo Anderson introduces “Afrofuturism 2.0,” a concept which he defines as a “twenty-first century technogenesis of Black identity” characterized by “appropriating the influence of network software, database logic, … gender fluidity, posthuman possibility, [and] the speculative sphere with transdisciplinary applications.” The concept of an Afrofuturism 2.0 (a label which self-consciously draws on the language of digital software versioning) identifies a similar phenomenon to that which Syms pushes against: the need for, and emerging presence of, an Afrofuturist discourse that makes creative and multidimensional use of the aspects of digital society which are no longer speculative, but right in front of us.
Moor Mother has contributed to an Afrofuturist manifesto of her own: Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice was published in 2016 by Rasheedah Phillips, a collaborator of Ayewa’s, and features a forward from Ayewa herself. In it, she argues for Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) as a new methodology which ideologically aligns concepts from quantum physics and pan-Africanism in service of black creative projects. In particular, the task of manipulating, creating, and recalling memory is important to the authors, and they seamlessly integrate spiritual, metaphysical, and technical discourses in their discussions of time and thought. This discursive fluidity, part of what was imagined by Syms and Anderson as necessary to new Afrofuturisms, is indicative of what Gascia Ouzounian might call “polyvalent” media structuring, characterized by ”extreme and simultaneous multiplicities, [including] mechanisms of abstraction, coding, structuring, inheritance, and media language and modality” (190). For Ouzounian, polyvalent media “communicate meanings that evade categorization within conventional semiotic and syntactic systems” (191). As an example, Ouzounian describes the use of ghosts and themes of haunting in black literature as a polyvalent practice, where they function as both “plot devices” and “data-recovery devices”—simultaneously literary, cultural, and digital. We see this fluidity at the core of Moor Mother’s Afrofuturist intervention, where genre becomes irrelevant and the complexity of media use necessary to engage with black digital life becomes apparent.
Ayewa’s medium of choice could be broadly defined as electronic noise music. In many ways, it might seem like destruction and distortion are foundational principles here. Her brand of noise draws heavily on the history of industrial and electronic music (edging away from pre-digital Adornian conceptions of noise as produced by physical, analog phenomena), using synthesizers and computers to create screeches, feedback, and other forms of digitally distorted sound. It’s about bending circuits, rerouting electrical information, pushing data through holes too small for it to fit through, and generally sacrificing informational integrity. Along with some new media forms such as glitch art, digital noise music is one of the few media which purposefully erase and distort digital data in order to create meaning.
So what does it mean to be an artist who destroys data in the digital age, when concepts of cultural memory and history are becoming inextricable from their digital counterparts? What does it mean to erase memory in service of a project of remembering? With respect to her own work, Ayewa seems to have an answer; she writes, “I collapse sounds to create a frequency of discord and meditation, a fundamental paradox of pushing through a reality while simultaneously experiencing it” (qtd. in Phillips). This is an evident strength of Moor Mother’s: the ability to experience and make full use of the digital medium while simultaneously pushing through it, undermining it, humbling it. As an artist who simultaneously takes on tasks of data-destruction and data-restoration (both of which could be called a form of “memory processing”), Ayewa does not see a contradiction.
Let us return to the light. Drawing on Ouzounian’s concept of polyvalent media, as well as Anderson’s “Afrofuturism 2.0,” Syms’ mundane Afrofuturism, and Ayewa’s own BQF, we see how the futurist work of Moor Mother is not destructive in the ways we might expect. As part of the new generation of Afrofuturists, Moor Mother contends with digital media as a futurist but also as a realist, a surrealist, a poet, a multimedia artist. Furthermore, she is not simply destructive—she expresses no desire to resist digital culture, but she likewise refuses to be consumed by it. She straddles the line, wielding digitality as deftly as any of her other media; her digital noise is not the corruption of data, but rather the harsh intensity of a light that melts it down into moldable forms, knowing it was always already corrupt.