Afrofuturism can be credited to literary greats like Octavia Butler and visual artists like Basquiat. These artists used their mediums to explore a revolutionary world where black characters controlled their own destinies. Musicians from the late 20th century like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Afrika Bambaataa melded the themes of space, alter egos and black culture into a musical and fashion style that was pioneering for the time. Even artists not typically associated with Afrofuturism can be seen borrowing from this “other reality” aesthetic through their fashion sense and visual representations.
Take, for example, Michael Jackson’s music; it screams of Afrofuturism. In “Rock With You," Jackson gleamed in metallics; and throughout the video “Scream," Janet Jackson and Michael went full-on gravity-defying space travel. Even Michael’s signature moonwalking had a “Jetson” future-world feel, with M.J. somehow floating backward and leaning as if on strings, while the rest of us could only take a few steps back and forth to the rhythm.
While Afrofuturism began as a literary means of exploring the current issues facing members of the African Diaspora and reimagining a different future, this fantastical concept has made its way into the visual aesthetics of many of our greatest fashion icons.
Grace Jones has embodied the ideals of Afrofuturism in her style. Often donning elaborate headpieces, dramatic eye makeup and exaggerated silhouettes, she offered an alternate representation of black femininity and fashion. In reimagining the possibilities of black identity and governance over our own bodies and minds, Afrofuturism was definitely part of this new narrative. Jones has unapologetically owned her choice of expression when it comes to her body and her sexuality. Just as Afrofuturism is about envisioning a future without mental slavery or physical trauma, it is also about the ability to embrace ourselves and black expression, and to exist in a utopia that will eventually become reality.
Janelle Monáe has introduced the concept of Afrofuturism to the current generation. Her android character narrowly escaping destruction for refusing to conform, while in search of a freedom to exist, draws parallels to the current social climate for people of color. But beyond this space-age story, Monáe has used her style to open up discussion about public perception and its connection to black gender norms. Often dressed in menswear-inspired, tailored suiting, Monáe presents a look that has challenged mainstream media’s definition of what it is to be pretty and feminine.
This has opened up the space for other black artists, like Jaden Smith, to create a new mainstream when it comes to gender-bending fashion. While many other cultures embrace a unisex style standard, Smith has received backlash for blurring the lines of cisgender norms by wearing skirts and dresses. Choosing the connection between your identity and your expression of selfhood is a freedom yet to be obtained by many people of color, many times because of rigid intercultural perceptions.
Many scenes from the visual album for Beyoncé’s Lemonade have been labeled as representations of an Afrocentric future. We see a world that is populated only by black women wearing their natural hair, communing in trees and wide-open fields, and working as a collective to gather food.
While these visuals may not be rooted in space travel or overtly fantastical scenery, like other examples of Afrofuturism, the idea of Afrocentric feminism dominating culture is an actuality yet to be realized. Existing in a society where black standards of beauty are not only celebrated but also revered speaks to the lack of representation in our current reality as a double minority and can feel just as fictional as time travel or alter egos. This matriarchal civilization, free from expectations or conflict, presents an opportunity for black women to see themselves in positions of prestige and power in our version of the future.
In many ways, living in peace and harmony is so far from the present reality for us that the thought and representation of this is Afrofuturistic. The idea of black people communing with nature and embodying our own, natural standards of beauty moves from just a nice thought into Afrofuturistic territory.
Fashion took cues from this concept of reimagining a reality for people of color and evolved into a space where there are no boundaries for black fashion; our Afros are one with the galaxies, our children are carefree and unique, our men and women are creating individual identities and seeing themselves represented in all aspects of society. Many current depictions of Afrofuturism show black models wearing historically African prints and silhouettes. We have been taken so far from an Afrocentric culture that emulating the attire of our shared heritage is our version of a utopian future.
Afrofuturistic fashion tells the narrative of our collective hopes for the future, where our representation is widespread and we have the ability to define ourselves. The current trend of Afrofuturism in fashion shows that our wildest dreams of a black future are to regain a connection to our ancestors—to exist in a world with peace and cooperation. It is about creating a new identity rather than the one that has been given to (or taken away from) us by society.
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.