An Afrofuturism festival brings an energy shift to Carnegie Hall

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An Afrofuturism festival brings an energy shift to Carnegie Hall
The trumpeter Theo Croker performs during Carnegie Hall’s inaugural Afrofuturism festival, in New York, March 26, 2022. The inaugural event explored a movement about denial and transcendence in the most institutional music hall in New York City. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK, NY.- The first time Sun Ra and his Arkestra played Carnegie Hall, in April 1968, they were shrouded in darkness for most of the show. The critic John S. Wilson, reviewing for The New York Times, was flummoxed. Wilson considered himself a Sun Ra fan, but he couldn’t fathom why, on the country’s most prestigious stage, the cosmic keyboardist, bandleader and philosopher was keeping his ensemble’s wondrous “array of odd instruments” and “colorful costumes” out of view.

The messages in Ra’s music, and his riddle-like public statements, could have helped Wilson understand. “​​On this planet, it seems, it has been very difficult for me to do and be of the possible things,” Ra said in an interview for DownBeat magazine in 1970. “As I look at the world today and its events and the harvest of possible things, I like the idea of the impossible more and more.” Perhaps the most appealing impossibility, for Ra, was to escape — to disappear.

The Arkestra returned to Carnegie Hall in February, almost three decades after Ra’s death, to help kick-start the hall’s first-ever Afrofuturism festival, a series of concerts on its major stages, with satellite events held in smaller venues across New York, around the country and online. Those programs included screenings of sci-fi films made by Black directors, comics lectures and panels on social theory.

All tied back to Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that mixes realistic racial pessimism with audacious fantasy, and that holds an increasingly prominent place in culture today. Afrofuturism picks up on a more than century-old mode in Black American art: fusing the tools of sci-fi and surrealism with the histories and belief systems of African societies, particularly in Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, in search of new models.

“You can call Afrofuturism the high culture of the African diaspora right now,” Reynaldo Anderson, a Temple University scholar and a co-founder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement, said. He was on the five-person committee of scholars and artists that curated the festival, and he sounded well aware of the inherent contradictions of trying to bring a movement about denial and transcendence into the most institutional music hall in New York City.

“The Carnegie function is going to be remembered as bringing all those threads together at a mainstream institution,” he said. “I think we made the argument successfully.”

That’s partly because the artists they chose knew how to treat reclamation as a viable alternative to escape. Camae Ayewa, a speculative poet and electronic musician who performs as Moor Mother, sat in with the Arkestra toward the end of its set. “I was never here,” she recited, invoking Ra, over the large ensemble’s turbid, thumping swing. “From 1619 to Wakanda, I don’t exist/Whose map is this? Whose timeline?”

Then she issued a warning, seemingly to herself: “Don’t be truth in front of the vultures/Don’t be truth in Carnegie Hall.”

The festival’s performances were stacked with moments like this: disruptions of the space, caught between gratitude and suspicion. All the performers seemed sincerely thrilled to be there, and nearly all of them went out of their way to say how welcomed they had been by the staff and the curators. Most also expressed a kind of surprise.

Fatoumata Diawara, the incendiary Malian vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, headlined a bill in Zankel Hall that also featured Chimurenga Renaissance, a transnational band mixing hip-hop, lounge music, Zimbabwean protest songs and Afrobeats. Diawara and her five-piece band administered energy to the room as an undiluted concentrate, playing distorted, tension-ratcheting desert blues and dance music from the West African coast.

Her songs are mostly in Bambara, which she sings over tightly riveted rhythms drawn from the Wassoulou region of Mali or the highlife tradition of Ghana. She, too, insisted on the right to remain partly unknown. “Many people told me, ‘Why don’t you sing in English?’” she mused between songs. “I don’t need to sing in English to connect with you guys!” A roar rose up to agree, but the point was already proved.

Diawara did one song in English: “Sinnerman,” the old spiritual and Nina Simone staple. By the time the quintet reached a canter, many in the crowd had stood up to dance, and those still in their seats seemed to have loosened up completely. It rearranged the energy in the room, made it unrulier. Not long after, in an encore, she pulled up about 10 audience members to dance with her, and the disarray spread to the stage.

There was nothing blatantly futuristic about Diawara’s performance, and she was one of a few artists on the bill who have not made a point of nominally affiliating themselves with Afrofuturism. But it felt unbounded, in a way that made you think about how tightly energy like this is often asked to be kept in when it’s not onstage.

By contrast, flutist Nicole Mitchell often does compose for her Black Earth Ensemble with the science-fiction writings of Octavia Butler in mind. Mitchell and her band gave one of the most consistently breathtaking performances of the festival. Mixing Mitchell’s streaked, blustery flute and echoing effects with the inchoate, chewed-up speech sounds of Mankwe Ndosi; the earthy, shifting beats of drummer Avreeayl Ra; and the contributions of a small crowd of acoustic instrumentalists, this was music with drive and narrative of its own, but it seemed to make every move in anticipation of something far grander to come. That grand thing never quite arrived, which also felt right.

Detroit techno luminary Carl Craig led a group that included four fellow synthesizer artists and a concert pianist, all playing together, and just about everything they did was grandiose. He leaned into fan favorites from the 1990s, and delivered a key insight during his stage banter: Most of the beats he made as a young person, he said, were crafted with the idea that they might one day become the soundtrack to a “Blade Runner” movie.

Opening the festival on Feb. 12, Flying Lotus, who may be Craig’s best-known heir, played a sold-out show at the nearly 3,000-seat Stern Auditorium, flanked by harpist Brandee Younger and violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Draped in a white robe, and huddled over what looked like an ice sculpture crowned with a laptop, he ran through new and old material, heaving from agitated beats to wide-open airscapes that the three musicians gradually curved and bent. Abstract projections crawled across the ceiling; the elegant molding overhead became electric goo.

The term “Afrofuturism” was coined by the (white) cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993, the year Ra died, in a series of interviews he had conducted with Black writers: Samuel R. Delany, a novelist; Tricia Rose, a hip-hop scholar; and Greg Tate, a music and cultural critic. Those interviews, for a special edition of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly, are revealing in a number of ways. In them, Dery framed the proposition of Afrofuturism as a conundrum. “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” he wondered.

But Tate — an expert across the fields of jazz, film, comics, Black history and cultural studies — countered, pointing out, “You can be backward-looking and forward-thinking at the same time.” In fact, that very action sits at the center of Black cultural practice, especially in music. “I see science fiction as continuing a vein of philosophical inquiry and technological speculation that begins with the Egyptians and their incredibly detailed meditations on life after death,” Tate said.

Tate’s sudden death in December at 64 sent a chill through the world of arts and letters. Writing since the early 1980s for The Village Voice and other publications, he had been the rare figure who could comfortably present the patois and perspective of everyday Black life to a mainstream (read: white) audience, without any act of translation or dilution. His presence at the festival would have been meaningful.

His shadow loomed generously instead. And for the festival’s closing night on Sunday, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, the genre-stirring big band that Tate co-founded in the late 1990s, played two sets of thrashing, syncopated music: five vocalists, seven horn players, two drummers and two bassists, all in the flow. Bringing the show to a close, guitarist Vernon Reid delivered a last homage to Tate. Reid and the band chanted Tate’s phone number back and forth, and he asked over and over: “Whose band is this?”


Reid continued: “He wanted you to make a sound. If you made a sound from your heart, you were in the Burnt Sugar Band.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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