Using a title borrowed from an essay by cultural critic Mark Dery, the Black To The Future Series is a sequence of interviews with artists whose practice has started to define a new generation of work in the realm of AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism. This series has been created to spark conversation, to hear various points of view on something that is constantly changing and transforming, and with the hopes of allowing the practitioners to be at the center of determining what these movements are.
Until now, the artists of the series have discussed their work in the context of AfroSurrealism and AfroFuturism. This week we speak to artist, writer and educator Avery R. Young who introduces a new term that he places his life and practice within–Afro faux.realism. By answering the set of questions crafted for the series that outline my exploration into contemporary interpretations of these frameworks, Avery defines this new concept while also discussing how it aligns with and departs from AfroSurrealism and AfroFuturism, giving us new food for thought. Using the distinct handling of language that Avery is known for, he speaks on the “they” in art, The Jetsons and why if Sun Ra were alive today he might not be a fan of his approach. [Note: If you are easily offended by unrestricted use of language, proceed with caution.]
Tempestt Hazel: Do you define yourself as an AfroFuturist, an AfroSurrealist or both?
Avery R. Young: I be Blk. I hope my work sparks an agency that makes the world aware of presence of afro(d) folk past, present & future. I like to boogie with it all. I wouldn’t consider myself either. I will consider myself fam of both. I am a writer. They both have literary origins and include other mediums. I believe various pieces of my work can fall under either category. But since I don’t consider myself either one, I have deemed myself an afro faux.realist. afro.faux.realism = ery niggga ever. I like to merge past, present & future, as I believe we afro(d) folk be constantly all of these things. I believe when a person encounters anybody, they are face to face with what that person imagines themselves to become, based upon who they are and what they have been through. I know when you meet me you are face to face with the ivory coast, Rick Ross & Rye from Octavia Butler’s Speech Sounds. I am the slave ship, the old Ship of Zion & the Mothership. I dream in Harriet Tubman & thank the God who holds earth, water and sky. I have met George Jetson & his boy Elroy, etc. Whenever I am performing, I feel and see the beginning of time up until tomorrow. Imagination + discipline = FREEDOM. I am a free(r) of myself and hopefully it trickles itself in the ways in which I express myself to convey to others they can be free(rs) too.
TH: How do you define Afrofuturism? AfroSurrealism?
ARY: I don’t define either one. I think that is the problem with folk. They don’t look in dictionaries. A word or term you haven’t made up is a word & a term that already has a definition. You ain’t gotta go get extra with it. I have defined Afro faux.realism because I made it up. When I am looking for the definition for either AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism, I REFER to what the folk who made it up say they are.
TH: How do these concepts influence and manifest themselves in your practice and the form that your work takes?
ARY: I breathe first – art second. I am a cultural sponge. It’s my mutant power. Whatever I encounter, I keep. And that is what you up against if you want to square off with me, jack!
TH: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about Afrofuturism? What are the biggest misconceptions about AfroSurrealism?
Misconceptions derive from people speaking on things they know nothing about. Maybe a misconception of anything with Afro in front of it is that somehow alienates anybody who isn’t AFRO from engaging it. Knowing what I know, everybody got AFRO in them so anybody can engage the work. AFRO just signifies who or what the work comes from, and the future or surreal signifies the direction the work is leading folk to. The here and now or the beyond this realm of reality and into another possibility of us (AFRO folk) in spaces we are made to believe we don’t or shouldn’t exist.
Another misconception is the argument of whether or not AFRO should prefix either or and I say yes and even more yes to AFRO identifying all that is AFRO. Now understand, AFRO is man-made anyway. But wasn’t our hands that made it up. AFRICANS were doing what they did until (in my Last Poets voice) The White Man Came. Instituting AFRO as something that had entered the cosmos. Then these AFRO(d) folk were placed in a land that wouldn’t include them in its pursuit of wealth, power and liberties. These same AFRO(d) folk were bound and buked; free labor stripped of body, tongue and history; they chopped down trees and swung from them; when they were finally released, they didn’t get relieved. No institution is designed to include them except for institutions they create and designate for themselves. Meaning if futurists considered AFRO(d) folk to begin with, there would not be a need for Ebony/Jet, Fire, Soul Train, etc. But because I can look at The Jetsons and know the only thing near a person of color be Rosie (the robot), I must insist that I identify something within the realm of the future and/or now that places me in it.
We AFRO folk live in a country with a black president, but are in engaged in a national conversation about how we scare THEM when we wear a hoodie. And to add salt to the open cut, its justification on whether or not they then feel the need to stand their ground and rid themselves of us. I say this to say “fuk dem n’em.” AFRO is where it’s at. And you gonna have to deal with AFRO in your cereal if it means you are to recognize we beautiful. Everything is made beautiful through art to them, except us.
Which leads me to the biggest misconception, which is that art is “they” shit anyway. Art is us. The babies I work with who don’t go see art or even more sad, recognize the art in which they are because they are made to believe art, galleries, museums and even vegetables be WHITE ONLY. To be fair to white folk, a lot of that shit is on ignorant mothers and fathers and a bunch of white people don’t go to see art.
Which leads me to what we are really discussing is what “art” is. And “art” = Who will pay for this painting? And who will buy this painting if it has AFRO anywhere near it. Who will but it if it doesn’t? My babies don’t know art because it obviously is meant to be engaged by people who can pay for it. And so it is placed in areas or institutions that are accessible to these people. Them people are not about to get in their cars and drive into bullets, niggas and cuss words (and no vegetables) to engage, let alone consume, anything. They most certainly don’t want to purchase anything that reminds them that these places exist. I am not just talking shoot’em up and bang-bang places. Because I came up in a shoot’em up & bang-bang place and I don’t shoot or bang. And I know we AFRO(d) folk wider than that. For them to access this bit of knowledge they have to accept the indictment that none of us are comfortable with – years ago AFRICANS were stolen from their land and now those ghosts fucking with the heads of people who fail to realize only way to get rid of the indictment is to deal with the indictment.
Biggest misconception of AFRO futurism/ surrealism is that the AFRO is meant to indict. AFRO is just to make anyone aware of what beauty lies before them.
TH: Do you remember when you first became aware of Sun-Ra?
ARY: Yep. Space Is The Place the song. Sadar (a house DJ) was playing the song. And people wee dancing to it. I was already dancing so I kept on dancing. And then the words or vibrations penetrated me. there is no limit to the things you can do … Hold me Jesus!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And I know I jumped holy ghost high then and there. I was trying to land in space. A couple days later, I was in Another Level Bookstore and saw the VHS tape. I copped that joint real quick and went about the business of watch the movie. I did. Then, I wanted my own helmet. But as soon as I desired that helmet (the physicality of a helmet), Sun Ra showed up and was like, “nigga, you missing the message. You already have a helmet.” Been aware, influenced and amused by Sun Ra ever since. It takes my auntie to talk about “dat nigga in a dress who be talkin all dat crazy-talk” and she will have you rolling on floor laughing. Some reason or the other she was, and still is, friends with a woman who was dating a musician who had to quit her because he was playing in the Arkestra. She said, “i dont dig no man who will keep another man from him woman & seed. dats a nigga’s future right derr!” Oooo & weeeeee Ain’t that something to put inside your Funk & Wagnalls?
TH: What is it about his philosophy that resonates with you?
I have a strange relationship with Sun Ra. I side with my aunt’s critique of his limited view of women, but I accept it as his philosophy. I am not about to lay down with a woman either, but not because I deem them to block creativity. I believe putting a horn down to engage anybody in an intimate manner will hold off the horn blowing. It ain’t then that person or a woman’s fault that a dude want to dig her like that real quick.
I listen to the dude and believe him don’t fuck with black people. I wont call him disgruntle. But he doesn’t fuck with people who doesn’t agree with him. That form of tyranny I don’t boogie with. But his notion that people are free already and that it’s a matter of understanding that. And understanding that free is a state of being in transport because this world ain’t about freeing folk. I think that’s why folk brand AfroFuturistic. He is talking Science. Yes, he using word like cosmos, interplanetary, etc. But Sun Ra is really talking spiritual edification. He preaching. He Nat Turner. He leading folk to the hallelujah of right now!
This is why I dig him, in spite of the fact in listening to his philosophy, I don’t think he would dig me. I don’t think he would find my kind “disciplined” enough. Maybe he does. And I use the word does because to understand his philosophy is to know he didn’t go anywhere, he just chooses not to appear here. Either way. I dig him. And my engagement with him and a lot of underground AFRO(d) folk or artists is my fascination with why are these AFRO(d) folk kept quiet. What are they saying that folk don’t want folk to hear?
TH: The career and influence of early 20th century artists and later Sun Ra prove that the principles of these movements were relevant decades ago. But what do you think it is about this moment that creates an environment which is conducive to a magnified resurgence of these philosophies as well as the receiving, uplifting and celebrating of these ideas on so many levels by artists, institutions and scholarship alike?
ARY: Sun Ra matters now in all these places because “the world is boring / the same old, same old.” Art and academia have always been the other white meat. Whatever these streets are into these days, art and academia has to distance themselves from it in order to be relevant and or matter to people who are transformed into a whole mentality that is so other than the mentalities of robots. Meaning, people who don’t art or think are folk who basically are awaiting for information to be downloaded into them. Artists and academic investigate these downloads and generally reject ideals and concepts that shape robots. But this rejection gets them picked on and sometimes beat up by these robots. So in order to save their asses, they have created a space. Sun Ra matters in all of these spaces; Robotland, Academia and Artopia because these spaces are “boring / the same ol, same ol” They need a new space. It’s crowded everywhere and people are the robots, artists and academics are beating each up for elbow room. So this idea of locating a new space before death falls upon us is fascinating to everybody right now. This explains the inquiry in these concepts presented in Sun Ra philosophies surrounding freedom, time, scholarship and expression.
TH: What is different about these movements today that perhaps don’t align with the historic concepts of the past that have served as an influence and foundation for it?
ARY: The main difference in these movements is the fact they are being named by the people who created it. Other movements have been named after they popped off and so the participants are left voiceless in the naming of it. Today folk are saying, “This is what I do and this is what it is called. Now pull out your wallet because you are about to get taxed. The register is that-a-way!”
To get a taste of Avery’s work, visit his Soundcloud. If you missed his latest appearance for “Gil Scott Heron: Passages Interludes Subtext and Understandin’: Performances and Discussion of the Legendary Poet/Musician/Activist” at Experimental Station, you can catch him performing regularly throughout the city. Keep an ear to the ground.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.