Afrofuturism and The Birth of Funk Theatre

Afrofuturism and The Birth of Funk Theatre

“While there has been quite a bit of work to define the roots and elements of Afrofuturism, from my observation Afrofuturists come to the framework in different ways and associate with different elements.”

by Dr. Herukhuti

The creative and philosophical discourse known as Afrofuturism has been growing in reach since the early 90s. Simply put, Afrofuturism centers Blackness and Black people in imagining and building toward the future.

It seems every ten years there’s a spike in the attention Afrofuturism receives. The last several years are no different. The following contributions to the practice or critique of Afrofuturism are but a small sample:

As is often the case, a discourse emerges, gives language to the world I inhabit, and I respond with, “Kool and the gods. I can get down with using that language.” Such is the case with Afrofuturism. As a Kemetic priest, I came to it with a particular depth of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about the ancient Egyptian aesthetics that many Afrofuturists, particularly musicians working in the area of funk, have used in their work.


Funk is a music genre that has significantly contributed to Afrofuturism. The funk work of Betty Davis, George Clinton, Parliament, Funkadelic, and Parliament-Funkadelic, Labelle, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Roger Troutman and Zapp, The Ohio Players, Bootsy Collins, Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Sly and the Family Stone, and Chaka Khan and Rufus have offered sonic, visual, and embodied anthems of Afrofuturist invocation.

In 2007, I published my first book, Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality, Volume 1, with Vintage Entity Press, drawing upon funk as an aesthetic. The Afro-Dominican visual artist, Charly Joaquin Dominguez, created the funky artwork for the two covers we used for the book.

When I published the book, I was early in my exploration of funk as a philosophical terrain. Conjuring Black Funk and the creation of Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality (formerly known as Black Funk) inspired L. H. Stallings’ call in their work, Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures, for the development of funk studies as a necessary and timely addition to Africana Studies and the study of Black sexualities.

Since that time, I have been working on the development of a funk aesthetic to theatre. Inspired by the work of the originators of theatrical jazz at the Austin Project (tAP), I am exploring the applications of the aesthetics of funk music in the development and presentation of theatrical works. Borrowing from funk music, this approach to theatre making is a critical and somatic form of representing reality, specifically but not exclusively Black life at the intersections of race, culture, gender, class, and sexuality. It resists and challenges respectability in an effort to critique the oppressive structures of society and envision liberatory futures. These aims can be achieved by using the various elements of funk to engage theatre makers and audiences in a funk aesthetic.

I am developing the aesthetic framework by creating theatre using the following elements of funk music. My first experiment was with my play, My Brother’s a Keeper. The play I’m currently developing extends the work further to explore more deeply how to make the form of a play, production, and performance just as funky as its content.

Elements of Funk Form

The Body: From the body outward. The body is the basis of/for expression and storytelling. The body moves and the story is told.

Feeling First: Feeling drives the creative process. The product is an articulation of feeling that does not have to be recognizable or describable in words/thought.

Rhythm as Invitation: Provides audience easy access to the pulse of the movement and opportunities to contribute to the creative moment

Syncopation as Space: By generating the audience’s expectation of an action, syncopation provokes the audience to action

Density and Repetition: Playing with multiple layers and levels of components to create complexity

Relationship Between Parts: The relationships between the parts is what makes things funky rather than the parts themselves

Non-Progressive Structure: Does not have a resolution of conflict, no rising action-climax-falling action. Using the emergence and receding of elements to create something interesting.

Elements of Funk Content

Signifin’: Making of and playing with meaning

Contrariety: Resisting imposed norms and standards

Challenging Respectability Politics: Embracing authenticity, messiness, and otherness

Use of Trickster Motif: Using deflection, misdirection, and trickery to educate or advance an argument

Mixing African and Western Symbolism: Integrating what is useful and applicable from all influences

Using Mixed Media to Propel Narrative/Message: Operating on multiple levels of perception and communication simultaneously

Personal is Political: Using personal experiences and intimate circumstances to comment about social dynamics and realities

Exploration of Sensuality, Sexuality and the Erotic: Embracing sexual, erotic, and sensual themes as worthy topics of exploration

Elements of Afrofuturism

While there has been quite a bit of work to define the roots and elements of Afrofuturism, from my observation Afrofuturists come to the framework in different ways and associate with different elements. Here are mine:

Afrocentricity: My practice of Afrofuturism is informed by Afrocentricity, i.e., the worldview that:

  • Centers Africa, African culture, and African people, wherever they may be, in any inquiry or discussion of past, present, and future
  • Recognizes the cultural unity, continuity, and resilience of African people, throughout time, in the face of settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, Eurocentrism, cultural hegemony, cultural genocide, transatlantic trade in slavery, and/or environmental devastation
  • Embraces Pan-African indigenous solutions and approaches to problems and challenges facing African people and believes in the creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility of African people

Afropessimism: My practice of Afrofuturism is informed by the belief that:

  • The United States is the largest prisoner of war camp in the history of humanity and was founded on the attempted genocide of and land theft from Indigenous/Native Peoples and the conscription of African people enslaved in the United States into labor camps known initially as plantations and currently as places of employment within predominating white institutions (PWIs) in the interest of European settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy
  • Descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States do not have the rights and privileges of US citizenship and are de facto not citizens but instead are a racial caste that can not and will not ever be free until the United States no longer exists as a prisoner of war camp

Decolonization and the Black Radical Tradition: My practice of Afrofuturism is informed by the ongoing project of Black liberatory struggle, which has included:

  • Freedom dreaming what it will feel/taste/smell/sound/look/be like to live after the end of European settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy
  • Freedom dreaming the experience of being free again and living in a world that supports that living
  • Participating in the movement to convert those dreams into material reality
  • Healing the ways the worldview, values, and methods of settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, and Eurocentrism have been internalized so that they are not carried into the world that is created through pursuing the fruition of freedom dreams

Epistemology of the Erotic: My practice of Afrofuturism is informed by the role the Erotic (Note: While I draw from Audre Lorde’s conception of the Erotic, I do not subscribe to her dichotomous approach to distinguishing between the Erotic and the pornographic, which predated DYI, non-commercial pornography that has emerged through new technologies and sexual cultures in the 21st century) plays in coming to know truth, freedom, and justice, including the understanding that:

  • The body can be an invaluable source of coming to know, knowing, and expression
  • Funk can be an invaluable source of coming to know, knowing, and expressing complexity, fluidity, and diunital reality
  • Sex, sexuality, and sensuality are rich reservoirs of knowledge and can support learning about anything that exists
  • As a result of these realities, the interlocking matrix of dominating systems known as settler-colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy has attacked, commodified, devalued, contaminated, marginalized, dissociated, criminalized, and enslaved the body, the Erotic, sex, sexuality, and sensuality so that they can be mistrusted and inaccessible as liberatory resources

Applying Afrofuturism

For me, Afrofuturism is an exciting artistic framework but not merely an artistic framework. Afrofuturism is also a framework for predicting and planning for the future. It can be a useful framework for designing collective action. Afrofuturism can assist us in dreaming up the world we desire and then planning backwards the steps to get to that future world from the current world. Afrofuturist work can provide learning laboratories to test interventions, disruptions, counter-politics, and oppositional methods. Afrofuturism can inspire radical dreams, possibility models, and unconventional thinking that leads us from the oppressive here and now to the desired there and then.

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