What is Afrofuturism and Why does it Matter?

To cap off Black History Month, lets talk about Afrofuturism—the genre, aesthetic, and movement that does not memorialize a bleak past, but imagines a limitless future.

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Afrofuturism in the Mainstream

Although the term “afrofuturism” may be unfamiliar, its presence is nonetheless felt by popular culture. We are undoubtedly enamored with the afrofuturistic aesthetic. Perhaps the most popular example is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther franchise, which features the wealthy, technologically advanced African kingdom of Wakanda as well as its mythical protector, the Black Panther.


Afrofuturism is also prevalent amongst popular Hip Hop and R&B music videos from the early 2000’s. Y2k fashion’s futuristic, amorphus, cutting edge designs were inspired by the turn of the millennia, which gave this paradigm-shattering aesthetic momentum.

Afrofuturism in Fashion

Afrofuturism has returned to the fashion scene and is here to stay. The early 2020’s covid lockdowns came with the reemergence of embracing the chaos of Y2k, which offers a promising re and up cyclicality for a defiant, individualistic generation. For Black members of Gen Z who grew up feeling insecure about their features, skin color, and hair, this bold defiance takes on a particularly personal resonance.

Gen Z does not identify with the stilted traditions of before, so it repurposes and fuses older trends to create something truly imaginative—nostalgic in its referencing, but progressive in its evasion of clearcut definition. It is easy to imagine how Black youth have found shelter and power within this style of dress. As Kanye West once said, “Me found bravery in my bravado.”

The “Aliyahcore” aesthetic exemplifies how this sentiment has resonated amongst the Black youth culture of today. The popular online style of dress, spearheaded and popularized by online influencer @aliyahinterlude, combines the mainstream bimbo/hyperpop elements of Y2k with the ghetto-fab, Baby Phat swag of Y2k Black subculture, creating a playful, self-referential, and bombastic style that is indeed trailblazing.

Eve and Cam’ron photographed at 2003 fashion week wearing Baby Phat, luxury “ghetto fab” brand designed by Kimora Lee Simmons. Image via Pinterest.
The “ghetto fab” style is characterized by hyper-dramatized elements such as long acrylic nails, eyelashes, and elaborate and/or faux hairstyles such as weaves and wigs, that create a glamorous, high-end “diva” look. It does not shy away from the effort put in, as a more demure “natural” vibe would, it rather embraces its own gaudy performance of chauvinism. Image via Pinterest.

Afrofuturistic Storytelling

In regards to literature and other forms of media such as television and movies, afrofuturistic works generally contain the following features:

  • An ensemble of primarily African American characters
  • A fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements such as advanced technologies, alien worlds, magic, and mythical creatures
  • Extensive historical or contemporary allusions to African American culture, such as African cosmology
  • Sociopolitical commentary regarding African American issues

Why does it Matter?

Afrofuturism resonates so strongly with Black audiences because of its defiant, subversive escapism. For example, Black Panther represented Africa not as a pillaged and worn down continent, but as holding one of the world’s wealthiest, most cutting edge societies.

Afrofuturism focuses on imagined futures rather than reimagined pasts. Arguably, for the Black person the past is not a place of resonance or nostalgia. This is not surprising. It seems that many school curriculums will skirt over the history of the wealthy Ghanian empire, but spend significant amounts of time on the dehumanizing history of slavery and Jim Crow.

Afrofuturism does not see the past through romantic rose-colored glasses. The past has been torn asunder with the fracturing of the Black diaspora. The good moments feel too distant to resonate with, and the recent moments to painful to reminisce on. So, afrofuturism imagines a future that is more optimistic than the at best dismal, and at worst, nonexistent before. It therefore takes on a larger importance as a cultural movement that explores but also reimagines the Black experience. The past is unpleasant, reductive, and traumatic, but the future is limitless, optimistic, and agential. Instead of shoehorning its way into the European medieval sub-genre, afrofuturism boldly forges its own belonging. Its inherently experimental nature evades the reductive definitions that have constrained Black people for so long.

As N.K Jemisin asks in her own afrofuturistic work, the genre begs the timely question, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

Further Reading