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Cosmic Ashoke and the powers of Afrofuturism

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15 Oct 2016

Underneath the Southbank Centre, rumblings of an afro-futuristic spaceship full of poetry, music and art were preparing to launch. Its travellers? The audience, eager to zoom into a world of divine black love. Aliyah Hasinah (ART!VIST UK) and Florence Okoye (Afro Futures UK) produced Cosmic Ashoke, featuring some of England’s best futurists who describe their own hopes and vision for the future of black culture.

Commissioned by Southbank as part of their sci-fi season, Cosmic Ashoke breathed new meaning into the Afrofuturism movement. Presented in a collection of performances, Afrofuturism is a powerful force of the black community with the ultimate goal to build a stronger and more united black culture.

Aliyah Hasinah, a poet and history enthusiast, wanted to use Cosmic Ashoke to promote the un-whitewashed histories of black people and to merge art and activism to evoke social change. We caught up with her at the end of the show:

“I’m so new to it, it’s unreal! I don’t know how I ended up hosting an Afrofuturism event today. It is something that I have consumed in part throughout my life, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. For our future, I think it is such a positive movement to look at. It’s a lot about recreation, my own personal view on Afrofuturism is that it is very DIY – that’s how I see the future of black people. It’s a movement that continues to inspire me.”

As Florence, who co-hosted the event, explained, Ashoke is a hand-woven cloth used by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In this event, it represents the combined stories of the diaspora; for the next hour, we were allowed a glimpse into these stories and experiences that shaped the performers’ lives.

My sister and I entered the room as Nikki Norton Shafau approached the stage. Accompanied by plastic percussion, she explained to the audience that she was at the early stages of her journey in becoming a storybook. Nikki began her story using rhythms and vocal shouts to accentuate her unique ideas. Her unusual yet intriguing mantra “that’s why I’m becoming a story book” was a gateway to what afrofuturism looks, sounds and feels like. Like a mental exercise, Nikki encouraged us through words and song to believe in new ways of being and thinking.

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Following this was a more traditional set by Hackney based poet, Jolade Olusanya. Jolade’s moleskin notebook and flat cap do him justice as far as fashion goes, but his poetry is much deeper than just a stereotypical look, as the clicks (poetry clap) generated so often during his set by the audience will tell you. In a few verses, he is able to capture the reality of the male African diaspora as they are forced to adopt western culture in spite of their own. He tells us that representation goes deeper than surface level and through his poetry he talks about the disconnect his mother saw in him, again using Nigerian clothing as a symbol of strength when she says “it’s about time you wore your culture”. Jolade’s futurism refuses to allow western values to muffle the full expression of the Nigerian culture. Instead, it focuses on taking an active part in one’s roots and celebrates blackness.

Following on, was a transfixing performance by Travis Alabanza, a black transfemme artist who combines poetry, music and theatre to illustrate their life experiences. Though they spoke of oppression and being forced to rein in their true identity, Travis’s work had a constant sense of progression. The music raged continuously: high and low voices emerged (as if to imitate male and female) with Travis’ voice in the middle, all three repeating “I was never asked to be boy”. Queer black men are oppressed, even further by their peers who may see associating with the trans community as a threat to their own sexuality. Travis’s spirit and passion for the Afrofuturist movement is unquestionable – to see the advancement of black culture and to fuel the continuous campaign for speaking out against queer and transphobia.

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After viewing the thought provoking animation ‘Lucy’ by Al Conteh my sister and I took a turn around the room, to look at the artwork and reflect on the show so far. These artists have demonstrated the rigid state of western culture and boldly described the pain they had to wade through in order to arrive at their current stage of life. Did the artists find power in their oppression? Perhaps. As Jolade says, writing poetry and creating art is like cutting your finger and bleeding from everywhere else. As poets ourselves, we understand what it takes to expose your innermost thoughts without losing yourself or your mind.

Everyone returned to their seats on the spaceship for the highly anticipated performance by Affie Jam. As her set progressed, she described the meaning of her prophetic stage name:  “African by nature, Jamaican by nurture” and the stories behind her songs and her image. As the audience joined in with her song, it was clear beautiful Affie held the audience in the palm of her hand with her impromptu set list and gentle yet poignant vocal tone.

We then picked up the pace with Caleb Femi, who performed a series of two minute poems full of stimulating images: His vision for the future is saving our own lives from the pretence of the western world’s approach to religion, politics and culture.

Launching straight into his act, Afro Flux’s set was a great ending to the night. ‘We Are Light’ is a cosmic, high speed adventure, a rush of truths and teachings. He left the audience on a wave of optimism and liberty as we had just experienced an exclusive glimpse into the future of our people.

Afrofuturism teaches us that we as black people have the capacity to transform and define our future in this world. The intersection of poetry, art, music and activism are the essential parts of events like Cosmic Ashoke, which help define and shape the meaning of Afrofuturism and highlight its necessity for the black community.

I, too, felt my spirit step forward as I was welcomed into the realm of afrofuturism filled with endless growth and possibilities, where roots are something to return to but not be held down by. A movement towards a genderless future where as afronauts, we will embrace progressive politics, radical religion and queer black love as the norm and melanin warriors and warrioresses can travel freely through space, light and time. Here lies the future of the black community. If I were you, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.