Ytasha L. Womack is the author, filmmaker, dancer and innovator whose book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy explores black sci fi culture, bleeks, black comix, and the legacy of futurism.
Ytasha is also the author of the critically acclaimed book Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity and Rayla 2212. She is also the coeditor of the hip hop anthology Beats, Rhyme & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop.
Her films include Love Shorts (writer/producer) and The Engagement (director). Her film Bar Star City (director/writer) goes into production this Spring.
In this interview with Kentake Page, Ytasha discusses the origins, rise and meaning of Afrofuturism as well as her own personal journey in this burgeoning movement.
Born January 22 in Chicago, IL, Ytasha was raised in a middle class family. Both her parents, the first college graduates in their families, advocated knowing history and Black history in particular.
“They were also really interested in the performing arts especially. So, growing up, there were a lot of conversations around music, around film, around these significant or important moments in helping move Black people forward. That provided a great foundation for me. There was a lot of reading in my house; going on trips to the library… I was the kind of kid who wanted to see how many library books I could take out and read in a week.”
She credits her early interest in science and history as the basis for her later work in Afrofuturism.
“Early on as a child, I had a big interest in the sciences and a big interest in history. So I would read a lot of books about these titans and Black culture. But then I would just read a lot of books about history in general and I read a lot of science books. I think that probably sent me on the trajectory of moving toward Afrofuturism – that combination of history, science and this big emphasis on Black culture and really knowing the trajectory of people here in North America. In addition to which, I grew up studying metaphysics… So I think a combination of some of these things really shaped a perspective for me where optimism and transformative change became a big part of just my make-up and my thought process.”
Ytasha grew up in the “Star Wars” era and like many youth, enjoyed the character of Princess Leia, but wished that Leia and Lando Calrissian had more prominent roles as the only woman and Black person in the films. However, her interest in science fiction was sparked from another popular film in the late 70s.
“…it’s probably another memory that stands out that people don’t talk about as science fiction, but for me it very much was, and that was the movie the Wiz. Something about the musical production, the theatricity of it and the fact that she was teleported to this other world and it was this fantastic space and you had that gigantic, monstrous talking head that was the Wiz, that was a big impact on me as a kid, so between that and Star Wars, I think Dorothy and Princess Leia were characters I thought about a lot.”
“Dorothy in particularly was this woman who had to take this journey and ultimately she discovers that everything she needed she already had. For me that was just the magic of the story and a lot of the elements of it I just connected with as a kid. I would act out little scenes and dance around and pretend I was Dorothy and you know, just the whole thing.”
Ytasha’s interest in reading led to her decision in high school to pursue journalism as a career. She took a job at the Chicago Defender, which at that time was one of the oldest daily Black newspapers in the United States. There, she entered a training program for teenagers that aspired to become journalists, and learned how to write stories. Seeing there was a lack of information on aspects of African American history, she realized the importance of recording these stories and histories.
“These experiences helped me to realize that if you don’t write down a people’s history, sometimes it gets lost or people write it down years later and those who were not involved are not aware of it because this is a culture; we change so much. You have people who are creating this culture, but you also need people who are writing it in the moment who can gauge some of these changes so that when it transforms into something else or when it becomes commercialized or whatever happens, there is some relative understanding of how it got there, what is going on or who did what.”
After high school, Ytasha studied journalism, media arts and television production at Clark-Atlanta University. She also went to Columbia College for art and entertainment and media management which gave her insights into marketing and the emerging interrelationships of media, including the internet which was just coming into prominence.
Ytasha’s first film appeared in the American Black Film Fest which led to film a project called The Engagement, nominated for Best Film at the American Film Fest. She also put together the anthology What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop. However, it was observations gathered during the making of her book Post Black Emerge which eventually led to the writing Afrofuturism.
“Afrofuturism is an intersection between Black culture, technology, the imagination and liberation and I like to add mysticism as well. Generally, it looks at alternative futures and (possible) futures through a Black cultural lens. So it stretches the arts. It can be a process, a methodology. It can also be just an artistic aesthetic. It stretches to music, to theory, to other aspects of the arts.”
“A lot of the ideas around Afrofuturism I was introduced to when I was at Clark-Atlanta. I had friends who talked about science fiction and the technologies that ancient cultures used. They talked about how can you use the power of vision to transform culture… they were sci-fi fans and they kept trying to create these kind of relationships and a lot discussions around what we would call Afrofuturism, but they didn’t call it Afrofuturism. They weren’t familiar with the term, at least the friends I was hanging around. Yet they were putting out publications, they were doing lectures and they were doing workshops and it was a big conversation on the campus.”
“It was interesting because the conversations I had in college were probably in tandem with some of these other conversations that were happening, but a lot of the scholars who were writing about Afrofuturism, they came out of these same kinds communities. You know, they had friends and people who were really into these ideas of imagination and technology and Black culture but they used the term Afrofuturism. They got the term from a guy named Mark Dery who wrote a book and one of the chapters in the book was called Black to the Future. He described Afrofuturism; he interviewed Samuel Delany and he used the term Afrofuturism.”
“I interacted with a lot of people who were into ideas around Afrofuturism who were working with that either as musicians…in the arts mostly. By the time I heard the term itself, I went back and I talked with these people and was like, “Have you heard the term Afrofuturism?” They said, “No.” And I said, “Wow, this is interesting.” Because they are all working with the same concept. So I decided to write the book largely because you have so many people who were Afrofuturists and didn’t know they were Afrofuturists and I figured if there was a book that could kind of simplify and explain the concepts in ways that could connect people, then people could see themselves, see their ideas and they could kind of build with those ideas that they want to.”
Ytasha sites Jazz musician Sun Ra, Funk music pioneer George Clinton and Science Fiction author Octavia Butler as the three most frequently mentioned players in Afrofuturism.
“But there are others. You can look at the work of an Alice Coltrane. You can look at the work of Herbie Hancock. There is a lot of work in Jazz that is specifically Afrofuturist. You can look at quite a bit of literature. You can look at Samuel Delany for example. He is a popular reference too. You also look at, not just the subject matter being about the imagination, but the actual use of technology as music which was pushed very much by … pop culture, but it was often pushed a lot in Hip Hop and in House Music and what we call the Deep music scene too. All of which had a lot origins in Black culture. (Also) some Dub music.”
In writing her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy, Ytasha delved into the histories of Sun Ra, George Clinton, Parliament and others and made a conscious decision to approach the material from as many vantage points as possible.
“I wanted people to see how being an Afrofuturist wasn’t just about being a Sun Ra fan or a Janelle Monae fan. You could really be into these ideas around the imagination and maybe not necessarily be a sci-fi person at all. Maybe you were just a person who very much connected to people of African descent and they wanted to re-imagine themselves in the world. With that I wanted to show that other people like a Martin Luther King, with him being a Star Trek fan, or looking at W.E.B. DuBois and how he wrote science fiction and pointing to other 19th century, early 20th century writers and advocates who were Black in the U.S. and who looked to Afrofuturism. Helping to see how you can re-contextualize our history through this idea of the imagination. I thought that was really important, to look at the people not only as visionaries, but how this visionary aspect and this resilience helped transform culture.”
These connections between Afrofuturism and Black history are inseparable according to Ytasha.
“In one way I think Afrofuturism helps connect us to these histories that aren’t discussed or aren’t really spoken of as much. I think that a lot of the works that people are creating is in part a process to connect to some of what appears to be lost history, or maybe not lost history but not recorded or popularized in traditional media. I think Afrofuturism is a big product in doing so. I think it’s a way of claiming the value of maybe non-linear perspectives and looking at the world. I think that it’s a way of giving light to a lot of work and this intersection of ideas that sometimes in western thought, traditionally haven’t always intersected. In that way, I think it very much ties to the histories of Black peoples.”
Ytasha credits Alondra Nelson; Kodwo Eshun, author of More Brilliant Than the Sun; Hip Hop journalist Joan Morgan, bell hooks and Ntozake Shange, writer of the play For Coloured Girls and Lilian as influences. As well as learning from their perspectives, Ystaha believes developing your own perspective by experiencing Afrofuturism is just as important.
“Reading about different people and talking about the ideas, that’s really cool. But it’s also important to experience a lot of the Afrofuturistic creation. Really, listen to the music. Take like an hour or two and listen to these different songs. Listen to … the works of Alice Coltrane. Listen to A Flying Lotus, who does a Beat music. Listen to House Music. There is the intellectual theorizing piece of it, which is really important because we get to discuss these concepts. But then there are the ideas you connect with on your own by virtue of your own experience. I think that’s important.”
“One of the big assets of Afrofuturism is this process of connecting with you and with who you are. I think, really the music in particular-I’m a big music person- really helps to facilitate some of that. The music and the dancing to it after that and see what ideas, if any, comes to you around this whole idea of Afrofuturism.”
Ytasha is creating her very own Afrofurism experience with the creation of her own works Rayla 2212 and her upcoming film Bar Star City.
“The biggest transformation for me was at some point while I was working on the book, I was able to write this Rayla 2212 story. That story really helped push the limits of my imagination. I think the process of writing that story and launching it using social media and to cater between having this animated trailer and a host of things that I did really gave me my own Afrofuturism experience which kind of freed me to write a lot of the book.”
“Rayla 2212 follows a woman named Rayla Illmatic who lives on a planet that’s a former Earth colony 200 years into the future. So because her world was turned upside down and she’s charged with trying to get help… she has to find a woman who created a space program that tells astronauts to fly using their mind; to travel using their mind. In connecting with this woman, the woman says, “I’ll help you, but you have to find some of missing astronauts whose disappearance contributed to the planet turning upside down in the first place.”
“Ultimately, Rayla is working with how to reform her ability as her strength. That really is her challenge and this process of going to these other spaces and these other times and finding these people really helps her to give another understanding around who she is. I guess it’s a process about identity, but it goes beyond ethnic identity or nationality to looking at the core of who she is as a person in the universe and what that means.”
“Bar Star City is a (film) project about these …. outside a South Side bar who are actually quite extraordinary. The bar is a home to galactic phenomenon. It’s a project I’m really excited about. I put the trailer together, we have a Kickstarter and I’m really drumming up some interest around it… this whole intersection of the ordinary and the extraordinary and placing it in an urban context I think is pretty fun.”
Ytasha L. Womack’s visionary work has already positioned her as a leading authority in the Afrofuturism genre and now with her creative ventures underway, she stands as one of its brightest talents. She offers these final words of encouragement:
“On the Afrofuturism Twitter site, I like to say that “The Future is Yours” or the “Future is Ours” and I say that because I like people to understand that they are co-creators in this universe and that ultimately we created the spaces that we live and work in and that’s a good thing to recognize that.”
“I just want people to feel empowered about their lives and feel like they can create the kind of experiences that they would like to have and that the future is very much shaped by what we do today and what we do now transforms us in the present. That’s what I’m excited about. I think that hope is a good thing and taking action on these beliefs of optimism are important too.”
Ytasha L. Womack can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ytashawomack or you can follow https://twitter.com/iafrofuturism. On Facebook, go to https://www.facebook.com/iafrofuturism. For more information on Ytasha and Rayla 2212 and Bar Star City, visit: http://www.iafrofuturism.com/.