The first episode of science fiction streaming service Dust’s “Afrofuturism” animated series depicts jazz-fusion musician Sun Ra’s life as a space-traveling mission to liberate Black people from Earthly oppression.
“The term, ‘Afrofuturism,’ first appeared in an essay titled, ‘Black to the Future,’ by Mark Dery in 1994,” says the narrator, identified by Dust as British rapper Little Simz. “But its roots go back to a fateful night in the late 1930s in Huntsville, Alabama. On that peculiar evening, a beam of light shot down from the sky and lifted Herman Sonny Blount into an alien spacecraft,” she continues over a visual of a Black man ascending into a yellow light. “On a voyage to Jupiter, his alien captors prompted him with a mission: to transport Black people away from the violence and racism of planet Earth. Sonny became Sun Ra, who worked on the other side of time.”
Anthropologist John Szwed’s Sun Ra biography, “Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra,” includes the musician’s description of meeting aliens in the late 1930s, which compelled him to leave college and turn to music. It varies a bit from the show’s account of events:
It looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it transmolecularization, my whole body was changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up. …Then I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn. …They talked to me. They wanted me to stop [teachers training] because there was going to be great trouble in schools. There was going to be trouble in every part of life. That’s why they wanted to talk to me about it. ‘Don’t have anything to do with it. Don’t continue.’ They would teach me some things that when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then I could speak, but not until then. I would speak, and the world would listen.
The episode also touches on Sun Ra’s imprisonment for avoiding the World War II draft, a 1969 Rolling Stone cover and other “Earthly stops” on “his cosmic voyage.” It depicts the members of his band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, as participants in a journey through space to resist “the trauma of Black life in the United States.”
The episode’s sci-fi representation of Sun Ra’s life and mission roughly reflects the plot of his 1974 film, “Space is the Place.” That movie features the artist as himself, landing with the Arkestra on another planet before traveling through time to bring Black people to this new home. Little Simz’s narration describes the film as the clearest statement of his vision.
According to its YouTube description, “Afrofuturism’s” future episodes will focus on Jimi Hendrix, Missy Elliott, “Star Trek” character Lt. Uhura and George Clinton. Series creators Sama’an Ashrawi and Steven Jackson discussed the importance of telling Black science fiction stories in a Q&A on Dust’s website:
Why do you think telling these stories is important and what do you hope your audience will take away from watching the series?
Steven: I think it’s not only important but refreshing to see more science fiction storytelling from the black perspective because the African diaspora is so vast. I hope the audience learns that, just because Afrofuturism came into fruition through the Black struggle, it doesn’t mean that this concept is just for Black people. I think as this series unfolds people will see that.
Sama’an: Until mainstream science fiction is made to be more inclusive, it will continue to be not only important, but also imperative, that these stories be told. Look at how “Hidden Figures” is doing at the box office. Could that be a clue that audiences want to see Black people included in stories about outer space? As we put this project together, we spoke with so many people who had no idea this world existed, and that’s when we knew we were doing something special.
Watch the first episode of “Afrofuturism” above.