The New Black Renaissance: Alex Smith On Afrofuturism And His Many Artistic Endeavors

Anyone who’s had a reasonably good history teacher in their life can talk about the Harlem Renaissance. The then-called “New Negro Movement,” an explosion of brilliant and innovative work by Black creatives in the 1920s and ’30s spanned every artistic medium, and its influence on American poetry, music, literature, and philosophy is still visible in those genres today. There have been other “Black Renaissances” since then, but it should be clear to those who follow POC artists that there needn’t be a rebirth of Black art because it is never dormant, never sleeping, never irrelevant. It would be more appropriate to view a Black Renaissance as a period when all of the meaningful, boundary-breaking art by People of Color finally receives a fraction of the recognition it deserves for its quality and its influence on the broader culture.

In the world of science fiction–as with nearly every artistic medium–the artists who have received most of the recognition in popular culture have been white, but for every Ursula K. Leguin or Frank Herbert, there is an Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany. The fact that Star Wars fans were upset about the diversity of the cast for episodes 7, 8, and 9; the fact that, in a world where a Mon Calamari can pilot a ship, an Asian American woman can’t; those are reasons enough to explain why the subgenre Afrofuturism has been an outlet and a home for speculative authors and readers of the African Diaspora.

In 2019, artistic polymath Alex Smith wrote a piece for bandcamp detailing the current state of Afrofuturism in music. The 2020 Pew Award winner was an apt choice, as his lifelong dedication to intersectional art through a sci-fi/speculative lens makes him one of our most valuable authorities on the topic. In a constant state of curation and creation, his contributions to journalism, poetry, comics, music, visual art, and the broader dialogue send ripples through all artistic communities, moving us all forward.

His current project, a LGBTQ+/POC-driven sci-fi/cyberpunk comic written by Smith in collaboration with artist James Dillenbeck, is raising funds for its production through Kickstarter. Needless to say, the world of comics needs more stories like this, and Smith is certainly the person to lead the charge for change.

You are a Renaissance person, exploring your creativity through music, writing, and visual art. Did you grow up in a very artistic household? Who were some early artistic influences?

I grew with a very artistic mom. Her name was Floretta, and she was a driving force behind me seeking alternative routes even if she didn’t exactly know she was doing this. She was a teacher, very hands on, very crafty, and so a lot of what I started doing was emulating her but then imprinting my own ideas and influences on top of that– so when she would make paperdolls or these angel ornaments out of clothes pins, I’d make super-hero versions of them.. stuff like that. I didn’t always have the latest Transformers and G.I. Joes, much to my chagrin, but she always made sure I had paper, pens, art supplies, science kits, microscopes, tape recorders– it was an interesting approach.

I started listening to a lot of rap in the 4th grade, so it was around like 4th to 8th grade where my interests started solidifying. I would bring all my other interests with me whenever I learned about or delved into a new thing, so I was into rap but still into super-heroes and 80’s sci-fi toys and cartoons like M.A.S.K. and Visionaries and Battle of the Planets. I’d comb through my mom’s records looking for weird soul instrumentals and make little raps on my out-loud tape recorder, like rapping on top of the Troubleman soundtrack, stuff like that. Or I’d dictate little movies or tv shows into my tape recorder and play it back. By high school, I’d created like 20-something different comic book universes, started like 15 fictional rap groups. Just being lost in my little worlds, creating without a filter. I try to kind of embody that still even if the real world stakes are higher.

Early influences were Public Enemy, probably my biggest influence. They turned me onto socio-political ideas that would lead me to really start to dig in and research things. I was obsessed with the Black Panthers in high school and that led me to go to the local university (East Carolina) and dig around their surprisingly thorough microfiche files and look up a bunch of the Panther’s newspapers, and then I delved into the hippy subculture zines from around the same time and became infatuated with like, movements and cultural moments and the galvanizing of seemingly disparate ideas and people that could form a scene or community. It was a contrast to what I was experiencing as an artsy queer Black kid trying to find this culture, this community growing up in eastern NC. But like, yeah, 80’s cartoons and comics and sci-fi ephemera, Public Enemy and hip hop, and then eventually Nirvana were my earliest influences that helped shaped my appreciation for art, science, music, and for lack of a better word, “politics”.

Can you describe your creative process? Do you approach different media differently?

Actually, I approach the collage art, music, and writing pretty much the same– the spark of an idea and then I get to cutting and pasting. There’s a certain aesthetic that I like that seeps into all of them– weird sci-fi, speculative ideas, and futurity. Essentially, re-imagining the current world, while not ever distancing myself from reality, but just juxtaposing or super-imposing a more empowered world on top of the current, oppressive one. I think each individual piece, whether it’s writing or art, developed in different ways, technically. Like one story will start because I’ll want to see two different characters in a romantic scenario, like “wouldn’t it be cool if Jack Black and Michael B. Jordan were in some intergalactic-war and were abandoned on a planet with hostile fauna and fell in love or at least started exploring each other’s bodies” or something? and then I’ll form a story around that idea of the two characters, injecting it with ideas that make it feel interstellar but remaining relatable. Other stories started with a kind of grand “what if”, and instead of doing hard scientific research, I just let my mind speculate. This is important, I think, for sci-fi writers to remember, that a lot of us are cosmic prophets, and while research is necessary, we’re not writing pamphlets! Same with political writing; we’re trying to create a blueprint for a possible world. So, forget trying to nail down every aspect of your story to what is believed to be scientific possibility. Tell me what’s impossible, and then let niggas in the 2080s retrofit or reverse engineer that shit. Be on some Arthur C Clarke, Chip Delany shit.

But it’s rarely planned out. I had an outline for a story I keep meaning to revisit whose outline was like two sentences. I think overthinking can lead to paralysis so I just go for it, I just get to cuttin’ and dicin’, it’s all very hip hop, very punk rock.

Where do you find inspiration?

Cliche, but everywhere. I sit and observe. I read. I watch Youtube videos. I watch the intros to Japanese tokusatsu and just riff. Living as a marginalized person, constantly impacted with dystopia-level aggressions everyday, to the point it gets nearly impossible to move, I try to channel that, but its not always easy. I don’t know, inspiration is kind of a flaccid thing to me, other than just being observant and aware, trying to meditate and fight through depression and the PTSD of being a Black queer person in the United States, trying to not blame myself for having days of no productivity. Like, we are in the middle of a war! It makes sense if I don’t feel like drawing or designing anything, or creating worlds today! We are at war everyday for basic right to just live, so as Black queers we need to have systems of re-calibration, systems of relief from constant combat, and sometimes that takes the form of watching TikTok or even just being aimless with the art we make.

How did you develop the unique collage style you use in your visual art?

My collage style comes from designing fliers for punk shows in the 90s! I started booking shows because I wanted to participate, wanted to be more tangibly involved with the music I was listening to, and I just kind of fell in love with it. The flier was like, the packaging for the show, was this artistic representation of the moment you were curating, like an album cover. So it all stems from wanting to create a unique visual idea for events I was planning, and it just evolved over the years and spilled out until it became its own thing.

I appreciate that you say my style is unique, but even though it’s influenced by stuff like the Black Panther newsletter and the underground papers of the 60s, and then like punk rock and in particular Riot Grrl and queercore and how dangerous and more vibrant all that 90’s cut-n-paste stuff looked, I felt there was still some elements missing from it. I try to push what I can do, especially since my only tools are a Kinko’s copier, a pair of scissors and some scotch tape. Like, if I want lightning to spray out from a figure or a lens flare from a distant star to reflect off something, I have to cut that shit out haha, it’s labor intensive but I like the tactility of it. But like, I work everything the copiers provide– reversals, shrinking/enlarging, positive-to-negative imaging, whatever I can do. Leave the tape visible. Sometimes I look at the Photoshop users and I’m like, dam, wish I knew how to do that, but then I’m like, “nah”. Really, it’s very spiritual for me and the hardness, the cantankerous aspects work to create something that feels lived in.

For those who are unfamiliar, can you explain Afrofuturism as a style and/or philosophy? Although Afrofuturism has been around for decades, with the works of Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Sun Ra helping to establish and define the genre, it has seen a resurgence in popularity recently. Contemporary artists like Janelle Monae, Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, Moor Mother, Osborne Macharia, Ellen Gallagher, Lovecraft Country Episode 7, and the film Black Panther have brought this subgenre to much larger audiences. Why do you think this time has been especially ripe for this approach to art?

I really hate trying to define Afrofuturism haha, it’s really annoying. It’s like “punk” or “anarchism” or something. It would take a whole ass lecture series to really unpack it all. But basically, it’s Black art by Black artists who use science fiction ideas, motifs and aesthetics to comment simultaneously on the past, present and future of Black folks.

I’m not really sure why now. I think the artists you mentioned definitely had something to do with it, by being who they are and not shying away from their nerdier, geekier, quirkier aspects and creating art that both follows a tradition of Black avant garde and science fiction-styled explorations but also creating ideas that are new and forward thinking, ideas and concepts that project Black people into the future.

But the reality that we are living in now, as I said, Black people are in a never ending war with imperialism, and I think, at some point, we looked up and realized that we needed to do more than just survive. Like, we needed to start thinking about our futures, and when Trayvon was killed it was a reminder that our lives are tenuous to a system built on those very lives. They can take or leave us, use or kill us, mechanize us. So I think Afrofuturism is just one of the movements whose existence was an inevitability. So many of us, like for instance, in the BLERD scene started to realize that 1. being adjacent to whiteness wasn’t going to end our oppression and 2. we didn’t have to compartmentalize or dismiss our politics or our culture as Black people in order to be into nerd shit. We could not only do both, but both our Blackness and our nerdness would be enhanced by the other!

And in general, I think sci-fi is on the radar now as we push further into the 21st century. Like, we are **in** the future, and it’s a chaotic mess and not in a good way. We are seeking to change that by any means.

I don’t know if you knew this, but that Lovecraft Country episode is probably my favorite single episode of a TV show I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of a few stories I’ve written, some in ARKDUST and a couple that were in the original ARKDUST zines. It’s really eerie the imagery and the way the story ebbs and flows, not trying to say anything other than it feels like something I’d write hahaha. I remember watching that episode with my partner Shane and just being a ball of tears watching it. And then when Sun Ra’s voice drops…bruh.

Who are some current Afrofuturist artists who deserve broader audiences?

Hmm.. Dogon Krigga, Black Quantum Futurism, Amani Lewis, Wardell Milan, Pope L., Rodney McMillan, Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, Tilly the Artist, Shabbacka Hutchins (his bands: Sons of Kemet, Comet is Coming), Alex Jennings, Bill Campbell, Nisi Shawl, Tade Thompson (read Rosewater from him), M. Asli Dukan (check out Resistance: Battle of Philadelphia on youtube), DeForrest Brown Jr., Ramellzee, Milestone Comics/Dwayne McDuffie (other than Static: Shock—it’s a whole universe!), Shawn Alleyene, Growing Concern Poetry Collective, Bad Apple Commune Collective (particularly rapper Savan DePaul and their album Acid Rain 2), Otis Galloway, designers like Zam Barrett (though he’s more “old world”), Samuel Ross of A-Cold-World, Yung Yemi, Alun Be, Noah Purifoy, Patrick Dougher… I could really go on and on.

Your visual art and your written work in Arkdust, Believers, and Black Vans is boldly intersectional, including LGBTQ+ characters, characters with underrepresented body types, differently abled characters, and ethnically diverse characters. Can you talk about the importance of representation and intersectionality in your art and in art in general?

Yeah, I just want to reflect my own world, the real world, planet Earth, which is at its most normal an intersectional sphere in the vast universe. It’s really not rocket science, though TV and film producers, editors and publishers especially in comics, seem to think it is. I think having fat queer Black characters in sci-fi in particular feels so alien (no pun) to people because the media lines we are fed are just some white, aryan bullshit. Like, the erasure in media is so intense that even people who are marginalized themselves have just come to accept it! I noticed it when I first started creating comic characters and sharing them with people outside of my friend circle, like so many Black creators are **still** drawing and writing white characters, to say nothing of the that prototypical muscle ripped or big tittied bodies that American comics in particular are guilty of highlighting. It’s taking fantasy to this disgusting level where there’s some kind of eugenics, making body ideologues out of so-called fans. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy– the idea is that characters who are defined a certain way in the media are ingrained in our minds as such and anything that deviates from that is seen as abnormal– Black people, the one gay guy maybe, a fat person, a disabled person, they can all be sidekicks or background characters but never the lead. There’s something about major media, and the indies copy this too, that says that normal people, fat people, queer people, trans people, Black people, Brown people, can’t be heroes! It’s fucking disgusting, there’s a vicious pushback against diversity even when diversity is at its greatest heights. So for me, I’m sort of beyond “diversity” at this point. I make a point to create characters who are fat, and have them be in sexy, heroic roles, literally no one else outside of like, gay bara fan-art, are doing this and it’s kind of shocking to me.

I’m a romantic in a lot of ways, so I try and project what I find interesting, desirable, empowering. This comes across as “diversity” I suppose, intersectionality I guess, but really it’s just about creating a world not just reflective of one’s own, but a world that I want to see. Representation is important because it helps the marginalized dream; this is why there isn’t any real representation, why everything is so staid and cookie-cutter, they don’t want us actively dreaming that we can be empowered beings. This why you’ll get the same re-hashing of Han Solo types over and over again– we’ve accepted the hetero-normative cis white guy as the norm, but why does it have to be? It’s a bizarre assumption even in real life that hetero cis is the default, that white adjacency is the desired normative standard. Fuck all that, fat (and Black and queer) kids need heroes too.

From Black Vans.

Is it an artist’s responsibility to be political? If so, why? If not, why not?

Well– I’ll say this. If you’ve got at your disposal an audience, right, however large or small, and you want to put something out into the world, what is it that you’re putting out? In times of strife, is the work you’re doing going to be reflective of the moment, will it provide light or insight in dark times? Will your work resonate when all the buildings have turned to dust, when the last bits of jungle have turned into silicon and ash, when the skies are anthracite from the fallout of unwinnable wars, what did you do with your voice, your so-called art, to enlighten, to resist, to speculate, to empower, to provide solace, to create an oasis? I mean, what are you trying to say? I find politics utterly, shamefully boring to a debilitating degree. Like, I hate voting, for instance, and rarely do it. But with your art, if you’re not trying to affect a spiritual unit, not trying to subvert our casual notions of what it means to be alive– birth, work, war, and then death–then you’ve wasted your own time. You were on the wrong side of history.

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You have been an important member of the Philly music scene, as a musician and as a journalist, for years now. Can you describe the music and general art scenes in Philly?

This is such a weird question because, since covid hit, I feel so disconnected from the music community. Going to live shows, seeing bands and performers spring up and getting a chance to connect and curate moments for people searching for different shit, that’s something I always cherish doing and I miss having that forum. The live element and the mixing of genres and ideas is so, so important to Philly music; like it’s hard to describe because a lot of shows here are so interactive and can be so integrated– like experimental jazz bands will play with crust punk bands and noise rock bands will play with, like, a solo goth-rap synth act. But that live vibe is so essential to that synthesis. It’s to be lived. So right now, I think Philly is like a lot of places, just kind of holding on until we can get together. It’s definitely very eclectic though. The last show I went to before covid was one I booked, a benefit for a space called LAVA that had like Pink Wash (noise rock), Khalil (rap), Soul Glo (screamo afropunk), Moor Mother (Afrofuturist noise-rap) Manikineter (industrial hip hop), Ooloi (experimental jazz noise) , Camp Candle (dreamy 4AD chillwave soul), Disappearances (90’s grindy throwback punk), FOD (legendary old school punk), and my band Rainbow Crimes which is, I guess like Blond Redhead meets like basement punks attempting acid jazz? Or something. Haha. And the joint was packed and totally vibed out and people weren’t expecting like 5 crust bands and they loved it. Philly’s music scene is Black, eclectic and weird, from my perspective at least, and that ain’t really changing.

Solarized and Soul Glo have become important band in the modern hardcore scene. What do you like about hardcore right now? What do you think should change?

Yeah, Soul Glo is way more impacting that my band Solarized. They are just phenomenal, incredible sexy, and beyond just being important, their music like, embarrasses other bands. It’s like, come on, how can you really fuck with any band in their genre after hearing them? They are more inventive, have wider-range of influences, their lyrics are like, epic tomes, and they’re Black. Bruh, come on, these other white bands trying to do this style don’t really have shit to say and they should just fucking stop it! I mean, there are a few that can get down, but it’s getting to be few and far between. I’m just like, are you screaming about your ex-girlfriends again, white dudes? I don’t need that shit in my life and Soul Glo provides a direct anti-thesis to that non-sense. But I appreciate what you’re saying about Solarized. When Joe and I formed that band, we wanted to ape these two somewhat obscure 90’s basement hardcore bands Swing Kids and John Henry West. We left our influences at that and just expanded from there, it’s been a wild ride ever since. I’ve gotten some amazing compliments and some good reviews and it’s just been an awesome time. Like someone in New York, of all places, told me they felt like they were watching Rites of Spring after seeing us. Rites of fucking Spring! Shit like that.

 For me, the sole audience for Solarized is 19 year old Alex, that super-lonely Black queer kid struggling with his identity and place in the world, discovering punk rock and trying to find some cultural connection there. I made this record with that kid in mind and it was a necessary catharsis, it’s rad that others have connected with it.

I think overall I never got fully into hardcore, I was more into punk. I guess I liked hardcore-adjacent bands, like the early emo stuff. I don’t really think about hardcore that much, I think it’s overtly macho and not very interesting musically. The bands and movements that overlap with the punk scene, I enjoy a good bit of them, like the bands that play this Black and Brown punk/hardcore event Breakfree Fest here in Philly like Truth Cult , and this festival in Boston that features mostly queer/lgbt acts Sheer Queer Fest, they are some of the best bands in the world. But yeah, for the most part I’m not super involved in the sort of consumer/gossip culture that hardcore has kinda always been.

In 2020, you won The Pew Fellowship Arts Grant. Can you talk about what that meant for you?

It was a powerful moment. It’s been a very bright spot in a year and a half marked by tragedy for me, so having that grant money has allowed me a lot of flexibility to take care of this chaos, to sort of be able to have some kind of peace while dealing with some really tough things.

It’s something I can use to open doors and expand my praxis, so that’s also really rad. Hopefully I can start using the grant to create some new work.

How have the events of the last year or so affected your work? What do you predict for the future in the U.S., now that issues about racial justice are harder to sweep under the carpet, now that more people are becoming familiar with these old, systemic problems?

Nothing has really changed. The systemic problems have always existed in plain view. Remember, I’m a child of the Rodney King-era, I survived crack and the Clintons. Despite, like, the Derek Chauvin conviction for instance, it’s still incomparably easy for cops, bosses, judges, teachers, politicians, business owners, millionaires/billionaires, institutions, prisons, and the everyday racist on the street to hunt, murder, enslave, mechanize, and brutalize Black people. Everyone is wearing a body cam, and a few people get fired for saying “racially insensitive” shit on twitter or whatever, but they still doing it. Karens are still Karening and HARDER THAN EVER, despite a bunch of them getting they spots blown up, going viral and shit. They don’t give a fuck. Impunity and immunity, period. White supremacy is still the top governing principle of the United States– more specifically, anti-Blackness is still the number one continuing atrocity in the west.

My prediction for the future is that Black people will start increasing their awareness of what we actually want from this life here– like, we’ll start to realize that, ok, getting $15 an hour ain’t shit, that we can’t teach an entire country raised on our physical and emotional labor, who are used to our erasure, who think of us as a monolith, who don’t have the imagination to envision Black people outside of subservience, outside of death. And what we do with that epiphany, that knowledge, will be unprecedented. I think we’ll start more collectives and start thinking about post-revolutionary living– we’ll skip the revolution to quite honest, there won’t be an armed resistance because the collectives will understand that as futile, and we’ll cultivate land, ideas, and movements outside and inside America, autonomous Black zones. I’m not sure how long any of them will last, the government, white people, boogie Blacks still holding onto the hope of assimilation, will definitely oppose them–we’ve seen what that looks like already to be honest, with post-imperial fallout in Africa, the razing of Black towns post-civil war into the early part of the 20th century, COINTELPRO, the MOVE bombing–but this movement will be vast and varied, will take many forms–semi-autocratic science domes, labs and shit like the Baxter Building, mini-Wakandas that are like, two to four blocks long or just like, roaming/roving Black punk gangs or naturalist earth communes or cabals using chaos magic and ifa/vodun empowered god-punk and sigil magic for liberation, casting spells on politicians and shit– it will look really weird, but what else is there after you’ve petitioned, marched, demonstrated, voted, to the point of exhaustion? These enclaves will be a necessary, difficult first step to answering questions of Black mobility and futurity, to answering the question what happens after we stop just trying to survive, but actually live?

Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to talk about?

Yes, BLACK VANS is an indie comic about a Afro-Latino cyberpunk dude and his friends who do intel/tech/surveillance for super-heroes behind the scenes, suddenly thrust onto the frontlines when his super, and everyone else’s, disappears.

The AMBITRON is a live-stream I’m doing this summer where I’m curating the collaboration between  a visual artist, a sci-fi writer, and a sound designer. First event features art from Kara M’Shinda, sound and score by Savan DePaul, and words of Alex Jennings.

FUTURE SMOKE is a glossy magazine I’m editing that will be about Black futurity. Basically all the stuff I talked about in this interview, a post-revolutionary document, an inciting incident. It will feature interviews, essays, articles, art on science, tech, sustainability/food, post-revolutionary strategies and lifestyle, movement building, spirituality, reclaiming queerness, etc. It will come out in 4 seasons represented by Tech, War, Eco, Spirit.

A rap album. Not sure the logistics of this, I aint spit darts in a minute, but I’ve been writing poetry and rhymes a bunch in quarantine and want to do some banging, abstract hood shit inspired by Wu-Tang, Anti-Pop Consortium, Project Blowed. Since quarantine, I’ve heard three rap albums that just blew me away in ways I hadn’t been impacted since the early 2000s– Billy Woods and Moor Mother’s BRASS, Savan DePaul’s ACID RAIN 2, and Amani and King Vision Ultra’s AN UNKNOWN INFINITE. These records are so fucking visceral, they really impacted me and have driven me to try and put some shit down. Plus, with MF Doom’s death I felt deeply impacted by that and I’ve written some raps expressing my grief after losing him as this figure, this star-like being, and all this happened in-between losing my mom and my little sister within the same like, 6 month period. Writing raps has really helped me deal with the grief in these super visceral ways, so I’m going to try to shape some of it up and see if I can bang something out that sounds dope. It will be a group rap album featuring intricate rhymes from queer Black men, not really informed by party rap or trap, more abstract hood shit like X-Clan and Company Flow… tentatively titled PINK IRON SUFIS. We’ll see…

ARKDUST got picked up by a publisher, Rosarium Publishing and will be released sometime later this year! I’m excited for that.

Keep up with me at @Alexoteric and @theyarebirds on Instagram, @Alexoteric on Twitter. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say? 

Peace.

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Remember to contribute to Smith’s BLACK VANS Kickstarter here!

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