What is your Detroit?
Detroit is first and foremost my home. Beyond the personal, it means that it is a home for black American culture as well. It’s easy for me to access it, and that includes the food, the music, and how people speak and greet each other, even if we don’t know each other. It’s a lot of love. It’s also very southern because of the great migration of the 1930s. Generally speaking, many people came from Alabama, but my family came from Mississippi. So that really warm southern feeling is in the air everywhere. That’s Detroit for me. It’s a place that I can really get into my own culture.
Can you talk about the changes that are happening in Detroit?
I think the changes are exciting. As a person who has traveled around the world since I was eighteen and then coming back four years ago, I was very happy that there were places that I could relate to as an adult. As a global person and as a cosmopolitan person, there were more places for me to go and that was exciting. What was disheartening was that I was always a minority. Meaning I was always the only person of colour in the room. I’m saying specifically a person of colour meaning that there were no Latinos, no Arabs, nothing, nobody else except white people and then me. Where is everybody in terms of people of colour? Then the next thing was my particular class, which is black middle class. Detroit used to have the largest black middle class in the nation. So that particular group, or sub-culture, I couldn’t find. It wasn’t an economic issue either, people who could afford to go to the restaurants or who would probably go to the cafes to work and do these things, they weren’t there either. I became acquainted with whites in Detroit who didn’t even know about the black middle class in Detroit. They thought that all black people in Detroit were lower income. I later realized the voice of the black intelligentsia group was becoming invisible.
It is a very complex situation for me. Yes, there are now restaurants and places that I can go to that appeal to my aesthetic, but I’m a minority. I moved back home because of family, but also because Detroit is a majority black city and we don’t have many places in the United States that are like that. So, to come to a black city and to be a minority yet again was frustrating. I think that it has become a little better over time. Things are a little bit integrated and people are trying their best, white, black, blue, green. Everyone knows how segregated the city is and how that will suffocate our city. Detroit will not progress in that way. We are all envisioning something positive for the future, no matter what that future looks like. Things are mixing more but in certain areas there is still a huge class divide. We are trying to figure out constantly how to desegregate, which I think will be a good thing.
I’m not worried about Detroit coming back, whatever that means in terms of having the restaurants, the stores, our neighbourhoods being cleaned up, the abandoned homes being taken away and the vacant land being used or cultivated or not. It’s happening now and it’s happening fast. That is not my concern. My concern is the safety of black bodies in Detroit and how lower-income people are being treated because they are being aggressively pushed out of the city. There are always consequences for this. History has taught us that the frustration results in violence and I don’t want it to go in that direction. Gentrification is rapidly taking over the city. To be clear, gentrification is when a class and culture is trying to displace another class or culture, meaning that they no longer want them to exist within that space. It’s not like, folks get to move into the neighbourhood and everyone is getting along, and we are learning from each other’s cultures. It’s more like, I don’t want you here and I’m going to make sure that there is high-security or policing within the space that protects the privileged group. Then the other group no longer feels welcome. On top of that they raise the rent so that you can no longer afford to be there either. We are doing it all over again, and the ignorance of gentrification history is going to cause more of a problem than it already has.
I’ve been thinking about having conversations with whites about what it is like to be a minority in a majority black city. No one really discusses this. Most of my white friends who are all artists, they love the black cultural production of Detroit, one of the reasons why they are there. They know the music history, or various parts of Detroit’s history that they grab onto and want to maintain certain cultural aspects of it. But then you have some people that are there who are completely ignorant of its legacy and see Detroit as completely violent because their grandparents fled the city. It seems that they don’t ask their grandparents or parents why they fled the city, or what lead to the fleeing of the city. People never want to go further back in history enough. If we did, we would see that the oppression of people of colour caused the violence in 1967, which further encouraged white flight.
When you came to Detroit were you already investigating Afrofuturism?
Afro-futurism was always a hobby of mine. I learned about it literally three years after it was coined in 1996. In 1999/2000 I was in college and my friends were DJs and they talked about all this music coming out of London and Afrofuturism. So I witnessed the development of Afrofuturism and knew some of the people who were early “pioneers” of the movement. It didn’t become a place of work for me until I got to Detroit and saw how invisible black people were in terms of speaking about the future and how that future wasn’t culturally aligned with the current population of the city. So that became one concern of mine. Also after traveling around the world, and being exposed to different countries, I really understood that blackness can have twenty million different definitions. I enjoyed that lesson and enjoyed performing blackness in a lot of different ways. As a result I absorbed that myself. So when I got back to Detroit, I realized how narrow minded we are when it comes to blackness. It became a concern in terms of growth and expansion. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. I really wanted to bring more Afro-global aspects to Detroit so that people of all colours could experience all kinds of blackness and black cultural production. Especially when Detroit is always seen as dangerous and violent because it is majority black. So, black always equals something negative in the United States. I wanted to change that into a positive so that everyone who engages with blackness will come to that space more open to experience something. That’s when I created Afrotopia.
What was the vision for Afrotopia in the beginning?
In the beginning I had no idea what Afrotopia was, or what it would be or manifest into. I was asking my artists friends, “Why aren’t you teaching Afrofuturism to kids?”. A couple of them were doing it in Chicago, but there was no one teaching anything Afrofuturism related in Detroit at that time. So I started teaching adults and kids Afrofuturism. Actually I started speaking about Afrotopia and what it could be and explaining what Afrofuturism is. I’m glad I took eight months to do a lot of speaking gigs in Detroit. It gave me a chance to warm people up to the idea of Afrofuturism. What usually happens is that once a person learns about it their whole world opens up. They come to me later and say, ‘Oh, I think I’m an Afrofuturist,” or “I’ve seen it all this time and didn’t realize that was what it was called”. Then I got a chance to teach youth Afrofuturism one summer and I fell in love with teaching and engaging young minds. Children are amazing magical beings. They were so cool in guiding me in how to teach. It was the best co-creation experience. I then wanted to create an Afrofuturism curriculum and learn more about the education system and what it meant to be in a classroom. Once I got into the school classroom I learned more about Detroit and our needs on a deeper socio-economic level. That is when I learned about kids living without water. So the curriculum idea quickly went away and it became this idea of an Afrofuturist pedagogy, which is a whole new way of engaging the process of teaching and engaging young black bodies.
The thing that people don’t understand is that youth can experience racism from age five and upward. That is too young, their innocence is taken away too quickly. In the United States, once you realize that you are black, there is a lot that comes with it. Of course there is the cultural beauty and the history. But then that history can get heavier and heavier. You can see how racism is still haunting the nation. There is a pain and frustration once one understands their blackness still has no value, we are barely seen as human in our own country. There is no hug or counseling that comes with this realization. I became concerned with what that means for young black children. So on top of whatever they were dealing with in their personal lives they then have to deal with being black. Trying to figure that out and negotiate it, we inevitably become very angry. And that anger can lead to stress, which leads to heart disease or high blood pressure which black men have the highest percentage of in the nation. That is why black men tend to die earlier than white men in the US, because of all the stress of racism, which we encounter on a daily basis. So how do I deal with all these issues using Afrofuturism? I’m still in the process of finding that out. I’ve decided to stay in the classroom, show up, witness, engage and be challenged so that I can gather that information as I develop that pedagogy that I’ve been dreaming about.
Could you define Afrofuturism?
Everyone has their own definition of Afrofuturism because it’s an expanding arts movement, cultural aesthetic and philosophy. I’m understanding that Afrofuturists are usually politically aligned in a specific way. Afrofuturism is a way of discussing the black experience using speculative modalities, so that means science fiction, magic realism, fantasy, and horror. Afrofuturists usually mix these modalities with developments in technology, science, cosmology, ancient African mythologies and spirit science in general (alternative spirit spaces).
Have you seen Afrofuturism develop or evolve over the last twenty years?
Afrofuturism is more of a label to me. The aesthetic has always existed but now it is easier to find because we have a term to Google. We can find each other and the community can connect. Many people think that it has grown but it has always been there just more connected. People in Brazil now know about Afrofuturists in South Africa or China or wherever. It probably could expand, especially with younger people moving into the Afrofuturism space. It will be interesting how it evolves because people in their twenties have a different perspective on sex, race and gender. I’m always excited to see what young people do with things.
Recently you started making artwork. What was your entry point into this?
I started making artwork about seven or eight months ago. I have a project that I haven’t realized yet called ‘Detroit is Afrotopia’ and it’s tracing the alternative spiritual history in Detroit. For the project I wanted to create these meditations using space sounds and I told a curator and they asked me to put them in a show. That was my first time in an exhibition. The guided meditations and all of my artwork is about transcendence, always inspired by the pain that exists within black bodies. This includes present-day traumas and intergenerational traumas and even sometimes future visioning of a trauma, which is depressing. In the beginning the meditations were a way of giving myself and all those who reside in a black body a break from the human experience. As a result, the meditations resonated with people of all backgrounds. We all need a break from the human experience. I am very clear about where my point of departure is but I am very excited about the fact that my work becomes universal. My obsession about transcendence comes out of the tradition of Sun-Ra and other people who look at the cosmos as a space of liberation. A lot of people think of that as an escape, but I think when you go into a space where you are saying that we are all cosmic beings, it neutralises everything. We are no longer male/female, white/black, short/tall, whatever the hell, we just are. Within that space we can then gather energy, to re-energise ourselves in order to deal with this human experience, which is heavy no matter where you are from. I really believe that with the entire planet there is a collective depression. So as much as I focus on my little section of that depression, I really hope that we as a planet can come face to face with it and over come it. Then we are all liberated.
You mentioned that your artworks are about transcendence and that it comes from the tradition of Sun-Ra. Could you tell me more about Sun-Ra?
Sun-Ra is an amazing jazz musician who was known for free jazz, which sounds quite chaotic. It took me a long time to relate to it but once I got into the sounds of stars and planets, I got it. Sun Ra was playing the cosmos. His music goes left, right, up and down. Sun Ra said that he came from Saturn and that his mission was to transport black people back to Saturn through his music as a form of liberation. He always dressed quite eccentrically and he was an insomniac, producing music as well as a lot of poetry and prose. He stayed in performance and lived in his own myth. He also called himself Mr Mystery. Sun Ra’s interviews were intentional and consistent, most often confusing for people. I couldn’t imagine being the interviewer, but he was very serious and he understood the politics of the times. So this was not just a reaction to the oppression of his people but also a way of creating freedom and balance for black people.
You recently participated in a group exhibition in Bayreuth, Germany. Could you tell me about your performance and installation?
It’s called The Resonance. I’m looking at how trauma is passed on through our DNA generation after generation, which we hardly ever deal with it. My hypothesis is that no new futures can be created until we reconcile with historical trauma, otherwise we will repeat history. The exhibition is called Future Africa Visions in Time and I decided to focus on a major point in our history that most of us don’t know about which is the genocide of the Namaqua and Herero people in what is now called Namibia. Starting in 1905 a concentration camp was created on Shark Island, when it was the German South-West Africa colony. After a rebellion from the Herero and the Namaqua people, they were put into a concentration camp. In the concentration camp women were forced to clean the human remains of their own people by boiling them and then taking broken glass and scraping all the flesh off the bone. The clean bones were then shipped to Germany or sometimes used in research and experimentation on Shark Island. The whole reason was because of Doctor Eugen Fischer who was doing research on eugenics, which is basically looking at racial hierarchy.
Three thousand bones were taken to Germany. Now Namibia is asking for the return of these bones. Only about twenty bones out of the three thousand have been given back. I decided to reenact the women cleaning the flesh off the bones. In Herero and Namaqua culture, the cow has many different uses and one of them is creating beautiful grave markers. They take the cow’s skull with the horns and they stack three of them together putting them on a stake in the ground. It’s the most beautiful grave marker I have ever seen in my life. I used cow bones and cleaned them with broken glass in the performance. After the first slice on my finger, I realised the torture those women underwent. By the end of the performance I was completely bloody. But this was just one bit of torture that they were undergoing. I could never wrap my head around what it means to get a human part of a person you may know, then boil and clean them. That is a psychological break in itself. Also they were raping the women and starving everyone in the concentration camp. On top of all that, you have this work to do. I placed the bones during the performance in a Merkaba, which is a mystical teleportation device. It was my way of taking these cow bones that represent human bones and sending their spirits back into the cosmos.
For the installation I created a sound piece where you hear different planets and stars mixed with my breath. The space is dark with three different cow skulls stuck together and sprayed with black glitter. I hung them and then projected the cosmos onto them. The original cow bones that I used in the performance were placed together with the broken glass underneath the cow skulls. Again, the space transforms into a ritual space that helps the spirits transcend into the cosmos to be released. It was very emotional and transformative.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
Right now I am creating The Institute of Mythocracy. This is based off Sun-Ra’s idea of theocracy. Basically he says that we have tried democracy and theocracy and that has never worked for humans. Also he talks about how if we were human, then we wouldn’t be fighting for equal or human rights. Therefore we are all myths. I’m a myth, you’re a myth, we are all myths. So it’s this idea of recognizing the myths in our world and how prevalent myths are. From our currency and these different symbols that surround us, to constantly proving humanity. Black people know this all too well. We are constantly trying to prove that we are human. And so, he takes that and creates this -ocracy. He says, follow me within mythocracy. Well, I decided to follow him and created the Institute of Mythocracy where you can create and meditate on your own myth. Also thinking about Krishnamurti – I’m not sure what to call him – he rejected all religion, education, every institution. He is all about the truth and there is only one truth and that is your truth. Truth isn’t shared. Myths are the same way. Myths aren’t shared. You can support and engage someone’s myths but your myth is your own myth. No one can tell you that it is right or wrong. l like that level of power and liberation. In the space there will be a workspace so you can figure out your myths, mediate and be one with the cosmos, or actually with the great Sun-Ra who still lives on Saturn.
Interview Berlin 2015