Décembre 2023 | Theorizing Black Popular Culture:
Afrofuturism in the Context of Global Communication

Françoise Clary, université de rouen


Any examination of contemporary societies has to acknowledge the centrality of popular culture. Similarly, Black popular culture has to acknowledge the centrality of global communication and can only be understood within the context of the societies and cultures of which it is part. This essay raises questions lying around the idea of the popular and provides an overview of the ways in which social theories of contemporary societies may deal with the place of global communication in the production of Afrofuturism as a cultural aesthetic that is based on the long history of African Americans, and combines science fiction, history and fantasy to invite a reappraisal of the issue of utopia as a construct within an ideology. In counterpoint to traditional images, this essay ends with an exploration of the role of global communication in questions of identity, ethics and citizenship.


Toute étude des sociétés contemporaines se doit de reconnaître le rôle central de la culture populaire. De même, la culture populaire noire se doit de reconnaître l’importance centrale de la communication de masse propre à la Globalisation et ne peut se comprendre que dans le contexte des sociétés et des cultures dont elle fait partie. Cet essai soulève la question du populaire et donne un aperçu de la manière dont les théories sociales des sociétés contemporaines sont à même de traiter de la place de la communication de masse liée à la Globalisation dans la production de l’Afrofuturisme en tant qu’esthétique culturelle basée sur la longue histoire des Afro-Américains, qui associe la science-fiction, l’histoire, la fantaisie et invite à une réévaluation de la question de l’utopie, sujet de réflexion au sein d’une idéologie. En contrepoint des images traditionnelles, cet essai explore, finalement, le rôle de la communication de masse propre à la Globalisation dans les questions d’identité, d’éthique et de citoyenneté.




        Popular culture, often commodified and stereotyped in fiction, films, and other forms of entertainment, has emerged as a site of investigation within contemporary mass communication research and cultural studies. This essay is concerned with Black popular culture as a public phenomenon that helps provide a source of identity, a means of social exchange and a sense of community for African Americans. It proposes to analyze some of the forms taken by participatory culture, and particularly Afrofuturism, the cultural aesthetic based on the long history of African Americans that combines science fiction, history and fantasy, to explore the African American experience. From its beginnings as a marginal literary genre to its current form as a mass, multidisciplinary global movement, Afrofuturism is an expansive term covering astral jazz, techno music, science fiction and visual art. Through its central themes of alienation, innovation and activism that envision liberated, utopic futures for Black life, Afrofuturism—a term that was introduced by scholar Mark Dery in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future” as a way of defining existing trends in Black literature and 1980s technoculture—aims to connect people from the Black Diaspora (in other words, the communities that were dispersed from Africa and germinated in the New World) with their forgotten African ancestry. Because it creates a language, a new semiotic, in order to negotiate a way out of a power dynamic, Afrofuturism can be grasped as the manifesto for a minority’s journey toward utopia.
        In the context of global communication, outlining the most important set of issues that currently face participatory culture and the public sphere, are several theorists of media cultures, mass communication, and society. A central question lies around the idea of “the popular,” for which Stuart Hall, Adam Roberts, John Fiske and Jürgen Habermas offer various answers. Hall argues that “popular culture . . . is an arena that is profoundly mythic . . . where we discover and play with the identification of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first time” (32). Adam Roberts takes Hall’s idea—that popular culture is the result “of the cultural politics of difference, of the struggles around difference, of the production of new identities” (24)—one step further when he comments that aliens in pulp fiction movies have always been imaged as sharing characteristics with people of African descent. Despite the implied notion of difference, the clusters of concern mentioned by Roberts include the themes of solidarity and community. Their concerted juxtaposition actualizes several points of contrast together with the need to “open up a space for those voices still to be recovered and for those yet to come” (Roberts xxi). In the course of examining theorists’ views that popular culture is “a site of straight contestation” (Hall 26), counterposed to elite and high culture, it may also be noted that arguments have been set out for each of the main lines of inquiry. First, there is Hall’s contention that popular culture “has historically become the dominant form of global culture”. Then, common to the writings of Roberts and Hall, is the idea that “Black popular culture is a contradictory space . . . a sight of straight contestation” (Hall 26). Fiske offers another account of the nature of the popular, related to a definitively subjective construction : “The people, the popular, the popular forces, are shifting sets of allegiances that cross all social categories” (24), while Habermas’s theoretical orientation tends to emphasize that mass culture is best represented as “a culture of motivational integration” (173).
        In Black popular culture, even problematic findings from more critical research have a role to play as popular sensibility, like the “power-bloc”—that is to say the dominant cultural, political and social order—should be thought of as alliances of interest. One remark to be made about “the popular,” is to stress its continuous activity. Indeed, Black popular culture opens up a new, performative space of contestation to rebuild the story of Africa and satisfy the desire for a form of contestatory politics. “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” wonders Hall (21-33). No doubt Black popular culture has long been a contradictory space. However, globalized communication and the circuits of dominant technology have made it a site of strategic contestation. The emergence of new voices can mark a difference that needs theorizing as these voices address African American concerns in the context of twentieth, and twenty-first century technoculture.
        In fact, to theorize Black popular culture is to acknowledge the possibility of a change based on minorities’ desire to incorporate power and negotiate their way out of the situation they find themselves in. Most important is the emergence of Afrofuturists’ voices from within their race community. They combine utopian literature and science fiction, whose speculative nature is the core of subversion because it redefines popular culture and notions of Blackness for today and the future. Ishmaël Reed in Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Samuel Delany in Trouble on Triton (1976) or Octavia Butler in Dawn (1987) and The Parable of the Sower (1993) give examples of the voices that have emerged to explore race from the spaces of the past, and to imagine a freer expression of Black subjectivity in the future. Creating a utopia enables the reader to re-imagine what the future may hold as a construct offering minority groups a space from which to negotiate an identity within the dominant discourse. Thus, through the works of such Black science fiction novelists as Reed, Delany or Butler, and also through astral jazz with musicians like Sun Ra and his use of ancient African traditions, or visual art and films like the 1996 documentary The Last Angel of History, directed by John Akomfrah, Afrofuturism redefines popular culture and notions of Blackness. This intersection of imagination, technology, and liberation has gained considerable pertinence in popular discourse and succeeds in imagining possible futures from a Black cultural perspective. Within popular culture, Afrofuturism opens a significant affirmative space that should be explored. Besides, if literary and artistic works represent important fields of investigation, they may, obviously, also provide a better understanding of the emotional mechanisms of memory. Afrofururist artists’ progression from a language of opposition and subversion to one of memory enhancement is therefore worth examining. At the same time, the centrality of mass communication, which invites a reappraisal of issues as varied as ethics and citizenship, associated with such concepts as heightened consciousness and identity formation, should not be put aside.

Afrofuturism: An Open Space of Contestation
        The term “Afrofuturism” refers to a thriving current movement of authors, artists, musicians, and thinkers who are African American, African and from Black diaspora. Afrofuturism is a body of creative work and academic thought that imagines greater justice and a freer expression of black subjectivity in the future or in alternative times, places, or realities. It makes assumptions about a society in which black people are the norm. Afrofuturism may also envision dystopian futures in which current inequalities are extrapolated and frequently made worse. However, Afrofuturist art frequently challenges ideas of linear time rather than simply focusing on the future by examining the advantages and disadvantages of techno-culture and posthumanism. Although the movement has undoubtedly grown significantly in recent years, particularly around 2000, its philosophical and artistic roots may be found in African American books from the middle and late nineteenth century that envisioned alternate worlds and societies for black people.
        Theorizing black popular culture can be understood as the construction of a language of difference, that is to say a system of ideas intended to be the illuminating agent of contrast between the speculative world—where minority groups have achieved equality—and the real world. In the context of global communication, it is important to note the emergence of new, subversive Black voices. They have come from within the structure of science fiction that has acted as a platform from which African American writers have found a way to actively negotiate their image and redress the negative stereotype of the alien. From the perspective of global communication, there are numerous innovative modes of public expression enabling the minorities that are the targets of racism to re-image themselves out of negative stereotypes. Theories of popular culture point to an alternative sphere which has its base in the past memories and the traditions of the people. This type of alternative sphere mirrors Afrofuturism whose dual, utopian, futuristic nature is part of African American science fiction writing while its historical roots are in Black culture.
        Multiple public spheres of global communication exist. Among them, Afrofuturism offers a space open to the expression of Black memory where the African American community is written into books, such as Ytasha Womack’s Post Black (2010), or imaged into films, such as The Last Angel of History (1996) by Edward George or, finally, incorporated into music, such as Sun Ra’s cosmic-inspired jazz in the mid-1950s whose music has served as an essential mouthpiece of Afrofuturism. Three insights, drawn from contemporary and historical case studies, can be helpful to those interested in discussing the theorizing of black popular culture through the channels of global communication. First, Afrofuturism can provide an open space for contestation. Then, marginal popular culture can enable minorities to create their own memory enhancement. Marginal groups are thus likely to design their own popular rituals of dissent in the context of global communication.
        Afrofuturism is a case study in point. The theatrical construct of the plot in works drawing from African American science fiction as a genre offers many possibilities for contestation and subversion. This is not because minority issues are brought to the fore. It is rather the speculative nature of Afrofuturist works that can challenge the dominant discourse. Afrofuturism, just like African American science fiction, reflects Black popular culture’s vision of a possible space in which minority groups can negotiate directly with the majority. By crossing the boundaries between reality and fantasy, Afrofuturism provides a vision of a speculative world, with utopian characteristics, that “negates the contradictions in a social system by forging visions of what is not yet realised either in theory or practice” (Moylan 1-2). One example is Ishmaël Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), a dizzying novel constantly blending the real and the surreal, action and erudition. In this context, various possibilities of subversion are offered by the novel’s main character who reimagines identities. He is Black America’s soul because he represents both Black music and Black dance. Born at the turn of the century in New Orleans, changing names with the times—ragtime, blues, jazz, boogie, soul, funk, hip-hop—Black music is embodied here in PaPa LaBas. This protagonist is at the same time a sorcerer and a detective, a political militant and a great initiate who takes up the fight against white extremists and thereby activates liberation by re-envisioning the past. Reed combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy in a novel, giving rise to an inexhaustible search for an enhanced future to redress the trauma of identity loss.
        The emergence of new voices from within Afrofuturist fantasy illustrates how far Afrofuturism can extend and be a reference for expressing subversion or opposition to the status quo. In Delany’s works, for instance, people of African descent are shown negotiating their own image out of the definition of Blacks as inferior citizens and re-image African Americans as people independent from the normative values of the Establishment, and determined to develop their own lives along radically libertarian lines. Thus, in Triton, Delany turns the main protagonist, Bron Helstrom, introduced as an immigrant from Mars to Triton, into a defender of individual freedom. The hero is described as an individual born on Mars, whose society is said to be a harsh one. He has moved away from the dictatorship imposed on Mars to an area where no laws apply at all. That area, free from retrictive laws, is Triton where the government has no power to regulate private behavior. Technology has reached such a high degree of sophistication that it can provide for any self-modification. It enables anyone to change their physical appearance, gender or sexual orientation.
        Interestingly, Delany focuses on the margins of the public sphere. By choosing fantasy, the African American novelist focusses the narration on speculation and heterotopia to take minority people to another place—Triton, at war with planet Earth, is this “other place.” Basically, Delany tackles subjects related to social and political communication that frequently concern conventional and mainstream media. And yet he discusses just a few cases, historical and contemporary, of marginal political communication, notably when introducing Bron Helstrom as a symbolic immigrant who moves from the place where he was born (in the novel it is Mars) to flee violence. Going further, Delany clearly aims to highlight forms of mediated communication that are overlooked in typical discussions of media. This is exemplified by the description of someone deeply involved in a planetary war and the embattled world of Triton, realizing that there is nothing left for him to do except become a woman, and re-image his gender and sexual identity.
        Science fiction writing is used by Delany as a didactic tool that enables him to turn gender into a subversive element because it can be viewed as “Other” in the context of popular culture. This introduces a reference to “the feminine Other,” an echo of Roberts’ analysis of the “Othering” process when he contends that “History has given us the Other as Jew, as Black, as Arab, as East Asian (‘The Yellow Peril’) and as Woman” (66). The aesthetics of the novel function as a space for subversion, open to the intersection of various topics such as race, gender, and sexuality. This perspective recalls the process of deconstruction of Black male and female bodies undertaken in the field of Afrofuturist visual arts by the Kenyan-born African American artist Wangechi Mutu who uses her art as a form of revolution. Her work of sculpture, collage painting and live video performance explores questions of self-image and gender constructs, with a focus on the feminine Other, a concept that is amplified to gruesome dimensions, as in Sketchbook Drawing (2011), a book featuring grotesque human figures fused with animals, plants or machines whose purpose is to inspire Black people to imagine new possibilities and better futures.
        In Delany’s work, Afrofuturism provides visions of different potential futures for African Americans. Delany places the plot on a planetary level by describing how fluid Triton’s government and social structures are, compared to the governments and social structures on Mars and on Earth. When, in the aftermath of the destructive, interplanetary war, the main protagonist finally understands that he needs to strive to become a unique individual, and refuses to be quashed, as he desires above all to feel proud and fulfilled, he enables Afrofuturism to be theorized as a cultural aesthetic, and a philosophy of science and history.
        Combining elements of Afrofuturism and Transhumanism may lead to new visions about African American future. Octavia Butler—just like Delany—ranks among the African American science fiction writers eager to imagine a better future for people of African descent. In Dawn (1987), she presents the future of an African American protagonist, Lilith, whose body has been scientifically enhanced and her identity altered. The space left for speculation enables the writer to introduce minorities’ opposition to the dominant discourse by developing one of the main themes of the novel, the idea of Otherness. Thus Lilith, one of the few survivors of a nuclear war, learns that one of the reasons that humanity was condemned to destroy itself was its hierarchical nature. Lilith meets an alien with tentacles all over its body—it introduces itself as Jdahya, a member of a race called the Oankali whose ship is a living organism. Lilith is so repulsed by Jdahya’s appearance that she can barely look at him. Lilith learns that Jdahya is a male Oankali and also that the Oankali have three genders, male, female and oankali. Butler lays the emphasis on the role of the protagonist as a challenger when she depicts Lilith as a transhumanist character whose role contibutes to the demarginalisation of African Americans’ future identity. In this respect, Butler adopts the Afrofuturistic sense of using scientific knowledge when she introduces perspectives on the necessity of body enhancements to extend humanity. What is evident is that these concerns are articulated in terms of Habermas’s emphasis on universal forms of citizenship as a means of reintroducing the themes of solidarity and community into the debate, when he argues:

Today, as the nation-state finds itself challenged from within by the explosive potential of multiculturalism and from without by the pressure of globalisation, the question arises of whether there exists a functional equivalent for the fusion of the nation of citizens with the ethnic nation (117).

Butler and other Black writers of the 1990s turned to science fiction to explore the structures of oppression in the real world. For instance, The Parable of the Sower, which was also adapted into a piece of contemporary music, is a post-apocalyptic novel following the protagonist’s struggle to lead a group of separatists to freedom.

The Sharing of History: Afrofuturism and Memory Enhancement        
        The term “Afrofuturism” has been introduced within popular culture as a mode of memory enhancement. It is symbolic of a cultural aesthetic and a philosohy of science that examines the developing dialogue between the African Diaspora, that is to say the people of native or partial African origin, and emergent technologies. Considering that a shared Black past has been deliberately rubbed out, the cultural critic Dery analyzes the movement of artists who have searched to redress the trauma of this loss; his main question being to know whether the imagination of Black futures is possible. He therefore asks, “Isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers who have engineered our collective fantasies?” (41). Afrofuturism relates to the power struggle waged by the upholders of Black culture, eager to disrupt the social, political and cultural dominant discourse. Dery describes speculative fiction as the most fitting mode of expression that Black people have in order to convey their emotion. What concerns him most, though, is to know why “so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other—the stranger in a strange land—would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African American novelists” (41).
        The intention here is to explore in some detail how this form of speculative fiction might produce special opportunities for a prominent visual coverage of African American experience. The question is to know whether it is likely to carry the possibility of longterm protection against the hegemonic culture. Afrofuturism represents a spiral of resistance within popular culture despite its fragmentation that the specificity of history can shape or suppress. To be more historical, in the sense of being more deeply involved in a historical past, theorists contend that “it’s time for us to stop viewing the African American community in its monolithic image and view it instead in its very fragmented and diverse image” (Wallace 90). The present-day challenge is assuredly coming from the minority. Being imaged as “Other,” as different from majority society, African American artists have created a digital language, a new semiotic borrowed from cyberculture (to be understood as a set of shared atttitudes, practices, and goals associated with the world of computers and the Internet). Their purpose is to negotiate a way out of the dominant culture and into a futuristic, utopian space. Whether it is in the graphic arts, music or cinema, Black people’s history and culture are introduced as related genres, though they are all centered on Black experience.[1]
        Combining science fiction and philosophical essays, The Last Angel of History, the 45-minute documentary written by Edward George of the Black Audio Film Collective, and directed by the filmmaker John Akomfrah in 1996, is a part of the present-day engagement of Black culture with digital technologies. Often described as a utopian construction of African American empowerment, it pursues the demarginalisation of African Americans’ future identity. This film combines science fiction with visual art presented in a documentary, which constitutes an important, underused, and so far underestimated resource. After providing audiences with valuable data from audiovisuals more quickly and more easily than could be done via purely verbal communication, the artists from the Black Audio Film Collective proceed surprisingly. They introduce reframed, archival and documentary material within an overarching fictional narrative. As a consequence, an error-free grasp of information is offered. Interestingly, this is combined with greater emotional involvement.
        The Last Angel of History is, clearly, a meaningful example of the incorporation of Black people’s history and culture in science films. This documentary reveals that the link uniting Afrofuturist films is their centering of the Black experience in alternate and imagined realities, past or present. Several movies illuminate the notion of Afrofuturism in different ways. For instance, in Blade (1998) the superhero film, the main protagonist is a human-vampire hybrid, Frank Blade, played by Black actor Wesley Snipes, who protects humanity from evil vampires. Black Panther (2018) is another Afrofuturist superhero film. Directed by Ryan Coogler, this film stars the comic book character “Black Panther,” who is the king of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, located north of Tanzania.
        Devoted to memory enhancement, The Last Angel of History, like Blade and Black Panther, illustrates the type of aesthetic developed by Afrofuturism, relying on visual and verbal stimuli that are processed simultaneously. In this documentary, words are combined with pictures so that they become building blocks from which different meanings are constructed. What Akomfrah has produced could be termed a video essay. It includes a surprising cast of Black cultural figures, most particulaly, Ishmaël Reed, who makes his point not only as a successful novelist but also as the controversial promoter of Black postmodernism which, to him, is the fittest literary approach to creative Afrofuturist works because it is characterized by self-referentiality, epistemological relativism, moral relativism, pluralism, irony, irreverence, and eclecticism. Most significantly, in Reed’s interview the emphasis is laid both on the dynamics of Black history and culture, together with an argument for the development of a Neo-HooDoo aesthetic from the Caribbean. Interweaving historical truth and fancy, Reed’s interview is articulated around the idea of a fantasy world, expressed in artistic freedom, which provides cues about the context of the film. To put it crudely, in parallel with the words from insightful interviews with African American writers, there is a dual process at work in The Last Angel of History. First, a reiteration of the power of culture and history, then, a process of Afrofuturistic technology to communicate both across the African Diaspora and beyond it.
        The Last Angel of History enables the audience to enter the space of Pan African culture and view it from two different perspectives: first of all, the producer lets the public understand the comments made by the artists present in the film, notably Delany, Butler, and Reed who discuss the politics and culture of the future. The second perspective is reflected in Akomfrah’s challenging prevailing assumptions. For instance, there is a futuristic tone in the exploration of the creative works of Pan African artists, among whom funkmaster George Clinton and his Mothership Connection, an album held together by an outer-space theme. Clinton puts Black people in strange situations nobody ever imagined they could be in—they are represented in the White House, or in outer space with images that might be drawn from Star Trek. Meanwhile the language used in the album is street talk and ghetto slang. Mothership Connection illustrates the double link entertained by the master of AstroFunk with Africa simultaneously presented as a continent of the past and as an alien future. The influence of Sun Ra can also be seen in many aspects of Black music that appear in The Last Angel of History. This composer and piano player grounds his practice of Afrofuturism in a musical tradition of performing blackness, making an important use of myths, particularly when centering his work on a mythical future with the return of Blacks to outer space.

Mythmaking is the way Africa, as a continent of the past, is introduced into Akomfrah’s film which juxtaposes the representation of ordinary events with dream-like elements and mythology. The use of myths is present from the very beginning of the film when listening to the opening monologue delivered by an enigmatic commentator against a wistful musical background of African American blues. The following words uttered, as an introduction to the film, by a thoughtful character whose eyes seem to be scrutinizing the sky, are pronounced slowly and carefully:

We came across the story of a bluesman in the 1930s, a guy called Robert Johnson. Now the story goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in the Deep South. He sold his soul and in return he was given the secret of a Black technology, a black secret technology that we know now, the blues. The blues began jazz. The blues began soul. The blues began hip hop. The blues began R&B. Now flash forward two hundred years into the future. Two hundred years into the future, the Data Thief is told a story…Find the crossroads. You’ll find fragments, techno-fossils… Crack the code and you’ll find the keys to your future. You’ve got one clue, and it’s a phrase: Mothership Co..nnection. (The Last Angel in History)

        The myth of the man who sold his soul to the devil is all encompassing. Spirits and gods are significant in the African world view. Some of these spirits are figures of the dead.
        The passage devoted to the identity of the Black community is in keeping with the futuristic trend of the film. A focus has been placed on meaning, and the elucidation of how people’s search for identity makes sense. Everything in the film suggests that any general effort to examine social experience must inevitably be interpretive, qualitative and critical. In Akomfrah’s film, the verbal lead is a liberating and democratic rhetoric of memory enhancement that cannot be separated from the human oppression of colored people.
        As a primary cultural connection is established between outer space, the future and music, audiences interpret the audiovisual cues provided for them. Combining pictures with music and words makes the messages of Akomfrah’s film more representative of the concept of Afrofuturism as a metaphor for the displacement of Black culture and its historical roots. Besides, a quick glance at the complex visual scenes, in contrast with the standardized picture codes through which reality is simulated, suffices to identify a situation of memory enhancement. Analyzing the use of audiovisual rhetoric highlights the contrast between Pan Africanism—that tends to centre on the past—and Afrofuturism heading for a connection with Africa, not so much as a lost continent of the past but rather as an alien future.
        There is undeniably a reliance on audiovisual rhetoric in The Last Angel of History. Its design makes it a hybrid documentary with a fictional narrative that creates a network of links between music, space, futurology and the Black diaspora. Based on the assumption that content determines form, the audiovisual rhetoric has extremely rich forms of expression here. It is thus interesting to point out the rhetoric of distance or estrangement underlying Akomfrah’s film, which is constructed in matching segments, with a succession of points of view emanating from the different artists who intervene throughout the film. This variety of talking-head clips is an essential element because it raises an aesthetic awareness that fits the documentary segments. Another form of audiovisual rhetoric is linked to the focus on metaphors; the animated art mainly depicts visual metaphors, from Sun Ra dressed like an Egyptian to former NASA astronaut Harris Jr and the science fiction spaceship. Clearly, the ever-changing vision of a calendar whose pages are being flipped over at breakneck speed against a backdrop of shifting techno and jazz music, culminating in the vision of a science fiction spaceship, is an audiovisual language whose rhetoric underpins the film’s Afrofuturist theme.
        As many of the artists interviewed in this film indicate, Afrofuturism often fosters feelings of collective belonging. In fact, global communication, cyberculture, and even, more seldom praised, popular culture lifestyles have tended to establish links between mass communication and the popular. As a consequence, the cultural implications of the African American and other African diaspora communities raise a further question about the way global communication relates both to popular culture and identity formation.

Global Communication and the Popular: From Heightened Consciousness to Identity Formation
        The term “popular” refers to one of the most widely used notions in media theory, and there are various ways in which the term has been used. One sense corresponds more or less to the size and composition of the audience. Thus, as mass media have grown so much that they have become a form of global communication, with a composite audience, they may be said to relate to popular culture. This perspective corresponds to a quantitative use of the term “popular.” The other major senses of the term are political, philosophical, and aesthetic. Yet they are also analytically distinct; consequently, the notions of heightened consciousness and identity formation should be treated as such.
        Fiske argues that mass media communication is a topic that is part of, rather than separate from, popular culture. Indeed, the production and reception of mass media are determined by political, economic, social and cultural processes which are by no means strictly rational. There is a gap between the interests of production, characteristic of capitalism, that produce cultural forms, and the interpretative concern of the audience. According to Fiske, there is, deep down, a difference between the “power-bloc” and the “people” (in other words, groups with shared social allegiances across class, race, age and gender divisions). What is to be kept in mind is the fact that the “power-bloc” creates mass production which is then transformed and given meaning by the “people.” Although, as Fiske contends, “popular culture is made by the people, not produced by the culture industry” (24), there are undoubtedly connections between global communication and popular culture.
        One of many personal communication and popular culture issues is to understand how Black popular culture can fit into global communication. Actually, Black popular culture is produced by “the people.” It is the product of people’s experience and historical roots, whereas much mass communication technology and the globalization of culture have a common interest and often act as a single political force. “The people” and the “power-bloc” can assuredly be perceived as opposites. When looking critically at the notion of “popular,” its usages can be traced back to the Renaissance as it was used as an antonym to “elite” (Williams 198-99). This still is the principal use of the term. There are, nevertheless, several senses in which the notion of the popular is used, the major ones might be termed “political” and “aesthetic.” In this context, in making the transition from oral tradition to written literature, Black popular culture has given people the necessary imaginative scope to face the situations they have created or encountered in real life. Fiske gives his own version of “the popular” as a subjective construction:

“The people” is not a stable, sociological category it cannot be identified and subjected to empirical study, for it does not exist in objective reality. The people, the popular, the popular forces, are shifting sets of allegiances that cross all social categories; . . . By “the people”, then, I meant this shifting set of social allegiances, which are described better in terms of people’s felt collectivity than in terms of sociological factors such as class, gender, age, race, or what have you. (24)

In this understanding of the nature of the popular, it seems that Fiske gives the word an aesthetic sense, seeing it as a part of what constitutes the subjective positions of “the people,” and, beyond this, as a means of generating controversial content by making sense of people’s heightened consciousness of how to stimulate tactical, political or sociological subversion. Unlike this subjective construction of the people’s involvement in “the popular,” the “power-bloc” represents a combination of forces of domination. These forces are expressed in institutions, politics, industry, the media, the education system and the law. They do not represent a particular class, but an association of interests exerting social, educational or political power. Considering that it is the power-bloc which has constructed the public sphere, and has extended its control to mass communication, popular opinion is definitely one of the only forces which has the power to turn commercialized mass culture into a globalized site of resistance to the so-called “power-bloc,” in other words, as already mentioned, the dominant cultural, political and social order.
        The process of resistance within popular culture is not to be found in classic cultural texts or within spaces defined by the dominant social group. Theoretically speaking, it is found in the process of shaping attitudes, which has been the most powerful tool in the context of globalized mass communication ever since the media started acting as a mirror to society. It follows logically from this that Afrofuturism is a valuable example of mass-produced popular culture in the context of global communication. The popular artist is necessarily engaged in shaping identities. The concerns that are addressed when defining the self necessarily include heightened consciousness, but cover many areas since, in many instances, minorities are present in utopian and science fiction texts, which has the advantage of highlighting the differences in real societies by portraying aliens and/or alternative societies. One example of this dualism in the process of identity formation may be seen in Ben Okri’s work of magic realism The Famished Road (2003).
        The popular work which deserves serious attention, and which provides a touchstone for criticism of the material from the mass media, is often imaginative. There must be some creative intention behind the imaginative work, even though it is communicated in a popular form and/or in an accessible medium (Hall and Whannel 80-81). Mark Dery’s Flame Wars: the Discourse of Cyberculture—mentioned above—is a collection of essays that view from the outside the creative process aiming to claim, as their terrain, increasingly large spheres of social, political and cultural phenomena. The varied contributions to Dery’s book highlight several sociologically, culturally and technologically grounded concerns with the practices of human activity, in a world of global communication increasingly mediated by computers. One of the developments which has spurred cyberculture is the tendency to view more and more domains of human activity as belonging to the popular culture of the future. Questions of identity, in other words the socially constructed self with regard to gender, or with a focus on the role of sexuality, could be perceived as a consequence of the way people interact with machines, as testified by the various themes tackled in Dery’s study of cyberculture.[2] Readers discover the creative process in the popular subculture of global communication within an online world peopled with new age mutant ninja hackers; technopagans tempted to worship the computer as an occult engine; an African American woman reincarnated in a powerful cyborg; or devotees of “compu-sex.” Included in Dery’s book, the interview with Samuel Delany raises another question: the challenge of cyberculture and the role of global communication as an agent of identity formation.
        Anselm Strauss defines attitude as a process of individual consciousness which determines the real or potential activity of the individual in the social world. Similarly, David Myers sees attitude as a favorable or unfavorable evaluative reaction toward something, or someone, exhibited in one’s beliefs, feelings or intended behavior. In this respect, Rammellzee, a New York visual artist and key theorist of Afrofuturism, formalizes the gothic afrofuturist concept (which associates the gothic tradition of the American South with Afrofuturism), turning it into an attack on conventional ways of manufacturing knowledge. Global communication and cyberculture re-articulate popular culture or popular art as illustrated by the role played by Professor Sipho Seepe from South Africa’s Vista University. As part of the process of africanizing knowledge, Strauss investigates the validity of classifying attitudes. Three different functions are underlined by the sociologist: Knowledge (that helps people to structure the world by organizing and interpreting information so that it makes sense); Ego-defense (that can help people suffering from frustration); and Value-        xpression (that serves to express one’s central values and self-concept). This classification of attitudes provides the bases for the theorization of Afrofuturism, but Afrofuturism does not rely on a single doctrine. It associates art, education, music with a focus that no longer emphasizes the state of the disempowered, but rather presents their re-empowerment. Theorizing African American popular culture from the perspective of attitude formation relates to the way individuals perceive the function of information: knowledge comes first as Afrofuturism has a manifesto that no longer negotiates an identity within the system of power (a reaction of ego-defense), but seeks to re-empower a racial group by moving beyond definition and into action (a demonstration of value-expression). Drawing from Strauss and Myers’s social psychology helps highlight the various theories of cultural influence, and understand how a minority can be led to use condensation symbols to stimulate emotions and thus be enticed to associate these symbols consciously or subliminally with their cause: reversing the othering process.

Concluding Remarks: Popular Culture Outside the Mainstream but within Global Communication

        Can the domain of cultural studies be labelled “popular culture,” or does it consist of something beyond that? From the perspective of political communication, the development of popular culture in the form of Afrofuturism makes it clear that a variety of issues, both historical and contemporary, are being communicated via present-day popular culture outside the mainstream. Still, if the conclusion is that the subcultural practices of what is akin to cyberpunk fiction offer a precognitive view of what mainstream culture will be in the near future, then popular culture may be appraised through technological interfaces, in other words, as something beyond.
        Considering that Akomfrah’s Afrofuturist Last Angel of History is a science-fiction video-essay on Africa, history and memory, then the historical influences of Afrofuturism can be identified as coming from myth and music. It is by linking the historical roots of Afrofuturism with the influence of the musician Sun Ra, who reaffirms his pride in Black history and reasserts its spiritual and mystical dimensions, that one can see new forms and possibilities of mediated communicaton to be developed from the margins of the public sphere.  Paul Miller considers that there is a kind of catharsis in living through the past for future permutations in African identity and claims that world famous musician Sun Ra can be considered as a product of cyberculture. By extending Black popular culture to Global communication, he has created the opportunity for a future utopia where Black people will be free (Miller).

Works Cited and Consulted

Butler, Octavia. Dawn. New York: Warner Books, 1987. Print.

Delany, Samuel. Triton. New York: Bantam, 1976. Print.

Dery, Mark, ed. Flame Wars.The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.

—. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove Press, 1996. Print.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. Print.

Moylan, Tom. Demand the Imposible. New York: Metheun, 1986. Print.

Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989. Print.

—. “Citizenship and National Identity.” The Condition of Citizenship. Ed. B.V. Steenbergen. London: Sage, 1994. Print.

Hall, Stuart and Paddy Whannel. The Popular Arts. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “What is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Black Popular Culture. Ed. Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992. 21-33. Print.

Moylan, Tom. Demand the Imposible. New York: Methuen, 1986. Print.

Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Strauss, Anselm. “The Concept of Attitude in Social Psychology.” Journal of Psychology 1 (1992): 229-39. Print.

Wallace, Michele. “Popular Culture: Theory and Criticism.” Black Popular Culture. Ed. Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992. 85-91. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords. London: Fontana,1976. Print.

Yaszek, Lisa. “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future.” Socialism and Democracy 20.3 (November 2006). Print.

Documentary Film

Akomfrah, J. The Last Angel of History. London: Smoking Dog Films, 1995. Film.


Web Links

Afrofuturism. “Films, Videos and Software.” http://www.Afrofuturism.net/text/film/html. 23 May 2021.

Miller, Paul. “Living through the past as a kind of reflection site for future permutations.” 2007. http://www.afrofuturism.net/text/Manifestos//Miller03.html. 23 May 2021.

Myers, I. “Attitudes.” 2011. Available at http://www.3.nd.edu/attitudes.html. 23 May 2021.

Rammellzee. Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism. http://www.afrofuturism.net/text/Manifestos/Rammellzee01.html. 23 May 2021.

Sun Ra. www.sunraarkestra.com. 23 May 2021.



Françoise Clary is Professor emeritus of American literature and civilisation at the University of Rouen, attached to Duke University and a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Contemporary Communication, Lagos, Nigeria. She is a specialist in African American literature and culture, and is involved in research on the black press. She edited Media, Pouvoir et Culture de l’Image aux États-Unis (PUR) and various articles on media culture in the black diaspora, including “La presse noire aux États-Unis: Segmentation et poussée islamique” (PUR) and “The Image of Africa in Cyberspace: Patterns of Political Economy of Mass Communication in a Globalized World” (CRD, Enugu, Nigeria). Her latest publications are on Colson Whitehead, Terry Mc Millan, and Jean Rhys.


Françoise Clary est agrégée, professeur émérite de littérature et civilisation américaines à l’université de Rouen, attachée à Duke University et membre du comité directeur du Journal of Contemporary Communication (Lagos, Nigeria). Spécialiste de la littérature et de la culture africaine américaine, engagée dans des recherches sur la presse noire elle a, notamment, coordonné l’ouvrage Media, Pouvoir et Culture de l’Image aux États-Unis (PUR) et publié divers articles sur l’expression médiatique de la Diaspora noire, tels “La presse noire aux États-Unis. Segmentation et poussée islamique” (PUR), “The image of Africa in Cyberspace : Patterns of Political Economy of Mass Communication in a Globalized World” (CRD, Enugu, Nigeria). Ses dernières publications portent sur Colson Whitehead, Terry McMillan, et Jean Rhys.


[1] For instance, Black is King (2020), the musical film and video album directed, written, and produced by American singer Beyoncé is not only a rendering of Afrofuturistic Blackness in the twenty-first century but an urge for Black people to recover their pasts in order to create their own futures.

[2] Vivian Sobchack’s “New Age Mutant Ninja Hackers : Reading Mondo 2000”; Eric Davis’s “Tecgnosis, Magic, Memory, and the Angels of Information, Virtual Surreality Our New Romance with Plot Devices”; Marc Laidlaw’s “Virtual Surreality: Our New Romance with Plot Devices”; Claudia Springer’s “Sex, Memories, and Angry Women”; Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace”; “How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society”; Manuel De Landa’s “Virtual Environments and the Emergence of Synthetic Reason”; and Gary Chapman’s “Taming the Computer.”