An Afrofuturist Happening in the Northern Quarter

When I first mentioned that I’d love to see an alternative afrofuturist event in Manchester, I didn’t know how it would go down. I mean, I’m always up for deep meta discussions and literary analysis, thinking up new ways of inspiring positive action but, whilst afrofuturism is sort of ‘in’ right now (it even gets a mention in the Guardian Arts section!), would anyone else apart from myself and some friends be interested in what was looking like a bizarre hybrid between an open conference and a coding/arts and crafts event?

It turns out the answer was yes.

Erik Steinskog, 'We Travel the Spaceways: Afrofuturist Space Programs'

Erik Steinskog, ‘We Travel the Spaceways: Afrofuturist Space Programs’

Throughout the day, MadLab was absolutely packed with people from all over the country and further afield, all come together to listen to a host of brilliant speakers and performers. Even as someone who’d worked there, I don’t think I’d ever seen the venue so filled up to the point where sometimes people had to actually stand at the back. And yet, whilst there were so many people, during the talks the space would get so quiet as people were absorbing all that was being said. During the breaks, between sorting out lunch and saying hello, I’d hear snatches of conversation and debate as people were really engaging with and dissecting the content, no matter how esoteric or academic. This, I couldn’t help but keep repeating to myself, is why we need to get together more often.

Meanwhile, upstairs on the second floor, there was an all day coding space. Being a total blerd, you can imagine how happy I was when one of the volunteer tutors told me about a little girl who basically sat through an entire tutorial on web development. Getting more black and minority ethnic kids into tech is something I’m passionate about – not, as I’m always saying, just so people can get cool jobs but to empower individuals in an increasingly technological age – and it was very heartening to see there was an interest. Robots, next time!

The coding took a break during the DIY time travel workshop led by Rasheedah Phillips from the AfroFuturist Affair, which I was unable to attend myself but was clearly a very impactful experience as everyone kept talking about how much they’d learned and how it had made them really look at their media, the world around them and their personal experiences in a completely new light.

Later on during the day, Rudy Loewe led the zine-making workshop where people got to create their own (fabulous) means of ‘change-making through art‘. I know I’ll be popping into the local Travelling Man whenever I’m back in Manchester to see if any has become a regular feature!

The mix of talks, exhibition and live performances seemed to go down really well, as did the all vegan catering. We went from Erik Steinskog demonstrating how Sun Ra’s dreams of the black person in the cosmos is becoming a reality through the 100 Year Starship program, to Travis Alabanza‘s riveting poetry demanding a truly radical, intersectional movement for all black people; from Reynaldo Anderson‘s astro-blackness and an examination of afrofuturism’s multi-dimensionality to Jenny Terry‘s exploration of how Ellen Gallagher – exemplifying the aesthetic dimension of afrofuturism – captures the socio-cultural reality of the black experience through the use of futuristic visual tropes in her art.

Moor Mother Goddess

Moor Mother Goddess

Special mention must go to the electrifying performance from Moor Mother Goddess which had us stunned, in tears and then ending in utterly enthusiastic cheering and applause. Through hip-hop, theatre and role-play, her lyrics told of our pain, but also our strength as marginalised communities. That we can transform our experience of being ‘othered’ into something that helps us become ‘bettered’ was a recurring theme. We heard from Natalie Luwisha how Yakhani encourages young black women to support each other, to nurture their ambitions and be bold to choose the paths less taken; Carlyn Worthy, inspired by the works of Nalo Hopkinson and Adrienne Maree, took us on an introspective journey, helping us to reclaim and redefine our own personal and social narratives, putting it into practice in our everyday lives.

It struck me several times just how brilliant it was to see such a range of black people and allies from different backgrounds and experiences. From the United States to Durham; from Copenhagen to Montpellier, we were all coming together to take part in the same game – reimagining the blackness of the future. Through his analysis of musical genre and dissection of dark and black music, Damion Kareem Scott showed how black music and genres such as afrofuturism helped (and still do) push the various aspects of music production into a more futuristic space whilst Souleymane Ba, through his deconstruction of ‘Zone One‘ by Colson Whitehead gave what was in many ways an analysis of how racial narratives of the past can still inform, even if only in an ironic way, the narratives of our futures.

The great thing was hearing the excitement about another event in the near future, which would be a good opportunity for us to improve, firstly by getting a fully accessible venue and allowing more time for panels and discussions, all crucial things if we’re serious about taking further the concept of using afrofuturism to inspire new ways of activism and public engagement.

Overall, I can only say that I found myself truly reinvigorated to keep up the good fight. One thing’s for sure – there will definitely be more to come.

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