In 1970 Gil Scott-Heron released his song-poem "Whitey on the Moon," a stark reminder to a world still transfixed by the Apollo moon landing that all Neil Armstrong's talk of a "great leap for mankind" rang pretty hollow to a black America that had struggled for civil rights only to see its leaders murdered and its newfound freedoms tainted by violence and economic alienation.
It seemed clear at the time that all the optimism and grandeur of the space race was reserved for only one section of American society: Whitey got the stars; the black man got the ghetto.
But against this ran another—equally strong—cultural current. Starting with the free jazz of Sun Ra, and amplified in the cosmic funk of George Clinton and his Mothership, a group of African-American musicians, writers, and artists looked to space, and to the fantasies of science fiction, proposing the idea: "If we can't be free on Earth, then we'll find liberation elsewhere in the galaxy." Or, as Sun Ra put it, "Space is the place."
The action heroes of the old sci-fi films may have been entirely white, but the stars of what became known as Afrofuturism weren't just interested in passively watching these stories on the screen; they created their own mythology, embodying dazzling psychedelic, utopian personas and creating some of the coolest, weirdest music of the 20th century in the process.
As music and technology progressed into the 80s, the guy who carried this revolutionary torch forward more than any other was Afrika Bambaataa, the so-called godfather of hip-hop and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, an international hip-hop awareness group. His 1982 hit "Planet Rock"—performed in a get-up that was half-robot, half–ancient Egyptian priest—was a landmark moment in the history of both electronic music and hip-hop culture.
We caught up with Bambaataa in London, where he's doing an event on Afrofuturism at the BFI, to talk about hip hop mysticism, black sci-fi, and Charlton Heston movies.
VICE: When people think about futurism in music, they think about technology. Your crews were some of the first to introduce machines like the Roland TR-808 into popular music. What made that one piece of equipment so special?
Afrika Bambaataa: We started adding stuff to make our DJ set more interesting. Grandmaster Flash had this certain beatbox that used to drive people crazy. There's a vinyl we put out called "Flash It to the Beat" that showed his talent on that. I used different types of beat machines and I worked up to the Roland. Then, from the 70s to the 80s, in the downtown scene—when I started playing in the punk scene at the Roxy and all—that's when I started adding the Vocoder.
You were also super eclectic, drawing in all kinds of stuff from Yellow Magic Orchestra to Kraftwerk
[Laughs] What they call a mash-up today. We was mashing it all up back then. We just went to obscure record stores in New York City, digging into crates. Down in the Village there was a lot, but also in my own community. A lot down by Bleecker Street and Broadway… they used to charge crazy prices. And then Downstairs Records started to follow what we were playing and charging more for it for everyone else.
I have to give credit to my mother—she played a lot of different music in the house. One minute you could hear soul, like James Brown and Motown and the STAX-Volt sound, and the next minute it could be African sounds like "Mama Africa" by Miriam Makeba, and calypso and salsa or Salsoul [Records]… and then more pop sounds like Edith Piaf and Barbra Streisand, to, like, Three Dog Night and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was heavy into all that.
Then "Planet Rock" came out and suddenly people realized there was all this other technology that you'd already been using.
Well, I have to give credit to both Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk—and even Gary Numan. Numan was doing that thing with "Bombers." That was one of the early records we used to play when rappers was rapping. I don't know if Gary even knows there was so many black and Latino youth jamming to his music.
But when "Planet Rock" came out it changed the whole industry. Everyone just went crazy with electronic music, saying, "What, I don't have to use a band?"
It was fun. It got crazy when we started performing. Even in areas where we were regular before, people were chasing us. It was bugged out—a real exciting scene.
So, as we're talking about futurism and sci-fi, I saw a quote from George Clinton talking about Buck Rogers and how much that show meant to him—he called it "the beginning of television." Did sci-fi in popular culture also influence the persona you took on?
Oh, big time. Whether it was Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon… old movies. I used to bug out when my parents showed me the old Batman movies. We were caught up on the 60s Batman with the giant words flying in your face, like "POW" and "BLAM" and all that. So I liked the old ones from the roaring 20s—that bugged me out.
But what definitely took you there was when Star Trek and Lost in Space came out. That was no joke. And Bewitched. Bewitched was so powerful, even to this day. I go back even now and be like, "I wanna see where the string is at." But you can't find the strings—they made that look so real, and back then it wasn't like the Matrix movies or something. This was Bewitched in the 60s, and they'd break a glass, then make the glass come back together—or they'd be in the house, then they'd wave their hands and be on a plane or something. Then the offspring of that show came out, I Dream of Genie… that stuff played a big role.
I totally did not expect to be talking about Bewitched today.
Yeah—that stuff was great, though. I mean, look at all the stuff that they did back then!
In terms of Afrofuturism in particular, did it ever seem like those shows were totally white—that there was only one culture being represented?
You definitely saw that. But then you'd pick up on certain things, like how they were dressing. Like, in Bewitched, I saw Endora, Samantha's mother, wearing a dashiki. She wore a long dashiki and everything. I was like, "Wow."
Then the first time you saw Planet of the Apes, you were like, "Woah, they're wearing funky leather clothes and riding on horses!" But then you get a little older, and your mind starts expanding and you look at the meaning behind that and you saw how deep that was.
It was powerful—Charlton Heston thought he was going to leave Earth and go to another planet, but he didn't know he was still on Earth but in another time period. And suddenly the apes are ruling, and it's not monkey see, monkey do, it's human see, human do. And then they found out that he could talk—because the monkeys were doing mind control, like, "Lock him in a cage, make him a slave." And it showed us about how we treated animals.
And then the secret hidden order of the orangutans knew the secret, but kept it from the rest of the population. That was deep—that jacked your head up.
Then, when you guys came out with the vocoder and the costume and your whole vibe in the late-70s and early-80s, it was like you were half-robot. That was a cool way of plugging into the whole space technology thing.
We definitely felt that, from these weird sounds and music we could make, that it was like our own version of Outer Limits and Twilight Zone and all that—like Alfred Hitchcock and Dark Shadows with Barnabus Collins and Angelique and vampires and werewolves and leviathan. That's where I started learning my occultist things—hearing those words; 666 and all that.
An excerpt from "Space Is the Place," starring Sun Ra
With guys like Sun Ra and George Clinton, and yourself, there was also a deeper political edge, too. Like, "Black folk can't be free on Earth, can't be free in America—so we're going to go to space."
Well, George Clinton was dropping the ideology he learned from the Nation of Islam, from the Honorable Elijah Mohamed, about the motherships. So he tapped into what Elijah and them was teaching—and tapped into what the ancient Africans already knew about.
And I've been plugging into that ever since. It took Sly and Uncle George to take me there with the funk, and through the different ideologies. And then, with all the movies that I seen, I started weaving it all together. I got into the code-breaking mode. It hit me at a young age that this was fantasy and entertainment, but then I realized that what your fantasy is becomes your reality—and what your reality is becomes your virtuality. You can be alive and then fall into a dream state.
That's interesting what you said about Egypt. What I find most interesting is the way a lot of these guys, in order to change the future, would re-imagine the past and ancient mythology. Like in "Renegades of Funk," the first verse is all about history, the second is all about cosmic shit in the future.
Well, you gotta know where you was in the past so you can know where you're at in the present, so you can control where you're going in the future.
Like, look at the movie The Ten Commandments. That's one of the first movies that grabbed me and made me look back at witchcraft and magic. Because it was Moses—who was truly a Kemetian, because he learned the Kemetic ways—who said the Great Creator talked to him. And when I say the Great Creator I mean the first rapper, who was rapping to the prophets. But he didn't know what he was talking to. It could have been an angel or a burning bush, or a UFO, but the story said he was meant to be talking to God—Him or Her or Itself. And that He gave him powers.
So he went to Pharaoh and was like, "What you doing Pharaoh? I'm gonna' throw this staff down and it's gonna turn into something and tear your ass up." And he threw it down and it becomes a snake. Then Pharaoh looked at Moses and was like, "You ain't sayin' nothin'—I can throw it down and it turns into something, too." So I saw that and wanted both of them powers.
You also founded the Universal Zulu Nation, which turns 41 this year. What was the idea behind creating that?
Well, the idea was to take what was presented from all these different groups that was out there, and starting something in the community to slow down the gang life and bringing groups together. It was after seeing that movie Zulu—and seeing indigenous aboriginal people fighting for what was theirs against British Imperialism—I said, "I'm gonna get me a Zulu Nation."
So, going through the gang era, I always had Zulus on my mind – but I wouldn't bring it out fully-fledged until it was the right time to make the move. And it took in different ideologies, whether it was the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords. And then, as I progressed, I went into different religions and beyond—that's why we try and bring so many people within the Zulu Nation.
Tell me about that.
Like, we do Infinity Lessons. We say life keeps going and there's always a lesson, and it's as infinite as the Great Creator—Him, Her or Itself. So anything is everything and everything is anything—so what we go for is Factology over belief. Because belief systems… you don't really know what that is. But when you see a UFO or something, you've seen it now. It is identified, but you just don't know exactly what it is.
So it's the same with our lessons—you got facts. So you say Columbus discovered America—that's a popular version of truth. But then, when you find the facts of it, do you go crazy?
Who discovered America?
Many people have been in America way before—the Moors were there; they been up and down. Black people are the indigenous people of all America, even before what you consider the Native Americans. And you had Vikings that came. Most people think that Vikings were all white—Vikings was mixed black and white, and Saxons and all that. People think we were just in Africa, but we were also in America… you could walk out of Morocco right into New York.
There is that mystic, or esoteric, thing in hip-hop, with, like, Rakim and Wu-Tang referencing the Nation of Gods and Earths, all the way through Jay Electronica.
The Nation of Gods and Earths is still Nation of Islam. The Zulu Nation dealt with Nation of Islam, we dealt with Five Percenters, Christians, Hindus, Bhuddists. In Zulu Nation our lessons can come from any person that did their research. It can even get spooky. It can get mystical and still lead back to Factology. We're all dealing with knowledge in hip-hop. Understanding and overstanding.
"Renegades of Funk"
Getting back to sci-fi and fantasy, people like Amiri Baraka and Alondra Nelson have spoken about how sci-fi is an obvious way to talk about the black experience in America—basically a story of alien abduction, confrontation with the "other," and being strangers in a strange land.
That speaks to me. My introduction goes back to the past. Anybody that's human looks into space—you see the sun and moon, the stars and Milky Way and whatever—and you think, What's up there? Then you start thinking about the things on Earth that psyche you out.
And then you start thinking that there's something more than you out there. People say you're crazy and stuff, but where's the Earth? We're just sitting in the middle of space—the middle of the universe. Really, we're all extraterrestrials.
I've always found it odd that what's been labelled the "birth of hip-hop"—what you were doing, which was really psychedelic and universal and utopian—seems to completely clash with the other reputation hip-hop has, of being thuggish and violent.
That's the reputation they projecting it has. Most people think of hip-hop and think of a rapper. So, if you focus on a certain rapper and he's trying to be bad, talking all, "Bitch, ho, nigger… this and that," then everyone picks on that and thinks that's hip-hop. That's because of program directors—they program the minds of the mass of the people.
But if you play the new with the old, and the old with the new, it ain't old school or new school—it becomes true school. I don't care if it's hip-hop, house, rock, jazz, soul, classical, country or whatever—just play the new with the old and the old with the new.
People aren't looking at the whole cultural movement of hip-hop. That's still here. They say hip-hop is dead, and I say, "I beg your pardon." Hip-hop as a culture is still living. There's events going on all over Europe, all over Africa, all over South America and the United States, and they're not focusing on the whole cultural movement—they're focused on what's been pushed through mind control… that they can follow just a rapper and that's [perceived as] hip-hop.
They should be paying attention to the whole cultural movement—there's B-boys, B-girls, DJs, MCs, teaching the knowledge. But they don't think it's worthwhile because they want everything to deal with commerce and money. So if you just focus on what's making money then they just blame the whole of hip-hop, and that's silly.
One more question about where we're at now. Back in the 60s and 70s everyone was talking about going to space, but what actually happened is we went to cyberspace—have you plugged into that version of futurism?
I've definitely plugged into it. I mean, you log on at 9 PM then you forget you're meant to sleep, and you're still there at five in the morning, just watching the little colored circle spinning around.
Cyberspace can take you anywhere you want to go to. You can be grounded in what's happening here or you can go into virtual worlds… or into a trap. But it can take you to worlds you wouldn't see while you're living on this planet. It can be used to control, like they did in the Matrix movies. Like, you start controlling the machines and the machines end up controlling you. It gets deeper as time goes on.