In a video posted online this September, French journalist Mouloud Achour (from Clique TV) and rapper Young Thug are sitting on a lawn at the Parc de Saint-Cloud, just outside Paris. Music from the nearby Rock en Seine festival filters in, reverberating from a distance: foggy, otherworldly.
“Yeah, I’m not from here,” says Thug, his bleached dreads quivering below a wide-brimmed black hat. Under dark shades, his face is weathered and scarred, glinting with a couple of diamonds, a silver nose ring. He is wearing an Apple watch and a black Trapstar jersey.
“You heard of the new Earth that they found? It’s a new Earth, but it’s like ten times bigger than this Earth. It’s Earth, though. It looks identical, everything’s the same.” He leans forward, with a red Solo cup dangling from his hand, between bare legs and purple Nike’s. He looks to someone off-screen. “You ain’t heard of that yet? It’s ten times bigger than the Earth, but it’s Earth. It’s another Earth they just found, another planet. It looks just like Earth though, so they call it Earth. I’m probably from there.” He takes a moment, then shakes his head. “I don’t think I’m from here. […] I’m ready to go back, too. This shit petty.”
Young Thug was born Jeffrey Lamar Williams on August 9, 1991, in Atlanta, Georgia, Earth. He grew up one of ten siblings in Jonesboro South, a now demolished housing project in Atlanta’s Zone 3. By his account, he was heavily involved in gang activity by age 8 or 9; some years later, he got kicked out of middle school for breaking a teacher’s arm, after which he served at least four years in juvenile hall. Now, at the age of 24, he already has at least six kids, from relationships with multiple women.
Thug came up as a member of the R.O.C. Crew (alternately Rich Off Crime, Raised on Cleve-land, or Ready on Command), a kind of hybrid gang / rap-clique based out of South East Atlanta. After encouragement from fellow members, he started rapping seriously in 2010. He realized he had a real talent for it, and quickly accumulated buzz with his first series of mixtapes, Came From Nothing (2011-2012). In 2013, Thug got his big break—Gucci Mane, arguably the most important figure in the Atlanta rap scene, recruited him to his label 1017 Brick Squad, home to Wacka Flocka and Chief Keef. Thug later signed a management deal with Birdman (affiliated with rapper Lil Wayne). By January 2014 he was a major figure in the scene, landing a Nicki Minaj remix and approval from Kanye West and Drake.
Thug’s vocal acrobatics were, and still are, an essential aspect of his work. His delivery—high and elastic, with occasional angularity and emphatic staccato—was immediately compelling to hip-hop fans who’d already embraced what might be called, using the rapper’s own words, a “weird voice” approach, evident in artists such as Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Kendrick Lamar. Thug’s rapping style is certainly bizarre; he always seems to be contorting his words, extending them, playing with their limits, so much so that they become incoherent, even “post-verbal.” It’s a unique affect, or more precisely a lack of stable affect. His is a wackiness that refuses to flatten out into consistent patterns, mannerisms, plateaus. All of which is to say that Thug’s style stands out among the current vogue of ‘schizophrenic’ rapping styles. And while it’s true that one can hear a similar ‘schizophrenic’ style in plenty of mainstream hip-hop music (Danny Brown, E-40, Chance the Rapper) Thug takes it to a much more experimental place. This is what calling oneself an “alien” entails—being foreign to the game, speaking a language that’s sometimes literally incomprehensible.
Take, for example, songs like “Picacho,” which is in part about Pokémon, or his “Oh Ya,” which features odd bars like “You know we up, I’m not talking ‘bout no Folgers / We get 10,000 pounds of midget / The way she walk up on a player I really thought that baby know us / But she just wanna fuck them digits.” Or these obscene lines from “Chickens”: “How the hell these n****s cappin’ and get killed when clapping / Baby girl I want a camel toe just like Aladdin.” Thug is perhaps most well-known for his challenges to narrow definitions of masculinity and gender comportment that the climate of mainstream hip-hop has historically maintained. He frequently wears dresses and paints his nails, and routinely calls his friends “bae” or “lover.” All in all, Thug has managed to carve out a highly specific niche for himself in mainstream rap, making him, veritably, a self-described “alien.”
But this use of the alien as a figural element isn’t just a branding strategy, an origin story for ‘expressing uniqueness’ or ‘eccentricity.’ There is a history of the alien, of the interplanetary, one which points beyond the horizon of individual careerism, of garden-variety rap game self-aggrandizement.
October 1976: the Holy Mothership of Dr. Funkenstein (alter ego of George Clinton) and his “super-groovalisticprosifunkstication” crew lands for the first time on planet Earth, on the stage of the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. Clinton’s band, Parliament, had just released Mothership Connection, a landmark funk record which doubled as a mythological text. The conceit of the record, for Clinton, was the then-unlikely presence of black people in space, which was at that point the exclusive domain of Russians, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and so forth. Space was quickly becoming just another extension of the colonial white imaginary; Parliament intended to reclaim it for the disenfranchised masses, for “Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies.”
A few years before, in 1974, the American jazz composer and bandleader Sun Ra produced a film called Space is the Place, based on a 1971 course he’d taught at UC Berkeley called “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” Featuring Ra and his ensemble, the Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, the film begins with the discovery of a new planet, presenting an alternative to various experiences of subjugation on Earth. “The music is different here; the vibrations are different,” says Ra’s character. “Not like planet Earth. Planet Earth sounds of guns, anger, frustration. There is no one to talk to on planet Earth to understand.” The plan is to settle on the new planet—a promised land, a new home for Earth’s Black race. As becomes clear, this will require a set of temporal adjustments, or technical interventions, in the structure of time itself: “Equation-wise, the first thing to do is consider internal link-time as officially ended. We’ll work on the other side of time. We’ll bring them here through either isotope, internal link-teleportation, transmolecularization—or better still, teleport the whole planet here through music.”
Like Parliament, and like a multitude of science-fiction authors before them, Sun Ra and the Arkestra imagine space as a screen onto which they can project a new future. The language they use is a poetic appropriation and redeployment of scientific jargon, full of neologisms, remixes of technical definitions. But with Ra, what seems like the language of an eccentric musician and his cohorts is really part of a radical tradition of mythmaking, weaponized against a dominant white, colonial scientific apparatus. As he asks us in Prophetika Book One, “If you are not a myth whose reality are you? If you are not a reality whose myth are you?” It’s the proprietary status of reality (and of the future) that’s being contested in this work.
These projects from the 1970s are now seen as elements of Afrofuturism. Coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1994, Afrofuturism is an aesthetic that groups together a number of disparate artforms and artists according to their shared interest in the “link between Africa as a lost continent and Africa as an alien future,” as critic Kodwo Eshun puts it in The Last Angel of History (Black Audio Film Collective, 1996). While the hegemonic Modernist vision of the future implicitly or explicitly excludes black subjects, Afrofuturism insists on the centrality and agency of the Afrodiasporic subject in the construction of modernity. A particular moment in the late twentieth century arts is thus understood as having been prefigured by a whole collective experience of rupture, of loss, of dislocation, of hybridity. The transatlantic slave trade cuts a devastating wound in global space-time; the Afrodiaspora lives time as out of joint, space as out of place. In the thinking of Afrofuturism, the condition of life for the Afrodiasporic subject, therefore, is a perpetual “errantry,” or “rootlessness” (to borrow the terms of Martinican writer Édouard Glissant). Rather than despairing of this situation, however, she finds new ways to gather and mix disparate knowledges, languages, myths, and sciences. In a sense she has always been a time traveler, a cosmonaut, a semionaut—and not by choice.
Well into the 1980s and 90s, black artists continued to draw on new developments in science and technology as a way of imagining modes of escape. Time travel and space travel played a central role, but it was less about securing an uncolonized future destination and more about speeding things up, breaking things down. In the midst of Reagan/Thatcher-era neoliberalization, there were new imperatives. Try to reach escape velocity. Find a way out of the deadly orbit of the decaying American urban core. In places like Chicago and Detroit, at the crossroads of industrial and postindustrial production, techno and house emerged as musical forms. Groups such as Drexciya and Underground Resistance were part of a musical insurgency whose tactics included sci-fi mythologies not unlike those of Ra and Clinton. Drexciya’s seminal albums The Quest (1997) and Neptune’s Lair (1999) tell the story of an advanced underwater civilization, populated by the unborn children of dead mothers whose bodies had been discarded from ships along the middle passage. Underground Resistance, a militant, anti-corporate production collective, took on cyberpunk themes in records like The Final Frontier (1991) and Interstellar Fugitives (1998), drawing on biowarfare and computer viruses for inspiration. These were the sounds of an inertial era of localized, ruling-class “prosperity,” in which information technologies developed at rapid speeds while urban zones continued to decompose, hollowed out by deindustrialization and gradually recolonized by the advance guard of gentrification.
In late 1990s and early 2000s, Afrofuturism continued to find expression in black music genres. The Atlanta duo Outkast, comprised of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, drew critical acclaim for their ATLiens (1996), an outer space inspired album with elements of dub, gospel, and reggae. A year later, in 1997, Erykah Badu released her classic album Baduizm, which featured a fusion of free-soul and jazz. Its cover sets Badu against a black void, her head wrapped with a snake. A later Afrofuturist standout is Madvillain (2005), a collaboration between Madlib, the distributor of grooves, and MF DOOM, the man with the menacing silver mask. Obscure sci-fi and comic book citations surface in a lot of DOOM’s rhymes. The album even invokes Sun Ra—“Shadows of Tomorrow” stars Madlib’s high-pitched rap alias, Quasimoto, spitting a Ra poem over an eerie, dusty beat. The album’s stylistic influence can be seen in the music of contemporary artists such as Flying Lotus, Ras G, and Shabazz Palaces. And R&B is blessed by artists like Atlanta-based Janelle Monae, who deliberately integrates Afrofuturistic tropes—technology, space, androids—into her aesthetic, in what might be seen as a reproduction of the now-retro Afrofuturist genre, a nostalgia for the future.
Moving into the 2010s, it’s clear that there’s an intimacy between Afrofuturist experimentation and innovative forms like trap and drill music. These genres make very few explicit references to historical Afrofuturism, yet the connections are indisputable, and many of the desires and affects and even tonalities are shared. Today’s futurists are mostly located in Atlanta, though some are part of the Chicago scene. Like the best of Detroit techno, the new sonics of Lex Luger, Young Chop, Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, and London on da Track—producers who are most responsible for shaping Thug’s music, along with that of Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Migos, Waka Flocka Flame, Future, and more—are dark, gritty, mechanized. The pulsing regularities of techno have been reduced in tempo and layered with jittery, scattering hi-hats—little concentrations of intensity radiating outward over somber, synthetic instrumentation.
Young Thug’s casual invocation of a doubled, “other Earth” thus opens onto a deep continuity, one that seems to have been recently repressed, or at the very least overlooked. No doubt, the Afrofuturist drive to find a line of flight from this planet, a thrust against inertia, a way out of the present, remains dominant in recent rap music. In the most immediate sense, to leave the projects and to leave poverty behind are the primary goals of creative production—even if leaving never becomes possible in a real sense. As Young Thug points out in his Clique interview, one can make music and escape without moving.
Trace the lines of a network between utopian jazz and exuberant funkadelia, through Fordist four-on-the-floor to post-Fordist jungle and footwork. In every case it’s possible to identify a speculative engagement with alterity or alienness, with the status of futurity, and with the prospect of getting out of here. Young Thug and his Atlanta contemporaries are only the latest generation of black artists and thinkers to participate in the reopening of a consistently foreclosed future. What appears as idle fantasy or even simply idleness is political: the Thug ethos of generalized resistance, not giving a fuck, punk anti-authoritarianism, gender experimentation, even nihilism and so forth is set against a present dominated by state-sanctioned poverty, militarized police and incarceration, and ubiquitous anti-Black racism. In this music, the absence of a future, or the abyss that is the future, is reactivated and made to resonate.
YOUSEF HILMY B’16 & ALEC MAPES-FRANCES B’17 are remixes of technical definitions.