The themes and struggles present in science fiction are deeply connected with those present in black culture.
Image: Atlantic Records
"Never mind the mess/we're going to Mars next." – B. Dolan
The vast expanses of space, the fate of humans in a dystopian world, the ramifications of technology, the limits of the human body, the people trying to break them. These are the bread and butter of science fiction. But as much as people might see sci-fi as a niche genre, these themes are well utilized in worlds long ago, and far away. In fact, you're just as likely to see them on the SyFy channel as you are on Fusion or BET.
The prototypical "science fiction" nerd might be portrayed as a white teenage boy, but the themes and struggles present in science fiction are deeply connected with those present in black culture. "Black people here in the US, you're talking about a music and culture and expression from a people who got kidnapped from their land, their home planet, and brought to an alien world, and had to create a future where a future seemed impossible," Gabriel Teodros, a musician and science fiction author based in Seattle, told me.
B. Dolan, a rapper, activist and composer, agrees. He says that growing up, every kid he knew that was into hip-hop was also into comic books. "I think if you look at, I think it's a really natural relationship that happened because of economics," he said. Traditionally, science fiction has been seen cheap pulp, and was priced accordingly. "What poor people can get access to is considered poor culture. So in the hood and places where poor people grew up that was comic books. We can't walk to your nearest bodega and pick up a copy of Jane Austen."
In fact, as Junot Díaz pointed out on an episode of the Fan Bros podcast back in 2013, many of the themes in science fiction don't even make sense without living in a world with marginalized people. He said it best:
Look. Without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as people of color, nothing about fanboy and fangirl culture makes sense. What I mean by that is, if it wasn't for race, X-Men doesn't make sense; if it wasn't for the history of breeding human beings through chattel slavery, Dune doesn't make sense; if it wasn't for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn't make sense; if it wasn't for the extermination of so many indigenous nations, most of what we call "first contact" stories don't make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understand that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We're the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible. We are… in the Green Lantern Corps? We are the Oath. We are all of those things. Erased, and yet without us? We're essential.
Hip-hop uses science fiction in the same way we all do: to imagine future possibilities and to examine present realities. And in hip-hop we can see the standard science fiction themes: dystopia, transformation, the struggle for control, the questions of identity, of who is an alien and who isn't.
But in rap and hip-hop there's a special brand of world building. Certain themes crop up in their own particular way. There's more to say about the ways in which hip-hop and science fiction connect than can be said in a single essay, so I'm going to focus here on one small, but very tasty slice of hip-hop culture: music videos. With the help of Dolan and Teodros, let's take a quick tour of science fiction themes as explored by the hip-hop music video: transformation, replication, the alien, and revolution.
If science fiction gives humans a way to explore the superhuman, so does hip-hop. Stars take on personas that are larger than life, and rap about transcending the struggles and the systemic injustice that keeps so many communities of color down. "To survive that, storytelling and science fiction seemed absolutely necessary," said Teodros. "You have to imagine a future that's different from the one you live in just to have strength to live another day."
To rise above it all, stars become superheroes themselves. RZA becomes Bobby Digital, Ghostface Killah has taken Tony Stark and Ironman on as his alter ego, Eminem becomes Superman, MF Doom wears his signature mask. In "Troublemaker" by Haezer, a set of children in a small South African town get superpowers and band together as the town tries to find and kill them. In "Mastermind" by Deltron 3030, two young black kids come across a strange, digital sludge. Touching it allows them to shape shift into different bodies.
These superhero like personas are a huge part of hip hop in general. MCs are often expected to project a kind of cartoonish toughness and bravado. They have more money, more women, more guns, more bling, more grit than any human on Earth.
Science fiction has long been preoccupied with the idea of replication: of cloning, or building infinite robot replicas of ourselves. In science fiction, these themes often crop up in technological booms, when humans start to be replaced by machines. In hip-hop, they arise when artists start to be subsumed by the corporate music machine.
In hip-hop, the idea of replication also seems to be tied to the idea of the disposable. And in America, as the news has brought to the fore even more clearly recently, black lives are often seen as disposable, and easily replaceable. Janelle Monae's music-video/short film "Many Moons" shows us a future in which androids are bought and sold to the highest bidder, while the androids long for freedom. Lil Kim's video for "How Many Licks" shows a factory making "realistic," "anatomically correct," and "fully edible" candy versions of her.
The question of who is an alien, who is different, is one that comes up all the time in science fiction and in hip-hop. "Because yeah, we're seen as not human in this society by people who act inhuman," said Teodros. "You feel like an alien."
The jazz musician Sun Ra is perhaps the most famous and out-there example of embracing the alien persona. He claimed to have been teleported to Saturn, where he communicated with aliens, before coming back to Earth. His movie—we'll lump that in with music videos for now—Space Is the Place is an eclectic space adventure that jumps between Earth and a new planet Sun Ra wants to colonize.
More recently, director Hype Williams specializes in creating surreal characters and scenes for people like Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z and Mary J Blige. For a long time, Williams loved the fisheye lens, and the way it distorted an artist's face as he or she approaches. Busta Rhymes alternates between a whole slew of voodoo-esque characters in "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See", covered in body paint and feathers while traipsing around a huge mansion and circling a fire pit. In "Gimme Some More," Busta turns into an alien and raps from a boxing ring in space. One of Williams's best-known videos, "California Love," created a desert-bound Mad Max world.
Missy Elliot is perhaps the master of the alien genre. In "The Rain" she slides at the camera in a shiny black space suit full of air. In the same video she sits on a green hill, while different parts of her body inflate and deflate. In "Sock It to Me" she dons a space suit (with the help of Da Brat) and heads off to an alien planet to take on evil robots.
Teodros himself has played with the alien themes in his own work. In a series called Copper Wire he raps as a half-human half-alien kid who grew up on a space station. He said that working in these science fiction themes can also open up his work to those who might otherwise shy away.
"It's fun thing to do, you can talk about really personal things and you can take your identity out, and certain people who might be scared of you or that topic, who might be turned off, can interact with themselves in a new way," he said.
Dolan's video EarthMovers explores what is alien in a different way. In it, he wonders at how strange our current ways of thinking about construction and the world are. He says he was inspired by being in Reno, Nevada, and looking up at the wall of a hotel dotted with rows and rows and stories and stories of air conditioners. "Wow, what a weird race of people that has decided to live here in the desert and is totally reliant on these boxes," he told me he thought at the time.
Perhaps the natural progression of all this is the theme of revolution—after transforming into people with power, and interrogating a culture and society that sees you as alien, foreign and ultimately replaceable, artists experiment with the idea of shutting it all down. "We're on the other side of time, black musicians, black artists looking for liberation and equality in the distant future," Dolan said. These are the videos of the woke.
Deltron 3030 creates a virus that blows up the entire world. Lupe Fiasco's video "Words I Never Said" shows us a world where police have literally muzzled the people, and jail anybody who speaks out against the government, and ends in a jailbreak and uprising. Seattle rapper Byrdie uses a transformer-like robot to destroy his city.
"To see a hip-hop artist, a black artist I know in a city that continuously treats black people like they aren't anything, as these robots just kicking over the whole building, there's something very therapeutic about seeing that," said Teodros.
There are more themes than this, of course, and more videos that use these themes. We didn't talk about dystopia, or language barriers or artificial intelligence or technology or the isolation of space or time travel.
Science fiction's modern, official history is deeply colonial—some of the earliest published Western stories and movies were based on exploration stories, going out and finding "uncivilized" worlds. Black writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler struggled for years to have their voices heard.
But that's not to say that these themes, these science fiction ideas, were dreamed up or are owned by the West. "When we're talking about black culture specifically, I feel like science fiction is not a new thing. A lot of people use the term afrofuturism like it's a new idea inside of black culture, and I know it to be something very ancient," Teodros said. Teodros's family is from Ethiopia, home to an endangered language called Ge'ez, one of the languages the Bible was originally written in. In the Ge'ez version of Genesis, the angels come down to Earth in a mänkorakur.
"Mänkorakur is a word that there was no translation for in other languages," Teodros explained. "It means spaceship. So we had a word for spaceship. So there are elements of sci-fi in our storytelling as far back as you go."
So while it might seem like fans of hip hop and fans of science fiction don't have much in common, they do. In fact, many of them are the same people.
It's not hard to see why nerd-culture can often be portrayed as the realm of rich white kids. They're the ones on television ads, in sitcoms and movies. If you search any stock image service for the word "nerd" you'll be met with a wall of white people. "There's a certain aspect of nerddom or fandom that is restricted to those who have a lot of time and resources on their hands," Dolan said. "To build a goddamn costume or own every edition of the book just for the sake of owning everything in the series."
But those aren't the only markers of nerddom, he says. And by other measures, hip-hop artists are geeks to the bone. "There is no rapper or hip-hop artist that isn't a nerd," Dolan said. "You can't do it if you're not a nerd. I'm sure there's some pop star maybe who isn't, but if you're talking about the real creators of rap culture, they're all huge nerds. They're isolated in their rooms for years, to become the RZA, or whoever. They know every record, they know every beat, that's a nerd. That's universal. We're all nerds, for sure."