‘A space for imagining’: Exploring the impact and influence of Afrofuturism

How the Dayton region has a claim on both its historical development and contemporary practice.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Credit: Marvel Studios

Afrofuturism demands society look beyond the present into worlds yet explored, where the fullness of Blackness blooms without limitation.

The definition of this broad, multi-faceted and cross-generational art form was introduced by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future,” a part of his anthology “Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture.” The term describes “speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African American concerns in the context of the 20th century technoculture, and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”

More than 30 years later, Afrofuturism continues to make a global impact in its unique, thought-provoking blend of Black culture, science fiction, technology, liberation and imagination through the perspective of the African diaspora. From blockbuster films such as “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” to aspects of literature, music, poetry, theater, visual arts and more, Afrofuturism and its imagery has taken Black pride and Black thought to greater heights of collective consciousness, particularly within mainstream pop culture.



The Dayton region can lay claim to the historical development and contemporary practice of Afrofuturism thanks to an array of artists with local ties whose work has been inspired by the genre, and in some instances, helped formulate its aesthetic.

Academy Award-winning production designer Hannah Beachler, a Centerville High School and Wright State University film graduate, filled the “Black Panther” films with striking images of Afrofuturism. In a 2022 interview with the Dayton Daily News, she credited director Ryan Coogler for his forward-thinking vision that addresses a primary aspect of Afrofuturism: creating imagined worlds.

“He braided all these elements together in a very eloquent, beautiful way that catches the imagination of young people while helping older generations imagine a better way, a better future, a better world,” Beachler said. “‘Black Panther’ contains a truth that is not often found in fantasy films, a truth rooted in a resilience of a culture in a country deep beneath the fantasy of the Marvel comic universe.”

Credit: Russell Florence

Credit: Russell Florence

Beachler is also using Afrofuturism in her relatively new career transition to the stage. In 2022, she designed sets for the new musical “Mandela,” directed by Dayton native Schele Williams in London’s West End, and she’s currently responsible for colorful designs grounded in an African sensibility for the highly entertaining, Black-emboldened Broadway revival of “The Wiz,” which opens in April and is also directed by Williams.

“I’m really excited about ‘Mandela,’” Beachler said as the London premiere approached. “We’re bringing a sense of Afrofuturism into the story and not letting the audience off the hook with what apartheid has done. We’re all culpable.”

Afrofuturism in funk

Dayton has always been proud of its funk music heritage thanks to legendary groups such as Ohio Players, Lakeside, Faze-O, Slave and Zapp. The message and music that poured out of these bands as well as others including Parliament-Funkadelic featuring Cincinnati native Bootsy Collins paved the way for a movement toward Afrofuturism decades before the term existed.

In his keynote lecture at the 2021 Dayton Funk Symposium at the University of Dayton, Rickey Vincent, lecturer in African American Studies at UC Berkeley and author of “Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One,” discussed the artistic marriage of Afrofuturism and funk.

“(It’s) the combining of the ancient and the future, the past memories and the ‘exaltation of Black liberation unbounded’ expressed in 1970s popular music,” Vincent said. “The 1970s was perhaps the only moment in Black history when dreams of a better future were not simply revealed, but (momentarily) brought into reality.”

Credit: Contributed photo

Credit: Contributed photo

One of the most definitive examples of this indelible marriage stems from the groundbreaking artistry of the late Roger Troutman, founder of Zapp. The multi-instrumentalist changed the future by placing the future in his voice. Incorporating a vocoder “talk box” to create computerized vocals, Troutman’s memorable 1986 ballad “Computer Love” revolutionized how R&B could be interpreted while leaning into a futuristic soundscape that would inspire the hip-hop generation.

“When Roger Troutman of Zapp mastered the ‘talk box’ — actually a vocoder —he pushed the boundaries of the dance floor party sound,” Vincent says. “Everyone was trying to sound futuristic, and Roger’s ‘talk box’ involved placing a tube in his mouth, in which he would talk and sing into his keyboard and produce electrified human vocal sounds. The impact was exhilarating, creating hit after hit, and reached the hip-hop world through his collaboration with Dr. Dre and Tupac on ‘California Love’ in 1995. Zapp and Roger would become one of the most sampled acts in hip-hop history.”

Afrofuturism in liberation, literature and legacy

Vincent’s keynote also noted how Afrofuturism redefines ideas of Black liberation.

“Afrofuturism is a response to rigid definitions of Black liberation,” he said. “It is the ‘rise of the Black geek.’ Through cosplay (re-enactments), costumes, comics, games, and various forms of participatory activities and identifications, definitions of Black heroism, leadership and possibility are constantly challenged.”

And it is through this “Black geek” lens, often bolstered by the power of the written word, that Afrofuturism expands its reach and race.

“‘Black Panther’ was a comic book from the 1960s,” said Chicago-based collage artist, poet and educator Krista Franklin, a Xenia native who grew up in Trotwood. “We think about ‘Black Panther’ as a cinematic and Marvel phenomenon, but this (story) was going on for a while and was niche. How many adults are reading comic books? I do but that’s not something you would typically associate with the mainstream. There is also a lot of Black politics involved in ‘Black Panther.’ The movies did a good job of expressing the tensions that were happening in the comic book series.”

Credit: zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o'neal

Credit: zakkiyyah najeebah dumas-o'neal

Franklin’s acclaimed work has been inspired by science fiction, the Black Arts Movement and Afrofuturism. She’s also the author of “Solo(s),” “Too Much Midnight,” the artist book “Under the Knife,” and the chapbook “Study of Love & Black Body.” Her visual art has been exhibited at DePaul Art Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, Chicago Cultural Center, National Museum of Mexican Art, and the set of Fox’s Emmy-nominated drama “Empire.

In 2023 she blended poetics, pop culture and histories of the African diaspora for an exhibit titled “Solo(s): Krista Franklin,” which was presented from July through December by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. She’s also immersed in an ongoing project titled “… to take root among the stars.”

“It is an archival project in handmade paper that strives to capture evidence of Afrofuturist and Afrosurrealist thought in the 20th and 21st centuries,” Franklin said. “It’s exhibited widely, including the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati a few years ago.”

She studied Afrofuturism for many years and still uses it as a framework, but it wasn’t until she attended graduate school at Columbia College Chicago that she began to apply it to her craft. She found her artistic spark in the compelling works of the late Black science fiction author Octavia E. Butler (“Kindred”).

“I had long wanted Octavia Butler’s works to have cinematic interpretation — to see her novels on the big screen,” Franklin said. “I did not see that happening so I decided to create images in response to the novels. I started creating collages that were inspired by each of her novels. I used the structures and concepts of Afrofuturism to think through my making. Octavia Butler never considered herself an Afrofuturist — she considered herself to be a writer. She was more concerned about her work dealing with futuristic ideas such as notion of the alien and the fantastic.”



She also praises Troutman and Dayton native Greg Tate, the late activist, critic and musician who was deemed an early architect of Afrofuturism for his advocation for surrealism and science fiction within the context of race.

“Dayton has some incredible contributors and contributions to the concept of Afrofuturism,” Franklin said. “First being the late brilliant writer and cultural critic Greg Tate who is one of the forefathers of the concept and was born in Dayton. Roger Troutman and Zapp (innovated) the fusion of technology and funk. I mean, ‘Computer Love.’ You can’t get any more Afrofuturist than that.”

In a 2015 interview with CapitalBop, a Washington D.C.-based organization dedicated to promoting, presenting and preserving jazz, Tate addressed the essence of Afrofuturism and his involvement.

“It’s like a beautiful compendium of the cats who were obsessed with what I call the ‘imagineering’ of ideas — putting Black folks in a science fiction setting, in the future, or in the retro-future, listening back to ancient African kingdoms as a kind of science fiction fodder. The thing is, even before anybody came up with the term, there was already a history. When Mark Dery came up with the term, it was already a historical subject.”

In the 1960s, iconic Dayton artist Willis “Bing” Davis, longtime arts educator and owner and curator of the Willis “Bing” Davis Art Studio and EbonNia Gallery in the Wright Dunbar district, discovered how life-changing Afrofuturism could be.

“In 1965 it led me to change my teaching focus and my art,” Davis said. “I stopped teaching art and began to teach people. I (saw) the utilization of African imagery in art as a way of understanding self and appreciating others. My work, which has a look and a feel of an Africanist, is consciously intended to show that reflection.”



However, he acknowledges the Afrofuturism terminology back then as “African Continuum,” which incorporated similar traits, adhering to Black aesthetics that could be traced back to the African diaspora.

“African Continuum used the elements of African structure and African life that could still be found in African American life today in regards to where they are in the diaspora, (including), the influence on music, dress and speech patterns or slang,” Davis said.

Afrofuturism in photography and dance

Multidisciplinary artist Shon Curtis, a portrait and commercial photographer born and raised in Dayton, has also recently pursued Afrofuturism in a series of work.

“I have to maintain a thread of truth while also being open enough to explore what’s beyond,” Curtis said of his photography. “And what lies beyond is Afrofuturism. I’m creating photos of people who are not done with their journey. They have to see themselves further so they want their photos to (compel) the viewer to lean into the direction they’re going. So, I articulated the future self while maintaining the present self that was in front of me. The work that I create needs to have an impact. My goal is to have a footprint to document the time we’re in, the space people are in and what they are trying to say to the future.”

He also views Afrofuturism as a significant cultural touchstone that speaks to representation while particularly growing the mindset of Black children.

“We have to continue to write, work or create our way into the future,” said Curtis, who grew up a fan of Bill Cosby’s futuristic comedy “Leonard Part 6″ and also respects the classic works of the aforementioned Butler. “We want our kids to aspire and our kids need to see themselves in the Afrofuturism space. You are what you see. We have a huge populace of children who aspire to be basketball players or entertainers but the reality is we have to keep seeing ourselves as everything in order to become everything.”

Professional dancer, teaching artist and choreographer Countess V. Winfrey, a Dayton Contemporary Dance Company member since 2014, has embraced Afrofuturism in recent years as she and her colleagues create pieces rooted in the African American experience. She says her artistic instincts are refreshed by the thought of Black people, Black culture, existing in a time unknown, especially from a social justice perspective.

“We haven’t seen the future so Afrofuturism presents a space for imagining that’s a little bit different than making a piece about the civil rights movement or the George Floyd protests, those things we can see right in front of us that have a very clear blueprint.”



In addition to presenting “Under the Sun: An Improvisational Arts Experience” at the Dayton Arcade in 2023, the Nashville native created a site-specific work for the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2022 titled “Homage: What was, Is, To Come,” which spotlighted the Black experience of the past and present, and the dream of a Black future in the now.

“I’m a firm believer that we can’t truly imagine a future if we don’t really know what our past looked like and what our present looks like in order to know how we want our future to look,” she said. “For many obvious reasons, it’s been hard to come out from under the thumb of the oppression that African Americans have experienced over the course of centuries. I think Afrofuturism starts as a mindset that then transforms us — the way we show up, the way we feel unapologetic about who we are. Afrofuturism is freedom in the mind and spirit.”

As Winfrey contemplates different facets of Afrofuturism, she excitedly applies the term to entrepreneurship. As Black-owned businesses continue to open in downtown Dayton such as CULTURE, After5 and The Reserve on Third, she views the trend as an encouraging sign of a positive Black future encompassing the natural evolution of Afrofuturism.

“Reclaiming, renewing and reinvigorating older spaces in Dayton and making them new is an example of Afrofuturism,” Winfrey said. “This is something African Americans have always done over generations — making something out of nothing. To see a space and imagine the way you want it to look through your lens is a concrete example of Afrofuturism we can see today.”

Afrofuturism and Dayton, Ohio

Krista Franklin: "Transatlantic Turntable-ism." Collage on canvas. 2005.

"Afrofuturism demands society look beyond the present into worlds yet explored, where the fullness of Blackness blooms without limitation." - Read Russell Florence's story about Dayton's many connections to Afrofuturism. Throughout February, Ideas & Voices will feature artists and others to discuss our region’s contributions to Afrofuturism. You are invited to follow along.

About the Author