Revisiting the awesome Afrofuturism in '90s R&B videos


Afrofuturism—the music, art, literature and activism that explores the black experience through science fiction—is undergoing a resurgence.

Not only can you turn on the radio and hear Janelle Monae, who brought a android-in-love to musical life in her Metropolis trilogy—but she is about to star in her first film alongside Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer. The still-untitled film will chronicle the true story of the African-American women who worked on NASA’s early missions.

Music has always been a driving force of Afrofuturism, but somewhere between the cosmic philosophy of Sun-Ra and cyborg beats of Janelle Monae, there were a group of artists whose music may not be associated with the movement, but whose music videos presented iconic images of future blackness. Here are seven times ’90s R&B served up some seriously Afrofuturistic scenes.

  1. TLC, “No Scrubs”
  1. Left Eye is cyber perfection in this blue borg get up. The entire video takes place in what seems to be the grooviest space station in the galaxy. One thing is certain: There are no scrubs in space.
  2. Blaque, “Bring It All To Me”
  1. When Blaque asks you to “bring it all” to them, that includes your teleportation box. They beam around the city and end up dancing with hologram versions of the men they have chosen in some kind of miniature virtual space within the box. A fantastic voyage to be sure.
  2. Aaliyah, “We Need A Resolution”
  1. Technically, this video came out in 2001, but we couldn’t leave baby girl Aaliyah off the list. She floats through a tunnel on some kind of cyber mechanical throne and hovers on an invisible bed in some kind of sonic chamber. At times it feels like technology might bring the resolution she’s looking for.
  2. Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson, “Scream”
  1. The Jacksons have always been stars meant for the heavens, and in the video for “Scream,” they take us there, via a trip on their tricked-out spaceship. As if earth could not contain the rage within this song, they transport us into the outer reaches of space with weightless dance breaks, remote-controlled art, and a meditation chamber. Stop pressuring them! Unless you are pressurizing the ship, so that they can breath properly.
  2. Busta Rhymes & Janet Jackson, “What’s It Gonna Be?!”
  1. Speaking of Janet: She starred alongside a liquid metal version of Busta Rhymes in this special effects-heavy video. He looks like a version of the T-1000 from Terminator, while she is well-pierced dominatrix perfection, and together they dance with a marching band in this surreal Hype Williams production.
  2. Missy Elliot, She’s A B**ch
  1. …And speaking of Hype Williams, he has been responsible for so many of our favorite music videos over the years. Williams was really key in establishing these future looks, key among them the fantastical world of Missy Elliot. Here she bounces through a Tron-like landscape; then looks like the long lost cousin of Morpheus, rocking a serious trenchcoat; and finally rises from the ocean on a monolithic ‘M’ for the dance break.
  2. Missy Elliot, “Sock It To Me”
  1. Honestly, we could have included Missy Elliot’s entire canon here. She consistently shows us images of empowered black women across space and time. In this clip, she is taking her fight to space, where she engages in an anime war to the death with a planet full of robots. Any world that Missy creates is a world I want to live in.

Thanks to my colleague Dodai Stewart for mining old videos with me.

And if you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, come to our office Wednesday, March 30 at 6:30 p.m. for a night devoted to Intersectional Futures and the legacy of Octavia Butler, which is part of our Real Future Lab series.

Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin