Junot Díaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made (or at least implied) two interesting arguments about SF and minorities. Firstly, the preoccupation of the central character with SF (or more strictly fantasy) is portrayed as part of his general weirdness and isolation. It’s middle-class white kids who obsess about Tolkein, not teenagers from the Third World. Secondly, however, Diaz demonstrates how well SF — a genre inherently concerned with alienation and identity — works to reflect Wao’s circumstances. Indeed, reading the book left me wondering about the relationship between the first point and the second. Why aren’t there more voices of colour in SF?
OK, I know there are some. Offline, Maxine and Rjurik and I were recently talking about Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican-American SF writer (about whom I know very little). There’s Octavia Butler, too, and I’m sure there’s others. Nonetheless, SF is still overwhelmingly whitebread.
What makes the question more interesting is the prevalence of SF themes in black popular music. On the way to work, I was listening to Lee Perry’s Time Boom X De Devil Dead, the only really great album he made after his Black Ark days. In his mid-career phase, Perry took the black nationalism of his early years into outer space, developing his own weird mythology in which Rasta rhetoric mixed with spaceships and aliens and so forth.
Perry’s lyrical preoccupations are often discussed purely in terms of his own eccentricities (burning down his recording studio, worshiping bananas, etc). But the mad scientist persona he adopts is actually quite a common one amongst his generation of dub producers. Thus the Mad Professor, shown here giving a lesson in how dub works.
Even the more rootsy Scientist made records like this:
If you listen to the dub greats, you can see how a science fictional rhetoric dovetails with the more usual reggae themes about race and oppression, just as in Junot Díaz’s book.
There’s something similar in American popular music. In an article for Slate last year, Jonah Weiner wrote about the connection between SF themes and black musicians:
In 1927, the Rev. A.W. Nix, a preacher from Birmingham, Ala., entered a recording studio to commit several of his sermons to wax. He intended to release them commercially on the burgeoning gospel-music circuit. A Southern Baptist, Nix had an ear for the musical possibilities of oratory and a taste for fire and brimstone. His sermons, delivered in the rich, ravaged singsong of a Delta bluesman, bore darkly chastening titles like “Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift” and “The Prayer Meeting in Hell.” Tucked into this catalog of apocalyptic warnings, though, was “The White Flyer to Heaven,” a rapturous, six-minute homily about riding a spaceship piloted by Jesus up to the pearly gates: “Higher and higher! And higher! We’ll pass on to the Second Heaven, the starry big Heaven, and view the flying stars and dashing meteors and then pass on by Mars and Mercury, and Jupiter and Venus and Saturn and Uranus, and Neptune with her four glittering moons.”
“White Flyer to Heaven” is probably the earliest recorded evidence of a phenomenon that’s persevered in black music ever since: Call it the Afronaut tradition. Last Tuesday, rapper Lil Wayne put this tradition atop the pop charts with his No. 1-debuting album Tha Carter III, which sold a stunning 1,005,545 copies in its first week. Lil Wayne starts from a hardened gangsta-rap template, but outer space has figured into his increasingly loopy songs for more than a year now: During the 2006 freestyle “Dough Is What I Got,” he claimed Martian provenance in a boast about his otherworldly skills; on the woozy 2007 drug track “I Feel Like Dying,” he imagined playing “basketball with the moon,” adding, “I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars.” On Tha Carter III, Wayne devotes an entire song, “Phone Home,” to the subject of his alien origins: “We are not the same, I am a Martian,” he announces in an E.T.-inflected croak.
The whole article is worth reading for its discussion of people like
Sun Ra, of course, was kinda the Godfather of similar themes.
And you could go on and on. But back to my original question. If SF imagery has been so useful and important to black musicians, why is SF writing so very white?