“This is Afrofuturism y’all can keep the other shit. We’re trying to get in the MoMA not your Camry.”
This is how Vince Staples half-jokingly described his sophomore album Big Fish Theory on Twitter before its release last year. He backpedaled on the description shortly after, but it’s hard to avoid flourishes of the subgenre. Staples is preoccupied with the trappings of rap stardom and their effect on the Black experience throughout, somewhere between demanding for more “Tamikas and Shenequas in the Oval Office” and staring down hip-hop’s dark side while dancing on the roof of a 745, the epitome of being “too cultured and too ghetto.”
The forward-thinking fusion of thoughtful raps with techno and drum and bass beats has been (unfairly) coined as a “gangster Crip Yeezus,” but to me, it always screamed Afrofuturism. Vince (and hip-hop, by proxy) is surveying his future through the lens of Black history.
“Might get JFK'd, hope not I pray if / If so, ain't no thang to a G / I feel just like Snoop on Andre Day / I run North Side of the beach / Run these streets like Ali Bomaye.”
If you’re not familiar, Afrofuturism essentially imagines the arts and culture of the present and/or future from a historically Black and/or African point of view, pioneered by people like jazz artist Sun Ra and author Octavia Butler. The term wasn’t coined until the mid-1990s and didn’t become popular until much later, but its presence in hip-hop is hard to ignore. It’s Public Enemy’s Black Planet and Shabazz Palaces’ trip to a Gangster Star. It’s Missy Elliott’s M-suit and Janelle Monáe’s android space opera Metropolis. It’s Vince Staples’ nihilistic, tongue-in-cheek sneer from the front lines of Black celebrity and OutKast recreating themselves as ATLiens.
All of these images crossed my mind when I walked out of my Thursday night screening of Black Panther.
The story of T’Challa and the Black Panther has always been awash with Afrofuturism. The fictional city of Wakanda is powered by the alien mineral vibranium, its tech sector and military run by confident Black women. A fusion of traditional and futuristic Africa where ritual combat determines the king and a man runs around beating people up in a black and purple catsuit. It’s been imagined by the likes of Stan Lee, Christopher Priest and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but the weapons, fashion and lived-in culture of Wakanda were first introduced on the big screen in a trailer featuring a mash-up of Staples’ “BagBak” and Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Watching the Dora Milaje prep for combat and T’Challa and his brilliant sister Shuri share a custom dap with that song in the background was the initial spark, but it was the story of villain Erik “Killmonger” Stevens—played up to 11 by Michael B. Jordan—that connected the frayed ends for me.
Killmonger is a Wakandan-American who was left to the poverty of Oakland in the early '90s when his father Prince N’Jobu was killed unexpectedly. He knew Wakanda had the resources to lift up Black people the world over, but they chose to stay hidden. Killmonger dedicated his life to the U.S. Special Forces in an attempt to challenge his cousin T’Challa for the throne. As bloodthirsty and tainted by American imperialism as he was, a young Killmonger watching the skies for Wakandan airships from an Oakland basketball court matches Staples’ view of California in 2018: “The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects.” Killmonger is the Big Fish trapped in a small pond who knows how to help but can’t.
Both Big Fish Theory and Black Panther peer into a Black future and move forward with perseverance. Vince is continuing to cheat death by celebrity by standing his ground as a proud Black man while T’Challa is staring down the prospect of revealing Wakanda’s riches to the world. Vince’s verse from Black Panther The Album standout “Opps,” a booming back-and-forth between him and South African MC Yugen Blakrok, only brings the paranoia full circle: “Bring a friend, bleedin' hands from the genocide / Clean me up, beam me up to the other side / Brothers die, 'cause coons turn to butterflies / They don't wanna see me sittin' in the Benz / They don't wanna see me livin' on the end.”
It helps that both Big Fish Theory and Black Panther have been given a musical bed of Black music to spin their tales over. The beats on Big Fish Theory, crafted by Zack Sekoff, Ray Brady, Flume and Christian Rich, among others, move from G-funk to Detroit techno to drum and bass on a dime, matching Vince’s breathless delivery at every turn. Donald Glover affiliate Ludwig Göransson handled the score for Black Panther, which is filled with Masai tribe chants, orchestral strings, and booming 808s. Everyone is stepping into the future with no fear.
Eight months and one $200 million-plus blockbuster after its release, Big Fish Theory strikes me as even more Afrofuturist today than it was when Vince first shared it with the world. It’s hard to hear something this progressive in the context of a futuristic African nation and not walk away wondering when the mothership will come around to grab Vince Staples. Wakanda forever.