The future was already here: Detroit’s Afrofuturist enclaves
I Excerpted this from an article that first appeared in the Detroit Metrotimes weekly August 10th, 2016 to use as my bio for a while because it is so beautifully written. Please take the time to read the article in it entirety at the link below. it goes into wonderfully narrative detail about the afrofuturist thinkers that populate detroit and make it a wonderful place to express new ideas.
"This architecture cannot be subjected to any law of historical continuity. It must be new, just as our state of mind is new." – Antonio Sant'Elia, "Manifesto of Futurist Architecture" (1914)
Onyx Ashanti no longer calls himself a cyborg. For now, he has mostly retreated from the world, confining himself to the underground. He is made of spare parts: taulman nylon, Arduino circuit boards, elastic bands, LED lights. He has created himself from materials so cheap you'd think he'd salvaged them.
Ashanti dropped "cyborg" after reading Norbert Wiener's groundbreaking 1948 book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, where the term was first introduced. In the book, Wiener distinguishes the biological organism from the cybernetic device.
"I don't like the idea of considering myself to be the organism in that system," Ashanti says. "There's a word: 'concrescence.' It is a point of higher order in a field of lower order. Which out of these two words concatenated sounds like it's the field of higher order? Cybernetics — a designed system — or organism? Makes it sound like it's an amoeba."
Ashanti says he was once taken by the romantic imagery of the cyborg. Who wouldn't want to be the Six Million Dollar Man or Geordi La Forge?
But then Ashanti became disillusioned.
"All of the imagery and meaning that word has been encoded with leans toward the cyborg being a corporate-created slave," he continues. "It's the man-machine hybridization of the word 'nigger.' It's controlled. It's like in every movie, in every case, never have you heard of a cyborg inventing himself."
Ashanti and I are sitting at a picnic table at the Ohana Gardens Detroit in Highland Park. Ohana is an urban farm collective, and the gardens themselves are hidden behind a block of two-story apartments that are drab in contrast to the colorful crops. Owners Diane and Keith Hoye describe their haven as a "better-than-organic farm" because, in addition to other plants, they grow microgreens — vegetables not much larger than sprouts that are revered for their nutritious and aesthetic values.
Ashanti, who moved to Detroit two years ago, was brought to Ohana by a black mycologist named Kilindi Iyi. Iyi organizes an annual conference in the city on entheogens, chemical substances used to achieve transcendence in concert with other practices like prayer and yoga. Such radical open-mindedness in a majority black metropolis appealed to Ashanti, who has used psychedelics as spiritual conductive for his music. The Hoyes welcomed his presence and temporarily put him up in a guesthouse on the property.
The tree in the middle of the Gardens is like an altar encircled by overturned plant beds, trash bins, and a freestanding wire frame that would be prettier on a walkway. Three vivid paintings by community members depicting downtown Detroit hang from the tree. There is also ample land for two greenhouses, the aforementioned guesthouse, and an adorned fence by the celebrated Detroit artist Olayami Dabls.
He spoke sweetly of the plants' personalities, which he had come to know through this daily gathering ritual. It's what he does to be productive when he faces a design problem in his "lab," a dim, cramped basement in one of the Ohana apartments.
No, he wasn't a cyborg. I hadn't known a bionic man to have such a fondness for Mother Earth.
Ashanti is from the boonies of the South, a tiny town in Mississippi called Iuka. After majoring in music at Grambling State University, he moved to Atlanta, where he played the tenor sax as a street busker. Shortly after the 1996 Olympics, he migrated to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and then back to San Fran. Around the same time as hip-hop DJs and the great Detroit techno musicians were transforming live music, Ashanti was discovering instruments like the Yamaha WX5 wind controller, essentially a keyboard and flute spliced together, which he found at a pawn shop. Ashanti turned to FruityLoops, a digital audio workstation that eliminated the burden of heavy instruments, and MaxMSP, an accessible programming language that lets dedicated laymen create interactive sound landscapes.
Then something changed. MaxMSP gave way to another language called Pure Data, an open-source project that enabled musicians to make external sensors that received information and performed specific functions. It was, simply, a new nervous system. Ashanti's wind controller could do things it had never done, but there were still limitations. He could only do what the technology manufacturers had prescribed. Still, Pure Data was the primordial stuff that would spawn something unforeseen.
"I knew at that time that once I was able to free my hands, once I could do one thing with one hand and could control a different set of parameters with my other hand ... I could do multiple things at the same time and give the impression that I'm doing vastly more on top of that," Ashanti says.
We eat a salad that tastes like earth and Bragg Liquid Aminos, and Ashanti puts on an orange nylon glove that has been lying beside our bowls like a severed hand. It resembles a skeletal prototype of Iron Man's laser glove. There are sensors above each knuckle and, Ashanti explains, the amount of pressure one applies to these sensors will determine which musical notes and parameters are played. A circle on the palm of his hand will replace a drum machine. Want more reverb? Less delay? A conga drum instead of a snare? An immense combination of choices will be controllable with a single exo-hand.
"Exo-hand" and "exo-foot" are some of the neologisms that Ashanti has coined over the last two years. You wouldn't be wrong to call him a musician, per se, but Ashanti prefers the term "patternist," which describes the network of telepaths from Octavia Butler's 1977 novel Mind of My Mind. Ashanti's particular patternist is what he calls a sonocyb, and the instrument he is developing with 3-D printers (including a mask called the exo-mask) will form part of an interface he is calling Sonocyb 1. The music will be called sonocybin (sonic plus psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). He creates these words because "jazz" and its connotations have become functionally obsolete for him. This rejection is dispassionate and not spiteful in the least. He wants to program the sounds that his mind produces, sounds that are novel enough to merit their own vocabulary.
Years before these experiments, after George W. Bush's election in 2000, Ashanti decided to become an ex-pat in London. His plane was scheduled to leave on Sept. 12, 2001, but 9/11 stalled his plans for a week.
He had recently discovered raves and Ecstasy in California, but London was to be the manic culmination of it all. For the next five years, Ashanti squatted and partied with punks under railroad arches, raved in derelict high rises with sound systems on every floor, toured with Soul to Soul, and jammed with Booker T. Jones and Basement Jaxx. Ashanti divulges the effect that certain drugs had on his music. Ketamine, an anesthetic that induces a trance and memory loss, helped nobody. Ecstasy and coke were enjoyable for Ashanti, but all the audience heard was trash. Weed and shrooms were holy.
Hoping to find someplace in America that matched London's feverish music scene, Ashanti took his MIDI to New York City in 2005. What he found instead were hostile DJs and promoters who, perhaps out of jealousy or misunderstanding, made his life hell. Again he went to California, this time to throw his own parties, which he called Backlit Lounge. Laptop performers would sign up through MySpace to play 45-minute sets. Afterward, Ashanti would film the musicians, almost like a post-game wrap-up, asking them how they felt about their performances, the latest specs, the best plug-ins.
Ashanti's life seemed to be stabilizing when tragedy struck. His father was hurt and his mother was killed in an accident, and he flew back to Mississippi uncertain of his own future. When his father recovered, he gave Ashanti his blessing to go elsewhere if he wanted. Ashanti had toyed with the idea of seeing what Berlin was all about. First, there was something he had to do.
A new genre of music was in its birth throes, and Ashanti wanted to go to San Francisco to see it through. This style of music, "the exploration of improvisation and electronic rhythm," would be called beatjazz.
(A big piece of the article-possibly 2/3rds-was in this space but would have not been useful for inclusion in a bio. the full article is available here)
Ashanti arrived in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood just before the recession with an artist's visa and a rare gift: time to sit and think.
He had grown up with more R&B and pop than jazz, but in Berlin he became an animated disciple of John Coltrane and Sun Ra. He frequented clubs occasionally, but much of his time was spent in his room.
When he did choose to perform, he showed out.
Mauerpark, Berlin, is Ashanti's 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his 1967 Monterey Pop. His improvisational, live looping performance in 2009 — jamming with his MIDI while seated on a stone slab and almost unrecognizable in a patterned fedora, blue jeans, a polo, and shades — did not bring him the fame of Dylan nor Hendrix. It was, instead, a defining moment of musical bravado and the fullest expression of the beatjazz aesthetic.
Beatjazz is music that has found and captured the soul of the cosmos. It crushes elements of synth-funk, Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, and late Coltrane into a fine powder, then blows them through an electric flute.
We are watching the video — one of hundreds Ashanti has kept on a hard drive over the years — and, though onlookers try to remain aloof, they are enchanted. Ashanti doesn't always know if his audiences will dance, but if they do, he can foresee how they will move. His sounds produce recognizable patterns in human movement. He compares the effects to that of fear or pain, except music is less chaotic and more beautiful than either. Ashanti's performance of "Sunny Day" is an instance of what he calls "encoding the moment."
"There are all these dimensions around us that are permeating, influencing, and interacting with the dimensions that we perceive," he says. His music is liquid sound converted into code and back again, ceaselessly. It programs the environment, changing its shapes and colors. Without a trace of ego, Ashanti grooves to his own music, snapping his fingers and bobbing his head. He tells a simple truth: "I designed a system they can't ignore."
The evolution of his discography (available to listen for free on his website at onyx-ashanti.com, though he accepts donations) is drastic. His work from about 2012 onward retains few characteristics of commercial music. The newest songs (sonic fractals? sonomorphs?) are pockets of sound that edge into a distorted terrain reminiscent of the noise-makers ("intonarumori") of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo.
I look around Ashanti's lab and understand his perfect happiness. This man could make a decent living if he wanted to, maybe even a fortune. He is that good, and that innovative. Instead, his body and brain are his currencies. He has few material possessions and makes no more than a person on welfare. The few times he does accept gigs, he requires payment in bitcoin. He spends about $60 on food every month (Spirulina diet supplement, rice, and trail mix are his staples). There's his cot, a pile of clothes under the stairs, his cluttered workstations. A cloudy mirror. Sketchbooks and an inactive robot he named Boogie (apparently, upon seeing the robot, the Taiwanese "damn near shit their pants").
He has sufficient space to move and work. It's the same reason why he loves ONE Mile. He says it's about "seeing how you can have a future that you can participate in, and that you can construct here right fucking now."
It's not a place to escape the world, but to briefly tune out some of its channels. It's where creators and the curious ask questions about what their community is and who is in it.
For the first time, Ashanti looks at me shyly. ONE Mile is a place that has avoided the monsters of money and, until now, the media. I feel suddenly sinful, and tell him I hope the article does more good than bad. He does not mean offense.
"It's so pure," he says. "And exactly what it seems to be."
Aaron Robertson is a Detroit native and Metro Times intern. He studies Italian literature as a senior at Princeton University, where he is editor-in-chief of The Nassau Literary Review.