The future was already here: Detroit’s Afrofuturist enclaves

The future was already here: Detroit’s Afrofuturist enclaves
Courtesy photo.

"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.

I'd followed Ashanti through the greenhouses, where he — wearing nylon "exo-feet," an olive green tank top, and cargo pants — harvested ingredients for a salad.

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.

The ONE Mile Project

A Mothership is parked in Detroit that resembles a retrofuturistic dreidel inscribed with hieroglyphs. If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't have seen it land in 2014. The vessel is made of 16 waterjet cut aluminum panels that make it light and easy to disassemble and transport. The shell is covered in gold vinyl and dichroic film, which produces a hallucinogenic effect, and a heavy steel plate "floats" on prefabricated leg units. When the front panels are open, spilling light and smoke, it can support a DJ and their sound system.

The Mothership lives in a refurbished mechanic's shop, the Garage, in the North End neighborhood. The Garage is bordered by a grassy field on an inactive stretch of Oakland Avenue, entirely nondescript but for a large wood sign that's painted white with two large words in black: ONE MILE.

I'd first visited the Garage for an event called "Synergistic Mythologies." The online description — something about "activating" Oakland Avenue with "diasporic dopeness" — was as vague and intriguing as the title. Besides the event organizers themselves — Ashanti, who I would soon meet, and a man called Bryce Detroit — I was the first to arrive. Something about seeing the Mothership in this mundane space rang true.

Marvelous things began to happen simultaneously. A man in an indigenous mask and Asian bamboo hat named Efe Bes began to play the drums. Ashanti showed a crowd how to build a 3-D printer in a corner, and Detroit invited a small audience (some white, mostly black) to liberate their bodies and dance. A fine old couple strolled in like black royalty, the woman in a flurry of African fabrics, the man with a carved, jewel-encrusted staff. It was like a family reunion.

Detroit grew up playing the piano and sax. He studied architecture at Cass Tech before majoring in finance at Hampton University (his father had already paid for his sister to study music; he wouldn't let both children do it). Originally, Detroit wanted to become a record producer with a specialty in artist identity and lifestyle branding but, for spiritual reasons, he left that path and began exploring what he calls entertainment justice.

"Entertainment justice ... seeks to create content that is used as a tool in the same way entertainment art is used as a tool in corporate media," Detroit says. The point was to promote ancestral and indigenously rooted identities. He wanted an outlet that would allow black performers to behave "in ways that are actually creating the new futures we are co-imagining."

Detroit knew that the city's music "ecosystem" owed itself to the legacies left by "ancestrally literate" migrants from the South and Paradise Valley, of which Oakland Avenue was a main artery. Music was as important to the city as automobiles, but this wasn't the story always being told. In the mid-20th century, the North End neighborhood was the home of Apex Bar (a favorite of John Lee Hooker) and Phelps Lounge (known as the Byzantine Jazz Bar before that). Phelps was one of the major Midwestern clubs, hosting artists like Tina Turner, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and B.B. King. It was here that George Clinton became Dr. Funkenstein. When Phelps closed in the '80s, the small businesses around it folded shortly thereafter.

Music had always been an anchor in North End, and Detroit wanted to revive a silenced narrative. With the help of designer-architects Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, and community activist Halima Cassells, the ONE (Oakland North End) Mile Project launched.

"The ONE Mile Project is a very dynamic collaboration that, at its core, serves to uplift through broadcast the cultural legacies of the Oakland Avenue/North End community, [and] the legacies and cultures of diasporic Africans — which are the majority population of this place — through design," Detroit says.

This work offers a model of community development that sees the neighborhood as the basic unit of change. The network is extensive, including North End residents, musicians, landscape architects, urban farmers, college students, and more. No one there is merely an artist or an activist. They are "cultural architects" too, and "Afrotopians." Despite the specificity of ONE Mile's mission, it has become a cultural incubator and the nucleus of a certain radical movement that touches more than just music.

Here I met Clarence Young, an affable science-fiction author from Detroit who heard of ONE Mile last fall and became involved with a book club run by Afrotopia founder Ingrid LaFleur. He keeps books written by himself and other writers in the back of his car in case he wants to hand one out. When I offered to pay for a copy of his most recent novel, he turned my money down.

"That's how you create community," he told me.

Young once had an agent tell him that, although his work was exciting and good, he didn't know where he could market it. A black sci-fi protagonist? Cool, but where's the money in that? So, Young chose the independent route and self-published. "Once [the city] gets a viable science fiction publisher," he said, "we'll blow the roof off of everything. We've got the talent here."

Detroit himself has used ONE Mile to catalyze a few projects. Detroit Recordings is a record label that formally investigates 21st century hip-hop, which Detroit believes is a behavioral framework plus the music that comes out of it. He and Farges co-created the Detroit Afrikan Music Institution (DAMI). Their first artist-in-residence is Efe Bes, and together they've created something they call New African Instrumentalism.

"Ancestrally, music was looked at as a technology for helping individuals achieve mundane and spiritual goals by giving them images of themselves accomplishing those things," Detroit says. The industrial revolution produced assimilationist, consumer brand identities that, Detroit believes, robbed blacks of their autonomy by modifying them to interact with society in certain ways.

"Technology is not just a framework relegated to industry," he continues. "Technology, for me, is intelligence intentionally applied [for] the point of evolution. We have spiritual technologies, interpersonal technologies, social technologies." Despite past difficulties, Detroit says, "There's no opposition to technology at all. It's just broadening the fucking frame."

The relationship between African-Americans and technology is complex, and perhaps no more so than in Detroit. During the auto boom, most industrialists believed black workers were only competent in positions that required few skills and little education. Henry Ford was unique in that he hired black migrants to an unprecedented degree. Still, many of the workers at River Rouge were left to toil in the hellish foundry, where they breathed sickening fumes and performed the most undesirable tasks, pouring steel, shoveling sand, and the like. They often found it challenging to receive the training necessary for more advanced jobs.

Black workers had minimal access to complex hardware, much less to the design choices behind the machinery. Often, when blacks did catch up to technological standards, the status quo would change. As University of Kentucky professor Adam J. Banks writes in his 2005 book Race, Rhetoric, and Technology, African-Americans were asking the same question of both technology and the nation: "Is it possible to make this thing work, or do we resist the entire system with all of its built-in exclusions and find other ways to survive?"

Not until the 1990s did academics give a name to collective attempts to resolve this question: Afrofuturism. It is a word with an overwhelming amount of implications, but it may be understood as an African diasporic philosophy of participatory counter-design. It doesn't only ask why more inner-city black kids don't have computers, but also whether and how these kids can transform the nature of their application. Often the work of Afrofuturists, whether they are artists or engineers, is performed in a metaphorical underground. It tries to make abstract and material technologies relevant by giving blacks opportunities to understand, use, critique, resist, and design them. It reimagines technological processes and the economic and political systems that created them.

Sirota and Farges walk in as Detroit and I are discussing the Mothership. They are co-founders of the design firm Akoaki. Sirota, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, has the kind of intense, wide-eyed stare typical of original thinkers and sensitive listeners. Farges, her professional and life partner, is an almost painfully suave French designer who moved to the United States 12 years ago. He speaks with the bluntness of one who knows the value of his time.

Detroit says that Sirota and Farges, who designed the Mothership, taught him about how architecture can be used "to stage economic development in a community." He identifies the Mothership as a cultural marker, and Sirota agrees.

"The Mothership works best here in this neighborhood," she says. "If you took it too far away, it wouldn't have the same impact." She describes Farges and herself as material utopians: "No matter how complicated an urban environment is, it deserves hot aesthetics; it deserves beauty."

Although the Mothership is an explicit reference to Parliament Funkadelic's Holy Mothership, Farges insists they are forward-looking. "There is no nostalgia in what we do," he says. "There is nobody who has been creative in this city who is nostalgic ... This is the place of transition."

Sirota and Farges have helped create a place with "no boundary condition."

Farges becomes excited. During any ONE Mile event, "a garish woman can sit beside someone who salvages scrap metal. They have the exact same value in this place."

Sirota says the Garage "doesn't tell you where to look or where to be." It is an ideal embodiment of the ONE Mile Project, and it's no coincidence that Detroit Afrofuturists are active at the same time the city center is transforming. Sirota, and others that I've spoken to, view the development in Midtown as a "nostalgic citation" of a Detroit that existed before the city had a majority black population. She can see it down to the fonts used on new buildings.

She shrugs. "Everyone who builds, builds according to an ideology."


The annual Sigi Fest celebrates the helical rise of Sirius, our universe's brightest star. It's a weekend of healing and celebration using what its organizer — Afrotopia founder LaFleur — calls "spirit science." Last year's festival featured readings from books by black sci-fi masters Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, guided meditation, and even a futurist baseball card game.

I had once seen LaFleur at the Garage preparing food for guests. She's hard to miss, with a distinctive streak of silver in her otherwise black hair and a voice that unfailingly conveys her ardor.

We're speaking at Brooklyn Street Local on Michigan Avenue. I am running late, but have told LaFleur to go ahead and order without me. When I arrive, we chit-chat for a bit and I learn that she knows the professor whose Afrofuturism course I took on the East Coast. If the world is a small place, the world of black utopians is smaller.

LaFleur first learned about Afrofuturism when she attended Spelman College. Like others I've spoken to, she invokes the name of Sun Ra, the jazz composer and stoic forefather of the movement, who claimed to be from Saturn. Her focus is the spiritual component of Afrofuturism, and she has been influenced by cosmic-based philosophies, Hinduism, and the Jewish mystic discipline of Kabbalah. Through the Afrotopia project, LaFleur is using these spirit technologies to heal what she perceives as an injured, collective black psyche.

"As a cultural practitioner, for my own health, I'm trying not to focus on trauma that is residing in our bodies," she says. "I'm really looking at the black body as an archive of pleasure."

Afrotopia's Institute of Mythocracy runs "myth-making workshops" to encourage people to imagine their own utopias. LaFleur plays Alice Coltrane's "Galaxy in Turiya" as a meditation soundtrack and will sometimes walk around barefoot — an homage to the enigmatic Donyale Luna, a Detroit supermodel who was popular in the '60s and who was rumored to come from Mars. The Garage, LaFleur says, is a place for "utopian moments."

"What makes Detroit unique is we have the space, we have the time, we have resources ... We're hardwired to innovate." LaFleur tells me of her upcoming work, which includes a fundraiser for the defense team of Dale Lucka, one of the artists responsible for the "Free the Water" graffiti on a water tower along I-75 that's since been erased.

"Detroit is what it is because of its cultural production," LaFleur says with increasing vigor. "If you do not like what artists are doing, maybe have a conversation with us first. And then we can talk about how we can create new avenues for young people to create."

'We've been here, you just haven't been looking'

Tiff Massey is as cool and unassuming as the materials she uses for her art. She assembles using whatever she needs to express herself. Or rather, each material has its own embedded narrative that Massey exploits. Feathers, fur, rope. Her "holy trinity" is wood, fiber, and metal. When I visit her riverfront studio, she confesses to having a "love affair with brass."

Massey is a 2015 Kresge Visual Arts Fellow, an honor she never expected to receive. Visual arts education was scarce in Detroit schools, and the number of black artists with individual exhibitions in the city was grim. Even when black artists were represented, Massey notes, there was a bias toward those who had received a formal education in their field.

Massey grew up around Seven Mile and Livernois and was "the only black woman on campus" while she was a student at Cranbrook, she says. She knew what she wanted to say as an artist, but didn't have the training to express it, and so she became one of the first black women at Cranbrook to study metalsmithing. She later pursued a biology degree and spent time mixing chemicals at Washtenaw Community College, but the studio kept screaming her name. She couldn't get there quickly enough. Massey had a thing for bling, and began translating a retro hip-hop aesthetic into jewelry and other forms of wearable art.

"Bling is very audacious," she says. "It's in your face. I'm using all the elements of bling in making [the art] very large scale and very heavy so you can feel me. That's what it's all about. I want you to feel me."

We are divided by a table covered with scissors, pencils, Scotch tape, and what looks to be yarn. She is framed in striking tableau by an intricate, all-black design pattern behind her. I ask if I can take a picture, but she would rather I didn't. It's part of an upcoming work. Most of her art is one of a kind ("I'm not a production house"), and much of it is politicized. After being invited to represent Detroit in an exhibit called "Renaissance" in Lille, France, Massey reflected on popular narratives of Detroit's revival that prevail domestically and abroad. She has known visitors to come to Detroit and ask where all the black people are.

"We've been here," she says. "You just haven't been looking. And now it's like you're trying to catch up, you're saying it's new. It's some Columbus-ing type shit." Much of her work, like one series entitled "Je Ne Sais Coiff," deals with appropriation. A semi-nude white model wears blood-red necklaces of rope and wool that have been fashioned after traditional African hairstyles. She remembers seeing a row of young white girls getting their hair braided in the Bahamas, where "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was playing for tourists instead of indigenous music. "You want everything but the burden, essentially."

One of Massey's outdoor installations looks like an alien pod that crashed in a pleasant garden. She laughs and shows me the miniature model she used to make it. Sure, she concedes that she may very well be an Afrofuturist, but the space pod is actually a diamond. To her, the city is a gem regardless of its condition. "To see this big movement of developers trying to make this city look like any other city is really fucked up," she says. "I'm not here for it." The words she uses to describe downtown's newest architecture are as colorful as her work.

"We need people who are vested, not invested. Until we get that, the city has a very good chance of doing the same shit again."

The patternist

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, 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.

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