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A Glimpse of Many Futures: A Deep Dive into Afrofuturism STL | Music Stories | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events

click to enlarge Afrofuturism STL saw a livestreamed release at SK8 Liborius in November. - FOVEAL MEDIA

  • Afrofuturism STL saw a livestreamed release at SK8 Liborius in November.

By all accounts, it takes a good deal of effort to catch a glimpse into the future. With the infinite expanse that is our physical universe, it stands to reason that any future, proven or imagined, is theoretically possible. If you’re the scientific type, your burden will then be proving your truth; if you’re more mystical in nature, an experience found through art might be your best path forward.

Afrofuturism often describes an artistic aesthetic that recontextualizes the future, typically through the lens of African diasporic culture and technology. Although the term was first widely used in the 1990s, Afrofuturism has been applied retroactively to describe the work of artists across multiple eras and disciplines. Musician George Clinton, sci-fi novelist Octavia E. Butler and visual artist Angelbert Metoyer are all good reference points — but there are artists much closer to home participating in the movement as well.

Released on November 8, Afrofuturism STL is a compilation of songs by several area musicians and artists who share individual interpretations of possible futures that can be reached now only through sound. While the collection is available digitally, the St. Louis-based Close-Far Recordings also produced a limited edition cassette tape — a distinct retro touch provided by label founder and curator Nathan Cook.

“I think overall the compilation provides a brief feel for the energy, atmosphere and character of several communities within the city that act as audio portraits of some of the incredible artists living in it,” Cook says. “[The compilation] is also a gesture of solidarity and support to the incredible Black musicians I know and was hearing around town, and to the Black Lives Matter movement. It stems from my belief that music and art can be very powerful unifiers across social divides.”

Cook started Close-Far Recordings in 2004 while living in Springfield, Missouri, as a way of documenting the music he and his friends were making at the time. After moving to St. Louis in 2007, he witnessed a vibrant and active experimental music scene and was inspired to document the community in a distinct way. By the end of 2010, Close-Far had released its first of many quality cassette tapes to come with full-color art and accompanying download codes for those lacking a tape deck.

Close-Far has been prolific ever since, building a reputation through a wide range of albums from local luminaries such as Rich O’Donnell and Kevin Harris, to name a few, including standouts well beyond the borders of St. Louis such as ’70s New York “maximalist” artist/musician Charlemagne Palestine. One of the label’s most substantial works to date is Rhizomatic St. Louis, a compilation series that documented more than 50 regional artists across five volumes from 2012 to 2017, with a major focus on the local experimental music community.

With that series wrapped up, though, Cook set his sights on the future.

“Since the Rhizomatic St. Louis compilations had ended and were a general survey of underground music in St. Louis, I wanted to start new compilations focusing on specific communities working in electronic and experimental music,” Cook says.

Cook credits many musicians and colleagues in the creation of Afrofuturism STL, naming Michael Williams as a key player who supported and inspired the project and helped bring in Black Artist Group-affiliated saxophonist Ariel Kenyatta for two collaborative tracks.

The concept was further fleshed out after Cook reached out to several others in the community, such as local videographer and musician William Morris, who created a video for the Black Speculative Arts Movement event at the Missouri History Museum in 2018. Morris’ “Divine Reversal” serves as the collection’s penultimate track, with a spiraling composition that oozes mysticism. The compilation also features the clairvoyant talents of Nadir Smith, 18&Counting, Ra Child, Parisian, Delta Cool Breeze, Ethiks Mind, Syna So Pro and Virgil Work, Jr., who collectively represent St. Louis’ past, present, and most notably, future.

After months of conjuring and collaboration, Cook spent early 2020 finishing Afrofuturism STL and focusing on Bruxism, his long-running monthly experimental concert series that started in 2014 and served as a vector for previous Close-Far projects, including the Rhizomatic St. Louis tape series.

Slated for April 2020 at Schlafly Tap Room, Bruxism #44 was set to be the release party for Afrofuturism STL, with live performances by several artists from the compilation — but this show would never happen. After the coronavirus pandemic had swept this and 99.9 percent of all live events from the calendar, Cook put the release on hold indefinitely.

“With so much turmoil and so many unknown variables, I just thought it would be a good time for reflection and refining of practices,” Cook explains. “I was disturbed by some Americans’ responses to the pandemic that wanted to keep bulldozing through the situation and not adjust or slow down anything, instead of cooperating and putting public health first.”

When Cook did pick the idea up again, it found new life as a livestreamed event. After 60 years of supporting and presenting improvisational and experimental musicians from St. Louis, nationally and all over the world, St. Louis’ New Music Circle shifted its focus in 2020 from live concerts to YouTube, with an ongoing series of musical performances that continues to captivate in 2022, bringing visual elements that add dimension to the artists on screen. This arrangement provided the perfect opportunity for Cook.

“I’ve been a volunteer on the board with New Music Circle since 2014, and it’s a wonderful nonprofit organization to be involved with,” he says. “Since live shows didn’t seem to be coming back in a safe way I presented the idea of a collaboration with New Music Circle to release the compilation in congruence with a video presentation.”

The Afrofuturism STL cassette release event aired on November 8 on YouTube. Following a brain-bending intro by Ian Jones (Shinra Knives, Parisian) the viewer is warped inside SK8 Liborious Church in north St. Louis, where a film crew led by Chad Eivins and Bryan Dematteis of Foveal captured a spree of jovial rhythmic meditations by Virgil Work, Jr., a prolific electronic music producer whose 40-plus-year body of work can be heard on at least 35 albums released across America, Australia and Europe.

“It was amazing seeing Virgil perform and be on the tape, as he has been involved in making innovative electronic music in St. Louis since the ’80s,” Cook says. “Over the last few years his archival recordings as Workdub and Vincent, originally released as limited edition cassettes, have been reissued on vinyl and digitally by several independent record labels.”

As the last song of that set came to a close, a short video collage segued to the second and final performance of the show. Nadir Smith, the moniker of sound artist Thomas “Olan” Osunsami, then closed the event with a robust piece that traveled through several aesthetic corridors with melodic loops, samples and atmospheric beats. Nadir uses improvisation to build anticipation while playing with expectations, and he loosely structures the pieces so he can respond to the energy of the space he’s performing in. While he does prepare for shows, there’s a little room built in for “play,” as he describes it.

“Going into it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect,” Nadir says of the experience. “I wasn’t really a fan of the streaming or online format initially, because of the lack of audience members and other factors with the format. Maybe the immediacy or lack of intimacy.

“Luckily there was a film crew and the event organizers were in attendance,” he continues. “So I was actually playing for people, you know? The energy exchange that I love about playing a show, or going to a show, was there that night, and I think it turned out really nice.”

In addition to performing, Nadir also contributed the opening track and cover art for the compilation. Unifying artists and musicians across a single visual aesthetic presented a unique challenge, but hearing tracks from his fellow contributors helped him create a piece that represents not only his music, but the compilation as a whole.

“The main image is a gold pendant, with hints of aquamarine and other colors. If you look closely, it’s a bit scratched up, rough around the edges, but still very beautiful,” Nadir says. “I felt a similar way about the music.”

Nadir and Cook met through mutual friends in the music community and discovered that they had similar tastes in electronic music. After Nadir performed at one of Close-Far’s Bruxism events, Cook approached him with the concept of Afrofuturism STL while sharing some of the other artists that were involved. As the project evolved, Nadir’s contributions grew.

“For me, Afrofuturism as an aesthetic represents an alternative view of creativity, imagination, perception and general expectations of so-called ‘Blackness,'” Nadir says. He credits Sun Ra, along with creative movements such as Detroit techno in the ’80s and ’90s, or early UK jungle/drum and bass, as examples of Afrofuturism in music.

“I think a lot of it comes from the feeling of limitation or constraint that has been expected out of people of color, and re-imagining an alternative to that,” Nadir adds. “To me there is also an element of pushing boundaries or looking forward to what will soon be.”

Afrofuturism STL can be accessed on Bandcamp or through Close-Far’s website. A limited quantity of the cassette tape is available for $10, with the digital version priced at $5. The proceeds from all sales of the compilation go to ArchCity Defenders, the St. Louis-based advocacy organization that legally combats state violence and the criminalization of poverty.

The full release event can be accessed for free and in HD through New Music Circle’s YouTube Channel, along with a collection of past concerts.

While a reprint is unlikely, Cook feels that more volumes could be made in a future that has yet to be clearly seen. For now, all he has left to share is gratitude.

“The interest and support of all the artists featured on the compilation is the reason it was able to happen,” he says. “So I want to thank them very much for contributing and being involved.” 

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