When OY peer into the future, they see something utterly unique: a world of billowy, technicolor ur-humans, living in a state of low-gravity euphoria. It’s a world, more broadly, in which humans have finally stepped off the hamster wheel of history, breaking the cycle of ugliness and starting fresh on a new planet. It’s a vision of a place the Berlin-based experimental duo calls “Space Diaspora” — which also happens to be the title of their new record.
One could argue that the record’s themes — of liberation from injustice and violence via the limitless freedom of outer space — shares a common thread with music and art created here in the United States, as well as in Africa. In fact, the duo says they are often compared to the founding artists of the Afrofuturist movement, which looks to the future from a black perspective and has contemporary expressions all over the world — though they don’t necessarily identify with it.
“It’s more from the outside that people come up looking for links to Sun Ra and P-Funk,” says Llelujah-ha, who makes up half the group. “But [‘Space Diaspora’] has a different meaning — [those artists] felt like aliens, and they took that idea further."
If Afrofuturism sprung from a stark sense of alienation, OY’s outlook presents something of a counterpoint — a vision suffused with both humor and utopian optimism that humans can transcend their troubles and their differences.
OY was started by Joy Frempong, who grew up in Ghana and Switzerland. The group is now a two-piece that also features Lleluja-ha, who disguises himself in a colorful, mantis-like headdress that obscures his face. Each OY album has traditionally grown out of a single theme. The last record, “Kokokyinaka," was assembled from field recordings taken by Frempong in Africa that were pitched and sequenced to create music. The album also related folktales she picked up on the same trip across the continent, creating an album that functioned as both a diary of her travels and an inventive piece of journalism.
"Space Diaspora” takes “Kokokyinaka”’s border-shaking concerns to another plane, pushing beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull.
“In general, the idea was to play around with what could be beyond us,” says Frempong. “How could this world transcend itself — how could there be new patterns?"
Frempong and Lleluja-ha — who prefers to be known only by his pseudonym — came upon the idea of a future in which the “recurring loops of human behavior” — incessant wars, endless political disputes, even art movements — finally cycled past themselves. (“The past overtook the future,” recites Frempong on the track “The Story of Space Diaspora.” “A grand implosion which led creatures of all shapes, colors, and continents to be transported to a new time and era.”)
“It’s more of a playful idea, actually,” says Frempong. “It’s about these loops that keep repeating faster and faster — the idea was, what’s the maximum of loops? What’s the quickest we can get, when the past overtakes the future? Perhaps that’s the solution — that's when something new can finally happen."
The sound of the record itself was derived from that idea. It’s an experimental record, but not avant garde per se — its topical concerns might be out-there, but its sounds are distinctly friendly on the ears, a combination of warm synths and vocal samples both spacey and soft, like flowing pastel clouds inside a nebula. Tracks like “We We We We” and “Space Diaspora” in particular use layered vocal tracks to create a kind of pillowy soundscape.
It was an effort, the band says, to imagine which sounds would be left after human beings finally left behind their native world. (It’s this sense that gives the “diaspora” part of the record’s title its meaning — and its particular resonance in 2016.) “Which sounds would be left, and which would remain?” explains Llelujah-ha. “It would probably be a human voice — or just voices in general — even though they might be digitalized or transformed."
Both members say they wanted to look to the future with more of an element of humor, as opposed to the dystopian outlook to which forward-looking artists often turn. When asked about her influences, she doesn’t mention astral jazz or funkadelic R&B but, instead, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which she cites for its “creativity, imagination, and sense of humor.”
The video for “A New Planet is Born” is itself an expression of this wry outlook. The figures in the video are presumably aliens, or some kind of evolved humans, but they look approachable, even huggable — like mushrooms entities, or technicolor Teletubbies made of out of colorful fabric.
It may be that OY’s music does in fact fit comfortably under the umbrella of Afrofuturism — an umbrella that has grown substantially since the spacey explorations of Sun Ra and the mothership fantasies of George Clinton and P-Funk. It’s a shifting movement whose broad contours envelop all sorts of movements. As critics like Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun have elaborated, Afrofuturism reflects concerns that arise with the passage of time, keeping as its common element the ways in which black communities have felt these changes.
OY’s vision, for instance, is one that feels particularly relevant in 2016 — a post-diasporic vision that embraces the idea of diaspora itself while envisioning a transcendence of its violence. “At the beginning, [diaspora] had a negative component, of having to leave your home,” says Frempong. “But when people speak of the African or Indian diasporas, for instance, those people are somewhere not home, but they are connected with some relationship to home.”
We were inspired, through the lens of the OY’s own creative outlook, to take a look back at other diverse Afrofuturist pieces of art — from Sun Ra’s heady intergalactic imaginings to Juan Atkins and Herbie Hancock’s engagement with computerized voices, to Outkast’s explorations of alienation and the alien in the urban environment.
We also look beyond the roots of the movement toward newer artists exploring similar futuristic imagery with purposes than run across the map. Included are artists like Janelle Monae and Shabazz Palaces, who continue to look at the American experience with a critical eyes, as well as a few contemporary African artists, like Mbongwana Star and Mikael Seifu, whose outlook comes with a distinctive (danceable) bleakness. Take a trip with dublab via the YouTube playlist below, through several decades of future-minded musical and visual explorations.
The dublab playlist includes:
- OY — “A New Planet is Born” (2016)
- Sun Ra — “Space is the Place” (1974)
- Parliament Funkadelic — “Mothership Connection” (Starchild) (1976)
- Egyptian Lover — “Egypt, Egypt” (1985)
- Grace Jones — “Love is the Drug” (1980)
- Herbie Hancock — “Rockit” (1983)
- Ornette Coleman/Shirley Clarke — “Made in America” (1985)
- Model 500 — “No UFOs” (1985)
- OutKast — “ATLiens” (1996)
- Deltron 3030 — “Mastermind” (2000)
- 4hero — “The Awakening” (2007)
- Janelle Monae — “Many Moons” (2010)
- THEESatisfaction — “QueenS” (2012)
- Flying Lotus — “Putty Boy Strut” (2014)
- The Internet — “Girl” ft. Kaytranada (2015)
- Shabazz Palaces — “Dawn in Luxor” (2014)
- CopperWire — “Phone Home” (2012)
- Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program — “BLAST OFF!” ft. Eagle Nebula (2013)
- Fhloston Paradigm — “Chasing Rainbows” (2013)
- Diamond Black Hearted Boy — “I Don't Want the Real” (2013)
- Def Sound — “I N E E D Y O U 2 K N O W” (2015)
- Laura Mvula — “Overcome” ft. Nile Rodgers (2016)
- Mikael Seifu — “ዘላለም (Vector of Light)” (2016)
- Mbongwana Star — “Malukayi” ft. Konono No.1 (2015)
Top image: OY consists of Joy Frempong, who grew up in Ghana and Switzerland, and Lleluja-ha, who disguises himself in a colorful, mantis-like headdress that obscures his face. Crammed Discs