Astrofuturism, as described by De Witt Douglas Kilgore, is a 1950s configuration that manifests American destiny in the intellectual space between a dying colonialism and the utopian promise of a raceless future. It is fundamentally a White discourse. Afrofuturism also takes root in the 50s (the key founding figure is almost always Sun Ra) and explores the (outer) space between a certain afrocentrism and its total ironization (Underground Resistance, for instance). It is fundamentally an African American discourse. Recorded in 1951, “Rocket 88” is both astrofuturist and afrofuturist in orientation. It emphasizes the derangement of the senses, motion, speed, and an open space for “cruisin’” as preconditions for achieving escape velocity (“joy”). It further figures the “futuramic” Olds car/rocket as a techno-prosthesis, and the backing track sounds the soul of the machine (think of Brenston’s horn as the car horn, and the blown-out guitar distortion as the V8 engine). Old jalopies make funny “noise,” the singer insists, but this. . . . this is a flat out racket.
Afrofuturism derives, in part, from a nineteenth-century discourse of Ethiopianism that, according to Wilson Jeremiah Moses, situates the West as in decline and Africa (and “Ethiopia” in particular) as in the ascendant. Let’s note, however, the distance between the actually existing Ethiopia (Selassie, who had died the year before this trax, and such) and the far country described in this song. For the Abyssinians, Ethiopia is both utopian and deeply distant or “critical” (an opti-pessimistic “far far away”). On the other hand, the use of the Amharic language at the end of the song (“Satta massagana Ahamlack ulaghize,” meaning, “to give thanks to God continually”) is a recognizable marker of coloniality, as is the disturbingly heliocentric vision of the future: “there’s no night, there’s only day.” In this way, the promised land remains embedded in what Derrida calls “white mythology.”
As Newcleus enters the world in 1984, it seems as if they’re hostile to technology while depending on it for the production of their music. From a galaxy where “music and dancing are against all cosmic and computer law,” they discover a “place where they could be themselves: a place like Earth.” The simile is where it’s at: to be one’s self is to inhabit a not-Earth which is apprehended through a (receding) earthly experience. Against dominative “programmed” rationality, then, is the trax’s primary position. (Secondarily, there’s a concern that computers are taking the place of the “Lord” in our lives; this probably should be bracketed for now, since such “programs” are virtually indistinguishable.) Losing the ability to “program my machine” is the first step in losing a form of control over one’s life. And it’s this point that reveals one of the trax’s most promising aims. Much like Detroit Techno’s repurposing of pre-configured hardware and software, we’re at the precipice of an alternate practice: deprogramming traditional notions of programming by a continuing commitment to reprogramming. In contemporary parlance: jailbreaking the “walled garden” brick by strategic brick.