Planet Deep South and the origins of CyberTrap.
by John Jennings
The impossible attracts me, because everything’s been done and the world didn’t change.
— Sun Ra
The epigraph above is by Herman Poole Blount aka Sun Ra. Before he became an entity that created Afrofuturist jazz and philosophy from Saturn, he came from another planet. The same planet I hail from. It’s called the Deep South. It’s deep because of its location but also because of the complex histories that exist and fester there. Most Americans don’t really think of the South when they think of the future. So much of the space in which I was raised is associated with the revenants of slavery, the memories of struggle, and the shame of a nation’s most heinous crimes against its own people. America wants to forget the South and cut it out like a cancer or ostracize it like a crazy uncle. However, how can you destroy one of the most defining aspects of yourself and still remain what you are?
Despite what the rest of the country thinks of the space where I was born, it’s amazing how many architects of what we now call Afrofuturism actually hail from the American South. The aforementioned Sun Ra for one. Maurice White of the band Earth, Wind, and Fire, George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic, Anthropology pioneer Zora Neale Hurston, and Black Arts Movement writers Henry Dumas and John A. Williams. They all are from the South and they all used their art to help us dream our way out of that space. When you think of more contemporary black futurist thinkers, it gets even more crowded. Reynaldo Anderson, Kinitra Brooks, Susana Morris, Clint Fluker, OutKast, Big KRIT, Maisha Wester, Ytasha Womack, Sheree Rene Thomas, Tim Fielder, Janelle Monae, Deep Cotton, Regina Bradley, Darius Omar Williams, and Kiese Laymon. They all hail from or have a very deep connection to the South. How dare we imagine a future from a space that was constructed to not have one?
I think that the notion of a “black future” is still a very radical idea. If you think about of the thesis that Robin D.G. Kelly raises in his book Freedom Dreams, you realize that every revolutionary act begins with the imagination: the idea in the subconscious of the oppressed. You can even postulate that the first slave to escape bondage and head North was an Afrofuturist. The ancestors who left a violent life in the South for hopefully better opportunities were Afrofuturists. The power of hope and aspiration fueled these migrations and ruminations. The hope that a black future was not an oxymoron.
Even in that hope, black people are not naive enough to think that there will not be struggle. I think that’s why so many of us science fiction geeks are attracted to critical dystopias like those found in the genre of cyberpunk.
Erich Schneider states that
cyberpunk literature, in general, deals with marginalized people in technologically enhanced cultural ‘systems.’ In cyberpunk stories’ settings, there is usually a ‘system’ which dominates the lives of most ‘ordinary’ people, be it an oppressive government, a group of large, paternalistic corporations, or a fundamentalist religion. These systems are enhanced by certain technologies (today advancing at a rate that is bewildering to most people), particularly ‘information technology’ (computers, the mass media), making the system better at keeping those within it inside it. Often this technological system extends into its human ‘components’ as well, via brain implants, prosthetic limbs, cloned or genetically engineered organs, etc. Humans themselves become part of ‘the Machine’. This is the ‘cyber’ aspect of cyberpunk. However, in any cultural system, there are always those who live on its margins, on ‘the Edge’: criminals, outcasts, visionaries, or those who simply want freedom for its own sake.Cyberpunk literature focuses on these people, and often on how they turn the system’s technological tools to their own ends. This is the ‘punk’ aspect of cyberpunk.
Generally these “marginalized people” are white people. A great deal of mainstream popular culture, even something as anti-establishment as cyberpunk, still erases the futures of people of color. Also, the “punk” that Schneider speaks of can just as easily be another music and culture called Hip Hop. The entire Hip Hop culture is based on reusing, remixing, and critiquing dominant systems and their consumer products. It’s no wonder that black and brown people are attracted to cyberpunk and other darker genres of science fiction.
I think that black folks tend to like post-apocalyptic science fiction for two reasons. The first reason is that is seems more plausible. It’s hard to be optimistic when you are a physical manifestation of what happens when people are turned into objects of commerce. The second is that the system that created this unfortunate situation is usually at its end or totally destroyed in most dystopian futurist narratives. With the system utterly gone, what can we build from the ashes? Black people in America are part Phoenix when it comes to making do.
Sometimes black Americans have had to take the refuse of the world to create modes of expressions that are not only anti-establishment but totally resistant to control. Taking is political just like making is political. So, you can easily see how cyberpunk’s forefather can be the legendary Samuel R. Delany and how a queer Jamaican-born, Toronto-raised Nalo Hopkinson can be influenced by the notions of a genre like cyberpunk.
Nalo Hopkinson, Stacey Robinson, and myself were all invited to USC by the well-known pop-culture critic and theorist Henry Jenkins in 2015 to help celebrate the past and future of cyberpunk. He looked at what we were doing as the future of the genre. When you look at the make up of the panel on the origins of cyberpunk you see its very white and very cisgender male past. When you look at the panel dealing with the future, you see that the cyberpunk space becomes very female, queer, black and brown. That realization made me truly wonder: “What does black cyberpunk look like?” While on the panel I coined the term “chitlin’ hacking” as a way to look at passing for white as a method for fair-skinned black folks to “flip the script” and survive using the “upgrade” that God gave them. I posited what would I would later call CyberTrap and I thought this genre would only exist on another world; another dimension. It would be called Planet Deep South.
Trap started in the Dirty South, bathed in blood, greed and cotton. It started to creep into the scene in the early 90s and by the 2000s everyone was getting “crunk.” The music was about the grimy day to day struggle to get ahead in an all too familiar Southern yet urbanized space. Artists like Backbone, T.I., Gucci Mane, 8 Ball and MJG, Master P, UGK and even early Goodie Mob and Outkast demonstrated how gangster, funky, spiritual, and political the South could really be. They also posited a system that was eternally eating itself alive and was totally inescapable. They called this dark. sweaty, greedy and lustful space The Trap.
Drumma Boy stated that: “The trap just feels dirty; it’s that dirty, grimey 808 snare clap. There are only eight or nine instruments that make the trap sound, and then the music comes in with this gangsta, club feel. And the music hypnotizes. Trap is a lot like trance music, but it’s Southern trance music. And most trap has scary music or some type of ambiance. Sometimes it makes me think of The Twilight Zone. It makes you feel like you’re in a dark dungeon, like you’re in the trap itself.”
Trap culture has not only the very similar anti-establishment, dark and brilliantly experimental music, culture and attitude as punk or funk. It also comes with spatial narrative that totally fits with a CyberPunk aesthetic. Like a virtual reality, Trap is also a state of mind, a constant struggle. How do you escape your mind?
Author and publisher Milton Davis describes CyberFunk as:
a genre of Speculative Fiction centered on the transformative effects of advanced science, information technology, computers and networks (“cyber”) coupled with a breakdown or radical change in the social order. Unlike Cyberpunk, however, Cyberfunk is expressed through an Afrikan / Black lens (“funk”).
One of the things I love about being a scholar of Hip Hop and also a critical maker who has training in design is the fact that I am always looking for connections. Things that seem like they would never be in the same state can find some kind of commonality. It is the impossible attractions afforded via a truly interdisciplinary practice that could could yield a notion like CyberTrap. This mutated love-child of CyberPunk and Trap was seasoned with a critical race theory-based, hyper capitalist, design-centered critically dystopic bent. I reached out to a leading scholar on Trap culture, Dr. Regina Bradley and my Black Kirby collaborator Stacey Robinson to help build the world. Together we defined this space as: speculative chronologically futuristic narratives that exist within the intersections of black Southern spaces and the aesthetics of classic trap music/culture, mixed with the tropes and world building affordances of black cyberpunk (aka cyberfunk). Essentially, The CyberTrap is an experimental trans-media storytelling space that we are currently using to create multimedia scenarios that are centered on using the technologies of narrative as a tool to examine, explicate, and critique various social issues. It functions as a diegetic model generator that uses black speculation as a lens through which to posit potential outcomes related to the systems that are causing issues right now.
The world we created was against all the norms you could imagine concerning a black Southern space. It would take place in a new mega-city called New Jackson, Mississippi. It would be torn apart by drug wars over a cyber-narcotic called “hack” and policed by cyborg police units powered by bio-energies of the burned out users of said drug. It would be full of refugees from a Hurricane-drowned Florida and have a militarized Black Baptist church holding it down for the people. The Trap would not be tamed. The Trap would not be controlled. The Trap was eternal and only lived for the next score.
I co-organized a symposium at my former place of work and alma mater Jackson State University in February of 2016 called Planet Deep South: Speculative Cultural Production and Africanisms in the American Black South. We invited the top scholars around the globe who studied black speculative culture from various genres and mediations. Planet Deep South brought them home to the space where Medgar Evers died, where Emmett Till died, and where the hope of a Black future was born. Some of my colleagues had never been in Mississippi. Most had been afraid to venture there. Together we inhaled the sweet stench of the Blues, walked the decaying streets, and felt the ghosts of our ancestors sip moonshine is dark dusky corners. Everyone understood. They understood that the American Dream was still trapped in that space and would be forever, if we stopped dreaming.
On the last day of the symposium, Regina, Stacey and myself introduced the concept of CyberTrap to our colleagues. We shared our sketches and Regina read the first CyberTrap story. We now understand that we created and remixed a new mode of resistance. CyberTrap draws upon the dark imaginations of the once imagined. Black people were dreamed into existence, you see. It also takes the pain and poverty of the Black south and cooks it up with the geeky meanderings of every Black kid who opened up a copy of Heavy Metal magazine while listening to the latest Gucci Mane mix tape and eating a glass of buttermilk and cornbread. We created it for all of the kids out there who know that the fix is in and that The Matrix is a joke compared to the corner. We made the CyberTrap for us to imagine and fix our pain and create a cyber-hexed Hoodoo to imagine our way out.
If the world don’t change. Then remix a new one.
This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #0: Dark Matter, published by Beehive Books, 2018.