Nation in the Universe
The Cosmic Vision of Afro-Filipino Futurism
It’s for the kids who parents’ workin overtime–The Bar, “Barkada”
And for the Filipino kids who gone travel time.
The song “Crosshairs” begins with the sizzle of a teleportation beam, a zap of a laser ray, and pings from a satellite, all kept in time by a snare drum. “Crosshairs,” from Filipino American emcee Bambu’s album Sun of a Gun (2013), evokes the ways DJ Qbert, the song’s producer, seems to constantly speak to extraterrestrial life forms with his music. On top of Qbert’s deep tumbling of bass drums, Bambu levels a witty and adversarial critique of U.S. surveillance, U.S. gun culture, and the hypocrisies of U.S. overseas war policies. At the end of his first verse, Bambu summons the DJ, “Q, talk,” to which Qbert “breaks it down” by conducting a clinic of turntable wizardry with virtuoso cuts of the vocal sample “I could break it down.” While Bambu sends clear and confrontational vocal vibrations, Qbert’s electronic vibrations are cryptic and strange. As Bambu’s urgent messages transmit to politicized listeners, the quirky beeps, rumbles, and scratches in “Crosshairs” exemplify a trademark “Q, talk” that seems to transmit to outer space.
Qbert’s abstract approach to music finds affinities with (and contributes to) a larger hip hop artistic repertoire that utilizes science fiction aesthetics and motifs. Christine Balance writes about Qbert and his turntablist crew, ISP: “These new phonographers insist listening ears travel through the inner spaces of music with out-of-this-world sounds created by encounters between humans and machines. This is the stuff of science fiction, as well as the postcolonial and postmodern, where and when shifting temporalities create spaces to flip the beat and reimagine the future.” Relaying the notion of Filipino American cyborg connectivity, Kodwo Eshun quotes DJ Mix Master Mike of ISP: “We think as instruments.” If Filipino American DJs are sentient cyborg musical instruments, then their desire to communicate must involve a superhuman level of cognizance that cannot be described as merely human and surely exceeds the so-called primitive. Terming “skratchadelia” as the chaotic yet rhythmic sounds of turntablism, Eshun gestures to the extraterrestrial communicative noises blaring from the DJ’s instruments: “skratchadelia encrypts its tones, demanding alien listeners tuned into the open secret hidden in static, receivers who can hear a new world in its garbled frequencies.” ISP’s eccentric skratchadelia were most prominent in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the form of mixtapes, DJ battles, and radio skits. In the 2001 documentary Scratch by Doug Pray, Mix Master Mike professes that “scratching to me is another kind of intelligence.” In another scene, Qbert reflects on his musical communion with aliens: “Since earth is kind of like a primitive planet, what about the more advanced civilizations? How does their music sound? So, I would imagine whatever they’re doing, and I guess that’s how I come up with my ideas.”
Also released in 2001, the South by Southwest film festival award-winning animated film Wave Twisters relishes in DJ Qbert’s psychedelic communications. “In Wave Twisters,” Balance writes, “as with ISP’s musical recordings, the adolescent (nerd-boy culture) and the avant-garde (sound and film technologies) comfortably co-exist.” The sonically and visually collaged and frenetic Star Wars parody utilizes “nerd-boy” comic book superhero and supervillain tropes popular in hip hop visuals exemplified in the record art of the Soul Sonic Force in the 1980s and continuing with artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, and MF Doom. The glorious absurdities, however, are obvious as the film’s breakdancing, blue-skinned protagonist Julio Azul, aka the Dental Commander, wears a head mirror and green medical scrubs, conducts bloody surgery on robots and alien beings, and travels to outer space to overcome the diabolic schemes of Lord Ook, the crime boss voodoo doll, and his henchman, the Red Worm, who lives inside the belly button of a luchador-masked baby. The Dental Commander and his crew must preserve the “Lost Arts,” aka the hip hop cultural elements (established by the UZN) from erasure by dispatching turntable scratches as deadly weapons. Conceivably, the dentist hero could represent a sarcastic jab at the stereotypical medical career aspirations of the Filipino American petite bourgeoisie; the Dental Commander is heroic not because he happens to be a good dentist, but because he is an intergalactic traveling, cybertechnology-savvy, and skilled b-boy–turntablist–alien fighter. If Qbert’s sonic imagination attempts to encounter the frequency waves of “more advanced civilizations,” Wave Twisters conjures an extraterrestrial narrative that bewilders markers of race and humanness. Yet, importantly, at the same time that the film satirizes racial and human categories, it still upholds gender and sexuality roles—in true nerd-boy fashion—with Dental Commander’s climactic saving of the helpless and scantily clad token female crewmember Honey Drips from imminent death on a giant spinning laser turntable. Wave Twisters aspires to radically upend earthly categories but at moments fails to do so. In the spirit of UZN’s hip hop aesthetics, the film juggles themes of memorialization versus abstraction. The conclusion of the film encodes UZN’s four hip hop elements (breaking, DJing, graffiti, and emceeing) as sacred objects rescued by the protagonists. The film calcifies the four hip hop elements, gender roles, and superhero/supervillain archetypes while confounding other categories in amalgamating human, animal, alien, and robot beings.
Wave Twisters is an epic ode to UZN hip hop culture more in the vein of post-Earth, post-human communion rather than a glancing back toward precolonial Africa. The film’s evacuation of Blackness encapsulates the diverging racial relationship Filipino Americans have with UZN’s multifaceted racial coding. The racial ambiguity in Wave Twisters reflects Qbert’s persistent evasion of the possible roles of Filipinoness in his artistic experiences. As mentioned earlier, Qbert’s take on racial identity in his music decidedly prioritizes skills and art without focusing too much on being Filipino. On top of ISP’s flair for bizarre otherworldliness and abstraction, their disengagement with race, ethnicity, and other identities from their performances (e.g., Qbert uniformly categorizing Filipino, gay, and naked) is often seen as a dangerous act of racial evasion betraying the politics of Filipino visibility. Yet, even if ISP members problematically evade racial legibility, the group’s “labors of alienation” is in itself a political practice. Echoing Balance’s analysis on ISP and Qbert’s defiance and disaffection as being part of a longer history of Filipino insubordination, these DJs’ performances in both their interviews and creative productions offer alternative, counterintuitive politics of Filipino representation.
Through their sonic abstractions and extraterrestrial motifs, ISP participate in an existing legacy of Black politics and aesthetics as well as in a larger hip hop community that also prioritize these practices. D-Styles, a member of ISP, likens their cerebral turntablist sounds to bebop, which defied the more easily digestible and dance-able jazz music: “Some music we make is just listening music, very similar to the jazz movement in the 1940s when bebop moved away from the traditional jazz dance band.”55 D-Styles’s cataloging of ISP’s sounds within the longer archive of creative Black music indicates ISP’s sophisticated aesthetic awareness. As mentioned earlier, Afrofuturism in jazz, funk, R&B, and hip hop stylize a redemptive belonging in otherworldliness. For many Afrofuturist artists, America and planet earth represent a confining home, and outer space promises a belonging that is friendly to their Blackness. As Sun Ra says in the 1972 film he cowrote, Space Is the Place: “We set up a colony for black people here. See what they can do on a planet all their own, without any white people there. They can drink in the beauty of this planet. It will affect their vibrations, for the better of course.”
Sun Ra’s utopic “vibrations” share a very real musical soundscape in the world of turntablism; Filipino American avant-garde turntablists literally vibe with the soundwaves of an Afrofuturist repertoire. In this way, ISP’s Afro-Filipino futurism is not only a method of understanding Filipino history and proposing new modes of political possibilities, nor is it only an accidental alliance of Filipino American and African American creative minds. Their skratchadelia should also be appreciated as contributions to a decolonial cultural project set forth in African American jazz, film, literature, and hip hop. As with Black decolonial cultural practices, ISP’s Afro-Filipino futurism yields the knowledge of a cultural project that envisions colonized bodies flourishing outside the authority of the imperial state and its built racial hierarchies. ISP’s “weirdest sounds” can be heard as communications signaling for an intimate connectivity with a more expansive and liberating universe.
As we’ve seen, Afrofuturism employs tropes of the alien and alienation to address Du Bois’s concept of double-consciousness and the trauma of dislocation and enslavement. Eshun writes about “the idea of slavery as an alien abduction which means that we’ve all been living in an alien-nation since the 18th century.” With their fictional tale of mutant descendants of overboarded Africans in the Atlantic, the Detroit electro group Drexciya epitomizes an Afrofuturistic penchant for alien mythologizing. Eshun describes Drexciyans as “‘water breathing, aquatically mutated descendants,’ webbed mutants of the Black Atlantic, amphibians adapted for the ocean’s abyssal plains, a phylum disconnected from the aliens who adapted to land.” Drexciya’s electronic sound replays “the alien abduction of slavery” and the supposed migration of these advanced beings to the continental United States. “They have been here all along and they are you. You are the alien you are looking for.”
But for Filipino Americans, critical references to Blackness and alienation meet an obvious cognitive impasse; aliens and alienation inhabit a different racial valence. Double-consciousness is not located in the original trauma of the Atlantic slave trade, but it can allude to the fracturing and curtailing of Philippine diasporic nationhood, the estrangement from a precolonial world, and the violence involved in consolidating diverse groups into a Philippine national identity. Since the docking of Spanish ships in Samar and the U.S. Navy in Manila Bay, Filipino alienation from modernity is at once geographic, civic, and civilizational. The desire to connect with more “advanced civilizations” exemplifies a yearning to exist outside human hierarchies and representations. In a 1998 URB magazine interview, for example, ISP members theorize alien contact with their hometown of San Francisco. Of this interview, Balance writes, “the conversation [in the interview] quickly devolves into theories of aliens designing The City as their ‘trading base’ and the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building as their telephone [aka ‘alien’s AT&T’].”
African Americans’ reclamation of ancient civilization and their capacity to engineer enduring monumental structures counters earlier European colonial beliefs that Black Africans were incapable of enlightened self-governance and achieving epic feats. Ancient Egypt and its pyramids hold great symbolic importance for jazz, funk, and the UZN. It is possible that these Filipino American DJs have glanced countless times at the ubiquitous pyramids gracing the record covers of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Herbie Hancock, or the Hieroglyphics, thus making a cognitive connection between popular Kemetic iconography with that of their beloved skyline.
ISP’s revisualizing the iconic Transamerica building in San Francisco as a conduit for alien communication, then, reverberates with Black music and hip hop’s already-rich mythologies of extraterrestrial-honing Egyptian pyramids. However, instead of ancient Egypt, a structure symbolizing San Francisco’s financial district becomes a sacred site, a more immediate point of recognition for members of ISP. In this instance, for members of the ISP, the idea of a reclaimed homeland, nation, or civilization doesn’t venerate a place “over there” in the Philippines, Asia, or elsewhere. For these Filipino Americans, “over there” is strange, alien; San Francisco instead is situated as a proper and preferred homeland. Where modern-day Kemetics seek to reclaim ancient Egyptian monuments for Black Africans and their extraterrestrial kindred, ISP members’ transformation of their city to an alien conduit signifies their desire to develop an otherworldly community absent of their own venerable nation or civilization. ISP’s San Francisco becomes a modern version of Kemet, a site to invite contact with more “advanced civilizations.”
Excerpted from Manifest Technique: Hip Hop, Empire, and Visionary Filipino Culture by Mark R. Villegas (footnotes omitted). Copyright 2021 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Mark R. Villegas is an assistant professor of American studies at Franklin & Marshall College.