Vessels of Transfer: Allegories of Afrofuturism in Jeff Mills and Janelle Monáe

  • tobias c. van Veen McGill University
Keywords: Afrofuturism, Afrodiaspora, blackness, allegory, representation, subjectivity, Detroit techno, science fiction, Metropolis, Jeff Mills, Janelle Monáe,


The performances, music, and subjectivities of Detroit techno producer Jeff Mills—radio turntablist The Wizard, space-and-time traveller The Messenger, founding member of Detroit techno outfit Underground Resistance and head of AXIS Records—and Janelle Monáe—android #57821, Cindi Mayweather, denizen and “cyber slavegirl” of Metropolis—are infused with the black Atlantic imaginary of Afrofuturism. We might understand Mills and Monáe as disseminating, in the words of Paul Gilroy, an Afrofuturist “cultural broadcast” that feeds “a new metaphysics of blackness” enacted “within the underground, alternative, public spaces constituted around an expressive culture . . . dominated by music” (Gilroy 1993: 83). Yet what precisely is meant by “blackness”—the black Atlantic of Gilroy’s Afrodiasporic cultural network—in a context that is Afrofuturist? Monáe’s Cindi Mayweather is an android on the run from human authorities, and Mills has become The Messenger, a time-and-space traveller returning from the future to forewarn Earth of catastrophic first contact with extraterrestials. The repetitious signature of electronic music, through its sonic affect, likewise appears to amplify nonrepresentational strategies. At stake is the role of allegory and its infrastructure: does Afrofuturism, and its incarnates, “represent” blackness? Or does it tend toward an unhinging of allegory, in which the coordinates of blackness, but also those of linear temporality and terrestial subjectivity, are transformed, subject to a becoming

Author Biography

tobias c. van Veen, McGill University
tobias c. van Veen, b. 1978, is a renegade theorist and turntablist, practitioner of the technology arts, and doctoral candidate in Philosophy & Communication Studies at McGill University. Since 1993 he has disseminated and exhibited work in sound, radio & net-art, working with STEIM, the New Forms Festival, the Banff Centre, Eyebeam, VIVO, MUTEK,, the Vancouver New Music Society and Hexagram. His writing on philosophy of technology, AfroFuturism & technoculture has been disseminated worldwide, appearing in CTheory, EBR, Bad Subjects, Leonardo, Locus Suspectus, FUSE, e/i, WIRE, HorizonZero, Dancecult and through Autonomedia, among others. His sound & has been disseminated through,, Kunstradio,, CiTR, and Alt-X, with sonic and mix releases on No Type's BricoLodge and the and/OAR labels. From 1993-2000 he was Direktor of the sonic performance Collective [] in Vancouver. From 2002-2007 he was Director of UpgradeMTL [] and Concept Engineer at the Society for Arts and Technology []. He is co-founder of with DJ Dub Gnostic, with DJ FISHEAD, tri.phonic with Daniel Gardner and VJ Johnny Ranger, and with artist ssiess. His last exhibition, 'espaceSONO :: audio.lab', presented 36 global sound-artists in a uniquely constructed listening environment at the SAT[GALERIE] in Fall 2007 []. His next publication, an edited volume tentatively titled  _Afrofuturism: Interstellar Transmissions from Remix Culture_, is forthcoming from Wayne State UP in 2011. He also mixes a mean absynthe martini. His research blog can be found at [].