Aftermath Records

If someone had enough popularity among black Americans to resurrect a discussion about migrating back to Africa, that might just be Kendrick Lamar. The rapper’s new song with SZA for the Black Panther soundtrack, “All the Stars,” came to life in a music video that dropped ahead of the film’s release. In the video, which has more than 43 million views on YouTube, Lamar goes on a visually stunning voyage to Africa that’s loaded with symbolism and references to the continent’s many cultures.

But the short film was not just noteworthy for how it further amplified fan excitement ahead of Black Panther hitting theaters. “All the Stars” also brought Afrofuturism—a philosophy that combines African and African American culture, technology, and science fiction to create provocative portrayals of the future—roaring back to center stage in hip-hop. The music video proved a meaningful departure from the ways in which many black artists had been depicting their connection to the African diaspora before the movie arrived.

In the few years before the release of the Black Panther soundtrack, mainstream black musicians popular in the U.S. were sampling dancehall and afrobeats more regularly, and doing more high-profile collaborations with African artists—with, for example, Drake appearing on the Nigerian rapper Wizkid’s 2017 summer hit “Come Closer.” It had become common to see hyper-specific references like Rihanna ending her 2018 Grammy performance by doing a South African dance called gwara gwara or French Montana and Swae Lee filming their 2017 video for “Unforgettable” in Kampala, Uganda.

But this approach is very different from how African American musicians from the 1980s and ’90s used to represent their relationship to the continent. Artists who embraced Afrocentrism often relied on a hodgepodge of references to various countries and vaguely tribal motifs to create a sense of Africanness that people of the diaspora could identify with. That common identity forms the basis of pan-Africanism, an ideology that advocates for political solidarity among all people of African descent. Afrofuturistic works of art build off these ideas to envision a future through the lenses of technology, sci-fi, and historical fiction. As many writers, including my colleagues Vann Newkirk and Adam Serwer, have noted, Black Panther keenly understands the imaginative power of its fictional world of Wakanda, a high-tech African nation that has never been colonized.

Like Black Panther, “All the Stars” takes a distinctly Afrofuturist approach. In the music video, Lamar is on a voyage to (and through) Africa that starts in an ark-like vessel with a sea of hands waving below. The hands might call to mind the bodies of those who drowned during the Middle Passage, as well as a crowd of fans at a concert. But the rapper is fixated on his own personal journey. In his verse, Lamar says, “You can bring a bullet, bring a sword, bring a morgue, but you can’t bring the truth to me.” This line hints at the plot of the video, in which Lamar follows an inner calling to search for a truth America can’t offer him. His odyssey plays out the vision of the famous pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, who advocated for black Americans to return to the continent a century ago.

Kendrick Lamar at the opening of the “All the Stars” video (Aftermath Records)

The video aligns with Afrocentrist philosophy in many ways, but particularly by depicting Kendrick’s final destination as an Egyptian tomb. The ideology of Afrocentrism encourages teaching about the achievements of the continent’s civilizations, and some public intellectuals and scholars have argued that ancient Egypt was a black African civilization. This has led to a tradition of framing African Americans as descendants of Egyptian royalty. (For example a man taking an Afrocentric approach might flirt with a woman today by calling her a “Nubian queen,” referring to the region that was home to a number of ancient  empires in southern Egypt and northern Sudan.)

Many historians have taken serious issue with the idea that ancient Egyptians were black or that African Americans today can claim significant Egyptian ancestry. Younger generations, too, have arguably distanced themselves from such assertions. But Afrofuturism has nonetheless become an important vehicle that lets artists nod to the role of Afrocentrism in shaping black American culture without necessarily arguing for its historical accuracy. In a way, Afrofuturism draws on the emotional power of Afrocentrism without taking its ideas at face value.

That caveat may be one reason why the “All the Stars” video’s co-director Dave Meyers felt comfortable indulging in some of Afrocentrism’s more criticized elements, such as taking inspiration from multiple countries at once or depicting Africa in vague terms. To be sure, the short film frequently tries to orient viewers to a particular place. Early on, Lamar encounters a group of children wearing red caps specific to Igbo Nigerians; toward the end, he walks through a room full of symbols that resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs and sees a woman with an all-gold interpretation of an ancient Egyptian hairstyle.

Lamar stands in a regal outfit surrounded by dancers in hats associated with the Fulani tribe of West Africa (Aftermath Records)

But the video also disorients the audience with hard-to-trace dance moves, fabrics that could be from multiple countries, and, of course, SZA singing in a star-filled galaxy shaped like Africa. By the end of the film, the whirlwind of images have conveyed the feeling of searching. The video also seems to suggest that Lamar’s character is connected to each of these places despite being African American and possibly never having been there before. Though “All the Stars” has been criticized for cultural appropriation (more on that in a moment), it seems that Lamar, who also helped direct the video, isn’t reinventing the wheel so much as picking up a baton.

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Afrocentric rap was prominent in hip-hop as artists like Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest gave the philosophy a distinct look and feel. While anti-apartheid protests were gaining critical momentum in South Africa, Latifah’s 1989 video for “Ladies First” interwove footage of the country’s protests with scenes of her rapping in printed fabrics and military attire. (She also performed in a general’s uniform with a hat shaped like Queen Nefertiti’s headdress in the video “Dance for Me.”) A Tribe Called Quest helped popularize Afrocentric rap with playful references to the continent mixed in with social commentary on issues like police brutality and the use of the N-word. While some Afrocentric artists did deploy militaristic symbolism, there was also often an upbeat, peace-loving aesthetic to the genre that may have started to feel cheesy next to flashy tracksuit-wearing b-boys like Run-DMC. (De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I” video even showed b-boys teasing the trio until they leave a classroom.)

Afrocentric rap was sidelined more definitively once gangster rap took over the genre in 1992, the year Dr. Dre put out his album The Chronic. In Common’s classic 1994 hit “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” he describes this transition by personifying hip-hop as a female: “What was foul, she said that pro-black was going out of style. She said, ‘Afrocentricity was of the past.’ So she got into R&B, hip-house, bass, and jazz.” By the time Afrocentrism became prominent again in the mid-to-late 1990s, neo-soul artists such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Sade, and India Arie were giving it a smoother and more sultry aesthetic closer to what it’s stereotypically associated with today.

Badu—an Afrofuturistic artist who uses fictional worlds, technology, and outer space in her videos—was perhaps the most stylistically influential with her larger-than-life head wraps, afro-wigs, face paint, and Egyptian ankh rings. (Although, interestingly, she later stopped wearing the head wraps after deciding she didn’t need to rely so much on looks to convey her message.) Meanwhile, Hill’s diasporic references have focused more on Caribbean culture, which reflects her own experiences—she got her start as a member of the reggae-fusion hip-hop group the Fugees with two Haitian bandmates. These singers have also literally created a pan-African culture simply because they’re so well-known around the world. (Knowing Hill’s music has helped me transcend language barriers in the favelas of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and bond with black South Africans in Cape Town.)

The prominence of neo-soul faded not so much because of new trends, but partly because many key musicians like D’Angelo, Sade, and Hill went on hiatus at the height of their popularity. Regardless of the cause, the end of the neo-soul era left a noticeable lag in the mainstream representation of Afrocentric artists and the progression of what pan-Africanism in hip-hop and R&B could look and sound like. In the 2000s, trendsetting Afrofuturist rappers like Outkast and Missy Eliott were doing groundbreaking work, but exploring their relationship to the continent or diaspora wasn’t at the forefront of their innovations. Janelle Monáe has helped broaden the stylistic and musical borders of mainstream Afrofuturism while relying less on stereotypically African clothing or environments than some of her mainstream predecessors. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of young American underground artists like Oshun and Princess Nokia showing fans how they incorporate their spiritual heritages of  Yoruba and Santería into their city lifestyles. Beyond that, the rise of the internet, as well as greater economic mobility among black Americans, has helped close some of the distance between the U.S. and Africa.

In an increasingly connected world, Africa as a monolithic concept loses some of its meaning and mysticism: By following the trends, people, or regions they’re most interested in on social media, African Americans can see what they might be doing if they lived on the continent instead of having to imagine it. And given a growing mainstream awareness of cultural appropriation, more black musicians are being confronted with the trickiness of borrowing from other African cultures or artists. Drake was heavily criticized for his sudden heavy-handed use of dancehall and for occasionally adopting a Jamaican accent on his 2016 album Views, while Beyoncé was cautiously defended for incorporating Yoruba and other African references into her personal story in her visual album Lemonade.

The “All the Stars” video is currently facing its own controversy: Lamar and SZA are being sued by the British-Liberian artist Lina Viktor for allegedly using her art work after she had refused to give Black Panther’s creators permission to use it for the movie. This was one of the more concrete claims of malpractice that arose amid the larger discussion about appropriation and Black Panther, which started well before the film’s release. Some of that debate centered on what kind of clothing non-African moviegoers should wear to screenings, while other critics pointed out the lack of African actors and contributors to the project. But, ultimately, the movie being a fictional fantasy directed by a black American with relatively empowering images of the continent might have helped save it from being decisively rejected by African audiences, at least in its opening weeks.

As for the video, although the Viktor lawsuit is still playing out, it’s worth noting that visual cues in “All the Stars” suggest that Lamar is an outsider when he visits Africa. While the children he encounters are wearing traditional red caps, Lamar is wearing an orange durag; in the next scene, he’s sporting a more traditional and regal kufi hat, but his signature cornrows are still peering out from beneath it. He’s the only person moving through the golden room of pseudo-hieroglyph-filled walls and statue-like women, leading to a dramatic moment when he reaches four looming goddess figures staring at him. The video ends without viewers learning if he finds what he is looking for—were the women expecting him, or is he a trespasser?

Lamar stands facing four goddess figures at the culmination of “All the Stars” video (Aftermath Records)

The tension and anxiety around what is a real and what is an imagined connectedness to the continent is, of course, a central theme of the Black Panther movie. When the African American antagonist Erik Killmonger is fatally stabbed, he nearly cries realizing it’s not his destiny to be king of Wakanda, and—more terrifying yet—that maybe someone like him doesn’t have a home. The struggle between T’Challa and Killmonger evokes the internal conflict many African Americans feel about whether their Africanness is authentic. It’s the nervousness I once felt wondering what my partner from Kenya would think of all the depictions of Africa in my childhood home, knowing that my family might have more masks and giraffes on the walls than hers does. She didn’t seem to care much, but I still prepared the excuse that they’re just souvenirs to avoid explaining that I see myself in them.

This uncertainty about a reverse-engineered African identity has also affected the inconsistent path of Afrocentrism in the music industry as fans and artists negotiate what kinds of language and images feel contrived, appropriate, or even forward-thinking for their time. But the very buoyancy and persistence of the philosophy that now takes on new life in Afrofuturistic hip-hop suggests that something about this “imagined” cultural heritage is, in fact, impossibly real.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.