In the Presence of Greatness: Respecting the Afrofuturist Legacy of Outkast

It takes us years to make records. It’s like a time capsule. You’re capturing the past and expressing it.
– Antwan “Big Boi” Patton
Now question is every nigga with dreads for the cause? // Is every nigga with golds for the fall? Naw. // So don't get caught in appearance. // It's Outkast, Aquemini, another Black experience.
- Andre 3000, “Aquemini”

With another college dedicating a course to Outkast’s music and legacy, I’ve been reflecting on the genius of Andre 3000 and Big Boi. They are undisputedly musical legends. But their genius may be found as much in their Afrofuturist intentionality and execution as in their musical excellence.

What is Afrofuturism?

Afrofuturism majors on a few essential ingredients: time, speculation, intersectionality, and identity. A mouthful definition might describe Afrofuturism as art, literature, film, or music concerned with the intersection of past, present, and future histories as works of “countermemory” that allow for speculation on African diasporic history and common conceptions of black identities. (Told you it was a mouthful.)

Here’s how it works: the intersection between speculative images/ideas of the future and past enables Afrofuturist writers/rappers/artists to explore and create new speculative histories of the African diaspora, narratives of African/Black futures, and conceptions of black identities in ways often intentionally denied to African-Americans throughout American history.

We don’t get to write the history books but we do make music, paintings, poems, and stories.

The means for this afrofuturist identity exploration and creation? Usually science fiction images of advanced technology, alienation, and extraterrestrial aesthetics.

And arguably no one has done Afrofuturist work as notably in mainstream hip-hop quite like Outkast.

THE HUSTLER AND THE VISIONARY SPECULATE ON BLACKNESS

At the risk of oversimplification, think of Big Boi as an identity anchor and Andre 3000 as a boundary pusher. Big Boi, with his infatuation with women and Cadillacs, is seen as embodying the street, hustler, gangsta persona; Andre 3000, with his abstract, complex lyrical postulations and outlandish dress, embodies the eccentric, visionary, conscious half of the duo.

Dr, Hasan T. Johnson, Afrofuturist scholar, explains that these dichotomous personas allow Outkast to “create blend[s] of the old and the new, the contemporary and the alternative” in terms of black identity. (Johnson’s 2007 essay, “Funkin’ Around the Whole World: Afrofuturism and the Significance of Outkast” is the first I know of to give extended thought to this massive topic. Respect.)

I humbly want to remix Johnson’s crucial insights a bit: Outkast functions like an anchor and boundary pusher when it comes to black identity.

And when Big Boi and Andre’s speculative powers combine, hip-hop’s rigid boundary of blackness better protect its neck.

The anchor and the boundary pusher.

Audiences attracted by Big Boi’s hustler identity are cautioned from understanding black identity, both in hip-hop and beyond, as a rigid singularity as represented by Big Boi’s street persona when they are confronted with Andre 3000’s eccentric dress and visionary lyrics which expand traditional boundaries of black identity by discrediting static definitions of black identity through Andre’s abstract, emotional, neo-spiritual, and futuristic lyrical content.

Conversely, those intrigued by Andre’s futuristic “eclectic eccentricity” are reminded of the past and present signifiers and affinities of the traditional (southern) hip-hop identity in both the visual and lyrical manifestations of Big Boi’s hustler persona, such as the preference of the Cadillac over the Bentley, the incessant womanizing, and the tales of hustling and smoking nothing but the finest of weed.

Outkast isn’t just a hustler and eccentric cat pragmatically joining forces to make dope music and lots of money; Outkast is the combination of two images of black identity, one more speculative (Andre) and one more historical (Big Boi), combining and collaborating to stretch our imagination of what black can be.

Big Boi’s attention to traditional black hip-hop identity functions as the countermemories of past and present black hip-hop identity, which enables Andre (and at times, the duo as a whole), to re-cast potential counterfutures of black “intraracial” identities through futuristic images and lyrics — an Afrofuturist project in its deepest intersectional, countermemorial sense.

These brothers were not just weird — they were intentionally afrofuturistic.

EXHIBIT A: “ROSA PARKS”

Though Outkast’s extensive catalog contains countless texts (lyrical and visual) that merit treatment in terms of their Afrofuturist aesthetic, there may be no more significant text that proves their Afrofuturist bonafides than their 1998 hit, “Rosa Parks”.

While the song’s title shows Outkast’s historical awareness, it’s really the music video’s narrative and imagery that displays the duo’s Afrofuturist aesthetic, and more importantly, reveals their Afrofuturist intentionality in re-envisioning black identities via futuristic imagery.

In the video viewers are not only presented jarred by with the identity contrasts each member of Outkast, but are more notably, exposed to Outkast’s keen awareness of these dichotomous identities — while implementing them for larger purposes.

Just watch the first thirty seconds.

Notice, that after Andre’s call for a futuristic aesthetic, Big Boi quickly decides, “Let’s do both” — as in let’s give the people traditional and speculative images of blackness — and then camera zooms through each member’s eye revealing a new scene of Big Boi pulling up in a Cadillac, and then unveiling Andre in eccentric feathered pants and football shoulder pads dancing behind a stoic and silent African woman with astrological designs painted on her forehead and face. The depiction of the woman as futuristic image of a dignified African woman is indisputable in her attire and posture, as is Outkast’s conscious decisions to employ black identities (the hustler and the visionary, the anchor and the boundary stretch) attributed to both members as aforementioned in their video phone dialogue.

The video’s narrative shows Andre’s keen acceptance of images and signifiers of traditional black hip-hop identity (such as the Cadilliac, and gold grills or gold teeth) as he understands such images and identities are a foundational historical anchor which allows leeway for Andre’s futuristic images and their speculative powers to confront or stretch rigid hip-hop and mainstream audiences’ conceptions of black identity.

Thus, for Outkast, the inclusion of lyrical and visual signifiers of past and present traditional black hip-hop identity enables Andre (and at times, Big Boi) to garner an audience to “scare,” stretch, and enlighten with lyrical and visual images of futuristic or alternative takes on black hip-hop identity, and thus, the black experience at large.

While, Outkast has faded from mainstream music’s memory, their work to create new and stretch static concepts of black identity and dignity is worth of our attention and applause — even years later in 2017.

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