“Welcome earthlings…” is the greeting from our bald-headed, well-spoken, inter-dimensionally styled host, Roney FM. We had already had our feel-good memories covertly stolen by space travellers and data thieves, Mission//Misplaced Memory, earlier in the Barbican Pit foyer. Now, we were to be transported to a liminal state of being on Earth, but not as we know it. Where reality and fantasy collide…Black cultural capital being uplifted and sprinkled with moon dust. A multidimensional experience where k3 media’s surrealist imagery is projected onto a wall. There are no boundaries. A golden Pharaoh with a skull for a face. Dragons and fire-breathing horned humans. Census-type boxes to be ticked in your mind that scream, ‘Who are you?’ appear and disappear.
In the show, Brexit, Trump, the policing of Black people are referenced, to be included and then excluded. For a few hours, we can acknowledge the racial reality of being a Diasporan African and celebrate Blackness without feeling defined by the weight of the current political climate. We can escape. We can breathe. Afrofuturism, a term coined by cultural critic, Mark Dery in his 1995 essay, ‘Black to the Future’ [Newton, 2014], speaks to inclusivity rather than a rigid notion of Black identity. In line with that, there are no binary wars in Nitro’s Afrofuturistic world; aboriginal art married with technology, historical references merged with science fiction, the desire to be free standing side by side with having achieved it.
Award-winning director Benji Reid’s first vignette does not disappoint. Hands raised, heads bowed, fists clenched, our performers are united from different corners of the stage as their six bodies form two lines of the Black power salute. Juice Aleem, XANA and our other cosmic host, Aina Moore, alongside the Jazz Re:Freshed band featuring Cassie Kinoshi, TJ Koleoso and Israel Shabani. An image of the tube behind them suddenly displaces what you saw. The bodies disperse while the focus shifts to MC and singer, Aina Moore in a sequined head wrap, the styling sitting somewhere between the glittering geles of West Africa (we know and love) and the unique flair of a woman from the Afro Punk movement. Like her attire, Moore is fresh, she sings and spits urban bars infused with Afrobeat rhythms on the theme of having to go work; “I have no memories just USBs…they want me to become a robot”. She has already pulled us in with a universal theme…the audience chants a chorus with her. I lean into my theatre buddy, quietly acknowledging that at some point in our lives, we all have felt the urge not to get out of bed, not to want to move at all, not to even speak. Later, as if mindreading, XANA looks in my direction and declares, “Your silence has no currency here!”
There were many moments and aspects where there was magic that at times, I had to wonder if it was serendipitous or my artistic mind taking me beyond the realm of the creative/s intention? But isn’t that the point of art? That it lives, it is a seed that is grown by the creatives and then offered to an audience who by engaging, watering it with their interpretations, it grows and lives on?
There are so many merits to the work, each performer flowing and each artistic element wonderfully executed. Like Juice Aleem’s, “Rock your hologram!”, reminiscent of the days when Hip-hop educated and inspired, Juice managed to bring a New Age tilt to Old Skool. Every so often, images of colourful Mandalas were the chosen visual. Was it a coincidence he wore his ‘Harry Potter’ scarf over a T-shirt with cursive Arabic (I associated with Mandinka scripts I’ve seen in Gambia) or a salute to courage, healing and ancient mysticism? “You can’t evolve without an open mind” was another, ‘read’ from an archaic phone by our male host with eyes hidden by vector-framed sunglasses.
When ‘Loading Your Illusion’, remember “We are the people that are born from flames, Marcus Garvey, Scott Joplin, Fredrick, Linton Kwesi Johnson and on and on and on…” I’m aware this list and the audio were male centric, but by omission, those words made me think of the wonder women. Of Janelle Monae, Grace Jones, Shingai Shoniwa. I thought of them being African-American, Jamaican and a fellow Black-British/Zimbabwean. How our music and our fashion is global. We are global. We are Alpha. We are Sun[Ra]-beings. We are pyramids. That there was a female sax player on stage, and a few feet from her, a female MC, and another few feet, a female beatboxer. That here was a triangle of women, a dreamy but real constellation of talent and femaleness.
That femaleness has many articulations. XANA’s vocal gender switching; first a funk-filled electronic George Clinton to lighter mellow mezzo-soprano vocals. Code switching from a tantalising London twang (reminiscent of Taiwah) to the patois of Kingston dancehalls. XANA’s androgyny enhances her ability to morph, the ability to be anything and at once everything. Declaring her queerness as she improvises her song on loop pedal, beatboxing, singing, rapping and chatting to us. The mic is home for XANA. As I sat there, my smile matching my friend’s, I realised XANA encapsulated so much of the honesty and comfort yearned for over the last few weeks and months. A profound talent who intermittently repeats, demanding our attention, “Your silence has no currency here!” reinforcing that Afrofuturism, at its heart, is artistic activism.
All the collaborators in this work (from the individual performers to the collectives) have a progressive vision of revitalizing and progressing the genres they work in. For nitroBEAT to bring together Jazz Re:Freshed, k3 media, Mission//Misplaced Memory, established and new found talent under the extraordinary direction of Benji Reid, made for the best show I’ve seen in 2016.
Intuitive, accessible, rebellious and evolutionary; I sincerely hope that our future is filled with high quality experiences such as this. If you were there this July, what a privilege. If you weren’t, next time, I urge you to bring your Avatar, your hologram, your best [dressed] self, your memories, your dreams. Or just an open mind – but overall, do come and join the party.