Ytasha and I first met at the Race in Space Conference at Duke University just a few weeks ago. We were two of the panelists for this two day conference which contemplated the role of conversations about race in the next iteration of the space age. Now, I have been familiar with Ytasha’s work for a couple of years and it’s hard to miss the splash she’s made with her most recent release Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture, but the conference was the first time I heard about Rayla 2212. The story-world Ytasha is building across multiple platforms is so intriguing, and I’m glad to have this opportunity to talk to her about it more.
1. First, tell us a little about yourself and Rayla 2212.
I am an author and filmmaker. I am currently touring with the book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture. 2212: Book of Rayla is the first release in the Rayla 2212 series. As I was writing Afrofuturism, I was compelled to write this story about a woman who lived on a former earth colony on a planet 200 years into the future. I named her Rayla Illmatic and she’s been in flight ever since.
2. There are all sorts of interesting parallels or tiebacks between Rayla’s time and our present. Is the series, in any way, a commentary on current events and realities?
Rayla’s journey takes her across many times, worlds and dimensions. But ultimately, her journey is a quest for self. She thinks she knows who she is, what she needs, only to discover that there is so much more to her life,her world and her affairs. She endures a love triangle but she’s driven by this mission of self discovery. I think most of us are on that journey, Rayla is just more conscious of it. Her greatest concern is ending the perpetual war on her once utopian planet and toppling the regime and she eventually must find the Neo Astronauts almost as a bargaining chip to level the playing field. In so doing, she risks giving up what she believes is her core identity in order to do so. These decisions take her down a fascinating rabbit hole.
3. You’ve created a pretty comprehensive web world for Rayla, where music–in particular-seems to be central. What is it about the music of artists like Michael Jackson, Kurtis Blow, and Aaliyah, that makes you think it will still be a touchstone 200 years from now?
That was the fun part. Today our world is littered with names of cities, venues, streets and ideas that all hark back to a time that most of us aren’t personally connected to. I think about how we often quote Shakespeare, for example. If we went back to Shakespeare’s time and told his colleagues that his work, above all others, would be the cornerstone of Western World literature, I’m sure many of his contemporaries wouldn’t believe you.Shakespeare himself might doubt it. That’s the point, as we move into the future, we don’t know what ideas, music or parts of culture will connect in the long term or which one’s someone will intentionally preserve. Rayla’s last name is Illmatic. Obviously, someone in her lineage was a serious Nas fan. Changing your last name to match a hip hop artist for some might seem odd, but hundreds of years ago, using Shakespeare’s work as the basis for literature studies could have seemed odd, too.
Sun Ra had a pretty niche audience during his life and today he’s viewed as one of the pillars of Afrofuturism. I think about what cultural interests I or others would value highly and choose to carry forward. I think that kind of contemplation compels one to look at their world differently and recognize that the world we walk in was created by another person’s value system. This can be good or this can be not so good, but the point is that once you view the world as a creation you can see yourself as a creator, too. I saw an interview where Kanye West said he wanted his work to last for hundreds of years. That’s just a unique way of viewing things.
4. Is there future music? What does it sound like?
I guess one of the greatest revolutions in music is the house/techno/electronica scene where computer impulses are sychronized to make sound.It’s an interesting idea to use noninstruments to create music. I agree with culture critic Kodwoe Eshun, who described this sound as Alien Music at the turn of the new century. But this isn’t to disavow traditional instruments which have become even more fascinating to kids because today they are more likely to hear sounds from a computer than a live instrument. For the book Afrofuturism, I interviewed a musician who felt the greatest opportunity would be to create music from new sounds. But what’s new can often be very old. Music is cyclical in that way.
5. Any advice for would-be writers?
I encourage writers to be open. You don’t know what stories or ideas will ultimately come to express themselves through you. I’ve found that many story ideas sprout from re-occuring themes in your life, or just points of curiosity that you continue to mull over.
6. Any last words?
The Rayla 2212 journey is an amazing one. I cosplay as Rayla at the Cons. Rayla’s always tweeting (www.twitter.com/rayla), and her an page keeps us posted on the latest in space travel (www.twitter.com/teamrayla2212). Recently, we released a series of art images commissioned by Ice Ostara, one of the first citizens of Planet Hope who incidentally is the cover subject on the Afrofuturism book. These images depict early years on Planet Hope and they were designed by brothers Cory and Craig Stevenson. We debuted them at the Race in Space Conference at Duke University. I have new prequels on the origins of Planet Hope coming soon, too. Stay connected.
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