A stylised image of NikNak in front of a turntable with a red and yellow image behind her, casting a red glow to the image

We spoke with multi-disciplinary artist and producer NikNak who will be performing their new album Sankofa at BEASTdome this weekend in an immersive 8-speaker surround-sound performance. She discusses Afrofuturism, representation in electronic music and exploring a comic-book world. 

What can people expect from Sankofa?

Sankofa is a surround sound, immersive body of work. In it I explore my relationship with Afrofuturism, comic books, and what that means to me, visually as well as sonically. It’s not your stereotypical gig, sounds will be moving around everybody, and the audience can move around too if they want to. I’m performing using turntables, a very expressive instrument, and showing how you can use DJ performance in a different way.

What are you most looking forward to about the event?

Every time I’ve performed it has been different as I'm responding to the vibes I'm getting from the audience in the room. The speaker setup has been a bit different every single time so I'm responding to that as well. A lot of what I’m doing is improvised which means it's unique to that specific time and place, so I'm looking forward to seeing what comes from that.

You said comic-books. What inspiration did you draw from that?

I’m a massive nerd! I collect X-Men comics, I've watched the animated series, I have a Storm tattoo. She's like my religion, I love her. The story of Sankofa came about during the process of exploring surround sound turntablism. I was on a residency and was looking into Afrofuturism and black spirituality. I kept coming back to Storm, her comic book origins and the spiritual imagery that would come across in them. What came from that was a kind of story list. When you listen to the album you’re listening to a comic book world and, more specifically, the story of a black woman who discovers that she has superpowers and her responses to that. There’s tracks called ‘Doubt’, ‘Acceptance’... It kind of like she feels trapped because it’s overwhelming, then as she starts to understand her control over it she finds herself coming up for air a little bit. That was not planned, it was very subconscious and came from my research.

Could you explain more about Afrofuturism?

Afrofuturism is imagining what it would look like to see black people in science fiction, fantastical, cyberpunk kind of situations and stories. A lot of science fiction stuff is very Eurocentric, and there isn't enough representation of non-white individuals. You don’t often see the black person as the main character experiencing interactions with aliens, advanced technology or superpowers. The new Star Wars films, for example, a lot of people were annoyed about Finn being a black Stormtrooper, but that's entirely possible. Why would that not be a thing? Right? I'd say the biggest example of Afrofuturism right now is Black Panther. You see what it would be like in a world where they were able to make these technological advances without any interference from colonialism. Afrofuturist representation is improving but we haven’t seen that for a long time.

Does Afrofuturism also relate to musical style?

There's been discussion on how a lot of electronic music that has come from black artists is also a form of Afrofuturism because we've been able to use technology to create new, weird, different, explorative types of music. For example, Lorraine James, who makes really forward-thinking electronic music. There was a jazz artist called Sun Ra was very experimental with his approach to jazz. He believed he visited Saturn and would make weird music that challenges your perceptions of what jazz is, even though he was a black man and jazz is black American music. There’s lots of footage of him playing synths and stuff in a very eccentric way. He would essentially play it “wrong”.

Are there any other messages you hope audiences take from Sankofa?

I think people need to understand that there’s lots of musicians, music producers and composers who work with technology and make immersive stuff, and in the kinds of genres that people wouldn’t stereotypically assign them to just because they're black. I think, specifically as black women, we often get put into boxes. I can play hip-hop, I can make urban, but you can't assign me to a genre just because of what I look like. I think there's a need for more representation of electronic artists that are not white, and the experimental world is very white and male. I didn't think it was possible to perform this kind of stuff in a surround sound setting outside of an institution, so the fact that I've been able to go on tour has been really eye opening. My hope is that when people see my work some of these biases are undermined.

NikNak will perform in BEASTDOME: Sankofa on Sat 4 Feb, 7.30pm, The Dome, Bramall Music Building.