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cowboy bebop Image: Sunrise Entertainment

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How Cowboy Bebop’s jazz-infused sci-fi mirrors Afrofuturism

From the original anime to the new live-action series on Netflix

As a young child, I was a dreamer. I wanted to be an astronaut, and despite living in a world that constantly reinforced that Black femmes would hardly walk the moon, my family encouraged me to be driven and reach for the stars — literally. My father fed my imaginative spirit by giving me books on the Solar System and inspiring me to foster a deep love for the futuristic sounds of George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, and jazz music.

Around this time, my cousin Elliott and I would play video games and stay up late to watch anime. The one that stuck with me the most was Cowboy Bebop, a 1998 neo-noir space Western that takes place in 2071. The series, which is directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, follows Spike Spiegel and his “crew” of bounty hunters, who are colloquially referred to as cowboys, while simultaneously giving us snapshots of each principal character’s storyline over a backdrop of jazz music. I instantly fell in love with the anime’s aesthetic and tone, a love that would extend well into my adulthood, inspiring me to get a tattoo and sing praises of this great body of work time and time again.

Looking back on my roots, I not only recognize how crucial Cowboy Bebop was in strengthening my interest and appreciation for anime, but it also bridged the gap between honoring Black music, my budding interest in space, and deepening my relationship with anime and Japanese culture.

Even though the main characters of this series are not Black, the music, style, and themes of it resonate with me and feel reminiscent of, and even parallel to, my experience as a Black person. As an adult, I realized that Cowboy Bebop was heavily influenced by the intersections of science fiction and Black culture, or Afrofuturism.

cowboy bebop Image: Geoffrey Short / Netflix

Although the concept has a plethora of definitions, according to Susana Morris, an associate professor of literature, media, and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Afrofuturism is “a cultural movement, an epistemology that centers Blackness and African diasporic culture and technology.” Its US origins date back to the late 19th century and extend well into the 20th century, where important figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Octavia Butler penned works that intentionally centered Blackness and characters in science fiction, and musicians like Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra blended the sounds of rock, jazz, and funk into the soundtrack for these stories. While a major component of Afrofuturism rests on the intersections of the African diaspora and science, there is a deeper connective tissue that transcends all space and time — the creation of a future that is established by and for all Black people.

According to Iwani Mawocha, a voice actor and model who majored in Afrofuturism, the parallels between Afrofuturism and Cowboy Bebop can be understood through examining the concept of time. “While many people tend to view time as linear or spiralling, many Afrofuturists posit that time is in fact an intricate web, marked by spirals and spokes with no singular direction,” she says. “Ytasha Womack explains how Afrofuturism seamlessly meshes past, present, and future, so that they occur all at the same time. In Cowboy Bebop, the past, present, and future are all experienced at once. Although they are in the future in outer space, many of the terrestrial places are in various stages of history. Cities on Earth look a lot like they do now, though far more dilapidated in many places.”

You can see the influence of Black music right from the title which references bebop, described by Yonn — a fan and cosplayer — as “a form of jazz that’s very high tempo and ‘scattered,’” that was known for musicians’ improvisational “jam sessions.” The historical essence of bebop and its extensions are also manifested in the titles of each of the episodes, known as sessions, which are named after songs and other cultural references. Composed and arranged by Yoko Kanno, the music was an iconic feature that reeled many Black anime lovers in. According to content creator and former musician Brandon Stewart, the score was not only beautifully crafted but also added so much nuance and color to their viewing experience.

“The score of Cowboy Bebop is absolutely incredible,” says Stewart. “If it weren’t for the use [of] Black music, Spike Spiegel wouldn’t feel as cool. He is literally the personification of the freedom, suaveness, creativity, adaptability and spirit of jazz.” Stewart also notes that the music and the series were a part of a larger movement that rekindled an interest in jazz music in upcoming generations, giving rise to artists such as Robert Glasper and Masego.

cowboy bebop Image: Nicola Dove / Netflix

Building a better world and existence for Black people and other principles of Afrofuturism cannot be achieved without first acknowledging the importance, inclusion, and need for representation of all Black people. The vast majority of esteemed creative works in sci-fi are by white people with depictions devoid of Blackness, which feeds into an insidious and anti-Black implication that Black people are not included nor present in a fictional or foreseeable future. Afrofuturism is a direct response to this false narrative. “It posits that Blackness and Black people are vital to the continuation of humanity,” Morris tells The Verge.

Developing our future includes understanding the tragedies of our past and how they take shape in the blueprint of what lies ahead. In the case of Cowboy Bebop, this concept is evident through the main characters’ relationships with their past traumas and how they are a catalyst for redefining their present and next steps.

“So much of Cowboy Bebop’s substance comes from the characters’ pasts. They each end up having to face what they’ve been suppressing, or in Faye’s case, actively running from. But not everyone makes that decision to heal. We see Jet with a prosthetic arm that the day’s technology could’ve replaced with a real one, but he chose to hold onto that artifact from his past,” says Iyaniwura, a visual artist and cosbeat creator.

Blackness and Black culture are depicted in the series in a way that honors famous Black cultural icons. Briauna Kilgore, a social media specialist at Black Girls Anime, feels that “this anime is not only influenced and connected to Black culture but pays homage and gives a great tribute to Black culture.” “One example is the character Coffee in the ‘Mushroom Samba’ session. This character was clearly inspired by the beautiful and talented Pam Grier! Not only is this legendary actress gorgeous but she was also the first woman action star in the 1970’s for her starring roles. Her role in the film Coffy is what inspired this character.”

Performance artist and creator Makeba Mongold, widely known as Maki Roll, expresses that “Bebop does a really good job of adding cultural influences into the show without it seeming heavy handed or appropriative.” The characters were developed in a way that honors audiences rather than panders to them. “In our current entertainment landscape, a lot of diverse characters feel more like they’re created out of obligation than love, but in Cowboy Bebop it felt as though they were there because they belonged,” says Mawocha.

Representation of various racial backgrounds, both visually and sonically, was very important for Watanabe, which can be seen in Bebop and other projects he’s directed and produced like Samurai Champloo, Michiko & Hatchin, and Carole & Tuesday. In an interview for an art book entitled Cowboy Bebop: The Jazz Messengers, the director explains that he “paid a lot of attention to skin color. Lots of times when you watch anime, the characters have white skin — all the characters in fantasy stories all have white skin, which I never liked. I wanted to have lots of characters in Bebop without the white skin, and if people weren’t used to that, well, maybe it would even make them think a little bit about it.“

Watanabe’s level of awareness and intention set the precedent for other anime to come, establishing a step in the right direction for BIPOC representation.

cowboy bebop Image: Sunrise Entertainment

Although viewers have developed a fondness and deep respect for Bebop’s interpretation of futuristic life, it is not above critique and there is more work to be done. Inspired by his love for the anime and Black storytelling, co-founder of Kolanut Productions Obichukwu Udeh helped to create Neptune’s Bluez, a story that “reimagines Cowboy Bebop as an all Black space adventure [that] brings Harlem to the cosmos,” he shares with The Verge. “Driven by a character based on the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the story takes place in a universe where mumble rappers and space suits designed from African masquerades make for a true adventure.”

Afrofuturism goes beyond having a futuristic aesthetic. It also lays the foundation for Black creators to use art as a means of centering Blackness and creating opportunities for Black communities to exist and thrive in a better world. Several Black creatives are striving to use their creativity to give Black people spaces to feel seen. Artists like Tara Fay Coleman use their expertise in art and curation to center Black culture. “So much of art is viewed through the lens of whiteness, and I am intentional about shifting that lens by creating exhibitions that speak to our lived experiences.”

These efforts are being made on the literary front as well, where journalists such as Erika Hardison, the publisher of the inaugural, indie Black feminist mag Fabulize, use their platform to create access for other Black creatives.

“I try to use my opportunities to highlight Black creatives who are making waves across genres. For every Black entrepreneur, author, creative and business I interview and highlight, I’m doing my part to ensure that those stories get told in the media.”

The upcoming live action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, which is Netflix’s “expansion to the canon,” casts Mustafa Shakir as Jet. The choice of casting this character as Black not only creates more opportunities for Black people to see themselves on-screen but was also influenced by Beau Billingslea, the actor who voiced Jet in the US dub of the anime. Reflecting on his career, Billingslea refers to Jet as “being drawn grey” and notes that during that point in his career, he notes that most characters he voiced were raceless.

“[When being casted] it wasn’t about the color of my skin, it was about the quality of my voice and my quality of work,” he says to The Verge. “If they had only hired me to voice persons of color, I wouldn’t have worked because there weren’t any in anime.”

Billingslea feels that the casting of Shakir is important and that it will draw more audiences to loving both the live action and original, animated series. With Billingslea being a part of the movement that paved the way for those like Shakir, it illustrates the upward mobility of Black people and our representation, but it does not stop there. We have to continue to create more opportunities for all Black people to thrive and exist.

“Some people reach an elevated point and pull the ladder away so that no one else can follow,” says Eric, a writer and video producer. “I want to help build and fortify the ladder so that others can follow me. We must share and uplift each other so that we can all stand profoundly together.”

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