For over three decades, visual artist Abu Qadim Haqq has created artworks for Detroit techno and adjacent electronic music that depict entire worlds, decolonial incursions beyond human experience, fragmented within the space and format of vinyl records. “I was doing what is now called Afrofuturism, several years before the term was written about.” Haqq recounts.
He was born in Detroit in 1968 shortly after riots erupted across a post-soul, post-industrial United States transitioning into what would become the information age. Haqq’s interest in science fiction and fantasy began in the mid-1970s, as television broadcasters were beginning to shift towards more “socially-conscious” programming like Star Trek and newly imported Japanese animation such as Speed Racer, Robotech, and Gundam. In the days just before the global pandemic and lockdowns of 2020, Haqq produced the digital painting “Workers of the Future Operating the Machinery of a New Reality,” which serves as the cover of my own diagnostic Black history of techno, Assembling a Black Counter Culture (2022). “I was inspired by Diego Rivera's work at the Detroit Institute of Arts, ‘The Detroit Industry’ murals,” Haqq says of the artwork. “It's about a future where Black people are still working on vast machines in a factory setting, but this one is a space colony/city, where they are tapping into a planetary energy source.”
Techno was originally envisioned by Juan Atkins in the early 1980s to be Black music that sounds technologically optimized, inspired by Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave (1980), which analyzes waves of technological change and sociogenic progress throughout human history. In our present “fourth wave” of planetary computational sovereignty, Haqq has begun to explore the multi-dimensional possibilities of the metaverse. According to Matthew Ball, CEO of Epyllion and former global head of strategy for Amazon Studios, the metaverse is “a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
This new horizon of technological, economic, and social networking opens a new dimension of contactless, currency-derived digital worlds that parallel the overlapping viral and ecological crises in our physical world. “The future I'd like to see depicts high Black spiritual and technological civilizations,” Haqq outlines. He wants to establish new myths and legends around the parameters of the metaverse by experimenting with NFTs. The decentralized, token-based infrastructure of Web3 allows him to own and generate serialized myth-scientific images and graphic novels as an “Operating System for the Redesign of Sonic Reality.”
As a child, Haqq was sickly and spent many days at home developing his skills for drawing and envisioning worlds, while his father worked for the Chrysler plant and his mother worked for the government. Years later, in 1989, Haqq founded the studio art agency, Third Earth Visuals Arts, and began contributing art to Detroit record labels Metroplex and Transmat. He studied graphic illustration at the Center for Creative Studies while clubbing at the Music Institute and tuning into the dueling radio programs broadcasted by the Electrifying Mojo and the Wizard (Jeff Mills). “I've always liked the idea of Black people doing great things in futuristic and scientific settings,” Haqq remarks. “I hope Afrofuturism will continue to grow and expand and become deeper.”
In the afterglow of the commercial release of the compilation album Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988), Haqq established a visual identity featuring futuristic concepts that he hoped would both capture and aid the otherworldly hi-tech soul emanating from the Motor City at the end of the 20th century.
Third Earth Visual Arts, much like Motown and Metroplex before it, operates like a creative industrial factory that systematizes Haqqs’ art making, and mirrors techno’s ethos of do-it-yourself studio production at scale. “I like to talk with the client to see what they want and what their ideas are. I always liked to listen to the music and brainstorm and visualize from there,” Haqq explains. “I usually would make several sketches of ideas and then show them to the client. They would pick the best one they like and I would continue to develop the concept from there.”
Much of Haqq’s art homes in on how producers interact with mythic technology—for example, Juan Atkins’ Model 500 fleet, Carl Craig’s E-2000 robotic vehicle, or the Drexciyan cruiser. He imagines a cybernetic relationship between musicians and machines. “Those vehicles and robots are an extension of their awareness and power, and mostly inspired by contemporary Japanese animation.”
In 1992, Haqq began to draft new work for Underground Resistance after meeting with Mike Banks at Submerge, a “walk-in” record store and hub for Detroit techno, providing studios, manufacturing, and distribution through a collection of labels such as Submerge Recordings, KMS, Fragile Records, Underground Resistance, Shockwave, Electrofunk Records, Red Planet, and others. “I first heard Drexciya when I was at Submerge,” he recalls. “The music was phenomenal and unique. Nothing like it had been on UR before. I thought it was dark and foreboding.”
Visualizing The Drexciyan Myth
Imagined by the late James Stinson and Gerald Donald (Dopplereffekt) in 1989, Drexciya, through a succession of releases such as Deep Sea Dweller (1992), Aquatic Invasion (1995), The Quest (1997), and Grava 4 (2002), left clues of their scientifically advanced civilization and tactical sonic warfare against all colonizers and programmers of the New World. In the last few years of the 20th century, Haqq illustrated the converging myths of Underground Resistance’s Interstellar Fugitives (1998) and Drexciya’s Neptune’s Lair (1999). In the former, Drexciya was visualized as an aquatic spore, or virus, in tandem with the album’s exploration of genetic manipulation and hybrid warfare in the looming twenty-first century.
Neptune’s Lair was licensed to German record label Tresor, and considered a big album at the time. Using the entire surface of the vinyl sleeve, Haqq painted a visual experience that brought to life the cinematic narrative of the LP. Over the course of a few weeks, Haqq and Stinson submerged themselves in a modal realistic world system-in-progress, extending the conceptual scope of the Drexciyan universe from the Bubble Metropolis to the deepest depths of the Atlantic ocean, where they discovered a “stargate” in the form of the equation “C to the Power of X+C to the Power of X=unknown.”
These sessions would later be developed in The Book of Drexciya graphic novel in 2019, where Haqq enlisted anime scriptwriter Dai Sato (Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) to expand on the characters and locations embedded in the narrative of Neptune’s Lair. “My Drexciyan timeline spans the years 1553 to 2053, from when pregnant enslaved Africans were first thrown overboard to the discovery and exploration of the Grava 4 star system.” Within this timeline, Neptune’s Lair prophesied a movement toward “Surface Terrestrial Colonization”––possibly in the year 2030. In 2020, Haqq collaborated with Dopplereffekt on “The Ascension of Genetic Intelligence,” a collection of audiovisual montages that depict the transgenerational founding of the Drexciyan Empire.
James Stinson’s sonic fictions of Drexciya and the Storm series in the years leading up to his death in 2002 coalesce as a tightly woven epic tale across time and space, recalling and updating Sun Ra’s Myth-Science Orchestra and It’s Nation Time, Amiri Baraka’s album of “African Visionary Music” for the Motown sub-label Black Forum. Drexciya, Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka all conceive and use Black music as a coded technology of aural poetics meant to decenter our perspectives from Geocentric to Heliocentric worlds—an Astro-Black Consciousness.
Techno is a Black Exodus Technology
“This also speaks to the Black Secret Technology (1995) that A Guy Called Gerald refers to in his phenomenal album of the same name,” Haqq says, envisioning techno to be “something of a higher dimensional soul technology that these artists access to reach the highest states of their soundcraft.” His artbook, curated compilation, and mythology, The Technanomicron (2008), reimagined techno as a technology of Black exodus from the capitalist epic of America.
“In the Technanomicron, the technology is based on vibration and sound,” Haqq explains, adding that music, especially electronic music, has the ability to “open the cerebral gate” and allow producers to transmit dimensional waves. “Each of the nine planets of our solar system is represented by a musical note or certain vibration that could reassemble the tenth planet and complete the universal scale,” similar to John Coltrane’s theoretical “tone circle.”
As the political economy of the music industry would have it, Drexciya's discography has been split up between multinational labels Clone, Warp, and Tresor. Deep Sea Dweller, the four-volume Drexciya release compiled by Clone between 2011 and 2013, is a comprehensive guide to James Stinson as an astonishingly talented electronic musician that excludes any conceptual context around the world that was built inside and through his music—or, as he called it, “wave jumping.”
The most glaring absence is the map drawn by Frankie C. Fultz for the 1997 Drexciya compilation The Quest, which traces the timeline of the Drexciya myth. It moves from the transatlantic slave trade (1655 to 1867) to the migration of African-Americans from the rural Southern to Northern cities (1930s through 1940s) to techno leaving Detroit and spreading across the world in 1988 with the release of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, and finally, the Journey Home (Future).
“It's too bad it couldn't be all under one company or label. I think the music business is messy,” Haqq laments. From October 2022 to September 2023, Haqq will be celebrating 33 years of techno art. He plans to use this period of time as a moment to step away from the dance music industry and concentrate on Afrofuturism, graphic novels, and NFT projects. “I believe that we must continue to tell our own stories and use the latest technologies and social media channels to market and promote ourselves,” he concludes. “Black music tells a story of a generational continuum going back to the oldest ancestors and looking for a brighter future of hope for humanity. We need to be able to tell our stories in our own way.”