‘Cyborg’ inspired by Afrofuturism to empower marginalized youth

Janaya Khan is a cyborg.

As a trans individual, identifying as a cyborg in terms of gender is an example Afrofuturism in action.

Afrofuturism … is redefining the history that we are given.

—Janaya Khan

“Afrofuturism is an aesthetic,” Khan said. “It is an ideology and a genre. It is literary and something you can wear. It is redefining and re-imagining blackness. It is redefining the history that we are given.”

Khan was first introduced to Afrofuturism three years ago when they — the third-person personal pronoun Khan goes by rather than he or she, him or her — began boxing at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club.

“Afrofuturism,” Khan explained, “has a tendency to look back at history and the past, to situate itself in the present that is actually a future. It often focuses on a black protagonist as the storyteller.

“The popular narratives that we see around blackness and the way we come to understand ourselves are informed by stereotypes, anti-black racism, misogyny, over-sexualizing, and a myriad of other things.”

Afrofuturism plays a big part in Khan’s work as project coordinator of the We Belong project at Flemingdon Health Centre, they said. We Belong is a program that supports youth and youth groups in the Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe, Victoria Village, and O’Connor neighbourhoods.

“If we focus on and empower the most marginalized people in a space or in a group or community, and if they have what they need, then everyone has what they need,” Khan said.

Among the most marginalized, Khan said, are low-income, LGBTQ, Aboriginal and black youth.

To some, Khan’s Afrofuturism-informed approach to their work with We Belong can come off as radical.

“I know radicalism informs that work that I do and will continue to do so, especially in this position that I have,” Khan said. “I don’t know if they’ve had someone who’s quite as radical as I am in this space, but I know there is a lot of potential of wealth of information in the room and we just have to activate it.”

Graphic designer and illustrator Chanel Kennebrew agreed Afrofuturism can empower and bring people together, but said it isn’t perfect.

“I don’t like how things are racially categorized,” she said. “It’s one thing if you are working in a futuristic category or something like that, but why does everything have to be the Afro version or Hispanic version? It seems like another way to partition things.”

Kennebrew has taken part in many different exhibits and events that challenge many perspectives, including her own, as a means of exploring different discourses. Her artwork was displayed in an Afrofuturist exhibit in Toronto in February.

“As long as it’s pulling people together and [they’re] having conversations, I’m for it,” she said.