Shaper of Change: Celebrating Octavia Butler Through Sound

Sound and Vision
Octavia Butler, circa 1984 // photo by Patti Perret/The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

This piece, by Mia Imani, originally aired on KEXP's Sound & Vision on Saturday, June 15, 2024. You can listen to the segment on the player above or read a transcript below.

This is Sound & Vision from KEXP. We are paying tribute to the visionary sci-fi writer Octavia Butler by exploring the power of worldbuilding through sound. Seattle native and conceptual artist Mia Imani introduces us to Butler’s teachings and musicians whose songs explore time travel, space, and Black liberation on Earth and beyond.

It’s the year 2024. The world is on fire, a drug epidemic is on the rise, the wealth gap is widening, and a crucial election is right around the corner. Sound familiar? What if I told you this was all written in 1993 by the prophetic author Octavia Butler? The book even has a character that’s very similar to Donald Trump whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.”

Her book, the Parable of the Sower, takes place in 2024 and imagines a dystopia where society has grown unstable due to climate change, expansive wealth inequality, and corporate greed. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, sets off on a quest to move from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest to create a community and envision freedom among the stars.
Part of the journey of Black liberation is envisioning worlds where Black freedom is not solely a possibility but a reality. Sci-fi invites us to imagine what it looks and feels like. But music allows us to synchronize to the frequency of freedom. Sampha, Liv.e, Kelela, and Moor Mother are musicians who create sonic portals for us to travel through and experience new realities.

Sampha’s latest album, Lahai, explores his relationship to time, science, spirituality, and philosophy. Each song on the emotionally vulnerable record is a snapshot of the physical, emotional, and mental state Sampha was transmitting from. From the musical glitches to repetition, the album escapes the construction and confines of time that limit us from imagining different ways of relating to others and ourselves. This is clear in his song, “Can’t Go Back.”

Liberation is a journey, not a destination. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the character Lauren creates her own religion called Earthseed where change is the foundation of freedom. One of the guiding principles of that religion is: 

“All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change.” 

There’s that saying that every history teacher has gifted us: history is doomed to repeat itself. Parable of the Sower was published shortly after the height of the L.A. Riots that followed the police beatings of Rodney King, the establishment of the Environmental Justice Act of 1992, and many international wars. Yet the fight for Black rights, climate justice, and peace still reverberates today. Liv.e echos this in her song, "NoNewNews!!!," which captures the hope of finding a way out of oppression.

Liv.e’s autobiographical music explores different facets of being Black beyond sorrows: developing a crush, learning from mistakes, and remembering who we are. We are not exempt from our histories. We must excavate them to track a course forward, whether the journey is into space or the next phase of our personal and communal healing.

Black migration — whether to new cities, countries, or constellations — is rooted in seeking safety, whether it’s Job opportunities, escaping anti-Black laws, or being forced to uproot due to the climate crisis. Octavia Butler was born and raised in Pasadena, California, but she saw the Pacific Northwest as a climate change haven. She moved to the north Seattle suburb Lake Forest Park after her mother passed away in 1999. Like many Black families who moved from areas with dense Black populations, my parents left a seemingly war-torn Los Angeles to Seattle in the early '90s to provide a better life for my brother and me –– one that left them stranded in a sea of whiteness and one that constructed a castle of safety for us to grow within. 

Kelela’s last Album, Raven, was born out of a feeling of being exiled as a Black queer woman making dance music. A journey of letting go, longing, and arriving, Raven provides a soundscape for those in transition. When you are in the bardo, a space between your new and old life but you can glimpse the next you right on the other side of the wave. I imagine Octavia on a ferry to Bainbridge Island after she moved to Seattle, reflecting on her old life in California with Kelela’s “Far Away” playing in the background:

Butler passed away in 2006. The long-awaited third book of the Parable trilogy, Parable of the Trickster, was never finished. Yet, one line has been recovered from the text, it reads:

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

This feeling translates to musician Moor Mother’s musical and artistic practice. Moor Mother is a founding member of Black Quantum Futurism, a musical duo and interdisciplinary collaboration that challenges perceptions of time by collapsing past/present/future to heal our pasts and unlock new futures. They use their music and immersive experiences to unpack traumatic events that continue to impact Black consciousness.

Their song “Creation Myth” is an experiment in imagining the outcome of time travel:

As the character Lauren said in Butler’s novel,  Parable of the Sower, "The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” With the current state of the world and 2024 being an election year, this is the time to heed Octavia’s warnings and visions. Where are we heading as a planet? Where are you heading right now? These musicians and Octavia invite us to find our way to be conduits of change. Music and writing inspire us to summon new worlds into being and know that we each can be a vessel to usher in new spaces for us to exist in. 

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