Photos by Tom Keelan

This Mayoral Candidate Wants to Heal Detroit with Afrofuturism and Techno

We spoke to Ingrid LaFleur about her plans for combatting inequality, halting gentrification, and preserving her city's art and music legacy.

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Jun 6 2017, 5:53pm

Photos by Tom Keelan

Ingrid LaFleur isn't your typical mayoral candidate. The 39-year-old Detroit native is not a city councilmember, a state senator, or a well-connected businessperson—she's a political outsider who's never held office. But she's spent her life as a schoolteacher, artist, and curator tapped into another side of the city—her work is infused with the philosophy and aesthetic of Afrofuturism.

Coined by the cultural critic Mark Dery in a 1993 essay called "Black to the Future," Afrofuturism describes artists like Sun Ra and Drexciya who interrogate and reimagine blackness through the lens of science fiction. Detroit has a rich history of Afrofuturism—of course there's techno, a rich fusion of black identity with technology, but there's also local hero Alice Coltrane and the Nation of Islam, an organization founded in the city whose beliefs include the secret presence of UFOs in the Book of Ezekiel. LaFleur lists off these examples and more when describing her city's legacy, which inspired her to found an Afrofuturist youth arts organization called Afrotopia that provides kids with everything from DJ lessons to reading groups.

"Detroit is 85 percent black," LaFleur explains, sitting in her campaign headquarters on the Sunday of Movement weekend. "How are you crafting a future for a majority black city? I became concerned with how Detroiters were thinking about blackness...I want Detroit to expand into a more global kind of space, an afro-global space."

The candidate was driven to run for office because, after teaching in charter schools, she witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of the city's rampant economic inequality. She taught kids who grew up without running water after the city shut off their service, and saw arts funding slashed amid an endless budget crisis. "That's when I really started understanding our issues. That's when I really understood what 60 percent of our youth living in poverty looks like," she tells me. "On a psychological level, on an emotional level, it changes your world. Once you you see it, you can't just sit back. You have to do something about it."

LaFleur also makes sure to show me that Detroit is far more complex than its bleak reputation suggests. After our interview at her campaign headquarters, she takes me for a drive through the University District neighborhood where she grew up, named for its proximity to the University of Detroit Mercy. It's an affluent area, home to judges, bishops, and lawyers, who live in stately houses with wide, prim lawns—there's even a boxy Frank Lloyd Wright-designed number. It's a majority black neighborhood, LaFleur tells me, yet few images of its elegance show up alongside the steady diet of Detroit poverty that outsiders typically see in the media.

"You can never paint a picture of a black person prospering," she says, as we pull up outside her childhood home, hidden within a lush garden. LaFleur argues that the country is bombarded with images of civic distress because developers want "property values to drop" so they can "come in and take over." All the images of abandoned buildings don't capture the city's vibrant character and its wide spectrum of black identity. "Our norm is blackness," LaFleur tells me. "It's unique, it's beautiful, it's our safe place, and this is why I call it Afrotopia."

LaFleur's policy proposals foreground her artistic and philosophical ideals against nuts and bolts progressive solutions for the city's humanitarian issues. She wants to fight back against water shutoffs and property tax evictions—you can't build utopia when kids don't have homes or running water, after all.

Though she faces formidable opposition—the other two candidates are incumbent mayor Mike Duggan and state senator Coleman Young II, son of beloved former mayor Coleman A. Young—LaFleur has received endorsements from key figures in the city's art and music scene, leading up to the election on November 7. These include legendary Detroit house DJ Stacy "Hotwaxx" Hale, who I met at a Movement-affiliated party at a downtown wine bar. "[Ingrid] loves the city, and she knows that starting at the grassroots level of education fixes everything," she said. To look out for the unfortunate, to educate the very young and bring them up, and also reaching out to their parents, she sees the whole picture."

Win or lose, LaFleur's candidacy is a microcosm for what makes Detroit such a confounding and beautiful place—it's a spiritual center of black American identity, home to artistic visionaries and brutal socioeconomic conditions alike. Her campaign is predicated on the idea that these issues aren't so inseparable, after all. Below, read our interview about how LaFleur wants to protect black bodies by saving her city's soul, and check out her campaign website here.

THUMP: Tell me about this organization you created, Afrotopia.
Gosh, I guess I created it about four years ago. I came back home seven years ago, and I was really disheartened by the fact that the future of Detroit was being aggressively created by white men, white wealthy men.

You're referring to the development?
Yeah. So this was the beginning of the manifestation of [real estate developer] Dan Gilbert's dream, I guess you can say. So I was like, 'Well, that's really odd because Detroit is 85 percent black.' When I was growing up here I wasn't used to white leadership. But more importantly, it was about, "How are you crafting a future for a majority black city?"

I've been to over 30 countries, lived all over the world, and I've come to know blackness to show up in different ways, be performed in different ways. I became concerned with how Detroiters were thinking about blackness. When I was growing up, it felt pretty narrow minded. Which is fine, but I want Detroit to expand into a more global kind of space, an afro-global space, in terms of crafting futures. Now I curate Afrofuturist film, and I have a book club where we read Afrofuturist literature. I really wanted to teach youth Afrofuturism, and then got into teaching because I really loved education, teaching, and co-creating.

What are some of the examples of Detroit-bred Afrofuturism?
So the Nation of Islam was created here in Detroit. The first mosque was here. And when I learned about this mythology of, as they would say, a spaceship hovering over Detroit protecting black people here, I was like, "What? That's amazing!" Donyale Luna, she is one of the first black supermodels—from the 60s—and she renamed herself Danya Luna, she would say that she was from the planet Mars, and she would walk around barefoot in the city. Alice Coltrane is from Detroit. And there's Detroit techno, of course.

What do you think it is about the city that inspires so much of this cosmic, almost science-fiction facing work?
First, we have to understand that the cosmos isn't a space of escape necessarily, it is really a returning back to our ancestors. We separate ourselves, which is really odd seeing that we're floating in it. So for a lot of people this returning back to the cosmos is kind of reconnecting with your ancient African self, and your history. And I think that that's more than anything the basis of it. The fact that Detroit is a majority black city creates this very particular environment where people explore and experiment. You can kind of focus and create in a different way.

So you're saying that in Detroit, blackness doesn't necessarily have to be defined by oppressive whiteness around it?
Right, actually our norm is blackness. When you're talking about people you automatically assume that they're black, and it's only until somebody tells you that they're white that you know that they're white. Whereas when I'm in any other city, when people are talking you always assume they're white, and then they always indicate when they're black or Latina or something like that. So we're kind of like the opposite. It's unique, it's beautiful, it's our safe place, this is why I call it Afrotopia, because we don't have many major cities like this. There aren't any more, actually, with this level of percentage. So it's really special for that reason.

What is Afrotopia exactly?
I call it an evolving creative research platform. I'm looking at ways to heal trauma within black bodies, and that has led me to curating visual art and film, books and having book clubs, and having parties. But now because of Afrotopia, I became an artist. I make guided meditations to the sounds of planets and stars that I mix together, and I work a lot with crystals and sculptures because they resonate healing even when they're not with me. All of that is just trying to figure out how do I get into that DNA, because our trauma can be passed down through our DNA. So your body's filled with trauma that you didn't even experience, that your ancestors experienced. And if they don't cleanse themselves of that trauma you just pass it on, and I think that that is hindering us from creating new, healthy, sustainable futures.

When did you decide to run for mayor?
I decided formally last spring. But it took a series of experiences to build up to that. After teaching Afrofuturism I started teaching within charter schools as a substitute teacher. And that's when I really started understanding our issues. This was before people were really discussing water shut offs. Everybody was really talking about tax foreclosures, property being taken from people, and that was definitely a deep concern, but I didn't know children were living without water. And that's heartbreaking. And that's when I really understood what 60 percent of our youth living in poverty looks like.

These institutions were never created for us. None of 'em. They were never created to protect and serve and make sure that we're healthy and prosperous. So for me it's really about shifting the entire system so that our policies really ensure that we are healing and able to prosper here. But our city government is allowing for water shut offs to happen. We have a 40 percent poverty rate. I see our children, they're distracted. Maybe they feel uncomfortable because they are living without water and you can tell. How are we allowing that to happen? So my run is really about changing the conversation, inserting fresh ideas on how to resolve our issues, and making sure that everyone knows that.

How would you pay for the policies needed to alleviate suffering?
Michigan, more than likely, [cannabis] will become fully legal in the near future. We'll be the only state in the Midwest that would have that legalization. And then Canada next year will be fully legalizing. So with that, it's like well, that's great, billions of dollars are just going to come into our state, and that means Detroit will benefit on a tax revenue basis from tourism. This could be our road to economic freedom, as black people, as a city, and it benefits everybody.

The cannabis industry is so fascinating because there are over a hundred businesses that you can create out of this. And hemp will be legal, which means we can manufacture plastic and hempcrete, textiles and shoes, and it goes on and on and on. So the potential is really great, but we've just gotta make sure that we're intentional in insuring that Detroiters are participating, and definitely have more than a piece of the pie.

How does Afrofuturism play into your specific policy proposals?
You've got to understand that Afrofuturism is a way of life, it's a philosophy. So everything that I think about doing is Afrofuturist. There are so many serious things that I need to attend to. I'm asked in the first 100 days, what are you going to do? Stop the water shut-offs. I don't think that that's necessarily an Afrofuturist thing, but for me, it's protecting the black body, which is Afrofuturist. So it's not necessarily going to be super explicit. But the very fact that I'm centering the black body makes it Afrofuturist. Nobody has tried to serve black people within city government on a mass level in a major city like this. There are people have tried, but we haven't seen it implemented yet. And it's kind of difficult to do.

Have Detroit's current and past mayors failed to center Detroit's black creative expression as part of the city's identity?
The first black mayor, Coleman Young, he was amazing. And that's when the cultural affairs department was really robust. They brought in Nina Simone, that's when they gave the key to the city to Sun Ra, they had summer programs for youth to intern for artists so they could learn the business and not just the craft. And from then on it just lost steam. Detroit Electronic Music Festival [an earlier iteration of Movement Festival] was trying to convince city government that it was important, and it was necessary, and we should be accommodating. That's what happens when you don't have a strong voice that's representing the creative community within city government, so it's really frustrating. It needs to stop. Because we are leaving money on the table. Berlin has made millions off of Detroit techno. Millions. And we're sitting here like, what? I want that money too!

How would you help Detroit get more money from Detroit techno?
That's a good question. I think that more than anything centering Detroit techno, with Movement, is a really great place for that. And the tourism for that is really great. Visual art, performance arts, I think that's where we need way more help. But within the music industry I've heard that business development, people need to learn business. And then connecting and figuring out how to distribute is really important. And creating new models for distribution, which people are working on right now.

One thing not living in Detroit that I hear about a lot is gentrification. How has it actually played out on the ground over the last few years?
Yeah gentrification is affecting the apartment building I live in. It's all over the city. It's really tough, because, I think on one hand people are like, "Oh that's great that houses are becoming, they're bought and they're occupied. It's helping to "revitalize" that area. But when you see someone who's coming in, who's not part of your community or culture, able to succeed in a way that maybe you would like to, that's very disturbing.

Developers are coming in. It's questionable. Whites are born with 16 times more generational wealth than black people, so when you have that kind of statistic in a majority black city, it makes it difficult for a person to try and buy the house across from them. So it makes it difficult to maintain your neighborhood. And that's causing a level of depression. People are feeling powerless in a lot of ways. But this is why stabilizing rents are really important. We need a year-long pause on all the foreclosures until we know what's really going on. We need to assess the situation.

So big picture, let's say you win, and you implement all your policies. Best case scenario, what do you envision Detroit being like in five or 10 years?
I really imagine Detroit to be a true global city. Which means that we're not as racially, culturally segregated. Which makes it difficult for us to get on the same page with things. Even to understand what issues and challenges we're dealing with. We're just not communicating at all. Detroit is very diverse, but we just live separately. So if we could integrate that, that would be amazing. I want us to lead in innovation. And I think that that would be great.