If anyone in the pop culture universe is “out there,” it’s Harlem-born “witch-hop” artist and singer/songwriter Azealia Banks. Her out-thereness was the subject of my 2021 Hypatia article, where I urged scholars to consider her tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube and Instagram videos as unorthodox yet quite serious philosophical inquiries into African American religious identity. I framed Banks’s social media musings as her contribution to current conversations about the realization of Black “freedom dreams” through the practice of historically maligned Afro-diasporic religions like Haitian Vodou. I explained that in championing them, Banks has emphasized her status as a (now former) practitioner of Yorùbá-derived Lucumí (popularly called Santería) and as an initiate of the Kongo-inspired Afro-Cuban religion of Palo Monte.
What can Banks’s example offer to this forum and to the study of Black metaphysical religion itself? I suspect that going forward, we will find the most energizing expressions of Black metaphysical religion among such vocal and “very online” practitioners of Afro-diasporic religions. And the most consequential future theorists of Black metaphysical religion may not be academics but “slippery metaphysicians” like Banks. She has aligned herself with generations of Caribbean and Latin American religious specialists intent on reclaiming the nomenclature of witchcraft and brujería, such as the Puerto Rican brujos espiritistas (Spiritist witches) documented by anthropologist Raquel Romberg. By using the social media handle Bruja del Bloque (Witch from the Block) and paying homage to the Afro-Latinx witches who came before her, Banks has sought to recover bruja as a position from which to act in the world, without feeling compelled to dispel stereotypes. Banks’s example should not only prod us to revisit “bruja positionality” and “spiritual activism” as conceptualized by Chicana “CuranderaScholarActivist” Irene Lara. It should also move us to acknowledge the role that brujas have played in the continued vitality of Black metaphysical religion in the twenty-first century.
With the fervor of the converted, Banks has promoted Afro-Caribbean religions—including lesser-known ones, like the Dominican 21 Divisions—by educating African Americans about their origins, rituals, and cosmologies. Banks has attempted to convince anyone who might be listening that Black Atlantic traditions can and should serve as decolonial alternatives to religions upheld by anti-Black Christian metaphysics. Her evangelical zeal in this regard would be alien to most old-school practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, due to their multireligious ethos and ingrained resistance to any rhetorical mode that smacks of proselytizing. After all, these are traditions characterized by the speech genre of “unchosen choice,” in which practitioners deny ever wanting to be initiated into the priesthoods for which they were ordained.
Banks’s outsized platform also makes her an outlier. Not for nothing is the most famous gif image of Banks an animated photo of her rapping into a red bullhorn held up to a microphone. But other worshippers of Black gods (like the Yorùbá orishas) are increasingly willing to endorse these traditions as empowering through posts, memes, and live videos on social media. The emergence of what scholar Jeffery González has dubbed a “globalized orisha marketplace” incentivizes practitioners to broadcast their experiences in Lucumí and other Afro-Diasporic religions in exchange for social and cultural capital; by doing so, they build potentially lucrative followings and reap the more intangible rewards of communicating messages with unlimited global reach.1I am indebted to González for his concept, “globalized orisha marketplace,” which is explored fully in his forthcoming Ph.D. thesis, soon to be submitted.
Outside of these traditions, Banks has many precursors for her brand of #blackgirlmagic and passionate argumentation. She is only one in a long line of women judged “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” and ridiculed when they dare to theorize categories of being and abstractions like causality, time, space, and freedom. She follows in the direct footsteps (and finger-taps) of the Black women and femmes who have turned social media channels into prime sites of political activism and cultural criticism, in the face of rape and death threats, doxxing, and other extreme forms of harassment. Like Banks, both learned scholars and uncredentialed commentators have defied the gatekeeping of academic institutions to collaborate with their online followers in autoethnographic and intersectional forms of praxis.
Banks has reminded some observers of one “foremother figure” in particular. After a 2017 viewing of an interview in which she discussed the practice of Afro-Latinx Espiritismo, a commenter on YouTube wrote, “Omg she’s the legit reincarnation of tituba [sic].” The comparison to Banks may have been inspired by Tituba’s portrayal on the 2013 WGN series Salem or by her fictional descendant on American Horror Story: Coven. Tituba was an enslaved Barbados- or Guiana-born woman accused in the Salem witch trials of 1692, and the tales she told as its “star witness” have been described as “hysterical” and “outlandish”—two terms often applied to Banks, with extensive histories in the annals of misogynoir (a term coined by Black queer feminist scholar Moya Bailey).2Banks has used the concept of misogynoir in a April 2015 Playboy interview and elsewhere. Afro-Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé fictionalized Tituba as an herbal healer and Black revolutionary in her novel Moi, Tituba, Sorcière…Noire de Salem and—as intimated by Black feminist author and activist Zahra Dalilah in a 2017 article—it is this Tituba that Banks resembles in her campaign for religious decolonization.
A less evident but perhaps more apt predecessor to Banks’s scandal-soaked speculation is eighteenth-century author, theorist, and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft penned reviews and essays replete with autobiographical minutiae, informal asides, and the literary equivalent of diss tracks against “the weak woman of fashion … more than commonly proud of her delicacy and sensibility.” In a 1798 review of her biography, one reviewer opined:
Her conduct in the earlier part of her life was blameless, if not exemplary; but the latter part of it blemished with actions which must consign her name to posterity (in spite of all palliatives) as one whose example, if followed, would be attended by the most pernicious consequences to society; a female who could brave the opinion of the world in the most delicate point; a philosophical wanton, breaking down the bars intended to restrain licentiousness…3“Review of Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” The European Magazine & London Review & Literary Journal 33 (April 1798): 246.
These words apply just as well to Banks herself and cohere with contemporary hand-wringing about the example she has set for young Black women.
Wollstonecraft’s treatises were scorned as unserious attempts at philosophy, much as Banks’s “metaphysical manifesto[s]” have been dismissed for her refusal to adopt a more objective voice. In view of her attacks on feminism (which, for Banks, is a white women’s movement), she would recoil from the comparison. And in marked contrast to Wollstonecraft, Banks has planted race and anti-Blackness at the (somewhat wobbly) fulcrum point of her theorization. This doesn’t always lead Banks to the most nuanced analyses. Banks’s ruminations on Afro-Cuban religions lack a firm grasp of the social context in which they crystallized, and her claims for the superiority of Black peoples and cultures are a mirror image of white supremacist rhetoric. As historian and social theorist Paul Gilroy observes of some Afrocentric discourses, “The logic and categories of racial metaphysics are undisturbed but the relationship between the terms is inverted.”
Although Banks’s experience of Afro-Diasporic religions might not be representative, they are full of license-taking “philosophical wanton[s].” Behind the scenes of rites of passage and other rituals, seasoned practitioners are often embroiled in the sort of theorization about what really exists in the world—and why—with which Banks has gone extremely public. For this reason, I would argue that we can only do justice to Black metaphysical religion if we incorporate the growing literature on Black Atlantic metaphysics into its academic study. Since the late 1990s, anthropology has taken an “ontological turn” toward recognizing that different cultures put forward radically different claims about the fundamental nature of reality and existence (among other aspects of what philosophers place under the umbrella of ontology). Black Atlantic traditions diverge from conventional understandings of esoteric and occult metaphysical religion, yet they have more to offer than what is currently reflected in this body of scholarship.
Banks’s provocative formulations remain understudied because they are inseparable from her “eminently cancellable” public persona. She has nearly exhausted the good will of former fans and well-wishers due to her offensive fat-shaming, transphobic, anti-immigrant, and antisemitic comments. If we want to understand what is metaphysical about Black metaphysical religion, we should nevertheless take note of her example. She may seem to be a galaxy away from the everyday people we encounter in our historical archives and ethnographic fieldwork, but she has more in common with them than meets the eye.