This Black Music Sunday falls on the second of the two days celebrated as World UFO Day; the first was June 24. I’ve been a science fiction/fantasy fan for over 60 years, including cyberpunk and Afrofuturism. Black music has had its share of voyages on spaceships and flying objects over the years—when thinking about it, I heard these lyrics in my head: “We travel the spaceways from planet to planet.”
And so I closed my eyes and envisioned The Sun Ra Arkestra in performance.
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 160 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
When I was growing up in Queens, I had the opportunity to see and hear Sun Ra live, numerous times, because he and his band played at Slugs Saloon on New York’s Lower East Side for over five years, from 1966-1972.
RELATED STORY: Remembering Slugs' Saloon, the hippest jazz joint on New York City's Lower East Side
Sun Ra released “We Travel The Spaceways” on his El Saturn label in 1967.
In the world of music, the founding father of Afrofuturism is Sun Ra. Scott Yanow at All Music explores his biography.
Born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama (although he claimed he was from Saturn), Ra led his own band for the first time in 1934. He freelanced at a variety of jobs in the Midwest, recording with blues singer Wynonie Harris in 1946 and working as a pianist/arranger with Fletcher Henderson in 1946 and 1947. He also performed with swing musicians Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith in 1948, but really got started around 1953. Leading a big band (which he called the Arkestra) in Chicago, Ra started off playing advanced bop, but early on was open to the influences of other cultures, experimenting with primitive electric keyboards, and playing free long before the avant-garde got established. Following several singles, including songs recorded with doo wop and R&B vocal groups such as the Qualities and the Cosmic Rays, early albums released by the Arkestra on El Saturn Records included Super-Sonic Jazz and Jazz in Silhouette. Jazz by Sun Ra, Vol. 1 also appeared on producer Tom Wilson's Transition Records.
After moving to New York in 1961, Ra performed some of his most advanced work. This period saw the release of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, both on the famed ESP-Disk label, and often regarded as some of his best work. In 1966, the Arkestra had a weekly Monday night gig at Slug's Saloon, a jazz club in the Lower East Side in Manhattan, which greatly increased his fan base among beatniks and music critics. While Ra's music, mythology, and appearance went over the heads of many listeners and audience members, he was praised by jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
Here’s the complete “Space is the Place” album, from 1973.
“Space Is the Place” is also the title of Sun Ra’s 1974 film, directed by John Coney and written by Sun Ra. It’s a strange mix of Afrofuturism and Blaxplotation. Lynne d Johnson, writing for Pop Matters, describes the storyline.
When Sun Ra and his Arkestra, donning Egyptian garb, land in a ’70s Oakland, California ghetto from their parallel universe, historically it’s a complex time in Black USA. The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The entitlements offered by this Act had not yet become much of a reality for black folks. In fact, they were downtrodden and living in despair.
“The people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits. Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe. Since they don’t have money, they don’t have anything. If the planet takes hold of an alter destiny, there’s hope for all of us. But otherwise, the death sentence upon this planet still stands. Everyone must die,” Sun Ra observes.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Enter the Overseer. Often, and especially in blaxploitation films, the overseer is associated with “the man.” But this flick offers a twist wherein it’s the slick, flashy, jive-talking, Superfly-cool black man in a white suit. So here the meaning of overseer becomes perverse, in that it’s the black man who is at the center of his own oppression and destruction on planet earth. The overseer offers a life of corruption, while Sun Ra offers jobs and an escape from earth before it’s destroyed.
iMDB also offers a complete synopsis.
You can watch the entire film below.
In addition to an album and film title, “Space Is the Place” is also the name of Sun Ra’s 1997 biography, written by anthropologist and jazz scholar John Szwed.
I was elated to hear this recent news. The life and times of Sun Ra absolutely deserves a documentary, so I was elated to learn that one is in the works. (And it’s not called “Space is the Place!”)
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose Attica is currently shortlisted for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards, has already identified his next project.
Nelson’s Firelight Films is developing Sun Ra and the Roots of Afrofuturism, about the life, work and legacy of American jazz legend Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, Sun Ra claimed that he had been “teleported” to Saturn and espoused a theory of Blackness as the foundation of the “omniverse,” from the birthplace of civilization in ancient Egypt through the Space Age. He composed more than 1,000 jazz works, released more than 100 self-produced records and wrote countless volumes of poetry until his death in 1993. He was a pioneer of Afrofuturism (coined by cultural critic Mark Dery), the cultural aesthetic that fuses African diaspora history, science and technology.
Black poet, author, and one of the key founders of the Black Arts movement Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) has also once performed a poetic reading of Sun Ra’s “We Travel the Spaceways.”
About the performance, Optic Nerve’s Colin Still writes:
They Q Test, Black History Musik & We Travel the Spaceways have never previously been made public; they were filmed in 1996 in the basement of Amiri’s house in New Jersey & feature him performing with the jazz trombonist Craig Harris.
There’s good news for those who missed experiencing Sun Ra when he was still with us here on Earth: You can still experience the Arkestra, which is now under the leadership of Marshall Allen. Here’s a link to their tour dates, including one this Black Music Sunday in New York City!
There have been many mentions of Sun Ra’s role in Afrofuturism. But what is Afrofuturism, exactly? Musicologists and sociologists have multiple definitions. Here’s one from the sociology department at Grinnell College:
The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined in 1990s by, cultural critic, Mark Dery in his edited collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Dery uses the term Afrofuturism to define “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” (Dery 1994: 136) Lisa Yaszek interprets Dery’s definition in two-parts: “as the first part of Dery’s definition suggests, Afrofuturism is closely related to science fiction as an aesthetic genre…However, as Dery argues in the second half of his definition, Afrofuturism is not only a subgenre of science fiction. Instead, it is a larger aesthetic mode that encompasses a diverse range of artists working in different genres and media who are united by their shared interest in projecting black futures derived from Afrodiasporic experiences.” (Yaszek 2006) Other definitions of Afrofuturism come from Ytasha Womack, in which she defines Afrofuturism as “ an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation.” (Womack 2013: 9). Lastly, Adriano Elia describes Afrofuturism as “a transdisciplinary cultural movement based upon the unusual connection between the marginality of allegedly “primitive” people of the African diaspora and “modern” technology and science fiction.” (Elia 2014: 83) In his article, “The Languages of Afrofuturism,” Elia considers the different languages of Afrofuturism through the art of Basquiat, music of Sun Ra, and literature of W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, and Octavia Butler.Though there are many definitions of Afrofuturism, they all have themes of reclamation, black liberation, and revisioning of the past and predictions of the future through a black cultural lens in common.
YouTuber Black Bolshevik explores Afrofuturism further.
Afrofuturism plus funk was the musical realm of George Clinton and Funkadelic/Parliament Funkadelic. As Joshua Bird writes in “Climbing Aboard the Mothership: An Afrofuturistic Reading of Parliament-Funkadelic”:
While Funkadelic’s music certainly has science fiction elements to it, Parliament’s work was completely engrossed in Afrofuturist themes. The seeds of George Clinton’s scientific but artistic vision were sown on Parliament’s March 1975 effort Chocolate City (Fig.2), the first track of which opens up with Clinton’s half-spoken, half-rapped first verse, “What’s happening CC [ChocolateCity]? They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition too. Can you dig it, CC” (Clinton)?
December 1975 saw the release of Parliament’s magnum opus, entitled Mothership Connection. This work embodied many of the aspects of Mark Dery’s definition of Afrofuturism, as it not only addressed African American themes in the context of the twentieth century, but it “appropriated African American images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future”(Dery 180). This album was markedly different from Chocolate City and other Afrofuturistic art at the time because of the very direct way in which the theme was ingrained in the work. Consider the following lyric spoken by one of Clinton’s alter-egos, The Lollipop Man (the first true character of the P-Funkmythology) from the first track on the album, “P. Funk (Wants to get FunkedUp)”:
Good evening. Do not attempt to adjust your radio, there is nothing wrong.
We have taken control as to bring you this special show… Welcome to station W-E-F-U-N-K, better known as We Funk. Or deeper still, the Mothership Connection, home of the extraterrestrial brothers… Coming to you directly from the Mothership. Top of the Chocolate Milky Way, 500,000 kilowatts of P.Funk Power” (Clinton)
Here are some live musical examples:
RELATED STORY: Funk music is as unapologetically Black as the musicians who pioneered it
On the distaff side of Afrofuturism, there was LaBelle:
In 2021, music critic Fiona McQuarrie wrote “LaBelle: The Trio That Broke All The Molds.” She interviewed Adele Bertei, author of “Why LaBelle Matters,” and discussed the space age outfits they wore, created for them by Larry LeGaspi.
Labelle, the R&B-funk-rock-dance trio, broke so many molds in the 1970s, for female vocal groups, for Black women, and for music in general. Though Cindy Birdsong—who later joined the Supremes—was in an earlier incarnation of the group, the core trio was Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash [Sarah, sadly, passed away on Sept. 20, 2021]. As the trio collectively known as Labelle, they released eight studio albums, from 1967 (Dreamer, on Atlantic Records) to 2008 (Back to Now, an album celebrating their reunion after 32 years, on Verve Records).
After the trio initially broke up, in 1976, and each member pursued a solo career (most visibly by the group’s namesake Patti LaBelle), their collectively brilliant early work has gradually slipped into obscurity. It was briefly resurrected by a 2001 cover of “Lady Marmalade” by Mya, P!nk, Lil’ Kim, and Christina Aguilera.
The Spacesuits and mytho-poetic costumes he created for Labelle brought clients scrambling to [LeGaspi’s] door: George Clinton, KISS, Grace Jones, Divine and others. LeGaspi’s costumes were iconic. He helped launch Labelle into the stratosphere of rock culture, helped Labelle change the game. Before Labelle were being lowered via wires onto theater stages in extravagant costumes, no one had ever witnessed women in rock performing such extraordinary rock shows. LeGaspi helped them in their process of flipping all expectations about how rock women, especially Black women in music, should present.
LaBelle’s Nona Hendryx discusses her career and spacey interests in this 2020 Literary Hub interview with Emily Lordi, associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
Even as Hendryx’s career in music took off, she continued to dream of the future and outer space. While on tour, she read Superman comics and watched late-night cult movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). She loved singing with the women in Labelle, who were like her sisters. But what sustained her life in music was the art and science of recording. She wrote poems, which became songs, and learned how to use technology to translate her musical ideas into sound. “That’s when I thought—oh, this is amazing.” She studied every aspect of the process, from the synthesizers and sequencers to “the oxidation of tape, and how air is compressed—how you get the sound of my voice onto tape.”
These skills and interests were not expected of women in the industry. “You were told to look pretty and sing,” Hendryx said. “It was a man’s world. The business was run by men.” There were some women who ran labels and played instruments, but the rules of engagement were limited: as a woman, “you could write songs, you could sing the songs, you could front the songs, but it was really—it was Phil Spector, it was Bob Crewe, it was the guys who made the music. They had the labels, they were the people in charge. The fashion, even the makeup, was male-dominated. Women were secretaries.”
Larry LeGaspi, a Puerto Rican designer and Labelle groupie, had a shop in the West Village called Moonstone that “was a moonscape,” Hendryx recalled, filled with black and silver “moon rocks and things we imagine as the moon.” LeGaspi started to make space-themed costumes for Labelle (taking over the role from Hendryx herself). Meanwhile, Hendryx wrote songs about the future: “Cosmic Dancer,” “Space Children,” “A Man in a Trench Coat (Voodoo).” Before long, “Lady Marmalade” topped both R&B and pop charts, and Labelle became the first Black female group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. Their visual and sonic evolution culminated in 1975 with their legendary “wear something silver” concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. People came as “nuns dressed in silver, horses and carriages, and Salvador Dalí. Just the really insane people of New York came to the Met,” Hendryx said. “That was the real crux of the Afrofuturism movement.”
Give LaBelle a listen:
Their 1974 recording of “Space Children” is my all-time favorite.
Hendryx was one of the participants in this absorbing 2019 Afrofuturism discussion, alongside George Clinton and Vernon Reid at the Smithsonian:
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum video notes:
Three musical giants who have made monumental contributions to Afrofuturism as we know it today, George Clinton, Nona Hendryx, and Vernon Reid, in conversation with world-renowned scholar and critic Alondra Nelson. The panelists discuss Afrofuturism – where it came from, where it is going, and what it has to offer us. Featuring opening remarks by Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.
In the spirit of two-fisted political singer songwriters such as Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell, Nona Hendryx tackles social issues, love and politics with a smoky vocal tessitura somewhere between funk and the end of the stratosphere. Hendryx’s legendary career spans decades of sound and style evolution. Fans know her as a founding member of the group who morphed from Patti Labelle and The Bluebells, into the Rock & Funk Glam Diva's 'Labelle' with the #1 record, Lady Marmalade. Nona Hendryx emerged as the chief songwriter of the group’s socially conscious and illuminating message songs.
George Clinton is one of the foremost innovators of funk music and was the mastermind behind the bands Parliament and Funkadelic. Clinton has become recognized as the godfather of modern urban music. Beats, loops, and samples of P-Funk have appeared on albums by OutKast, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot, De La Soul, Fishbone, and many others. As Clinton has said, "funk is the DNA of hip-hop and rap." In 1997, Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Guitar Center's Hollywood Rock Walk, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award at the NAACP Image Awards.
London-born American guitarist, founder of Living Colour and a co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, Vernon Reid has done a great deal to undermine stereotypical expectations of what kinds of music black artists ought to play; his rampant eclecticism encompasses everything from hard rock and punk to funk, R&B and avant-garde jazz, and his anarchic, lightning-fast solos have become a hallmark. In 1980, he joined Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society, and over the course of the decade, Reid went on to work with a wide variety of experimental musicians including Defunkt, Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, and Public Enemy. Vernon has also composed for noted film-makers Charles Stone 3rd, Shola Lynch, Gabri Christa, Brad Lichtenstein, Kasi Lemmons, Laurence Fishburn, & Thomas Allan Harris.
In 2020, Hendryx sought to bring us back full circle to Sun Ra, which culture writer Jaelani Turner-Williams explores at Them:
The legendary singer and songwriter has been leading a yearlong series of performances dedicated to Sun Ra's work.
Nona Hendryx is perhaps best known as a former member of Labelle, the trio who first put the song “Lady Marmalade” on the airwaves in 1974, but the musician’s solo work is deeper and more experimental than any radio single. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, she began making forward-thinking funk-rock and soul music as a solo act, and her sound took on a near-cosmic quality — one shared by Sun Ra, a decades-long obsession for Hendryx.
The genre-bending jazz musician is known for his avant-garde work, celestial philosophies, and for launching Afrofuturism into the mainstream, an artistic movement that celebrates Black culture by blending Egyptian (and other non-Western) myths with science fiction and futuristic fantasies. After first seeing Sun Ra and his Arkestra play in small Philadelphia nightclubs in the 70s, Hendryx became enamored with his ability to captivate audiences, seemingly transporting them into new realms. It’s a quality she hopes to capture in a new show, Nona Hendryx and Disciples of Sun Ra in the Temple, which premieres this Sunday, February 29 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The show is part of a yearlong celebration of Sun Ra and Afrofuturism commissioned by Harlem Stage, for which Hendryx is serving as artistic director. Hendryx’s tribute promises to be a multisensory experience — designed specifically for the Met’s Temple of Dendur, an ancient Egyptian temple within the museum’s Sackler Wing — that translates Sun Ra’s supernatural ideas for a new generation. Ahead of the performance, Hendryx spoke with them., sharing her thoughts on Sun Ra and Afrofuturism, the artists and influences that shaped her new performance, and her hopes for generations of Black creatives to come.
Here’s a one-minute clip of Hendryx discussing Afrofuturism:
Artists like Shabaka Hutchings, of Shabaka And The Ancestors, The Comet Is Coming, and Sons of Kemet are carrying Afrofuturism in music forward.
Over the last half decade, Shabaka Hutchings has established himself as a central figure in the London jazz scene, which is enjoying its greatest creative renaissance since the breakthroughs of Joe Harriott and Evan Parker in the 1960s. Hutchings has a restlessly creative and refreshingly open-minded spirit, playing in a variety of groups—most notably, Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka & the Ancestors—and embracing influences from the sounds of London’s diverse club culture, including house, grime, jungle, and dub. “The common theme in my career as a jazz musician has been wondering if what I’m doing is the thing that I should be doing,” says Hutchings, who studied classical clarinet at college at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama. “Me learning about jazz, how to play and interpret, was always a case of just trial and error. I think where I’ve come to recently is I’ve stopped trying to think ‘Is what I’m doing valid? or ‘Is what I’m doing part of the jazz tradition?’ and just see myself as a musician.”
In 2021, Chris May wrote about Hutching’s groups for All About Jazz:
One of the qualities shared by Sons Of Kemet, Shabaka & The Ancestors and The Comet Is Coming is that, however sophisticated the music is on one level, it also resonates with the lived experiences of its audience. It is the junction of the conservatoire and the shaman. There is an edge to it, a sense of drama, of danger, and of healing, too, which are absent from so much jazz in 2021, and which have increasingly been missing since the times of first generation bop, hard bop and spiritual jazz, leaving a vacuum into which hip hop and other musics have moved.
The key section of Hutchings' Black To The Future manifesto reads: "The meaning [of the album] is not universal and the cultural context of the listener will shape their understanding...[but] the overarching message remains the same: for humanity to progress we must consider what it means to be Black To The Future."
Does Hutchings mean that, broadly speaking, he expects black and non-black listeners to take away different meanings? "Yes," he says. "But it's not so much about whether you're black or non-black, it's about where you are coming from culturally. If you're coming from a place of really understanding black culture then you'll get something specific out of it. If you're not acclimatised to the nuances of black culture then you'll get something else out of it, and maybe it will give you a bridge to understanding more about black culture than you did previously."
Here he is live with Sons of Kemet, playing “Afrofuturism.”
And with Shabaka and the Ancestors, here’s “The Coming Of The Strange Ones.”
I hope you have enjoyed this journey traveling through the musical spaceways, and if you’ll join me in the comments, I promise you’ll find a whole lot more.